Shape in Practice
1. Positive and negative shapes Exercise 1
2. Negative shape painting Exercise 2
3. Shape and value structure Exercise 3
4. Dow's notan-structure Exercise 4
5. The thumbnail sketch Exercise 5
6. Light, shadow and shape Exercise 6a
Exercise 6b
Positive and negative shapes
Our brains have been programmed to pick out objects in the field of vision. When an object is identified, everything else gets consigned to the background. In Gestalt psychology, this is known as the figure-ground relationship.
In designing a two-dimensional artwork (drawing, painting, etc.), the artist divides the picture plane into shapes that viewers will read as either objects or background. The shapes that are to be read as objects are called positive. The shapes that are to be read as background are called negative.
Consider this drawing by the French artist Henri Matisse. The positive shapes are the ones that make up the five dancing figures and perhaps the hill. The negative shapes are background areas enclosed either by the figures or by the figures and the rectangle Matisse drew around the picture (i.e., the picture frame).
Top; Matisse's drawing of dance 1 (pencil on paper, 9 x 14), c. 1909. Bottom: Dance 1 (oil on canvas, 102 x 154), 1909. Both works are in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
As Matisse's drawing illustrates, a shape's boundary need not be one continuous line. This is because of another principle of Gestalt psychology, the law of closure: In seeking to identify objects in the field of vision, the brain will supply any missing information that it can.
There are at least ten negative shapes in the drawing. (The shapes that represent the hill are negative relative to the figures but positive relative to the background.)
Matisse was an early innovator in the modern art of the 20th century and a contemporary of Picasso. Top: Still life with 'the dance' (oil on canvas, 35 x 46), 1909. Bottom: Dance 2 (oil on canvas, 102 x 154), 1909-10. These paintings are in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
EXERCISE 1: Draw the shapes of a number of objects on a piece of paper, some overlapping. Color the positive shapes as you like. Color all of the negative shapes one color. Color any ambiguous shapes (shapes that can function as both object and background) another color. If the finished picture has any areas that don't make sense, reevaluate your classification of the shapes.
Pablo Picasso, Still life with lamp (oil on canvas, 29 x 36), 1944, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris.
Negative shape painting
Consider these two figures by Matisse from his book Jazz. They are stencils of collages he made by cutting shapes from paper that had been painted blue. The figure on the right was cut from the blue paper. For the figure on the left, though, Matisse cut the blue paper into the negative shape that outlines the figure.
Formes, from the book, Jazz (17 x 26), c. 1945. To better see how the collages were assembled, magnify the image by moving the cursor over it.
The cover of Jazz. Matisse took up paper collages in his later years, when he was confined to a wheelchair.
A common technique in transparent watercolor is to paint the negative space around objects. The white paper makes dazzlingly white positive shapes — like the boat, sail, clouds and waves in this Winslow Homer painting.
Fishing boats, Key West, by Winslow Homer (watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper, 14 x 22), 1903, Metropolitan Museum of Art. To see the unpainted positive shapes of the boat, sail, clouds and waves, magnify the image.
Nineteenth-century watercolorists typically included some opaque colors (gouache) in their palettes, particularly white. Homer's negative painting of the white objects in Fishing boats, Key West is somewhat unusual for the period. Contrast his technique with Joseph Crawhall's approach to the white pigeon, right.
Top: Vita liljor (white lilies), by Anders Zorn (watercolor on paper, 25 x 35), 1887. Bottom: Joseph Crawhall used two whites to paint his subject, a translucent white (probably Chinese white) and an opaque white (gouache). The pigeon, c. 1894, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.
In oils, negative painting can create exquisite hard edges.
John Singer Sargent's Still life with daffodils (32 x 18), 1890, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. For a closer look at the edges of the daffodils, magnify the image.
Sargent has defined the edge of the face with a single dark brushstroke. Carmela Bertagna (24 x 20), 1879, Columbus Museum of Art.
EXERCISE 2: Create a negative object or figure by cutting it out of a paper rectangle or by coloring around it on a sheet of paper.
Negative shape painting is not new. Prehistoric peoples on several continents placed their hands on rocks and cave walls and blew pigment on them.
These negative handprints are in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. (Photo by Pamela LeBlanc).
Shape and value structure
A value structure is an arrangement of light and dark shapes on the picture plane. There are two ways to design one:
  1. by arranging the shapes of the objects in the picture, or
  2. by arranging the shapes created by the illumination of the objects in the picture.
See the value structure figures on the Notan page.
Object-based value structures
The Utamaro print in the right margin is an extreme example of a value structure based on the shapes of objects. Every shape — every area defined by a boundary line or a change in color or texture — represents an object. There are no lost-and-found edges.
Light and shadow are necessary for the three-dimensional modeling of objects. In the Utamaro print, there is no modeling of form whatsoever. The image is so flat that it could be reproduced as a paper collage.
The painting below is a less extreme example of an object-based value structure. There is some modeling of form, but the arrangement of objects, not the lighting, is the basis of the design.
As in the Utamaro print, the young woman stands out against the surrounding shapes like a paper cut-out. Other major shapes (the grass and shrub, for example) are more decorative than three-dimensional. The nymph at the fountain, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (oil on panel, 30 x 47), 1530-34, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. magnify
Illumination-based value structures
Top: An eighteenth-century woodblock print of two courtesans by Kitagawa Utamaro. Bottom: The shapes that represent the courtesans create the pattern of dark and light shapes.
The painting by Artemisia Gentileschi in the right margin is an extreme example of a value structure based on the illumination of objects. In this extreme form, the technique is called chiaroscuro.
Chiaroscuro ~ the use of highly contrasting lights and darks to model three-dimensional objects.
In an illumination-based value structure, objects can be fully illuminated, partially illuminated, or placed in the shadows. They can be visually merged, entirely or in part, with adjacent objects (or parts of objects) of similar color and texture.
Illumination-based value structures emerged at the beginning of the Renaissance, along with two-point perspective. Their main characteristics are lost-and-found edges and the convincing illusion of three-dimensional space.
While the contrast between the light and dark shapes isn't as extreme as in Gentileschi's painting, this painting by Diego Velázquez does create the illusion of three-dimensional space. The toilet of Venus (oil on canvas, 48 x 70), 1647-51, National Gallery, London. To see the lost and nearly lost edges, magnify the image.
Top: Judith and her maidservant, by Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1612-13 (oil on canvas, 45 x 37, Pitti Palace, Florence). Bottom: The light shapes represent the parts of the two women that are reflecting the light. The dark shapes represent the parts that aren't reflecting light plus the background.
EXERCISE 3: In the first row are three artworks by Pablo Picasso. The three paintings in the second row are by Georgia O'Keeffe. These artists were contemporaries and all six of the works were done in the latter half of the 1940's. Compare the artworks in each row and decide which of the three value structures is the most shape-based, and which is the most illumination-based. You can click on the images to enlarge them. When you have finished your assessment, press the answer button for my analysis.
A B C
Three portraits of women by Pablo Picasso. A. Seated woman (oil on canvas), 1947, Yale University. B. Portrait de femme (lithograph, 26 x 20), 1948. C. Woman in a green hat (oil on canvas), 1947, Albertina, Vienna.
A B C
Three landscapes by Georgia O'Keeffe. A. Black place, gray and pink (oil on canvas, 36 x 48), 1949, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. B. In the patio III (oil on canvas, 18 x 30), 1948, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. C. Cebolla Church (oil and sand on canvas, 20 x 36), 1945, North Carolina Museum of Art.
Dow's notan-structure
Arthur Wesley Dow, an influential American art educator at the turn of the 20th century, defined notan-structure (or notan-scheme) as a beautiful and harmonious arrangement of dark and light shapes. In other words, a notan-structure is a value structure that conforms to Dow's aesthetics (which he acquired from the Japanese). You can read more about Dow, his views and his system of art instruction on the Notan page.
Dow's woodblock prints show that he experimented with value structure in his own work:
Two of the color prints that Dow made from his wood block titled the derelict (6 x 5, 1916).
The value structures of the two prints are quite different.
EXERCISE 4: Using only two values (black and white, dark gray and light gray, or a dark color and a light color), create several notan-schemes (object-based value structures) for a landscape. There are two ways you can do this:
Option 1: Choose a landscape that has positive and negative shapes of various sizes. Choose a suitable format (a rectangle in either the landscape or portrait orientation) and draw the shapes within its boundaries on a sheet of paper. Trace your drawing onto several pieces of paper (Dow specified "Japanese paper", presumably referring to rice paper). Next, paint some of the shapes the dark color. Leave the remaining shapes white or, if you prefer, paint them light gray or some other light color. Compare the designs and decide which value structure is the most pleasing.
Option 2: Print out the following graphic and paint or color it as directed in Option 1.
Illustrations for this exercise from Dow's book.
To use this graphic for the exercise, enlarge it and print it out in the portrait orientation.
Dow's book, Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color, contains numerous illustrated exercises for art students and teachers. The seventh edition, published in 1913, is available online through Open Library.
The thumbnail sketch
For centuries, artists have used thumbnail sketches to plan their paintings.
Thumbnail sketch ~ a quick drawing, usually in pencil, of a proposed composition. Hatching lines are often used to indicate the value structure.
Thumbnail sketches are well worth the small amount of effort they require. They help the artist work out a good composition, and they can expose problems that would be a headache to correct once the painting is underway.
Anthony van Dyck's Portrait of a young Genoese nobleman, c. 1625, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa, Italy. The sketch was done in ink. Notice that van Dyck moved the column in order to make room for the sky.
John Singer Sargent's thumbnail sketch of a boat deck (graphite on pale green wove paper, 4 x 7, 1876, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). He has included notes on the relative values of the some of the objects.
Options that can be tested in thumbnail sketches:
  • The objects included in the picture,
  • their location relative to one another and to the picture frame,
  • the lighting (where the light is coming from and the shadows it's casting),
  • your vantage point, and
  • the picture's orientation (portrait or landscape).
EXERCISE 5: Set up a still life or visit a landscape location that has a variety of objects (e.g., trees, buildings, etc.). Make thumbnail sketches that explore the options listed above.
Three of the preliminary sketches that John Singer Sargent made for his portrait of Madame X (on the right). Top left: Madame Gautreau (graphite on off-white wove paper, 10 x 13), 1883-84, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Middle left: Madame Gautreau (graphite on off-white wove paper), c. 1883, Fogg Art Museum. Bottom left: Madame Gautreau (watercolor and graphite on white wove paper, 14 x 10), c. 1883, Fogg Art Museum. Right: Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (82 x 43), 1883-84, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click on the sketches to enlarge them.
Sargent was a prolific sketcher. The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York both have hundreds of his drawings and watercolor studies in their collections.
Above: Sargent's the Wyndham sisters (oil on canvas, 115 x 84), 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Below: Thumbnail sketches Sargent made for the Wyndham sisters, Fogg Art Museum. In the first, he's treating the sisters as a major shape and deciding where to place it on the picture plane. In the second, he's defining the shape's right edge by darkening the area next to it.
Light, shadow and shape
A composition's value structure can be one of two things:
  1. the pattern of light and dark shapes created by the objects in the picture, or
  2. the pattern of light and dark shapes created by the illumination of the objects in the picture.
Illumination can alter a scene's value structure. Whether or not it does depends on the strength and direction of the light as well as the artist's interest in depicting it. (For a broader discussion of object-based and illumination-based value structures, see Shape and value structure, above.)
EXERCISE 6a: Observe a scene at a time when there are lit areas and areas in shadow. Squint down (instructions follow) so you can see the pattern of light and dark shapes as well as possible. Make a thumbnail sketch or monochromatic watercolor study of these major shapes. Finally, with eyes open, look for a few details that would help the viewer make sense of the scene and include them in the sketch.
Squinting down ~ lowering your eyelids until adjacent objects that are similar in color merge together and details become lost.
This painting has three clearly defined major shapes — the sky, the mountains and the grassy foreground. Storm on Peñalara, Segovia, by the Spanish artist, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (oil on canvas, 24 x 37, 1906, Museo Sorolla, Madrid).
Squinting down makes a scene look fuzzier, darker and grayer. Details are less apparent and the major shapes are more obvious.
EXERCISE 6b: Make thumbnail sketches or monochromatic watercolor studies of a scene under different lighting conditions — sunny and overcast, morning and afternoon, day and night. Notice how the direction and intensity of the light affects the composition's value structure.
The Impressionist Camille Pissarro painted the scene from his hotel room in Paris at different times of the year and under different weather conditions. Left: Boulevard Montmartre on a winter morning (oil on canvas, 26 x 32), 1897, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right: Boulevard Montmartre at night (oil on canvas, 21 x 26), 1897, National Gallery, London. Click on the images to enlarge them.
The value structures of the two paintings.
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