Anna Hergert, Art & Design

Decyphering Design: Part III – Shape

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I was beginning to wonder if my more serious approach to blogging with articles covering specific topics, such as exhibiting and dissecting  the elements and principles of design would reduce the number of readers… The daily hits are a little lower compared to less serious content posts. However, judging by the number of personal emails I have received so far, and the comments left by readers show that my efforts are not in vain.

Let’s see where we left off on Thursday: I touched on the element of line which naturally leads to the element of shape or form. When we examine shape we must remember that it describes a visually perceived area created by either an enclosing line, color or value changes defining an outer edge. A shape can also be called form. Simply put: Design or composition is basically the arrangement of shapes. Shape is considered a two-dimensional element and the words volume and mass/form are applied to the three-dimensional equivalent. Here is an example that will help you remember the difference with ease: “Paintings have shape, sculptures have mass”.

To show how the elements and principles of design, in this scenario line and shape, are interconnected I want to point out that multiple shapes used in a linear arrangement create a broken line that leads the eye across a piece. For such an arrangement to be successful spaces between shape elements need to be small enough for the eye to make the necessary leap… or better yet… a connection!

This leads us to the consideration of positive and negative shapes (also referred to in art literature as figure and ground) which help us differentiate between the object and the background. We can locate positive and negative shapes and spaces all around us. Print media, architecture and visual art (including traditional and innovative quilting) provide us with countless examples.

It is important to keep in mind that when positive and negative spaces are too rigidly defined, the result can be rather uninteresting and predictable. An example for this outcome is a traditional quilt that incorporates a limited color palette. On the other hand, if the negative areas are made more interesting the positive–negative integration improves. Once again I am using the quilt example: Incorporating a greater variety of color value and texture will emphasize the primary and secondary pattern play, often leading to a tertiary design for greater depth, and possibly leading to the illusion of a third dimension.

It is important at this time to caution the reader by pointing out that sometimes the positive and negative shapes are integrated to such an extend that there is no visual distinction, resulting in  positive-negative confusion.

The paragraphs above cover the topic of shape and form as the second design element. At this time a related fact enters the discussion: Naturalism and distortion. These terms are easily defined: Naturalism is synonymous with “realism”. In distortion the artist deliberately changes or exaggerates the forms of nature. Abstraction implies a simplification of natural shapes to their essential, basic character. Details are ignored as the shapes are reduced to their simplest terms.

Non-objective shapes are shapes with no object reference and no subject matter suggestion. Sometimes these are described as “organic shapes” or “ink blots” floating in space or on the canvas. Rectilinear and curvilinear shapes are objects that utilize lines at right angles compared to lines that are natural, or organic.

That’s it for today and the element of shape/form. Tuesday’s post will focus on color – a topic that is multifaceted and will possibly bring on much discussion.
Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and check out the images I have posted that will bring the element of shape closer to reality! As always: Free feel to weigh in with a comment! I will get to them once I return home from teaching this weekend.

This entry was published on October 21, 2012 at 6:12 am. It’s filed under Art, Creativity Update, Design, Studio / Workshop / Creative Space Challenge and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

23 thoughts on “Decyphering Design: Part III – Shape

  1. Oh Anna! I have heard about the elements of design forever but did not understand them until you have broken them down and explained them one by one so that I can begin to “get it”. I am glad I took your mola workshop in London last summer and will continue to read these blogs. Thank you.


    • Glad the information on Design continues to be relevant. I posted this series in 2012 – I guess this is what is referred to as “evergreen content” on a blog. Looking forward to staying in touch, Deb.


  2. Pingback: A Thought About Evergreen Content | Anna Hergert, Art & Design

  3. b2q2003 on said:

    Though my interest in art goes way back to grade school, I have very little “formal” training. Since I did not follow my heart and go to art school, I’ve been enjoying reading and studying the books and works of various artists, especially fiber artists, over the last dozen or so years. I was happy to add you to this list, and to add many of your book recommendations to my library. The information you share through your blog is the icing on the cake. Your instruction becomes so much more relevant as I recognize how you use the principles you describe to produce your exceptional work. I know I’ve said this before, but I think your excellence in workmanship sets you apart from many other fiber artists who have thrown standards out the window for the sake of art. And I find that as inspiring as your art.
    Linda Clark in Kenora


    • Linda, I so appreciate you taking the time to provide such a positive endorsement of what I aim to do. Your support in the past and the present have greatly contributed to my moving forward as an artist, teacher and mentor. I fondly remember my time with you and your group in Kenora in 2009. Do stay in touch and may our paths cross again in the future. Thank you!


  4. Alison on said:

    HI Anna, I’m “drinking” it ALL in myself. I always look forward to your posts too, I am interested to learn something NEW every day. I apply what you say to my work. Keep up with the inspiration! Stay warm, Alison


    • Good to hear, Alison!
      Stay warm in Calgary… you certainly received a nice layer of the “white stuff” over the weekend. The sun is shining and the sky is blue with some lovely clouds for texture. No snow so far… but I know it can’t last! Winter means warm fire, hot chocolate and a lot of uninterrupted time to create. Can’t wait!


  5. Let me see if I have this right. I had to read the paragraph on positive and negative space twice. Using your pictures as an example, positive space would be the red maple leaf and negative space would be the green leaves in the background. another example….postive would be the black”statue” in the foreground, negative space the wall behind it. Is that correct?


  6. Leona Larsen on said:

    I think the native artist that designed the Hull Museum is the same fellow who designed the Aboriginal College building on the Regina Campus. I cannot remember his name either but I understand that he has designed many buildings in many countys. He used a circular shape in that Regina Campus college building too. It is a most interesting design and makes you feel so proud of this work. Do stop and have a look sometime when in Regina.


    • Leona, the Aboriginal University Building was indeed designed by Douglas Cardinal. Cardinal was born in Calgary, studied architecture in Austin, TX and has designed buildings around the world from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Red Deer, to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, Museum of Civilization (changed to Museum of History) in Gatineau, the Leighton Artists’ Colony in Banff, AB (which I can attest to is wonderful). Check Wiki for more information – he is an awe-inspiring individual!
      I have been to the Campus of Aboriginal University in Regina – it is based on the design of a tipi with lots of glass to let the light in and provide a view of the prairies form the inside – unfortunate the city is encroaching more and more each day!


  7. Anara Thomas on said:

    I appreciate the time and thought you put into your blog helping us with our own design and exhibit ideas. I look forward to your inspiration and fabulous work. Anara from Bellingham, WA


  8. Hi Anna, Your approach to blogging is one that I could never do — this ‘teaching’ on your part is very effective and I look forward to every blog you send. I even take some of them to my art guild which trigger discussions.

    I have to admit that I do not comment on every blog – I feel that so many comments would be overwhelming to you considering you answer every one! So please know that even if you do not get hundreds of comments, I ( and I am sure that many others) do appreciate your blog and drink in all your information and wonderful photographs!

    The museum in Hull is terrific isn’t it? The native architect (I can’t remember his name) certainly loves curves. So different from the art gallery in Ottawa.


    • Thanks, Karen! I realize that time is precious for all of us and I am still in my first year of taking blogging seriously, hence I want to explore a number of approaches. I figured that my series on the elements and principals of design is one way to continue to reach out to students even after the workshop is done!!!
      Glad to hear you are using the info in your art group discussions!
      Yes, the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau right across the river from the Parliament Buildings is one of the most striking architectural achievements of Douglas Cardinal. I have visited the museum three times now and I hear a name change is in the near future…


  9. Anna, keep it up. Those who have not looked have missed out. Thanks.


  10. Eileen Bayda on said:

    Thanks so much for doing this, Anna. Not only is it informative, but I LOVE the photos.


  11. Wanda Steiner on said:

    Great article Anna. I enjoyed it very much this morning. As always, I like your delivery of the subject. Please continue to write these informative articles.


    • Wanda, how wonderful to see you are following my blog! Thank you for the support! I had a couple of Manitoba ladies in my workshop in Yorkton this weekend and they are coming to Weyburn next weekend. So nice to forge a strong Manitoba connection!


  12. I’m loving your more serious blogs – it’s like reading the most pertinent points with fabulous photographs. It forces my mind to think about one or two points that day, rather than my mind leaping in all directions at once. I find it is a good mind exercise and an opportunity to look at my work with a more trained eye.

    More please!

    Thanks. Linda


    • Linda – thank you! I am trying to provide sound information supported by photographic inspiration. These posts on design are driven by many students expressing interest in my workshops, but they are not able to participate due to distance or availability. I am nearing the first anniversary of starting my WordPress blog and feel it is necessary to evaluate frequency and content. Any suggestions and feedback are much appreciated!


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