Welcome back to my website. With this article I return to the topic of design elements. Design elements and principles are the bricks that our paintings are made of. Saying that knowing how to implement them is important is an understatement. The truth is that without mastering them you simply cannot hope to master the “language” that is painting. It is similar to learning the alphabet because through it all the knowledge is acquired. Though alphabet is a much simpler matter, it shows how unforgiving it would be if we didn’t know it. All further understanding would be unavailable to us. Similarly if our understanding of the elements and principles of design isn’t sound, we cannot hope to advance in our efforts much further.

I would also like to stress that this is not going to be another generic discussion of the elements and principles. I take care to look at them from a very practical perspective, showing examples and adding my own point of view.

With this first article I want to tackle the most important of the elements: shape. I’d like to discuss shapes, what they are and how they function in the environment of a painting. I’m going to share what I know about shapes and some tips to help you be more effective when using them in your own paintings.

What Is a Shape

Paintings are not made of things but shapes. We can’t paint a chair and expect it to magically appear – we don’t live in a Disney cartoon. Frank Webb refers to a painter as “shape-maker”, not “thing-maker”. For that there are carpenters, smiths, etc., in other words – crafsmen. What is our job as painters is to make shapes that suggest or represent real-life objects. We also use shapes abstractly, not necessarily to make an abstract painting, simply to make any painting, as the majority of shapes in all paintings is quite abstract when context is removed.

Shape is defined by lines. It can also be seen as a piece of color. Charles Hawthorne refers to shapes as “spots of color”. He says, “If you will only put a spot of color in the right relation to other spots, you will see how little drawing it takes to make form.”

Shape-Making Strategies

There are several strategies that, when followed, assure that the shapes we make are good shapes. Let’s  see how can we learn to recognize and make good shapes in our paintings.

Static vs. Dynamic

What is static lack energy. Shapes that are static are difficult to integrate and fail to relate to the rest of the picture. The most obvious examples of static shapes are a square, a triangle and a circle. Making our shapes dynamic is the first step towards intentionally designing good shapes.

But what actually is a dynamic shape? What are the properties of a dynamic shape?

Dynamic shape has a clear sense of direction, contains an oblique, its size is gradated on X or Y axis, or both, its edges are interesting and it interlocks with adjacent shapes.

Notice how the highlighted (red) shape on the image above uses all these strategies. On the image below you can observe the shape (or rather a shape group representing the frontal plane of the building) separately and feel its weight and balance, notice its edges and directions.

Below still, you can see the interlocking aspect highlighted (green). These shapes are reminiscent of puzzle pieces that interlock with the main shape (red).

©2017 Atelier Novotny

Positive and Negative

Beginners usually think and paint in terms of positive shapes, because they represent real-life objects. This is a trap as it not only disregards negative space but confuses one to think their job is to illustrate the real word. Learning instead to think in terms of negative shapes helps integrating the most profound principles of art making into our everyday routine, thus becoming better artists.

Negative shapes are shapes that surround the positive ones. It is the “nothingness”, the air, that which is not there. We as painters cannot afford to think like that. We have to treat our negative shapes just as we do the positive and integrate them both into one well-composed puzzle.

Highlighted (red) on the image above is a negative shape that represents a ground plane. Notice how this shape also is a well-designed shape. It is not as dynamic as the previous example, nor should it be. It lays on the bottom edge of the painting, thus it possesses a grounding quality. Yet it is still varied in size, direction and it is very well integrated in the painting, interlocking with the shapes around it. Even though you may not even notice it when looking at the painting, it is very much present and its function is of paramount importance.


©2017 Atelier Novotny
©2017 Atelier Novotny

One of the techniques to integrate shapes is passage. Notice how on my painting above the white shapes connect and lead you through the picture plane, beginning at the top left corner, all the way towards the bottom right corner.

On the diagrams (above and below) you can see how this passage groups all of the white shapes into one extraordinary “super shape”. Notice that the individual shapes as well as the grouping are dynamic and well-designed and while they represent real-life objects, they function as an abstract shape configuration.


©2017 Atelier Novotny
©2017 Atelier Novotny

Edge quality is an important consideration as well. Varied edges add interest to shapes and may refresh otherwise boring areas. Furthermore they may suggest connection (passage). This can happen not only on a physical level but conceptual as well.

The Function

Let’s now consider the bigger picture – shape’s function. Shape in a painting may have one of two main functions. A shape may either be perceived as an abstract configuration or as a symbol.

Shape as Symbol

When shape is used as a symbol, you can find it in a painting representing people, birds, and a variety of other animals or a simple everyday objects such as cups for example. These shapes are symbolic. Their success is based on the use of simplified silhouette shape that is then easily associated with its real-life reference. This silhouette needs to be as expressive as possible, meaning that it should be immediately recognized for what it is.

Picture an oriental tea pot, in other words an “Alladin’s lamp”. When we look at the illustration above, we can see that famous silhouette of the lamp (left), one that is instantly recognizable. If we, however, drew front view of the lamp (right) no one would be, in fact, able to recognize it as an Alladin’s lamp. Profile of the lamp on the other hand is immediately associated correctly because the shape is so expressive and well-known. Make sure you use the most recognizable silhouette, the most descriptive view of the object you want to suggest.

©2017 “Fixer Upper” – 15″ x 22″ by Russell Black (used with permission)

In the painting “Fixer Upper” by Russell Black (above) you can see such symbolic shapes used well. Look at the people on the ground or the birds in the sky. While they are very simplified, they read well and through association you immediately recognize them for what they are. There is also a symbol of propeller, lifesaver on the cabin or a ladder on the side of the boat. These all add to the richness of the scene and improve the sense of locale.

The use of symbols, however, is best used sparingly and implemented as a supporting element. Think of it as a “cherry on top”. Primitive painting is reliant heavily on symbolism, while abstract painting omits symbols and the connection with real-life objects. Creative composition is a balancing act of the two extremes. We want to have a nice abstract configuration of good shapes with a select few symbols integrated in the overall picture to add context and emotional connection.

Shape as Abstract Configuration

Unlike the select few symbolic shapes chosen to add depth to the content of a painting, the great majority of the shapes in a painting are, and should be, abstract in their nature.

As I mentioned in the illustration on “passage” (above), and depending on how we go about building any particular painting, our brain has a tendency to group shapes of similar value or color. Regardless of whether this grouping creates a passage or not, the amalgam of shapes that makes up any particular painting is in its essence abstract. These fragments of shapes make up the whole. Most, if not each of the fragments should be designed with thought and intent. The following painting exemplifies this. You can literally count shapes one by one and see for yourself how, though varied, they create one unified whole, pursue one specific idea, namely the suggestion of city vista.

©2017 Atelier Novotny
©2017 Atelier Novotny

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Retraining one’s brain into thinking in terms of shapes may be a daunting task, however my hope is that this and the following articles in the series on “Design & Composition” are going to help you better understand the practical concepts you may use in your own paintings. Don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments.



  1. Angel Villarreal October 6, 2017 at 16:39

    As always, great article Daniel.
    Shape symbols are difficult for me since my drawing skills are amateurish at best but I can see their importance. Abstract shapes are also a challenge specially if you have little experience making them (where do you learn this?).
    I guess the point is, I should work on a library of basic symbol and abstract shapes.

    1. Daniel Novotny October 7, 2017 at 14:56

      Hi Angel,

      Thanks. Drawing is important to nurture but even without being a great draughtsman you can still do very well. The concept is of paramount importance. I encourage you to dive into study of composition and shapes. You can learn this by observation, study and practice. Check out the books that I recommend reading (either look into my “resources” section or “recommended books” – one especially good may be “Expressive drawing” by Steven Aimone). Also, read through the articles on my website. Then you need to practice. You need to START making those shapes and try it on your own. Think in shapes, positive – negative.

      1. Angel Villarreal October 8, 2017 at 06:19

        Practice is essential the problem lies in what to practice and how to practice and knowing if what is being practiced is right. I will look up the book from Aimone and recommend books. Thanks!

        1. Daniel Novotny October 8, 2017 at 12:05

          One thing will lead to another. You need to start somewhere, it doesn’t matter as much where. Your enthusiasm will carry you to places you not yet know exist. Don’t give up and enjoy the journey. Remember, it is a journey, not a destination.

          1. Angel Villarreal October 8, 2017 at 21:00

            Yes it is, “the journey is thevreward”

  2. J.P. Keslensky September 26, 2017 at 03:44

    Most appreciated , Daniel. Watching your demonstrations is alway both entertaining and instructive. They really develop in what appears to be a very unpredictable way. Yet as they develop the shape puzzles all add up to form the final painting almost magically. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ambi Subramanian September 20, 2017 at 17:04

    A deeply thought provoking article- I will go through this many times over to ensure that I understand your thoughts well and paint simple shapes to check what I had gathered from your article. My comfort zone is drawing and painting trees. Would start with this familiar theme and see how far I am able to include the design elements you have so well described. I am fascinated by negative space and would like to experiment that with the aid of your design notes. Thanks for your effort and for making it available on your website.

    1. Daniel Novotny September 20, 2017 at 22:14

      Very good. I am glad to hear my efforts are appreciated. I hope your work is going to benefit. I would like to hear about your progress as you go along. Stay tuned for future articles which too should shed some light on how I approach painting through design.

  4. Virgil Carter September 20, 2017 at 15:43

    Excellent article, Daniel. I completely agree with you–strong shapes make strong paintings. Without strong, visually interesting shapes all the detail in the world will not save a painting.

    Sling paint,

    1. Daniel Novotny September 20, 2017 at 22:08

      Thank you for visiting Virgil, much appreciated.

  5. Virgil Carter September 20, 2017 at 15:41

    Excellent article, Daniel! Couldn’t agree more about the importance of visually interesting shapes. Without strong shapes all the detail in the world will not save a painting!

    sling paint,

  6. Debbie Abshear September 20, 2017 at 15:17

    Thank you for continuing to inspire me. When I read your articles it reminds me that creating art is more than painting a pretty picture. It is thought provoking, creative work! I believe the more I read and practice what I read, the more I realize I still have a lot to learn. Thank you again, although I don’t always comment, I appreciate what you do.

    1. Daniel Novotny September 20, 2017 at 22:59

      Well said. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. Much appreciated.

  7. Jerry Rodman September 20, 2017 at 14:44

    This is an outstanding article, articulate and well illustrated.


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