Working with Expressive Lines, Shapes, and Forms

Working with Expressive Lines, Shapes, and Forms

This is part one of five blogs on Expressive Lines, Shapes, and Forms. The additional blogs in order are; Rule of Odds, Understanding Expressive Lines, Pulling it Together: Circles, and Pulling it Together, Expressive Lines, Shapes, and Forms


Terms you should understand

  • Major Flow  When discussing the Flow of a design, painting, sculpture, etc., we are talking about the major direction dominating the all-over design. For example, the all-over Flow in a design may be diagonal (or vertical or horizontal)
  • Line Quality refers to how a line is drawn, i.e., smooth, soft, broken, thick, thin, etc.

Why is the concept of Expressive Lines, Shapes, and Forms important?  Most of us have worked with triangles, squares, and circles since we were kids making it easy to take shapes for granted. But consider this, on an unconscious level, forms, shapes, and lines express different feelings and energy levels to the viewer. Understanding how shapes, forms, and lines interact will arm you with additional compositional elements that can help you create a specific mood/feeling in your designs.

When conceptualizing a design, consider the words your clients ask to have embodied in the final design. Think about the energy level associated with the selected words.  Once you establish the energy level, apply the following knowledge about shapes/forms to your design.

Let me take a moment to say this concept is equally important to fine artists. Although the fine artist is not bound, like a commercial artist, to directly express a concept or feeling, many fine artists work symbolically, making this concept necessary to understand.

Forms & Shapes  We see shapes as flat and 2-dimensional (squares, triangles, etc.). Forms are a shape that appears 3-dimensional (cubes, cones, etc.).

NOTE: Throughout this blog, I will use the term shape, but the information applies to both shapes and forms.

Geometric shapes & forms are precise and can imply a man-made quality to the viewer.

Man-made means; not resulting from natural processes; artificial; manufactured; plastic; or synthetic. The following shapes/forms are geometric.

Circles can imply passiveness and stability. Some consider it symbolic of the feminine. Unlike a triangle or square, the circle has no angle, so it feeds its energy back into itself. The energy level of the circle is the lowest of the four shapes we will discuss.


 The circle has low energy

Triangles create movement through their three corners. This movement is pushed through the three corners. The corners can force the viewer’s eye towards or away from other objects on the picture plane. The energy level of the triangle is the highest of the four shapes we will discuss. The Rule of Odds (see Rule of Odds post) applies to the triangle.


Triangles have the highest energy.

Squares are a stable shape that gathers strength from their absolute symmetry. The symmetry comes from each side of the square having the same size on all four sides. When viewed as a square, the energy  level is medium-low making it slightly more energetic than the circle.


It becomes more energetic when the square is placed on its side (looking like a symmetrical diamond).


The energy level of the square changes when turned on its' side.

In the diamond orientation, the square acts like a triangle, with the corners creating push-pull energy. This origination is medium energy. The energy is not higher, like in a triangle, because of the even number of corners (see Rule of Odds).


In the diamond orientation the square has more energy.

Rectangles are almost as stable as the square, with two sets of sides being the same size. The energy level of the rectangle changes depending on its orientation.


Horizontal rectangles add tranquility to compositions due to their restful attitude. The energy level is medium-low in this orientation.

The horitzotal rectangle has medium-low energy.

Vertical rectangles add energy to compositions due to their upright position. This is an example of medium energy for the rectangle. Think of picket fences!


The vertical rectangle has medium energy.

Diagonal rectangles have the highest energy of the three orientations and is medium-high. Whenever anything is placed on a diagonal flow, it has more energy.


The diagonal retangle has medium-high energy.

Organic shapes and forms, and the book Point and Line to Plane.

Most of this information on shapes and forms comes from the book Point and Line to Plane by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, written in 1926.

Currently, we know that organic objects can have a very man-made look. The ability to take photos through a microscope didn’t make huge advancements until 1933, seven years after the book was written.

Algae, photos taken from mircorscopes.

Photos of algae

Although we can find examples of things in nature that look very man-made, see photos of algae, in this discussion, we will follow this description of organic shapes and forms as described by Kandinsky.


Organic shapes as described bt Kandinsky.

Organic shapes and forms are often irregular and spontaneous. Their twists and curves don’t conform to a set structure as you would expect in symmetrical, geometrical shapes and forms. Forms and shapes found in nature are often organic. The circle is considered both geometric and organic.

Credits: Point and Line to Plane, by Wassily Kandinsky

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