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What is a shape?

Two-dimensional/ flat area within an outline

Like lines, we see shapes all around us. One of the easiest ways to see the shape of an object is to look at
shadows. Shadows flatten a three dimensional object into a flat shape. This enables you to see the object in a
different way, without details like color and texture.

Shadow of a snow bank image: Lucy Lamp

This self portrait uses shadows to create flat shapes and a silhouette image. Why would the artist choose to use
shadows and flat shapes to portray himself? What does this image tell you about him?

Andr Kertsz Self Portrait, Paris 1926
Gelatin silver print 11 1/16 x 10 3/4 in. (image) 13 15/16 x 11 in. (35.4 x 2...
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Gift of Fred Scheel

Organic shapes and geometric shapes

Like lines, there are organic shapes and geometric shapes. Geometric shapes are mathematically determined.
Organic shapes are the type you see in nature.

Organic Shapes image: Lucy Lamp

Geometric Shapes image: Lucy Lamp

Although these two photos both have water in them, they feel differently from each other because of the use of
organic or geometric shape. The one on the right appears more ordered and controlled.
Positive and negative shapes
1. Positive shapes are the shape of the actual object (like a window frame). Negative shapes are the spaces
that are created in between objects. (like the space within the window frame).

In the following two images it is very easy to see the distinction between the positive shapes and negative shapes
(the structures are the positive shapes, and the space within the arches are the negative shapes).

Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater) Rome, Italy 72-80 C. E.

Aqueduct, Segovia: detail of arcade, view from west, ca. early 1st-early 2nd century C.E.Segovia, Castile, Spain
Image courtesy of Mary Ann Sullivan, Digital Imaging Project

The next image--the yin yang symbol--is a good example of the contrast and ambiiguity of positive and negative

Yin and Yang Symbol with white representing Yang and black representing Yin.

Sometimes it is not so easy to distinguish the figure and the ground. In this image, if you look at it long enough
what you see as the positive shape becomes the negative shape, and what was the negative shape can also be
read as a positive shape. This called a figure-ground reversal.

Cup or faces paradox

Original image: Cup or faces paradox.jpg uploaded by User:Guam on 28 July 2005, SVG conversion by Bryan

Artists can have a lot of fun playing with the relationship between figure and ground. M.C. Escher is known for
creating ambiguous shapes and spaces in his work. In these images you can see the transition between figure
and ground, and how one object changes into another.

M. C. Escher

Metamorphosis II 1 939-1940 woodcut 19.2 cm 389.5 cm (7.6 in 153.3 in)

Implied Shapes.
Like line, there are implied shapes. These are the spaces between objects that are placed in relationship to each
other. We see those spaces as shapes, even though they are not meant to be.
In this image, the shapes are placed in a way that causes us to "see" a circular shape in the center, although it is
not actually a shape.


In this gouache and collage work by Henri Matisse, the colored shapes interact with each other according to their
size and color. The spaces between them create more shapes, and these interact with the colored shapes,
creating a lively, animated composition

Henri Matisse The Snail, 1953

Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, 287 cm 288 cm (112 3/4 108 inches), Tate Gallery,
Hard and soft-edged shapes
Like line, shapes have different characteristics. One characteristic is the hardness or softness of its edges. Hard
edged shapes are clearly distinguished from each other and give a sense of order, clarity, and strength. Soft
edged shapes have a tendency to blend with each other or the ground. They convey a sense of fluidity,
ambiguousness, flexibility, and tend to feel lighter in weight.

Hard Edged: Charles Sheeler

Charles Sheeler Golden Gate, 1955

Oil on canvas
H. 25 1/8 in. (63.8 cm), W. 34 7/8 in. (88.5 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1955 (55.99)
Source: Charles Sheeler: Golden Gate (55.99) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of

Soft-Edged: Georges Seurat


Georges Seurat, Gray weather, Grande Jatte 1888.

Size: 28 by 34 inches (71 by 86 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA.
Source: WebMuseum, Paris, Originally uploaded to en.wikipedia by Arpingstone