Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Shape

Shape describes two-dimensional space. The actual defining of shape is done by other elements of design: line, space, value, or color. In combination, these other elements form the shapes we see in a work. Shape occurs when tone or color fills the area between lines. Shape is the brains attempt at resolving an object as recognizable (logical) to one’s experience. In the two-dimensional world, there are three simple geometric shapes – the square, the triangle, and the circle. All other geometric shapes are some combination of these three.

There are also more the more complex organic shapes we see in natural and man-made objects, such as the silhouette of leaves, trees, cars or other everyday objects. Shape is the foundation of form.

Form

Form is the three-dimensional counterpart to shape. Shape is to form as a square is to a cube. In the three-dimensional world, the basic geometric forms are cube, sphere, pyramid, cylinder and cones. Form is shape with dimension or volume. To change a shape to a form, dimension must be created by the addition of tone or color transitions within the shape. This results is the illusion of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

In the first decades of the 20th Century photography was moving away from Pictorialism, the trend of photographers attempting to imitate painterly effects in photos, mostly through soft focus and romantic subject matter.  Some of the influences drawing photographers away from Pictorialism were Dadaism, Cubism and a move toward images in sharp focus. It was during this transitional time that Edward Weston took this early masterpiece of composition, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921. This is clearly a transitional piece borrowing from Pictorialism and touching on elements of gestalt. It also seems to  echo some of the modernist notions of space that were explored in the two decades leading to the production of this image.

This is an image that uses shapes almost exclusively in its design. The framing of the image presents the viewer with an ambiguous space where we don’t know if the central dark form is projecting forward into the space or receding toward the left due to the the figure-ground flip-flops. Is the woman, Betty Katz, leaning against the wall? Or is she looking at it head-on, while being separated from another space on the far side of the projection? A third reading could be of the entire wall being perfectly flat with an abstract design painted on it. The woman’s organic dark form counters the geometric lines and lighter tones of the space. Her size and placement within the frame balance the otherwise expansive mass of shapes and tones.

Edward Weston, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921Tone map of Westons, Attic.

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In this image, Weston is obviously playing with the shapes as geometric planes in space. Texture is non-existent and  any volume in the image is generated by tonal changes determined by the angle of the surface.  The tone map indicates a simple, yet appealing set of lines and tones.

Below is another famous photograph,  this time by the Master Photographer Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946. Even if you don’t know that Stravinsky was one of the 20th Centuries greatest composers, the shapes within the frame leave no doubt that he was connected to music in some way.

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Tone Map

Tone Map

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This is a very graphic design and just an outline of the shapes would be interesting. Here is another instance where creating a tone map breaks the image down into a collection of shapes without any form or other information. The arrangement of shapes within the frame is interesting for its own design.

Below is another Newman portrait, this time of Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director/producer and master of the psychological thriller and suspense genre in the middle of the last century. Newman, master of the environmental portrait, has him sitting quite far forward so that his body seems detached from the head in a way that the head seems magically attached yet ready to roll down front by its own weight. Notice the simplicity of the image with only 3 objects in the frame: the forms of the body and head, and the background shape. The graphic quality of the image being obvious.

Alfred Neuman, Alfred Hitchcock, date unk.Image Source

Returning to Weston, during the middle of his career Edward Weston’s work often concentrated on finding the “essence” of is subject matter. His work by then had evolved from the Pictorialist soft focus image to the sharp, maximum focus practices of the F-64 Group. Now everything possible was in focus and finding the composition leading to a deep connection with the subject was paramount. Form now became important when photographing a subject and the details found in the local contrasts of objects became important. The essence of the object itself became the subject, as well as what the image by itself could elicit emotionally.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

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In this shot of sand dunes in on the Central California Coast, we see a study of lines, shapes, forms and textures. Weston is using nature’s ever-present design as a subject of its own. This image can be viewed in numerous ways. It can be seen as a realistic study of the land, with all of its details sharply delineated from the foreground to the mountains in the far distance. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a counter-comment to a realistic reading of the image, abstracted into nothing more than a study of shape, form, line, and tone. Still others may see it in a spiritual sense, as an equivalent to a deeply felt personal event or other experience from life. Regardless of Weston’s original intent, he was highly aware of the formal elements of design within the ground glass and used them to his advantage.

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

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The image above, Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern contains some of the elements we have discussed over in the past few posts. See how many of the items you can pick out.  Include any Gestalt elements you might recognize. As a starting point realize the photo is a picture of leaves in front of a white wall and the shadows they cast on that wall.

Don’t think that all of this discussion about line, form, shape etc. is just “old bunk” that no longer applies. Practiced every day, the Elements of Design still hold true and in the worlds of design, publishing, photography and Art. Familiarizing yourself with, and utilizing these concepts, but not letting them control your vision, is one of the best ways to improve your photography. As an exercise, spend the next few photo outings looking for designs in nature or at man made locations, they exist all over. When you find them, spend some time considering the best way to frame them in a way that the design becomes  part of the subject of the image. You will find that over time, your brain will start to connect more with design and you will be utilizing it naturally without effort. The end result will be improved vision and better photographs.

 

Next Time: Space

 

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Elements of Design – Line

Line

In his popular art appreciation book, A World of Art, Henry M. Sayer writes:

One of the most fundamental elements of art is line. If you take pencil to paper you can draw a straight line or a curved one. Straight lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Curved lines can be circular or oval (or segments of circles and ovals), or they can be free-form. Lines can abruptly change direction, in an angle or a curve. They seem to possess direction – they can rise or fall, head off to the left or to the right, disappear in the distance. Lines can divide one thing from another or they can connect things together. They can be thick or thin, long or short, smooth or agitated.”

A line is the mark a moving point describes. A line can vary in weight (heaviness of the mark) and width. A line can also vary in shape, it can have smooth edges, or jagged edges, they can be sharply pointed or blunt. Lines create psychological and emotional responses in the viewer. It can communicate as a symbol or as a motion, by way of its direction. Each of these qualities contributes to the expressiveness of the line.

Lines vary in width. In a pencil drawing, lines are measured in both length and width. A line separating the sky and the edge of a building or horizon I measured by length, it has no width. It only delineates a border. These lines are created by contrasts, changes in color or value.

Martinique, Andre Kertesz, 1972

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An example exists in the image above, you see a photograph composed entirely of lines, shapes and tones. The line created by the horizon has no width, it is a boundary line, a line delineating two shapes. As mentioned above it is created by a change in contrast.

The wedge shaped strip of ocean above the handrail creates its own flat toned shape and becomes a line. The verticals just below the handrail create a counterpoint to the preponderance of horizontal lines and create a rhythm contrasting with the other flat toned areas in the image. The lines of the handrail and the thin cloud in the middle of the frame both converge toward what is assumed the subject of the shot, a human form behind the glass. It could be argued though that this image is not about the human behind the glass, but purely a study in design. Imagine removing any one element in the image; the glass, the railing the human form, the sky or the ocean.  Would it have the same visual power?

Ask yourself, what would you do to improve on the image given the subject matter? Squint your eyes and look at it as a collection of darks and lights. Does the image seemed balanced in use of line? Also, notice how the image does not seem to use the “rule of thirds” as a compositional device, instead Kertesz successfully uses an “L” armature for the placement.

Lines can be explicit or implicit. A traffic lane line in the middle of the street is explicit. It can be seen, and is an object within the space. A line that is “suggested” by placing objects near each other is an implicit or implied line. In the illustrations above, an implied line exists between the circles. In the first instance, there is an implied line between the two circles. In the second instance there are implied lines running between all three circles, creating a triangle.

An implicit line might also be a line suggested by “motion” within the frame as you see in the image below.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

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Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

In this Cartier-Bresson image, Hyères, France, 1932, the bicyclist is in motion creating an implied line from right to left. The handrail sweeping in from the right reinforces the implied line and directionality of the motion. The bicyclist seems to be in a frenzied hurry. This frenzy is accentuated by the swirling of the handrail starting on the left and connecting visually with the spiral pattern of the steps and the handrail coming in from the right. The steps coming up from the street visually appear to run down to an unknown lower level. All of the swirling lines create a vortex shape enhancing the frenzy. The white line sweeping along the curve of the curbing in the upper part of the frame seems to pen the bicyclist in and hurry him along, squeezing him out of the frame.

Types of lines

Horizontal lines express repose or rest, weight and gravity, and can become the dominant lines in a composition.

Vertical lines express lightness, soaring, spirituality and grandeur, illustrated by looking at both the outside and insides of gothic cathedrals.

Perpendicular lines strengthen the feeling of grandeur and can overpower adjacent horizontals. Combining vertical and horizontal lines create stability, permanence, safety and solidity.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

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Both horizontals and verticals  create a solidity relative to gravity, as seen in this image by Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903. Here the massive steps leading to the portal heavily anchor the image. The open archways and vertical relief columns add height to the overall feel, yet retain the solidity needed in the ”sea” of undulating and foot worn steps.

Curved lines express qualities dependent on the amplitude of the curve.

Low amplitude, slow, shallow or soft curves evoke feeling of calmness, relaxation, comfort and safety. They can be familiar and comfortable like old friends. We see these types of line in the natural world on animals, landscapes, plants and ourselves; they are familiar and sensual. They suggest calmness, like a calm sea.

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Image Source

High amplitude, deeply curved, angular or complicated lines on the other hand suggest confusion, anger, disorganization, stress or frenzy. Consider the shape of a turbulent ocean and you will understand the idea.

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

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Diagonal lines create instability, tension, motion, direction or depth. A diagonal might create implied movement when isolated; it will appear to be falling in the direction of the lean due to gravity and will create a psychological tension and anticipation. This feeling increases if the diagonal is in proximity to a vertical or horizontal line implying a base.

Using diagonals can give the feeling of distance and perspective like in a photo of a long straight road disappearing in the distance. Used in combination, diagonals effectively create a sense of motion or depth. Diagonals are one of the major tools for creating a three-dimensional feel on the two-dimensional space of the photograph.

Consider the image below titled, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951. In this image Cartier-Bresson applies diagonals throughout much of the frame enhancing the sense of depth in the image. The procession of women and girls in the foreground creates a crossing counterpoint to the strong diagonal running from the lower right to the mid left side of the image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

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Notice also the use of similarity in the repeating form of the two arches coming off the handrail and the black forms of the women in both the foreground and background. Of these two groups note that the groupings also run at the same approximate angle to each other and the iron rails they align with. Each of these elements adds an amount of coherence to the image, making it a stronger composition and allowing the brain to find logic and beauty within the image. Below are image maps of the major lines and tones in the image. Note how tone maps can mimic semi-abstract paintings. In this one we can see the tone masses and how they carry am implication of a thought out design.

Diagonal lines used in non-symmetrical groups create tension, motion, apprehension, disorganization or clutter. Paul Outerbridge, another Master of Photography, understood almost immediately the importance of design in photography. Much of his work shows a heavy concern with composition of tone, shape and line.

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

Image Source

Next Time: Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.