Confusion sometimes arises from the terms “shape” and “form.”  A “shape” is an area which stands out because of a defined boundary or change in color, value or texture. A shape implies a flat, two-dimensional surface


Here we see some circular shapes combined with curving and diagonal lines. By applying charcoal in varying degrees of value (chiaroscuro), an artist can create the illusion of a three-dimensional form where none actually exists.  

When an artist adds illusionistic features such as chiaroscuro (value) to the shape, the illusion of a surrounding space or atmosphere is created. Then we use the term “form,” since the artist is implying three-dimensions.

Shapes and Forms have interesting relationships to each other, and to the surrounding area. A good way of describing these relationships is by looking at the “figure / ground” or “positive / negative” interplay. 

The area surrounding the image is the “ground,” while the image itself is the “figure.” “Negative” space refers to the “ground” while “positive” space refers to the “figure.”

Some artists, like Matisse, delighted in playing with “figure / ground” or “positive / negative” relationships in their works.  You can see how appealing this play would be by looking carefully at the cutouts to the left.  See how the red hearts become positive shapes against the white table, but how they become negative shapes where they’ve been cut out of the red paper.

In this example, the background moves into the figure and helps define it.

Now that you learned the basics about Shape, click here to practice what you know.


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