Shape is one of the elements of art used by an artist. (For more detail on this topic click on Elements of Art in the menu and scroll down to Shape). Picasso’s painting The Dream is a great example of this element of art. When writing about art it is important to be able to describe details of the Art work, as well as say what effects are created. Here’s what I wrote:
Curved shapes dominate The Dream which are created by areas of colour as well as out-lines that enclose space. As we view the painting the left-hand arm is signified with a bold, continuous line, distinguishing it from the shape underneath it which is created by curves of coloured paint. The shoulder that the woman rests her head on is suggested by a bell shaped block of fleshy colour. The face is angled horizontally – is it one face or two, meeting at the lips? – semi-circle and bowl like, with the nose created by the negative space of the thin horizontal area above it. A slim arc of bold paint intimates the closed eye of the dreamer, sided by a pale crescent for the eyebrow. Geometric shapes of diamonds and vertical lines chequer the background.
All these curved shapes create the effect of smoothness and softness, of warmth and gentleness. Certainly, the soft colours go a good way to augment this, but the organic shapes of circles and curves, arcs and bows convey the serenity of the woman. No hard-edged lines or geometric shapes are embodied in the woman in her other-worldly reverie; they are relegated to the wallpaper behind her, a reminder, perhaps, of the hard-edges of experience in this-world reality, held at bay for a time by the dream.
Take a look at the shapes in this painting from 1937. Here Picasso uses a number of geometric shapes that are sharp and angular. The nose is a triangle with an arrow point near the tip, silhouetted by the jutting out green strip at its side. The violet coloured fingers are oblongs outlined thickly and held at the face, aghast. The teeth are visible, small blocks outlined and separated, and a slight gap appears between upper row and lower row of teeth. The eyes are ovals ringed with dark edges from which stubby thick lines radiate. The eyelids are semicircles within the triangular eye socket. The background is cut through with vertical lines – bars perhaps? Her outfit, glimpsed at the bottom of the picture, is composed of triangular and polygon shapes, and her whole garb is topped with the squares and triangles and hard-edged lines of the hat.
The effect of all this is to imply distress, tension and agony. We are plunged into the anguish of this woman; we cannot escape her misery and woe. There is no softness, no let up from the pain on the woman’s face. Nothing is given to mitigate her torment; indeed her wretchedness is outlined as thickly as the paint marks. Picasso based this painting on an image of a woman holding her dead child that can be seen in his anti-war mural Guernica. In the face of such suffering, there is no escape: we might flinch at the sight of her distress, but her agony remains.
When you compare and contrast these two paintings it is striking how Picasso achieved such different effects predominantly through the use of one kind of shape rather than the other. Certainly colour and line contribute to the feelings of these paintings, but with the fairly simple choice of shape, he creates very different effects.
For artists and writers: think about what effect you can create through the use of different shapes.
For writers: Read more about Shapes in Elements of Art, on this site. For more about writing and vocabulary see the section Increasing your vocabulary.