Shape is the building block of picture making. Once you make a mark on the canvas with your brush you have actually created two shapes—the mark you’ve made…and the rest of the canvas. Because shape is two dimensional, we must carefully consider its contour and its edge. More than any other artistic element, shape is the expression of how you are interpreting reality.
Shape is also tied to brushwork and design. Good shape has clarity to it. It is not muddied by over blending. It exists as part of a set of building blocks to create the illusion of form and space in your painting. Shapes can have smaller shapes within them, repeating elements with infinite variation that strengthen the overall design of your painting.
In its most basic form, a brushstroke is a shape. But a shape can be many brushstrokes, also unified by color or value of pattern.
When entry level artists first start to paint, they unconsciously make shapes with brushstrokes. Often, there is no structure to the strokes—Brushstrokes exist only as a mark on the canvas and a means to an end. Their canvases have a uniformity of application. Their shapes run into each other, never considered for their effect on the whole of the picture. All the marks are the same; the strokes are haphazard—lacking elegance and forethought.
To create a successful painting, you must be aware of the shapes you make and their relationship to all the other shapes within the pictorial plane of the canvas.
This harmony requires a plan of action. You must train your eye to see shape as a separate idea from objects. Some of my students say they want to learn how to paint trees or waves or water. What they really want is to be able to interpret those things into recognizable two dimensional shapes in their paintings.
You can’t really put a “nose” or a “blade of grass” on your canvas. You can only apply a “shape” with paint. Decide how you will make that shape, what color and value it will be and what its boundaries are. This is what all good picture making is about.