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Make Shapes Work

The shape of things is something we tend to take for granted. Reproducing exactly what is in front of us is fine if all we are after is a likeness, but to extract more from our subject and to make the painting say more, we can modify and rearrange shapes to amplify what we see.

This is a great subject but, as it is presented here, suffers from too little variation in the main shapes. The large dark wedge at the bottom is almost identical in shape and size to upper light shape containing the sky, water and distant shore.




As presented the dark foreground mass and high key upper region of sky, distant shore and water cut the painting in half creating two uninteresting identical shapes.

Thumbnails for adjusting shape in a painting
Painting subject broken down into four simple shapes




Reducing the size of the foreground and lifting the distant hills opens up the area of water giving greater emphasis to the moored boats.

Option 2 for Adjusting Shape in a Painting




Pushing the distant hills higher into the painting and stretching the dark foreground shape up to meet them further varies the shapes and creates more interest.

Option 3 for adjusting shape in a painting.




The appealing thing about this subject is the big, open, atmospheric space between the foreground and distant shore. By juggling the shapes in this way, the space is given more impact and the painting says a lot more than the compressed feeling generated by the photograph.

What Makes an Interesting Shape?

A fundamental point to remember is to avoid simple, uninterrupted shapes in our paintings if we want to keep things interesting. A few simple intrusions can turn a bland, uninteresting shape into something with character that will hold attention and offer the viewer sub conscience satisfaction.


This is a very geometric subject, but by varying the size and proportions of the various rectangular shapes and adding breaks and intrusions, each shape is kept interesting.

Watercolor based on varied geometric shapes

Shape Complexity

Studies (1) have shown there is a level of optimum complexity when viewing abstract shapes. Older children and adults had a preference for shape 4. Younger children preferred shape 5.The message we can take from these experiments is to avoid overly simple shapes, but don’t make them too complex.

Shape Complexity



This subject has numerous geometric shapes formed by intersecting horizontal and vertical lines. These shapes could become monotonous if it were not for the variation in size and shape and the use of intrusions to make the shapes more interesting.
The organic shapes of the foreground tree and the curves of the arch and clothes line contrast with and give relief to the hard, rectilinear arrangement. Without the contrasting organic shapes the painting would be too static and formal.

Painting using organic and geometric shapes




Here we have a painting broken into two similar shapes by the line of the hill. The foreground is roughly twice the size of the sky and trees. This makes an interesting balance and gives the little cabin a strange defiant quality, pushed up into the top corner.

The abstract intrusion in the foreground breaks the shape and leads the eye to the focal point. The soft intrusion of the trees break up the sky shape and push it back into the distance.

These loose, organic shapes contrast with the hard, geometric shapes of the cabin, giving it more impact as a focal point.




Two different sized triangular shapes suggest the sky and foreground in this painting. The organic diagonal band carries the eye up to the focal point, giving it a solid, monumental appearance.




This painting uses loose, organic wedge shapes in the sky to bring the eye down to the focal point. The formal, static rectangle of water and the contrasting vertical mast firmly locate the focal point. These formal shapes give a feeling of calm stability before the impending storm suggested by the diagonal shapes in the sky.

Consider the importance of shape in the next painting you do. Use quick thumbnail sketches to break your subject down into a few simple shapes. The size and arrangement of these shapes can then be adjusted to improve the balance of your composition and give the painting more impact.


Think also about the type of shapes and their influence on the feeling you wish to generate in the subject.



Author: John Lovett

See Also:

Painting Composition

Focal Points

(1) Arono , J 1970, Psychology today an introduction, CCRM Books, Del Mar, CA

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