Elements of form


Dear Artist,

The shaping of form is one area where many artists get into trouble. In the old days students were encouraged to paint and draw cones, pyramids, blocks and spheres until they were blue in the face. It’s no wonder that so many of the classically trained painters knew how to render form. Today, for those who would master form, there is no recourse but to study and practice.


Wooden model constructed and photographed by Maxfield Parrish to reference forms in reflection (mirror) as painting guide.

Many commonplace subjects such as rocks, clouds and faces follow the simple dictates of those classic shapes. They need to be seen as “forms under light.” When you see the rigmarole that masters like Maxfield Parrish went through to get things right, a little more effort by us seems acceptable. With this sort of thing comes the realization that some shapes are complex and compound, so require more than the average understanding and application. Still, no matter how daunting, they break down to those first blue-faced lessons.

In today’s arbitrary and less-schooled environment, there’s a valuable technique that is readily self-taught. It’s actually one of the essential processes of enlightened art-making. Think of the forming of objects as a two-step process. The first step involves the casual placing of the approximate shape in as few strokes as possible. The second step is to re-examine what you did — often after a bit of time and through squinted eyes — and ask yourself what form the shape or object can most easily become. Often a highlight, a shadow, or a designated facet is all that is needed to form it up. The simpler the means, the better. With this expedient, forms stay fresh because they are not tortured or cajoled out of photographic reference or subjected to the slavish imitation of nature. For many of us, the most effective illusion of form will have evolved from what was suggested in the strokes of the first step.

Form is further defined by other factors. Negative surround, core area, cast shadow and reflected light are four of them. These are also basics that were hammered into the classical masters. At the same time, it’s fine that not all of us care about form. We live in an age when the masters of form are often disparaged — and various other trends rule the game. So it’s no wonder that many who might wish to understand and use form are blindsided to ineffectual skirmishes in the dark.

Best regards,


PS: “There are no concrete or abstract forms, but only forms which are more or less convincing lies.” (Pablo Picasso)

Esoterica: A good way to approach form-finding is to “feel the form.” You need to think in a tactile way. Henry Moore pointed out that a child learns more about roundness from handling a ball than from looking at one. Another, often neglected, method of finding form is to vary the distance between the eyes and the art. It’s easy for artists to get into the habit of not moving around enough. Robert Henri noted, “There are forms that can only be seen when you are near a painting, others only appear when you are far away.” Artists need to have ants in their pants. It’s a good use for ants.


Perfection or expression?
by Laura Rodriguez, Uruguay


“Day of the Dead – Tribute to Frida”
oil painting
by Laura Rodriguez

I paint and, not only that, I am eager with my hands. I do not know that if it is to transform reality, to enjoy, or to live on after my human life in this world. Everything I look at is seen as paintable, knittable, or doable in whatever technique it appears suitable, but gives me a clue to some object to be created sooner or later. I feel that I have that power inside. I have been a decorative painter and teacher for years. I love realism, but I know there is a change waiting for me, which will be more like my soul. I think most of us feel this in our hearts, perfection or expression?

(RG note) Thanks, Laura. So many artists voiced this or similar thoughts. It seems to be the conundrum of our time. Thanks so much to all who have written.


Use of light and colour
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“The Enigma of Attraction”
oil on canvas, 38 x 50 inches
by Coulter Watt

Regarding shapes and forms, when several objects are placed together in a still life, for example, after the drawing stage, it is light and color that separates the objects. Light and color can also direct the eye to the main object, causing one to focus on that object and giving that object predominance over all other objects. This is true of all types of paintings.




Learn right methods before wrong
by Karen Martin Sampson, Sayward, BC, Canada


oil painting
by Karen Martin Sampson

I was trained in the “old school” at The Cleveland Institute of Art. It was tedious sometimes but I learned skills that have benefited me. I always think you need to learn to do something “right” before you move onto doing it “wrong.” I have known individuals who have a natural ability and who didn’t do well trying to learn classic techniques, but that is rare in my opinion. I am all for classes where students are encouraged to be imaginative, to play and express themselves, but in workshops I give I’m always impressed by the strong desire of the students to learn solid drawing and painting methods so that they can skillfully express what they have in their head through their hand.



Simply simplify form
by Nora Sallows, Ohio, USA


“Banjo Charlie”
oil on masonite
by Nora Sallows

I had just spent an hour fiddling with the position of a hand that measures 3 inches across. The tiny photo reference was poorly lit and confusing. I walked back into the studio and wiped it out, marked a few lines in with the round brush to place the palm and cylinders (fingers). Then I placed two values of flesh over the skeleton with shadows and light and was finished in 30 seconds. I have printed out a large note for the studio: SIMPLIFY FORM! It will hang on my wall until I remember to do this automatically.





The Natural Way to Draw
by Jeanne Fosnot, Monterey, CA, USA

Kimon Nicolaides, a student of Robert Henri, wrote The Natural Way to Draw. It has very good exercises that help artists to understand form in many ways. I’ve been teaching Life Drawing for years and find that his whole approach is devoid of artifice and intellectualization. If one does all the chapters in his book, one gets a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of figure drawing.

(RG note) Thanks, Jeanne. This book was put together by Nicolaides’ students after his death in 1938 and has since become a true classic. I notice that you can buy well thumbed copies on Amazon for as little as four bucks. No nonsense. Solid gold. See next letter.


Getting good and feeling good
by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA

Form’s not always taught because it’s hard to learn well (let alone teach well), because it’s tedious, and because it’s not art. Academic art programs are all about making “art,” and people who teach privately want happy students who return, not students who grumble about all the work they have to do when everyone knows art is fun and easy and everyone is an artist anyway. So they’ve been told. Kimon Nicolaides is a special case. If the student actually does all the assignments in his book, they will do more work than in a typical semester of an academic drawing course. But Nicolaides also wanted his students to feel good, which the gesture drawings he also recommends have a tendency to do.


Back to the basics
by Vivian Matz-Levi, New York, NY, USA


oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Jacob Collins

There are some wonderful ateliers that teach traditional methods for studying form. For example, Jacob Collins and his alumni such as Michael Grimaldi, Dan Thompson, Kate Lehman, etc. These ateliers are producing new teachers who go out and teach. I always hungered to learn how to “turn form” and create depth in my work. It took decades to find the training that provided me with a foundation of drawing accurately and how to develop form. Ultimately, I had to learn to reconcile what I learned into my own style that combines a more painterly approach with an underlying drawing accuracy, and some areas where I turn form. Most children I’ve taught want to draw accurately but are never taught these skills so they give up hope that they can draw.


Art teacher uses traditional ways
by James Gielfeldt, Welland, ON, Canada


oil painting
by James Gielfeldt

In my life drawing classes the first thing the new first year students see is a still life of basic shapes — cones, spheres, cubes and cylinders. It becomes readily apparent that these young artists have had no tutelage at the high school level in rendering form, or the importance of basic shapes in drawing. Also, to rub salt in the wound they have been encouraged to be conceptual, explore, ‘be creative’ before having received a solid grounding in the basics or any instruction in technical drawing skills. How many times do I have to hear “the blacker the better” or “my high school teacher said you should never leave negative space.” After the basic shapes, we move on to other still life where they look at rendering form in various media and techniques. After this they are introduced to the live model. I had to add this still life portion because some students could barely handle their pencils let alone render the human form. It’s a sad state of affairs how some schools view training in the arts.


Use of classic head to understand form
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada


NASCAD Student (Detail)
oil painting
by Bill Skuce

A good friend was a classical master and another good friend was a curator in a gallery of contemporary art. They knew of each other but never spoke. Knowing and liking them both created a dilemma for me. Although having painted abstract for years, I was won over by the classical artist and wanted to start learning to paint classically. I began copying masters like del Sarto, Murillo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Van Eyk, Campin, Rembrandt and others. What I found most helpful was the study of portraits, in particular the rendering of the human head to look as three dimensional as possible.


The Italian art school
by Kelly Borsheim, Firenze, Italy


“Warrior Spirit”
(shown in clay, prior to casting) limited edition of 45
by Kelly Borsheim

Here at the Angel Academy of Art, they emphasize that the Italian word for a drawing is disegno, which also means ‘design.’ We have many exercises to train our eyes how to draw shapes and to see space. They also encourage us to seek the most efficient line to describe a shape, while still leaving most of the options open to each unique voice to choose. And we draw every day — almost all day, with many other opportunities given to help the more ambitious of us add to our understanding of form. I know this knowledge of construction of form will aid my 2-d and my 3-d skills.





Architecture and fine art
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey


“Butterfly 2”
original painting
by Alev Oguz

I became conscious of form while reading the book The Search for form in Art and Architecture by Eliel Saarinen. While studying architecture, Saarinen was not inspired by it. His dream was to become a painter. He believed architecture was a dead art form, mere crowding of obsolete and meaningless stylistic decoration on the building’s surface. However, this reluctance of architecture brought into thinking, Classical form is not the form to be used for contemporary purpose, it was time to develop an architectural form of its own. Architecture had gone astray; something had to be done about it; the road was free to go – and now was the time to do things. He realized the field of action was broader and more significant than in that relatively confined field of painting. From then on, he had the ambition to become an architect. “Art was born as a desire, not as a demand.” (Eliel Saarinen)


Watercolour techniques
by Sharon Williams, Mississauga, ON, Canada

Making clouds in watercolour, wet in damp, I’ve found the most realistic way of rendering clouds is to “blow” the paint out with an ordinary household straw, rather than trying to paint them in detail. On Arches cold or hot press, this works well. Different effects are obtained depending on how the paper is prepared or whether there is a wet or dried wash underneath. Regarding rocks, painting them is simplified if you know what type of rock you are painting. For sedimentary rock, I load a 1 – 1 1/2 inch flat brush with several colours, painting them into the brush with other brushes for pure colour. Painting running water and rippled water is more difficult. Part of the problem is lack of skill with perspective. The best success I’ve had is loading several colours of undiluted gouache and watercolour on a fairly large round brush and rolling it in an irregular linear trail on dry paper. Dripping or spraying plain water and tilting helps create the suggestion of water. Failing that, ink with plastic wrap stretched and shaped over it works too.


How to get a glossy finish
by Ron Wilson, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Wave Watching”
oil on stretched canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Ron Wilson

I saw some of your work at a gallery and wondered what you use to get that high gloss that I like — I’ve tried glossy retouch varnish but it doesn’t provide the sheen I’m looking for.

(RG note) Thanks, Ron. To get my oils shiny I use a spray can of final varnish, not the retouch type, several weeks after the painting is thoroughly dry. Otherwise I brush on final varnish — generally Damar. I formerly painted with Copal Oil Medium (didn’t like the smell) and that’s shiny on its own. Perhaps your grounds are a bit absorbent. Make sure panels and canvases are properly gessoed so “sinking in” (oil absorption) doesn’t take place. Most of my current work is acrylic and I use several coats of Golden medium (brilliant) throughout the painting process and one or two coats of Golden Final Varnish Gloss with UVLS (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers). I cut both with a small amount of water and spread the liquid with a clean rag. Other acrylic manufacturers have similar products.


Bring nothing, take nothing
by Deborah Carroll, Fernandina Beach, FL, USA


One of the nine art pieces
by Deborah Carroll

A few weeks ago, my Design professor had us watch Andy Goldsworthy’s River and Tides. I was so moved by his video I could hardly breathe. I have done some plein air painting and have always enjoyed being out in nature, but to actually use the nature to create art was fascinating. We were asked to go to three specific sites, and using only the elements found there (we could bring nothing to the site), create a work of art and take photographs. Three were required; I produced nine. It truly was a pivotal point in the way I viewed art and form.


by Sara Sparks, Wakefield, QC, Canada


Sara’s Labyrinth
by Sara Sparks

About three years ago a friend introduced me to labyrinths. There is a clearing in behind my home where for the winters I made a labyrinth of snow. Early this past spring, I started to build a permanent labyrinth. I used all the rocks on my property, digging them up and arranging them. I brought rocks from friends’ yards, and from places I traveled… it really takes an awful lot of rocks! It took about a month and a half to complete. I walk there when my head needs clearing — to get new ideas, or to get rid of old ones. I sometimes pause at the center for a short time or a half hour or so. Sometimes I walk it several times. It’s surrounded by trees and is like a magic garden. There is definitely the sense of a sacred space and almost a feeling of antiquity, like the remnants of a Celtic shrine.





Linear Trees

oil on canvas
by Sören Dawson, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Laurie DeMatteo of PA, USA who wrote, “If art, including all its faces, does not follow form, language, then it is non-language, with no better purpose than to dilute one’s senses.”

And also Brian Jones of Cortaro, AZ, USA who wrote, “I once had a student that asked me why my dabs of watercolor looked like stones and his looked like dabs of watercolor. I told him the difference was that I actually believed my dabs were stones. He never came back.”

And also Marni California of Abergele, UK who wrote, “What strikes me from the responses to your ‘Animal art’ letter is that there are an awful lot of people out there who take things far too seriously. This is one thing that bores me silly about modern art. One of my favorite artists, Joseph M W Turner, the Johnny Rotten (remember the Sex Pistols?) of his day, shared his studio with his cats and therefore many of his watercolours had cat paw-prints all over them. Cool!”

And also Mary E. Carter of Placitas, NM, USA who wrote, “The best art professor I ever had used to say: ‘If you can’t make it anatomically correct, then at least make it convincing.’ ”

And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “Painting is both a process of breaking down form and of building form up.”

And also Melinda Parrie of Natchitoches, LA, USA who wrote, “I don’t get a chance to paint nearly as much as I used to, but these tidbits of knowledge remind me twice a week how much I enjoy the creative process and how important it is to me to fit in some time for art, even if it’s just an afternoon of sketching.”

And also Les Ducak of Burlington, ON, Canada who wrote, “If the quote of Picasso is true, does a better liar make a better artist?”

And also Konstnär Tommy Carlsson of Laholm, Sweden who wrote, “I’m enjoying your letters. But how do you get time to write? Should you not be painting?”



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