Tag Archives: art

The Elements of Design – Shape

The Second of the Elements of Design – Shape

Shape – the outline of an object. It will have at least height and width, and in three dimensions, depth/thickness. Shape is often defined by line, but also by color, and texture. In a sense, a shape is defined by where it ends.

The simplest shape – the circle – is the foundation of technology – the wheel.

There is positive shape – the space occupied by the object – and negative shape – the space left empty. And there is optical illusion – variations on this famous face vs vase illustration.

Vase or profiles

Silhouettes – distinctive shapes in the absence of detail – can be extremely evocative. Instant shape recognition is something advertisers have long known and taken advantage of, as do graphic artists, logo designers, and the designers of public signage. Fact is humans are hard wired from birth to take note of high contrast simple positive and negative shapes that represent faces.


Shape in garments – well shaped garments create shape in bodies, including illusion and enhancement.

Proportion is a factor in shape. The visual meaning of a shape alters with changes in proportion.


Shape is important in set design. First the floor plan, dependent on the performance space, is a 2D shape. The floor plan facilitates movement and flow. The elevations might show levels. Set pieces  show the architecture of the set – realism, abstract, expressionist. The shapes may have soft edges and curves, or straight lines and hard angles. Geometry, the science of shape, is important – especially for defining sight lines and the effective wedge (the part of the stage visible from every seat in the audience).

The Golden Mean

This is a magical seeming ratio produces rectangles that are considered to be the most pleasing to the eye, the most balanced and the most restful. It is believed to occur all over the place in nature. It has been called the Divine Proportion. Euclid is known for exploring it, and it is a big feature of Classical Greek architecture.

The actual number of the Golden Ratio is represented by Phi, and like Pi, goes on forever. The mathematical formula is:


but for artistic purposes we can approximate the ratio as 1:1.618, so a rectangle where the long side is a little more than one and half times the short side is getting there. (Long side divided by short side.)

Try using a drawing program to draw a pleasing, comfortable rectangle. There will be a moment when intuitively it just feels right. I bet you will be very close to the Golden Mean. Some artists are known for intentionally measuring to use the ratio. However it turns up automatically in all kinds of art because of aesthetic intuition. The proportion looks and feels right.

Looking for Shape

Just as once we started looking for line, it seemed to be everywhere, once you start looking at shape inside art, and appreciating the shape of objects in your environs, shape will be really obvious.

Animal silhouettes

Spend time appreciating the pleasing shapes of your belonging and shapes in nature. Shape is often governed by function – leaves, birds’ beaks, animal’s teeth, teapots. Ergonomics influence shape, how a well designed tool feels in the hand. Look at shapes within architecture. It isn’t all rectangles.

Disney Concert Hall

Fun with Shapes

Play with kids’ blocks. Look at the shadows cast by your towers.

Play with tangrams.

Negative Shape – Space.

One reason people stand with their hands on their hip in photos is to create the negative space under their arm. It breaks up the shape and makes you appear slimmer.

The beauty of an object on a shelf can be better appreciated if the space around it is defined – hence shadow boxes, and bookshelves. Many pictures look better framed with a mat.

In music, moments of silence can give clarity to the next notes. It’s called “phrasing”.

Originally the editing of the penultimate scene from “Casablanca” (1942) went like this.
Captain Renaud: “Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects”.

Adding in some space made the moment immortal.

Captain Renaud: “Major Strasser has been shot…”
Rick stares at Renaud.
Renaud looks at Rick, and makes a sudden decision.
“Round up the usual suspects”.

Here’s a quote from Doctor Who:

“Oh, you’ve been eliminating yourself from history. You know you could be reconstructed by the hole you left.” Cyber Doctor, Nightmare in Silver.(Series 7, Ep.12)

The History of Interiors in architecture is the history of shape defining space, and space defining function. But that’s for another time.


Steps – shape and line

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Elements of Design – Line

This blog aspires to help people rediscover and reconnect with their own creativity, as well as to express their renewed creativity. This week’s theme is part of that second goal.

This is the first Creativity Blast theme based on the Elements of Design. To share some of what I’ve learned about design over the years, I plan on discussing each Element in different weekly themes, although not necessarily consecutive weeks. Later I’ll move on to the Principles of Design, which are how the Elements are applied to create intentional results.

The Elements of Design – the building blocks of intentional creation – are:

Volume or Size
Color or Hue
Tone or Value

There is no particular order of importance to the Elements of Design list. They are all present in visual design work, and all have commensurate equivalents in other areas of design such as writing and music. The Elements interact to define or change the values of the others; an obvious example Shape may be defined by Line, or Line may be implied by the meeting of two or more colors. Sometimes the Elements seem naturally to pair together such as Line and Direction, Shape and Size – but the truth is that they all interact.

This week I want to think about Line, and how to use this element in exercises to inspire creativity.

Since sketching and drawing begin with Line, one could consider it as the foundation of most art and design practices. Children first offered crayons generally begin with a joyous exploration of their ability to make linear marks.

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Zentangle tags, lines for texture and form

Lines define shapes. Making lines includes a beginning and an end, even when you are drawing a circle or oval and the line returns to its own starting point. Engineering or architectural plans are lines.

Lines create texture or adjust tonal values, and indicate direction.

Lines supply an underlying structure. 3D computer animations start with a wire frame, that is remarkably similar to the early perspective exercises from the Renaissance. Geometry is a function of lines, meeting in mathematically predictable ways.

Lines can be used to join ideas or images, as well as to divide or segment. Lines are edges, borders, delineations – the very word. In topographic maps lines indicate terrain by showing elevations. The closer the contour lines, the steeper the hillside in that landscape. Bathymetric charts do something similar for ocean water.

Hand writing, from jotting down a note to the most beautiful calligraphy, is all about lines.  

Lines can be used to direct the eye, and impart emphasis – a big part of design. Examine the sets of movies, and notice the prevalence of Line as a visual motif. In “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) the yellow brick road is the most important Line. Cel animation, of course, is all about drawn lines, but if you get a chance to watch Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) notice the linear quality of the backgrounds, especially the trees and landscape. The movie “Wolf” (1994) contains subtle references to cages throughout the production design, much of it created by Line.

Jack Nicholson in

This still from “Wolf’ illustrates a great trick – notice the line of the branch bringing us straight to Jack’s eyes. That’s why they chose this frame!

In Doctor Who Series 5, the designers employ an eccentric line as the crack in Amy’s wall, that reappears in many locations as a crack in the fabric of time. The simple visual motif is a recognizable signpost for the viewer of the underlying through-line story.

Look for Line in art. Painters that emphasize Line include Kandinksy, Chagall, Klee and Mondrian. Look at Picasso’s “Guernica”. Much traditional art incorporates universal motifs created with line such as chevrons, waves, stripes, concentric circles and zig zags. These are apparent in the textiles, basketry and pottery of cultures as diverse as Native Americans, traditional Eastern Europe, and many parts of Africa.


Composition VIII (1923) ~ Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on Canvas

Consider embroidery, Line created with thread. Look at “The Bayeux Tapestry”. Consider knitting and crochet – a single line creating a myriad of shapes.

“Singin’ In The Rain” is a linear song to me. The main tune goes up and down in waves. So does “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.

Twinkle Sheet Music

Look at all those lines!

Once you start looking for Line, including the invisible line of underlying structure, you will not be able to stop noticing it.

Line as Metaphor

There are many phrases to do with Line with symbolic meanings. The ideas of “toe the line”, “lining up” something (like appointments) or “getting your ducks in a row” – all suggest the Line as a metaphor for clarity. “Underlining” can be literal, or metaphorical but in both cases means to create emphasis. The idea of “crossing the line”, doing something unacceptable also speaks to limits and edges.

People speak of their ancestors as being their line. “Down the line” means in the future. A product line is a collection of related items, often connected by a single aesthetic.


A linear plot is one that is straightforward, with a clear trajectory. The positive side of a linear plot is momentum and excitement. There are few twists or tricks, and subplots would serve the main story. Linear is the opposite of convoluted, but also the opposite of episodic, where the narrative jumps in series of seemingly disconnected episodes.

One tool I like to use in my writing is a time line – plotting out the events of my story (usually a screenplay) over time, including the backstory. If I get stuck, my favorite trick is to write the series of events diary-style by different characters. This also gives me the opportunity to define the character’s history, gives me a clue into their motivations, and helps me define their voice.

Finding Line, using Line

One of the most classic line drawing exercises is to draw something – an object, landscape, building or portrait – with a single line; that is never lifting you pencil or pen from the paper. Of course you can overlap and change direction as much as needed.

Another trick for drawing is to use a Durer Grid. Grids can be used to change the scale of a depiction, or in life drawing. See the Greenaway film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”(1982) for a Durer Grid in use, (and incidentally marvel at the triumph of gorgeous design over limited budget.)

Here are some more ideas for raising your awareness of Line:

  • Use road maps or topographic maps as your background for other art, drawing, collages, or scrapbooking.

Vintage Maps

Downloadable maps

  • Look for Line in nature – consider trees, wood grain and leaves, rock strata, flood plains, abalone, DNA, the circulatory system, marble. Notice similarities – leaf veins that look like river deltas, abalone that looks like a map.

  • Visit a maze – lines run amok!

  • Try Zentangles, doodling elevated to the sublime.

So there you have it – a brief introduction to Line.

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