top of page

Becoming a Shapeshifter

Shape Design for Dynamic Emotional Expression

If you'd like to read this post in its entirety along with the published illustrations and commentary please follow this link:

Georgia O'Keeffe "Seaweed"

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way - things I had no words for” - Georgia O'Keeffe

Visual Music:
Beautiful paintings are not the result of talent, technique, or having a great resource photograph. Creating an engaging painting is more than copying the confusion of colors in nature. It is analogous to the way music is created by arranging the incredible variety of sounds in nature into a logical pattern of sounds in harmonious relationships. In music, these sounds are called notes or chords, organized into scales, harmonies, and rhythms. Painting is similar but composed of shapes, lines, and colors instead of sounds.

The essence of painting “Visual Music” is to design dynamic shapes that intrigue and captivate the viewer. Whether you are a realist or an abstract artist you can think of a painting as a two-dimensional surface built from a series of interlocking shapes combined into a mosaic-like structure

A shape is a region limited by some kind of boundary, typically a line. Shapes are essential to art and design because they convey meaning, create visual interest, and help define a work's composition. Shapes are the building blocks of everything we see, and the meaning of shapes speaks fundamentally to how we understand our world.

Since all visible matter has a shape, the sheer number of possible shapes and meanings is never-ending. It is useful to sort shapes into overarching categories that share meanings as groups. These are the most common types of basic shapes but note that even these categories overlap.

Simple vs. compound: Simple shapes, sometimes called primitives, are the foundational geometric forms such as squares, triangles, and circles. They also include their corresponding 3D forms—cubes, cylinders, cones, and spheres. Compound shapes are larger, more complex shapes built out of simple shapes.
Organic vs. inorganic: Organic shapes are those that regularly occur in nature, such as a leaf, a bird, a tree, or a rolling hillside. They tend to be curvier, composed of looser lines, and less symmetrical than inorganic shapes—rigid, geometrical forms that are reminiscent of man-made objects such as buildings or machines.
Abstract vs. non-abstract: Abstract shapes, while often geometric and compound, tend to act as symbolic references. Most commonly these come in the form of icons, such as the abstract humanoids used in bathroom signs. Instead of the component shapes, the circles triangles, and rectangles make up this abstract icon and we understand the shape to represent a person due to our familiarity with the symbol. In short, abstract shapes depend on prior context or cultural knowledge.
Compelling Shapes:
Basic shapes are the building blocks for all other shapes. But basic tends to be static. It's more enlivening to shift, alter, edit, and carefully compose your shapes to enhance balance, rhythm, pattern, contrast, and mood in your entire painting.

Here are four ways to begin varying your basic shapes to make them more dynamic;
1. Shift, stretch, edit, and alter them.
2. Overlap them.
3. Connect them to form one shape.
4. Hide or cover part of them.
Editing Nature:
You probably learned how to draw by breaking objects down into basic geometric shapes. You started by defining the large shapes, combining them into one where possible, and then adding detail for clarity. In these simple drawings, each shape is usually defined by outline or color.

In real-life observation, each object and component is separate and defined by light and shadow. Light and shadow are what we use for accurate three-dimensional realism. (See my last newsletter). But real life and your resource photo have more information than needed to create a beautiful composition with visual poetry.

Where do you begin since every object and its components has a shape? The problem with too many small and similar-sized shapes is that they confuse your message. Outlines tend to give a childish quality to your compositions so unless childish is the emotional quality you seek you may find that editing the details by simplifying and joining similar values into larger shapes makes for better compositions. Joining complex objects that are not explicitly connected in real life helps unify your shapes and your message.

Editing Shape:
If you want your work to have Visual Music, you will need to edit the shapes you see in nature and redesign them from an artistic point of view. Generally, this will mean simplifying the shapes and removing distracting items.

When planning a new painting begin by breaking your subject down into compound shapes connected by value. Identify what you love most about your resource. Look for the largest, most dominant shapes, then work down from there toward the smaller, more intricate shapes. I like to find a shape to repeat and vary throughout the painting as a hidden reward for the viewer. If I were painting sailboats that shape might be a triangle and I would stretch and play with the other shapes in my subject to make them more triangular and reminiscent of a sailboat.

It helps to observe the silhouette of each value area instead of separating it into individual items. Instead of trees, rocks, grass, and sky, create compound squares, circles, triangles, and organic shapes separated by value. This is one reason I love Notan so much. In the example below you can see how the two-value shape pattern makes the dominant shape in each example more apparent.

Your subject will be much less confronting once you have broken it down into these compound value shapes. Instead of having to solve one large 1,000-piece puzzle, you can solve several smaller but easier puzzles. Just like in a puzzle interlocking shapes hold together better and are much more engaging than shapes that rest side by side.

Great Shapes:
Great shapes are descriptive of the subject, visually exciting, and varied along the edges in relation to the surrounding shapes.

As a silhouette, your shape should describe the objects in the painting. Strong shapes have a variety of segment lengths, changes in direction, and detail. Great shape-making requires time and thought.

Every shape has 360 degrees of edge, and to achieve greatness you will need to deal with them all. Be willing to edit your shapes until they are perfect.

Every edge of a shape should be significantly different from its opposite edge and in harmony with it. Draw an imaginary vertical line through the middle of your shape. If the left side mirrors the right, the chances of having a visually interesting shape are not likely.

Shape Variety:
When creating shapes you will generally want to have one dominant shape. In other words, one shape that is much bigger and repeated more often than all of the others.

Contrast is the key to successfully separating and joining shapes together.
When you look at an object, let your eye move along its edge and observe the contrasts. Contrasts make the object visually dramatic, lack of contrast makes a shape unite with its neighbors..

Vary the edges of your shapes using light against dark, dark against light, warm next to cool, cool next to warm, warm touching warm, cool touching cool, pure against neutral, strong contrast, mild contrast, and no contrast at all.

Lost Edges:
Edges do not have to be obliterated to appear lost. Simply matching values where two shapes meet can allow the eye to flow unimpeded. See if you can find an example where Klee did this in the image above. Lost edges allow the forms to breathe with the painting.

Interlock your shapes and create bridges to lead the eye to move and rest on a journey through the work.

If you are painting a sunflower, you could use the high contrast iconic symbol of a dark circle surrounded by yellow petals to represent it, or you could play with the shape of the sunflower to give the viewer something unusual and unexpected to engage with. What if the center of your sunflowers were elliptical and partially obscured by the leaves and petals? Shifting the direction, size, value, color, and shape of the petals then becomes the dominant and most interesting shape inside your larger form.

Notice how Van Gogh joined the two sunflowers together to make a larger compound shape that touches three sides of the canvas. How has he varied the petals?

Having a variety of large, medium, and small shapes in your composition adds interest. Usually, the smallest and highest contrast shapes are located in your area of focus. A variety of differently sized and angled shapes is far more engaging than one in which the shapes are all of a similar size. Some people refer to this as the Goldilocks proportion with one or two big papa bear shapes, some medium size mama bears and a scattering of baby bear shapes.

Study the relationship of the opposing elements of each shape. If the east side is dominated by long curved lines the west side should be made of short straight lines. Take care to shift and alter the length of each segment as your eye moves around the circumference of each shape. The goal is for each side of the shape to be different while still being harmonious. Do not ignore the edges on the bottom of your shapes.

Positive, Negative, and Implied Shapes:
Positive shapes represent the space where objects exist, while negative shapes represent the space between those objects.

Positive space is usually the composition's focus, while negative space helps to define and support it. Positive space is often created through lines, shapes, and forms, while negative space is usually created by the space around and between these elements. Negative shapes are just as important as positive shapes in a composition.

When you make a positive shape larger, the surrounding negative shape tends to get smaller, and vice versa. The interplay between form and empty space can evoke thought and feeling in the viewer.

Space is an indicator of time so when shapes are spaced far apart there is less tension between them than when they are close together. Deepening, balancing, and heightening visual tension can all be achieved through the interplay of positive and negative shapes and space in a composition.

Negative space can also be used as a design element in its own right. An artist can create exciting and dynamic visual effects by carefully manipulating the negative and implied space in a composition.

Cropping for Shape:
When you crop your scene, you create a shape between objects in the photograph and the boundary of the image. Experiment by cropping your entire scene to make the shapes within it more enticing and to draw the viewer into the parts of the scene that most excite you.

Shapes in Context
Shape language or shape psychology allows artists to convey characteristics and emotions in a nonverbal way. The same way our body language can conflict with our words, shape can amplify or contradict our intentions. Failing to understand the meanings of shapes can result in unintended or mixed messages. You can utilize these cues to heighten the mood of your art and to make sure your shapes are speaking a language your viewers will understand.

Unless you are going for stark minimalism, your design will contain multiple elements and this will obligate you to work with several different shapes at once. This is where visual hierarchy comes into play: if you are going for a particular meaning, you want to make sure the associated shape takes precedence. This allows its meaning to overpower the other shapes that are sometimes necessary for compound forms.

Imagine you are creating a character for children. Would you want to use lighthearted circular forms or heavy, hard, and blocky squares? Your character does not need to be entirely circular like the Michelin man. You can exaggerate the roundness of the head and chest while keeping the straight lines in other parts of your character.

Most importantly, shape psychology works best when it is subliminal. Like body language, people don’t usually look at shapes and consciously think of words like “stable” or “dynamic.” It is more about the unspoken feeling that shapes create.

With this in mind, don’t assume that you have to be too literal in your shape construction. As long as the elements of your design suggest forms, even loosely, they will carry the message. Moreover, a loose approach will prevent the individual shapes from calling attention away from your overall composition.

Along those same lines, it is not always necessary to use the complete shape. Partial shapes such as semi-circles or the points of triangles will often still convey the associated traits of the whole.

The eye will instinctively choose to interpret the simplest possible form. This means that when presented with an image containing multiple shapes, the mind may choose to separate them or group them depending on which solution is the most straightforward.

Now that you understand the different forms these shapes can take, let’s explore their meanings in detail.

You expect squares to stand firm. Similarly, a character with square shoulders and/or upper body can come across as strong, imposing, or immovable. In terms of personality, squares imply both reliability and sternness.


Squares are the go-to shape for order and organization, as well as all other traits associated with these, such as logical, calculating, and above all, efficient. Squares and rectangles can be a little bland by undermining other attempts to be vivid or fun. Their straight lines present a clear-cut and neatly defined pathway, so there’s no distraction — the fastest route, not the scenic route. In the business world, squares and rectangles are a favorite emblem of serious industries like insurance or finance.

Smooth Horizontal Rectangles give a sense of stability and calm
Vertical Rectangles are exciting and active. They rebel against Earth’s gravity. They imply energy and reaching toward the heights of heaven. If a horizontal bar is placed at the top of a row of vertical rectangles stability reigns like in a Greek temple.

Diagonal Rectangles give a feeling of tension. Diagonal shapes are dynamic because they imply motion or tension. We tend to read diagonals from left to right as though they are rising or descending.

Rectangular shapes that lean toward the protagonist block forward progress while shapes that lean away give the impression of opening up the space or leading the protagonist forward.

You can further customize the message rectangular shapes send by tweaking the angles of their corners. While perfect right angles highlight the emphasis on stability, slanting those angles can create interesting hybrid shapes, depending on how sharp the corner is. This is one technique to make otherwise boring rectangular shapes more exciting

Circles are the near opposite of squares: their roundness implies that they are always on the move, and hard to pin down. Where squares are strong as bricks, circles can be light as bubbles or clouds. They remind us of a wheel or a bouncing ball. They have no sharp edges, which makes them appear friendly. All of this gives them a joyful, almost mischievous personality, and they are commonly found in art aimed at children.

Despite this, circles are not all immaturity: the fact that they have no beginning or end leads them to be associated with lofty concepts such as eternity or recurring cycles, as in the rising and setting of the sun
A circle is a line that never ends, it represents both movement and completeness. other circular shapes like ovals and ellipses — represent both unity and protection. Lacking any sharp or jagged edges, circles are a much friendlier shape than the others for encompassing other images within. Because they tend to “invite” the viewers into their “completeness,” circles exhibit a strong sense of community. For these reasons, they are one of the most popular choices for logos, or at least to frame logos inside them.

The meaning of circles;

As decorative shapes in backgrounds or building blocks in other images, circles are playful and graceful and put viewers at ease. Circles never stop, and so neither does the eye when viewing them, giving them a childlike whimsy.

Although they are not the only shape to contain points and corners, there is something that feels extra sharp about a triangle’s edges. Triangles remind us of spearheads, and rows of them can feel like a shark’s teeth. As such, they inherently imply danger.

At the same time, the points are literally pointing, and we are used to seeing triangles in directional contexts, such as compasses or maps. Likewise, many ancient triangular structures such as pyramids and ziggurats are believed to have been built with the implication of reaching heaven. This can lend triangles an air of divine guidance, depending on the context.

The meaning of triangles

When finding the meaning of triangles, the most important factor is which direction the point is facing. Triangles and arrows change their meaning entirely based on whether they’re pointing up, down, left, or right, and blend those meanings for degrees in between.

Upward-facing triangles are structurally sound (like rectangles) and therefore symbolize stability and trust. Because the point draws the eye upward, they also represent growth and success and tend to signify leadership or even domination.

Downward-facing triangles are almost the opposite. Because they look like they might tumble at any moment, they represent risk and can cause slight tension, which can be used to intentionally create an edgy visual.

An arrow’s greatest purpose is to convey direction. Using arrows can help your viewer follow a path of information from one part of your image to another. You can use them as pointers to your focal point or to move the viewer's eye through the artwork.

If triangles are facing left or right, it represents progression: either forward in the sense of moving onward, or backward in the sense of backtracking or dwelling in the past. Consider the iconic “play” button for videos. It’s worth noting that which side represents which depends on the direction that culture reads; in Western cultures that read left-to-right, a right-facing arrow represents forward progression.

Curves and waves:
A curvy or wavy line takes the fun and whimsical properties of a circle and applies them to otherwise straight edges. The severity of the wave — think “frequency” — determines how much eye movement it causes; just like sharp edges, wavy lines with a high frequency can be jarring and disruptive, although not quite as much as pointed edges One of the most useful applications of curves is to temper the more serious effects of shapes with hard corners to make them a little friendlier. You see this often in web design, where rectangular buttons are given rounded edges to soften their look.

Curved shapes embrace and protect us. We associate them with rolling, hills, rolling seas, the curves of our bodies, and our mother’s body.

Spirals take the wave movement to extremes. They maximize the effect of a circle “drawing you in,” almost hypnotizing the viewer by keeping and holding their attention. They’re visually “busy,” and so they counteract images that strive to be calming or easygoing. They’re also highly magnetic, so they tend to compete with any other nearby visuals. On the other hand, when spirals are used alone and are the central focus, they can effortlessly create a dynamic and intense visual.

The traits of spirals:

Organic Shapes:
Birds, leaves, trees, and rivers are all organic shapes. Organic shapes share many properties with circles as they tend to be characterized by curving lines. In this way, they communicate lightness and well-being, bolstered by the fact they are associated with nature.

But as organic shapes are not geometric, they tend to feel even less stable than circles. They often look unorganized and unplanned (as opposed to the mathematical precision of geometric shapes), which gives them both a feeling of freedom and fragility. As they are usually not symmetrical, they foster the impression that they can be easily toppled over.

The traits of organic shapes
UnpredictabilityAbstract Shapes:
Abstract shapes typically rely on symbolism or references based on external knowledge, their meaning can vary widely depending on the specific shape and context. For example, in some cultures a cross can represent the four seasons, and in others it is a religious symbolic reference to crucifixion.

Similarly, in everyday app usage, we understand three parallel lines (the hamburger icon) to signify a menu. Imagine showing that icon to someone who had been living without any technology for the last few decades and had never used an app? Without the shared cultural understanding, it would mean nothing to them. For all these reasons, it is best to research shapes like these individually whenever you plan to use one in design.

Abstracting shapes in your compositions makes them more "iconic" and associated with all people, all trees, all rivers not just the particular object in front of you.

Shape Color:
When using shapes in your artwork, you will most definitely be using color as well. When two or more objects in a picture have the same color we associate them with each other. We associate color even more strongly than we associate shape. The meaning and emotion we assign will depend on context.

The combination of certain shapes and colors already has a defined connotation in our subconscious. For example, a yellow circle usually represents the sun, while a red half-circle often represents a slice of watermelon. Unless you are trying to send a direct message with your composition, shapes, and colors are mostly an accessory and should be considered as such.

If you are entirely new to shape language, you can start by paying attention to how other artists use shapes and notice the deliberate way they design their shapes to add dynamism, meaning, and interest to their art. In the examples in this newsletter I introduced you to a few of my favorite shapeshifters.

Look around you and notice the shape language used by advertisers who want your business. How are graphic designers using squares, circles, triangles, etc. to communicate the emotional qualities of their business? Look at children's books and notice the intentional way they employ shape for meaning. Stay attuned to mixed messages where the shapes conflict with the meaning the artist intended.

Beautiful paintings are not the result of talent, technique, or having a great resource photograph. Creating an interesting painting is much more than copying the confusion of colors in nature. In the same way, a musician arranges the incredible variety of sounds in nature into musical harmony you can compose beautiful visual music from shapes, lines, and colors.

In hero stories, a shapeshifter is a catalyst whose changeable nature compels transformation in our hero. A shapeshifter’s role is to add suspense and force the reader and the hero to question beliefs and assumptions.

I hope this essay has helped you to question your beliefs and assumptions about shape design and you feel empowered to use your newfound understanding to be a commanding shapeshifter and create more meaning in your work and deepen the emotional experience for your viewers.

This month I used the following books and articles as resources:
Molly Bang, “Picture This” Chronicle Books

If you would like my guidance and advice in adding more dynamic and meaningful shapes to your paintings I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.

With Light and Delight

Susan Convery


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic
bottom of page