Nancy’s Painting Blog

Painting: Composition and Underlying Shapes

A previous blog article I wrote on the “S” curve stimulated some email questions on how to see subtle underlying shapes, such as the classic “S” curve in paintings. Negative space, (or the illusion of space perceived in between forms) is perceived via our lesser used right brain hemisphere, while shapes or defined forms are seen with our more frequently used left brain.

As an experiment, place your hand flat on a table in front of you with fingers spread out. Our left brain takes control right away and so we see our fingers.

I believe it is difficult if not impossible to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. Now try to look at the spaces in between the fingers by keeping your eyes fixed on those spaces, until our eyes turn them into interesting shapes. You will need to switch from left to right brain hemispheres to fully view those spaces in between the fingers. Our left brain is our default system, so it is easier to look at forms while it takes more of a conscious effort to see the spaces in between. In paintings to see the space in between the forms takes more of a conscious effort too.

To find subtle forms in a painting then, requires a conscious switch between our two brain hemispheres while viewing the painting, and also as artists, while painting it. When we allow ourselves time to view a painting with our right brain (viewing the negative spaces), you will begin to see or form larger geometric patterns such as the “S” curve I mentioned. Each work of art generally uses at least one geometric shape as an overriding principle to hold the smaller shapes together.








The Painter and his Pug, c. 1745, William Hogarth

Other common geometric shapes found in paintings are diamonds, pyramids, circles and squares. These are forms that we as humans will naturally impose onto images. I believe that any painting you find interesting, be it an Old Masters famous painting from the Renaissance, or a contemporary one in a local gallery, will have some form of underlying geometry in its composition.

Nancy Reyner, painter, author and instructor offers assistance to artists in a variety of ways. Click here for more info.

3 thoughts on “Painting: Composition and Underlying Shapes

  1. Even in the most abstract works I paint, at the end of the painting, there are underlying shapes, often S-curves, spirals, and pyramids. Often while painting, I do not consciously see those shapes, but they appear as if by magic at the end.

  2. This is possibly the most valuable information any maker of visual art can get. The exercise Nancy suggests is wonderfully easy to do, and once you try drawing from the negative space expert (the right brain) you will see magic happen!

  3. What an interesting post. Once when looking at a group of thumbnail images of my work I thought I perceived
    a likeness for crosses in the overall design. I will have to go back to look now that I've read your article!
    I know that sometimes I see the negative spaces and images more quickly and thorougly than the positive.
    Once when viewing a painting of trees by the Bulgarian artist, Petko Pemaro, I saw nuns in old fashioned
    habits. It is always the first thing I see; then I enjoy the trees.

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