Shape, Shapely and Shaped

Today at my Southwest School of Art class on Finding Your Artist Path, we will be looking at and thinking about and working with SHAPE and CONTRAST. Here are a few of the notes, some things to think about as you go about your creative work today!

A shape is a self contained defined area of geometric or organic form. A positive shape in a painting automatically creates a negative shape.


Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposing elements eg. opposite colours on the colour wheel - red / green, blue / orange etc. Contrast in tone or value - light / dark. Contrast in direction - horizontal / vertical.
The major contrast in a painting should be located at the center of interest. Too much contrast scattered throughout a painting can destroy unity and make a work difficult to look at. Unless a feeling of chaos and confusion are what you are seeking, it is a good idea to carefully consider where to place your areas of maximum contrast.

These design elements and principles work together (as they all do!) But I think that working with shape gives the artist the perfect laboratory for investigating contrast in a very concrete direct way.

What kinds of shapes do you doodle on napkins, notecards and the item formerly known as a phone pad? What shapes show up at the tip of your pen or pencil.

Do you like clear, well defined shapes that are simple and concrete, easy-to-describe? Or amorphous, vague, or organic shapes?

Do you work with shape in a “flat” 2-D world? Graphically, all one plane? Or as three- dimensional shapes, whether you paint or sculpt them?

Where is the strongest shape contrast in your work? Do you have big shapes, little shapes and medium shapes (remember the “rule of three”)?

Do you layer shapes in your work? Are the layers close together or far apart? Can you see through them or around them? DO you show space through layering? Or light? Or size? Or all of the above?

What shapes your art practice? The time available, what’s left over after everything else, what you think you SHOULD do? What if you gave it another shape?

Try cutting NOTAN shapes as a studio shape practice for a week to develop your shape muscle. What happens?


From Jane Dunnewold 

From my blog.


Some “SHAPE” artists and their work (please add other suggestions to the comments section!):

M.C. Escher --especially his mathematical tesselation art

Lee Shiney’s CIRCLES 

Robert Motherwell 

Henry Moore -- Sculptor 

Ilsa Iviks Textile artist 

Paul Klee  

How to Make Your Mark in Your Work Work

What are the  marks you make with your work? Do you have symbols, shapes, lines or an approach with color and pattern that you integrate into your art, no matter the exact "content" or "theme" or story? Can your audience see your hand in your work? What a human thing to do. What a connection making such marks is to our amazing history of being human...

Markmaking is our language, private, personal, universal and iconic. The marks we make over and over in our work -- be it visual, kineasthetic, tactile, audible -- constitutes a piece of our personal unique style, and the more we work at those marks, finding mastery of our own special language, the more distinctive is our work, the more recognizable. 

Markmaking is part of style, part of voice, part of what makes my work, my work and yours, yours. Taking time to find, polish, elaborate upon, distill and play with our marks is an important aspect of finding our voice in the medium we choose to use to express our ideas.

The Mark-Making Workshop at El Cielo Studios is coming up in about a week and a half  (June 10, 11,12). I'm hoping to fill this little extra slot with a few folks who want to take the time to find and polish and master their own set of marks for fiber art prints, applique and other surface design. While the activities are designed with fiber artists in mind, they are also of value to any mixed media or visual medium who would like his or her work to become more distinctive and distinctly unique.

Markmaking is a distinctly human activity and one that we have been exploring as humans for millenia. Consider the new documentary by Wilhelm Herzog, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams.  We just saw the film (in 3-D) at Austin's Violet Crown Cinema, a new and snazzy space downtown on 2nd.  This adventure (part of Linda's and my CAMP AUSTIN this week) was stunningly beautiful, evocative and a powerful reminder of what it is to be human, to make marks and to leave our handprint behind.

The week in Austin is also work time for me. I'm part of the New World Kids' Training Team that is working at Ballet Austin with arts educators from three different arts organizations in the city. We, too, are looking at markmaking (among other expressive tools) as teachers move and paint and sound their way through the Sensory Alphabet. Seeing the differences in our minds at work as they play out on the page is just another dimension of this markmaking work. I'll share more about the workshops later this week on the blog, but meanwhile, here are a few playfull markmaking experiments to fool around with:

1. Look at how you doodle. What kinds of lines and shapes and symbols do you play with "when noone is looking?"

2. Take one kind of simple symbol and play it out across a wide variety of media -- paint it, draw it, make it in clay, look for and photograph it in nature and on the streets, sing it, rattle it, make it move. make it into a movie, write it into a story.

3. Carve or cut or otherwise create a stamp of a favorite mark of symbol. Experiment with it on fabric and paper, with repetition and size, change the scale and layer it one upon another. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

4. Look at a favorite artists' Insert Image work and see if you can find examples of marks made over and over. How are these distinctive marks part of the artist's "fingerprint?"


5. Make a slide show of images of a mark or symbol or sign or shape that is interesting to you. How many places can you find it? How many ways can you make it show up?

6. Try your mark in electronic media and on software apps that allow for special kinds of markmaking. Print out these marks and see how they could be used in your work.

Some to try: Zen Brush:


Also: Finger Sketch Paint

Express Sketchbook

OR, you can come out to El Cielo Studio next week and do these and many similar activities with the group!




June 10-12

Markmaking can be what distinguishes one person's

work on paper or fabric or any medai from another's -

their personal style. Using color, line, shape, rhythm

and textures, students will explore traditional and new

media as well as techniques for personal markmaking.

Techniques to be covered include deconstructed

screenprinting, stamping, using paint

sticks and monoprinting with gelatin plates. No matter

what your experience level, you'll gain confidence

in working with layered media and find your

strongest media for the marks that make your work

unmistakably your own.  

$160 plus accommodations, free to $30 for both nights, Friday night potluck is optional but encouraged!



World Shapes: Art-making Inspired

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Next up: the  shape collection from the summer travels. (Previous installments in the two previous posts include Movement and Color, see the sidebar for links.)
Some things I might try from these inspirations:

1. Think of the grid as a pattern of shapes and use it as did the artist who designed the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.

2. Try making a columnar shaped art quilt, like the Estonian tower.

3. Use the paving stone and manhole cover collection (I took lots of these photos) to make thermofax screens for an art cloth series.

4. Use the shapes of the plaster casts from the Victoria & Albert Museum to inspire some altar-shaped pieces.

5. Make a phototransfer of that lovely urn from Kensington Garden.

 Manhole Cover - Berlin

Newton, Sculpture at the British Library

Tower in Tallinn, Estonia, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Medieval stone carving, plaster cast at the V&A, LondonUrn, Kensington Gardens, London

Shape. Mathmatics. Art.

The intersections of what we think of as different fields of study fascinates me. These videos I stumbled across today provide some tantilizing connective tissue between art and mathematics in the work and research of Eric Demaine. What I liked best was Eric's statement that mathematics is an art medium. And his, sometimes a bit rattled, SEED presentation (Scroll down to see the embedded video) proves that he is working from the spirit that drives all of us who make art.

First, here are the links to an animation of the Metamophosis of the Cube

The background of the animation of
Metamophosis of the Cube even has its own little artfull story:

Watching the animation, you'll probably notice the old page of cyrillic text in the background. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it gives something onto which the folding objects can cast shadows. Second, it is in some sense the basis for our work. The page is from a Russian book on Convex Polyhedra by the famous Russian geometer A. D. Aleksandrov. In particular, the theorem underneath the folding cube characterizes what “polyhedral metrics” can be folded into convex polyhedra. Seed Design Series

The Shape of the Matter

I've been playing around with notan expanded squares for years, ever since Jane Dunnewold of Art Cloth Studios showed our class the Japanese exercise. Her explaination is on the tutorial section of the Art Cloth Studios website, so you can go there and get the instructions straight from my source.

As Jane writes, so eloquently (as she always does),

Both symmetrical (the same all around) and asymmetrical (different on each side) designs can be achieved through the use of the expanded square concept. In order for the exercise to be completed successfully, there must be a feeling of balance in the design created. A symmetrical design can still be heavy, ponderous, or boring. If the design is working, it will be interesting and will feel balanced on all four sides. Test this idea by turning your paper as you study a completed design. Does it measure up when rotated and studied? Is it interesting from all directions?


There are many other notan exercises, all of them derived from what is considered a kind of visual meditation sometimes by its practitioners.This example is even simpler in execution. Simply cut a square apart in any way you wish, with the object being to reassemble it with white space in between, making again a pleasing and intriguing balance of white and black, light and dark.

I also like to play with the shapes in multiples, enlarging and reducing them on the copier, then reassembling into a rhythmic shape composition.

These exercises are a neverending source of inspiration for stamps, whole cloth quilts, applique, stencils, screen-printing and other graphic applications to fiber arts. I'd love to see your examples! Like snowflakes, there never seem to be two alike! Here's another site with examples too, from Princeton Online.

And here's a wonderful extension of the discipline into maskmaking by a class at San Jose.

By the way, there is room for one more shape-minded person in June's The Shape of the Matter workshop at El Cielo Studio. We'll be doing notan and lot's of other shape exercises in design, using shape as the structural bones for an art quilt, and more. If you're interested, send me a message via the contact box on the sidebar. Dates are June 26 - 28. For further info, see the workshop page.

And, if you're not overwhelmed with opportunities yet, you can find more shape exercises in our new book -- yes, it's for parents, but each set of activities includes a page for the grownup investigators, too.
Here's the exercises in the Shape section -- plus a whole slew of others that didn't make it into the book. I'd love to hear your ideas, too.

Shape investigations to do on your own:

Explore your home as though it were a museum. What kinds of shapes have you collected, consciously or unconsciously? Make an arrangement of disparate objects that share a shapely characteristic on a bookshelf or windowsill. What would the catalog of these shapes say about you?

As you drive through your neighborhood notice the shapes of buildings, homes, stores and other structures. Do the shapes that you see serve as clues to architectural eras, the history of the street? If yours is a new neighborhood, what historical styles have the builders called upon for inspiration? Shapes of windows, doors, rooflines and facades are your best clues.

Cut or tear shapes from colored paper and collage them to solid colored cards for interesting personal note paper.

Enroll in a ceramics class at a local art center or continuing education department of a local college or university. Or for self-guided exploration buy a 50-pound box of ceramic sculpture clay from a local supplier.

Watch a dance or mime performance (live or recorded) with an eye for shape, how the performers use their bodies and each other to create shapes in space. Some troupes and artists to look for: Mummenschanz (on the web at, Martha Graham -- who else?

Take a walk along a creek bed or river and visually collect the shapes you see in stones and water.

Dip into Georges Perec’s 1978 Life A User’s Manual, a non-linear novel that uses writing constraints – rules that the writer has imposed on the content and structure of the book – much in the way a visual artist uses shape in the composition of a painting.

Write a haiku each morning for a week about the weather outside your window. (How do constraints of syllable count shape your thoughts?)

Think about how your clothing affects your silhouette as you dress for work or play. Make an effort to wear something that changes your shape and pay attention to its effect.

Collect a specific shape (circles or cones, for example) or specifically shaped objects (manholes, terracotta vases, interesting doors) by photographing throughout a day, a week, a month. Post your collection on a photography website, such as Flickr, to share it with others.

Carve simple shapes using a craft knife into the side of an art gum or white artist’s eraser. Make shape patterns and grids using black stamp pad ink on white paper. Enlarge and reduce and repeat shape patterns using a copier. Can these inspire a quilt or other art project?