Putting it all Together: Expressive Lines, Shapes & Forms

For this discussion, you will need to have read the two posts on Expressive Lines, Shape, and Forms. They establish the “rules” of understanding the energy levels and unconscious visual cues provided by lines, shapes, and forms.

Keep in mind that you need to understand the rules to break them, something people often refer to as “working outside of the box”. Let’s start by looking at an example that complies (mostly) with the rules.


Hyena Stomp, 1962, by Frank Stella

This painting by Frank Stella has a strong, man-made presence. It is made of geometric shapes, has unified place me the shape, uses outline, and has paint applied so smoothly that, even on close inspection, there are no signs of brush marks. Although this is a huge painting, created in 1962, at first glance, it appears that it could have been created on a computer, not by hand.

Additional elements of design to consider are the color and the contrast in both value and color. The well-thought-out placement of the warm colors helps create more intense eye movement (color contrast). The use of white lines separating the segments of colors, especially against the darker values of the blues, greens, and reds assist in movement based on values.

So, by looking at the main shapes used, the type of line, and the painting style in which it was created, this piece is considered man-made. Squares in this orientation normally have lower than medium energy levels but I assess the energy level of this piece to be medium to medium-high. I base that on color contrast, value contrast, the unity of placement, and the triangles that form in the piece.

Now compare the piece, Harmony II, by John Douglas to the Stella painting. Consider the following:

  1. Is the piece mainly man-made or organic? Note: Look at the line quality to help you assess this question.
  2. What are the main 1 or 2 shapes?
  3. Based on the main shapes what is the energy level?
  4. Are the negative/positive space, color, and value used adding or taking away for the energy level of the shapes? (The more knowledgeable you are of the principles of design, the easier it is to make these assessments.)

Harmony II, by John Douglas

Like Stella’s painting, Harmony II, has a strong geometric presence, both in the use of squares and the grid layout. Squares, in this type of orientation, have a lower than medium energy level. Unlike Stella’s painting, this piece is mainly organic. I access this on the line quality and texture. Whereas Hyena Stomp has a smooth, crisp, application of paint, in Harmony II, you can see the hand of man in its application. Although laid out in a grid, it lacks the crisp, clean edges of Stella’s painting, giving a softer, organic feel.

Additional contributors to the energy level are the main colors used, the value contrast, and the various textures used. In this case, there is a limited color palette, which creates unity but reduces overall energy. There are some areas of high contrast, but they are not dominating throughout the piece (this piece is using a Key value). The areas of contrast gently direct the eye throughout the piece. The texture also contributes to the visual movement in the piece. By varying the types of textures in each square, the artist creates an additional level of visual movement.

To summarize, Stella’s painting Hyena Stomp┬áis man-made based on major geometric forms, paint application, and line quality. By the rules, squares placed in this orientation have a lower than medium energy level. In this case, the Hyena Stomp, has a higher energy level based on color contrast, value contrast, triangles, and unity of the placement of the shapes.

Douglas’s piece, Harmony II, is organic by nature. I base this on the line quality, texture, and the value dominating the piece. The energy level is more traditional (to a square) due to the color palette (lacking color contrast), the use of a grid, and the gentle value used (a key).

In the next post, I will examine the circle. The circle is considered both man-made and organic. I will apply the same information used in this blog to the circle.

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