Art study tips: Shapes

Difficulty rating = skill: ✭✭✰✰✰ | implementation: ✭✰✰✰✰ (Semi-beginner to beginner)

So, lets say you want to study an image that has something you want to learn or practice. It can be a master painting, a well implemented photograph, an admired artist’s rendition of something you’re analyzing in private, a still life, plain air environment, etc. You have an idea of where to start but you’re not sure. What now?

Well, considering that you have an idea on what you’re studying already, I’ll use something concrete as an example to make it less vague, but what I’m saying still applies even if the matter is totally different like a surrealist painting or an environment. This is about one art fundamental: Shapes.

To preface: If you must know, the brushes I’m using are Free Paint Tool Sai 2 Brushes I have for free on my store you can get here.

For this I’m using a photograph of Nyane, an Instagram influencer and model. This is a part of a fun but simple photo-shoot (Nyane has a defined silhouette on a darker background here) with neon green lighting.

Let’s squint our eyes, I’m also zooming out before mentally defining the shapes and borders on the photograph, This is what I see when zooming out and squinting:

How the shapes of the photograph looks like, roughly speaking, squinting and zooming out

As you might notice, the shapes I can see are very minimal and even have a noticeable margin of error when seeing it from up close (realizing “oh theres more things than i saw huh”), but that doesn’t matter for now.

With the main shapes in or minds, lets make a drawing of how that might look like. With simplified colors, lets make thick blocks of color and shapes. Something along what we “see” when squinting and zooming out, it doesn’t have to be as harsh and rectangular.

Base painting

It looks like some very unhuman paintings you might see in early contemporary museums, ok. You might think, “thats not what I want though”, and you’d be fine to think this, but don’t be impatient. We have the outline, the “base” of our art study paining.

Now, lets zoom in more on the original photo and see what “shapes” we can notice to further outline and define out base with later.

Simple geometric shapes the reference has.

We are noticing that certain body parts have a certain geometry to them.

The rear is a circle, the legs are a rectangle, the arm is similar to an upside-down teardrop, the face is either a heart shape or an upside-down quadrillateral, and the torso has another quadrillateral with swooping lines.

How do we spot those shapes? We look at big forms and over-simplify them in our minds. Think “what kind of shape is this most like?” or maybe “What 2 shapes is this like?” and “Can I simplify it even more than that?”. Once that is in your mind, you outline your base a bit and then continue mentally outlining your reference (in real life or photograph) further with tinier shapes.

Even more shapes. What do they look like? Think.

“This part round like the sun”, “this part is like a teardrop”, “the shadow is like a sand dune”, “the face is like a heart”. You keep making comparisons that are easy for your mind to process before jotting it down on your drawing. This is just so the result is more appealing in the end and is more manageable to draw. You don’t have to draw exactly as it appears, no, you should to add or subtract something to it to fully understand what the original reference is “saying” – to add it to your voice. This is the case for realistic renditions and even more for stylistic renditions.

Base painting with shapes
More shapes outlines on base painting.

I actually drew the outlines on mine, but thats not necessary if you can’t overpaint it later. Just keep the form and shapes in mind while continuing.

This drawing is “someone modelling and moving their wig while in white undergarments”, and the outline so far captures a buit of the essence before coloring and rendering the parts out. As long as the base is strong, especially when it has reminders on what certain parts mean, it’s much easier for yourself, it doesn’t matter that it looks a bit ugly now.

Start coloring and fleshing out, with the shapes as a guideline.

I start from the bottom, using a mostly limited color pallete to concentrate on “fleshing out” using the shapes I gave myself – In other words, its more important to focus on the form than just the color now, but its possible to do so with limited colors. This is a good point in time to fix proportion issues, and form that may not have been noticed in the inital observation.

Take your time, as its better to see whats going on and over-paint thoughtfully than to mindlessly blend everything and lose what information you already gave yourself just to try to salvage it again later.

Still using the guidelines, we continue on.

Interesting shapes (defined and truthful to something not just shapes that are there with no purpose) can be added to the coloring and overpaint process to give something of intrigue. Look at the abdomen now, the painting has givin definition with intentionally wobbly rectangles. the leg has shine that looks geometric, but is also intentionally like that, but it still reads as the skin reflecting the green lighting.

Basically, while drawing, think “do the brushstrokes or shapes I’m making now say something?” and “if so, what do they say?” and “should i blend less? can i blend less? and instead use well-defined shapes to do the main work?”. When the answer is yes, you add in moredefined shapes like in the abdomen, or when no, you add in blurred mass of color like at the bottom part of the hair in the image.

For more advice on how to tell when and how to not make it too muddy a mess, check this other article i made.

Taking off the guidelines and making your own marks on the painting

Continue on to color the shapes you’ve outlined for yourself, then cover up the outline with your own new “information”.

Finishing up and leaving the face for last.

Now we go onto the minor details, this is optional as there are times when you don’t want to add details and just the general feeling of a reference.

Notice also that most outlines have been covered and replaced with another shape or color.

Now, faces are the most tricky in passing our “uncanny valley” censors.

Final product, It was left with an effect like it’s “unfinished” intentionally.

For faces, notice the relation of the features to everything else on the face. Notice the spacing, the shape, the lighting, separately and take your time to furthering the drawing of it. Take your time, as humans are used to seeing faces often and figuring out when something is off. If your reference isn’t a human or something else that people often spend a long time with, then there’s a bit more leeway in what errors you can do, but take your time regardless and use the other skills you’ve learned. Take not of what shapes the eyes are like, if they’re round or flatter, if the bottom part has more spacing than the top, etc. What size and shape the lips are. Continuing down that route, you’ll find that you’re piecing together an actual face.

And that’s one way to do an art study. From biggest to smallest. From vaguer outlines, to actual shapes. From limited color palettes to wider color selections. In other words, when it comes to shapes, its big to small, from more restrictions to less, with vague to more specificity.

Most importantly, take your time!


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