Form Defines Color

An image in a painting is a fixed pattern of color and value. What is significant for painters and connoisseurs is how color and value are brought together in a explicit design. When, in seeking to correct for future painters the Impressionist’s weakness for broken color, Cezanne asserted that “for every form change there is a color change,” he gave us a tool for both painting and judging a work of art. It follows that as the painter sees the light falling on each multi-angled plane differently, so he or she must define these planes in unique colors.

Each Shape is Unique

Like color and value, each shape is distinct. Variety confronts us in nature; so it should do so in our painting as well. Shape must also be measured against all other areas to ensure its uniqueness. For example, nothing is more boring than to see puffy cotton balls representing floating clouds over evenly spaced tree-tops.

Each area should have its own special quality of shape that is different from all others. We achieve this by seeking the unique volume and edge that distinguishes one shape from another. Even if the scene presents a similarity of shapes, seek and emphasize, however slightly, such differences of volume and edge that may exist. Look for the unique movement and accentuate it, make it distinctive.

Keep Shapes Simple

Gauguin showed us that beauty is often in the largest shapes. To paint, imagine a scene as a pattern of large shapes. Envision areas of separate value and color as defined by the distinct condition of light. These shapes may not be the objects themselves but exist as the light makes each shape. These shapes in their simplest form will often be geometric — triangular, rectangular or conical. Whether a shadow, tree, bowl, sky or figure, reduce the shape to its basic form. A landscape, for example, may be simplified into as few as seven or eight elemental shapes, a portrait face may have as few as three or four.

To quote Ingres, “The simpler your lines and forms the stronger and more beautiful they will be. Whenever you break up forms, you weaken them.”

Defining shapes in this way allows the painter to concentrate on the color relationship of each major area without getting mired in the fussiness of some small space. Beginning a painting by working the large shapes also adds compositional strength by focusing on essential elements. The great paintings by Monet, Degas and Gauguin are often valued for their strength of shape and for retaining the mass of each large area.

By way of example, if the light side of a red vase is silhouetted against a dark green background, this edge defines where two distinct areas of separate color and value meet. Also, the dark side of the red vase that is not in light is a distinct area from the adjacent light side and thereby must be judged separately.

Art must Order Nature

In nature form is highly ordered, but, as Whistler observed, rarely right; it often has a random, wild, “wrong” quality to it. The painter has to organize it, fitting simplified detail into its respective larger area. And that is where the art is — not in copying nature, but in giving it order In such a way as to make It special to a viewer who believes he or she has never seen another painting like this before.

Although the painter may glean his or her color cues from nature, the painter must control its form. To quote Inness again, “You must suggest reality, you can never show reality.” A painting made by “spontaneous movement (of form),” and that observes “the law of homogeneity or unity,” presents more essential truth than one made by “laborious efforts” at precision.


A scene need not be recorded literally. It can be archetypal — “representing a universal image related to or common to a given scene”. This may be done by exaggerating structural elements or dramatizing how forms unite with one another. It may also be done by enhancing how the light cascades over a form. Underlying form, however, not the detail of features, Is the fundamental element in grasping the essence of the scene. The finest work must still conform to structural essentials.


Composition is the aesthetic spacing and relationship of important patterns in a painting — how each structural element relates to another as well as the whole. Rhythm, specifically, is this sequence of structural movement, referring to how areas of color and value flow into one another to give a sense of movement. In a painting these physical elements should be arranged to create movement and balance.

For example, when arranging a still life the edges of two objects as they come against each other should not be at the same angle. This does not mean that there will not be a rhythmic movement of similar angles, but that there will not be exactly matching angles. As we have seen, this is also true for color and value. In fact, too many painters rely on subdued color tonalities and flat, generalized forms executed in a loose manner.

If depicting a figure they emphasize a design based more on fashion modeling than solidity of human form. In this they show their ignorance of how one anatomic plane flows into another. Instead they stress flat patterns of interlocking shapes and sweeping lines. The goal, however, is to create a pleasing relationship by placing all separate elements within a painting into an overall unity of design.

A painter might improve the natural randomness of a landscape by adjusting the arrangement of elements, leaving out those that interfere with the overall movement and balance of the scene.

Repetition Sabotages Grace

Avoid equal divisions. Keep as much as possible the variety of spacing found in nature. Repetition kills a work, taking away the challenge to the painter.

The physical shapes, as well as their specific colors and degrees of lightness and darkness, should not repeat. In nature there is little repetition, but endless variety in colors and forms. The act of painting is often an exploration of how various shapes and patterns rhythmically work together.

For example, in a still life vary the sizes of objects as well as their shapes and colors. In a landscape, even if the trees, clouds and fields appear to be of similar form, vary their size and shape. Seek their characteristic movements, accentuating them in order to distinguish them from other similar shapes. While making changes that only slightly alter but greatly improve the overall balance and harmony, the painter can still remain true to the scene.

Focal Point

Most paintings will have a center of interest, often called a focal point. It may be a figure in a landscape, fresh fruit in a still life, or the eyes in a portrait. It will often be the area of the painting where the painter has concentrated the most work, delineating the main element of interest. Converging lines or shapes or sweeping curves lead the viewer’s eye to this point of interest. This focal point may be a brighter color or stronger contrast or more carefully drawn than the surrounding area. Accordingly, areas of less interest may be of a more subdued range of color, closer range of value and with edges less sharp.

The Asymmetry of the Golden Mean

To avoid an equal division of space between the center of interest and the edge of a canvas painters often skew the focal point to one side or the other. The focal point, then, will be off-balance or asymmetrical in relation to the top and side edges of the work. Many painters have always done this instinctively, others have followed a formula like the Golden Mean.

The Golden Mean was deemed by the Ancient Greeks to be a pleasing proportion. It is based on an approximate ratio of 3:5 (1 plus the square root of 5 divided by 2, or 1.618…), in which the smaller area is to the size of the greater part as the greater is to the whole. Many painters place the center of interest, formally or instinctively, at these proportions as they relate to the vertical and horizontal edges of the picture plane.

Next: Esthetic Judgment

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