Creative Spark: Getting in Shape

Shape is one of the hardest concepts for new artists to grasp, but their arrangement creates the foundation of a design. One surefire way to create fabulous paintings is to base them on fabulous shapes.

I once had a drawing student who wanted to learn how to portray figures. I pointed out to her that in each figure drawing, there are two main shapes: the figure itself and the negative space around it. From now on, I told her, she could only draw the negative space.

Finally, she got the concept: The figure is a shape and the negative space is a shape, and the way they fit together is the basis of the composition. Once she learned to capture the total shape of the figure, my student discovered that it’s relatively easy to place the smaller shapes or details within it. Also, she found that she didn’t need as many details; often the contours themselves will convey a great deal about the subject.

Understanding figure and ground or subject and negative space can help energize any painting. When I look at a floral bouquet (as in my painting, Royal Purple (26×18), above), I see the total shape of the bunch of flowers and I carefully arrange how it fits in the negative space. When I paint a tree, I look at the negative space around the tree and also between the branches. Finding interesting shapes in my subject and background always makes the finished painting more exciting.

Try This at Home
Show us one of your pastel paintings (or several) and tell us how the use of shape contributes to the composition. E-mail images to (as a JPG image with a resolution of 72 dpi) by June 27, 2008. (Type “Creative Spark” in the subject line and include your name, e-mail and mailing address.) The “editor’s choice” will receive $200 toward the purchase of a Heilman pastel box.

Congratulations to previous winners Marie Stanton Cardany (December 2007 challenge), Becky Way (February 2008 challenge) and Julie Deane (April 2008 challenge). Click on each name to see their pastels and find out what they won.

And the Winner Is …
Congratulations to Mike Beeman, of Cheyenne, Wyo., for winning our June Creative Spark challenge. His beautiful painting, Spring Bouquet, fit well with the challenge. Here’s the artist’s take on how shape contributes to the total composition:

“Both positive and negative shapes are created as equal components within the composition and should come together much like a composer would arrange notes for a melody or musical arrangement. It’s important to me that shapes create a sense of tension between the essential form and the background.”

Beeman won $200 toward the purchase of a Heilman pastel box. Many thanks to Heilman Designs for their generous donation!

Miss the June deadline? Get on the ball for the August 2008 challenge!

Click here to go back to the Creative Spark homepage.

Award-winning artist and author Carole Katchen‘s Creative Spark challenges appear in The Pastel Journal. Learn more about her at

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