August 28, 2016

Shape, Form & Pattern

Shape, Form & Pattern
Artwork by Christy Olsen

Are all related concepts but have nuances that set them apart within the visual arts.


1. an enclosed area or figure.
2. a dimensional form, defined by a line or a change in value or color.

One of the Elements of Design, shape, is a potent tool for visual communication.

When looking at an object or image, 'shape' is the first retinal impression the human eye registers before color, texture, space, or anything else.


  • Contours are the outlines or outer edges of a shape.
  • Contrast is the difference in value, luminance, or color that makes a shape distinguishable.
  • Length is the measurement or extent of something from end to end, the greatest of other dimensions of a shape.
  • Proportion is a shape considered in comparative relation to a whole.
  • Silhouette is a shape filled with a single tone or a color, usually black.
  • Width is the measurement or extent of a shape from side to side.

Types of Shapes

Most works of art contain multiple types of shapes.

Geometric Shapes

These two-dimensional shapes may be manipulated with mathematics but lack three-dimensional visual information about their location, scale, or orientation within space. They have uniform measurements and are usually man-made.

Geometric Shapes

Graphic Shapes

Are visual images or designs that serve as a pictorial representation or may give the viewer information when written words are not adequate. Symbols stand for ideas, beliefs, or actions. Logos are emblems or symbols commonly used by commercial enterprises, organizations, or individuals to aid and promote instant public recognition.

Graphic Shapes

Organic Shapes

They are associated with the natural world and may or may not have a name. These free-form shapes have very few straight lines, such as leaves, plants, trees, or animals.

Organic, Free-form, or Natural Shapes


1. the structure of something.
2. the visible configuration of something.

Form is an actual, three dimensional shape or is used to conveys three-dimensional information to the viewer. Form differs from shape because it includes visual information regarding location, scale, or orientation.

Elliptical distortions, curvatures, or angles suggest perspective. Forms provide information to the viewer, so they know how that object sits in space. It is well understood if they are looking up or down upon an object. Forms may be geometric or organic.

Forms include location, scale, or orientation.


1. a repeated shape or decorative design.
2. something designed or used as a model.

A pattern will consist of repeating shapes. Patterns are pleasing, and the concept of repetition is one of the Principles of Art. 

  • Geometric Patterns are based on mathematics and use geometric shapes. They repeat predictably.
  • Organic Patterns are formed in nature. They often have slight variations or never repeat themselves exactly.
  • Spiraling Patterns are circular, winding in and around themselves, similar to ocean waves.
  • Branching Patterns are the repetition of forking lines or the deviation of lines or cracks.

Patterns are repeated shapes.

Putting it All Together

Understanding the nuances between shape, pattern, and form will help improve your drawing skills and help you look for the differences. If your contours are stiff or have straight lines, they will feel more like geometric or man-made objects instead of organic shapes or forms. If your shapes look more like graphic symbols than a realistic interpretation of what they represent, your drawings will look more stylized. If you have repeating shapes, they may look more like a pattern than texture or random flowers in a field.