What is Form in Art: Understanding Its Role and Why It’s Important

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Form in art

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The concept of form in art, is one of the most fundamental elements of painting. As it is the construction of an object, figure, or scene in three dimensions, giving the illusion of depth and solidity.

Form can be created using various techniques, such as the use of light and shadow and the manipulation of color. So, in this article, we will delve deeper into the concept of form in art and painting. However, we’ll not only explore its meaning but also uncover the traditional methods behind its creation. So join me by scrolling down and learning more about the essence of form and how to apply it in your own work!

Using Light and Shadow to Create Form in Art

definition of form in art shown in example of a sketch drawing of a ball
Definition of form in art – is a shape in three dimensions, and, like shapes, can be geometric or organic. And it is the contrast between light and dark areas that creates the illusion of three-dimensionality.

One of the primary ways of creating the illusion of form is through the use of light and shadow. It is the contrast between light and dark areas that creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. In order to create convincing shadows in your painting, it’s essential to understand how light works and be able to simplify and group your values together.

To do so, it helps to understand what to look for and what you see when you look at light. This can be easily seen and understood in a model of a sphere. As it illustrates an orderly and predictable series of values and how light functions in nature.

example of how to create form in art
Here is a diagram of the different lights, middle tones and shadows that exist on a form. It is important to understand these different areas of light and shadow as they help to know what you are seeing.

When you break things down in such a way it makes it easier to understand more complex value situations.

This is most easily seen in a model of a sphere. classic model of consider the direction of the light source and the angle of the object in question. For example, a cube will have sharp, defined shadows if the light is coming from a single source directly above it.

Creating Form in Color

Color temperature plays an exceedingly important role in the creation of form. Since it follows laws and rules of nature, it has a predictable pattern as well. So, it is very helpful to understand HOW light works in nature, as this helps you to understand what you are seeing.

diagram showing different color tones on a ball that create form in the art work
Here is a visual demonstration form in color and the color temperature changes that happen in light.

The sphere diagram above illustrates a classic north facing light situation. You can see how warm and cool temperature colors essentially alternate. The highlight is extremely cool while the light is cool until it changes into a warm light halftone. After the light halftone the light then changes to a cool dark halftone before the warm core shadow starts. After the warm core shadow we can see the warm reflected light.

painting of a man painting in a workshop demonstrating form in the painting
Traditionally artists work with north facing light. Therefore, most light is cool in temperature. So, artists worked primarily with cool light and warm shadows.

The way the color temperature works in the diagram changes however once exposed to a different type of light. For example, if the light is warm instead of cool, then you will see a cooler shadow instead of a warm shadow. This becomes increasingly more complicated once you start to add multiple different light sources.

Understanding the basic model of color temperature

In the diagram below you can see how a warm light mass results in a cool temperature shadow. Whatever light situation you find yourself in, the important thing is to understand the basic model of color temperature as shown in both diagrams shown here. This will help you to understand and interpret what you are seeing in different types of lighting situations.

sketch diagram of a subject showing how to create form in your art
It is important to break down how color temperature works because this helps us to understand it on a more complex level. Study this diagram and remember the order of the color temperature. Also, note that if the light is warm then the shadow will typically be cool. However, if the light is cool then the shadow will typically be warm in temperature.

Examples of Form in Art History

It helps to see some real life examples of form in art. As you can see how the models of light and color temperature apply to painting.

diagram of skin tone colors creating depth in a painting of a portrait
Form shows up in every area that we paint – even in places that might seem insignificant. Here we see the depth that exists from the top bridge of the nose down to the corner of the eye. It is the shifts in color temperature along with the changes in value that help to create the convincing sense of form.

Above is a detail of a painting by Hans Holbein. You can see the important color temperature and form change at the top bridge of the nose as it moves down towards the corner of the eye. As the light becomes darker, the color temperature alternates between cool and warm. As you can see, both color temperature and value have an incredibly important impact on creating convincing dimension in a painting.

Here is a diagram from the portrait painting above that shows how narrow the value range is and how subtle the difference is between the cool light and warm shadow color. Even in a very narrow value range it is possible to create a very strong sense of form and believable shifts in color temperature.

The example shown in the Hans Holbein painting has a very narrow range of value. In other words, the difference between the light and shadow is very small as the diagram above illustrates. Despite how close they might be on the value scale, color temperature helps to create a clear sense of form as well as sense of light.

The wide value range of form

Form in art is just as relevant in a wide value range. In this detail of an Ingres painting you can see how color temperature and value changes from the cool light down to the warm shadow. We can see and feel the dimension and shape of the cheek. It has volume only because of the color temperatures and value at play.

portrait diagram showing how light and shadow create dimension in art
Here you can see subtle shifts of color temperature as well as a wide value range.

The range between the lightest and darkest value is far greater than the painting by Hans Holbein. Despite, the changes in color temperature are just as relevant and important.

This is a diagram above from the portrait painting above that shows the cool light color and the dark warm shadow. Notice the large range in value between the cool light and warm shadow. You can have good believable form also with a wide value range.

Use of form in art and landscapes

Creating form in art is just as relevant in still life, landscape and or abstract painting as it is in portrait and figure painting. The laws of light and color temperature applies to any and every subject matter.

painting example of what form is in art and how to create it with color
Color temperature is just as relevant in landscape painting and still life as it is in portrait and figure painting. Understanding how color temperature works in light will help you to be able to see how it changes.

In this seascape detail by Simon de Vlieger, color temperature and value give form and dimension to the painting. This is a great example of how painters can create clouds that have a believable sense of volume and shape.

How to Apply Form in Your Own Painting

While it is very important to understand how value and color temperature work to create a sense of light. It is just as crucial for you to employ this knowledge while observing the wonders of nature. Most often, the shifts between values and temperature is so subtle that it can be difficult to see.

Understanding the principles of value and form in art, can heighten your perception of color shifts. In turn, allowing you to create more authentic depth and realism in your art and painting.

a good painting example of form in painting, that shows a hand holding jug
In this detail of a painting by Cornelis Bisschop we see a simple object, in this case a jug that has a clear sense of form and dimension. You can practice painting form by observing and painting from simple every day objects.

Nevertheless, there is no substitute for taking brush in hand and actively applying the lessons learned. Thus, select a subject matter of your preference; it could be a simple still life object or portrait. Take note of the subtle temperature variations that happen across a subject’s face or the interplay of light and shadow upon walls in your own home. The more you intentionally observe, the better you will become at capturing form in your art and painting!

What’s your experience with form? Do you feel like your work captures it well or is this a struggle for you? Let me know in the comments below!

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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    16 thoughts on “What is Form in Art: Understanding Its Role and Why It’s Important”

    1. Ah, ha! This is a perfect Birthday gift. So glad to have this study as I begin my black what study.
      What jumped out was studying (with this information) my skylight action on the five levels of my main living space! I have often gazed at them for the various angles and tones that Seasonally change; sunrises and weather conditions. Now I have real purposes to define!

      1. I can’t believe your birthday is already coming up so soon! How time flies. Am so glad this is helpful. It really is interesting how temperatures and tones change in certain lighting conditions. It does make it fascinating to observe especially as seasons and weather changes.

    2. Thank You Elisabeth – always such useful articles.

      I hadn’t though about the fact that if the light is cold, the shadows will be warm. This is so useful to know and I will try to apply this knowledge to my work.

      One question, if you have a subject that is a particular colour and you want to give it form, do you add white to create the light and, say, burnt umber to create the shadows, and then add a warm colour to create either a warm light or warm shadow, or vice versa for cold light or shadows?

      1. You are so welcome Gill – am glad this is useful!

        The colors that you decide to use to create form depends quite a lot on the color of your subject. You will likely lighten the ‘light’ area with white, though again depending on what color your subject is you could use any color that is lighter than the darker areas of your subject. Use the darker colors to create shadows that make sense with the color of your subject. It is best to stay away from formulas and just use white to lighten and burnt umber to darken. Really work with all the colors on your palette to mix them together and get them to work.

        1. Thank you Elisabeth.
          I would love you to come to Ireland to do some in person teaching. You teach the way I learn..explaining the fundamentals and theory so we know what we are doing when we paint instead of having a hit or miss approach. I know it’s good to go with instinct, but when you’re stuck on something, knowing the fundamentals is essential. It think I’ll be learning forever.

          1. Thank you Gill, am very glad that my teaching is clear and understandable – this is always my goal. Thank you for sharing. The fundamentals really are essential as it is them that help to navigate through difficult aspects of painting. I do hope to some day visit Ireland!

    3. Wow! I had no idea about the temperature shift, only the value shift. How does the artist change the cool light half tone to the warm dark half tone? Is it just by the addition of a very small amount of a warmer colour (ie umber) to the cool half tone? Or, to go in the opposite direction, from warm to cool, does the artist adjust by adding a very small amount of a cool colour (ie white) to the warm half tone?

      1. Yes, it is a rarely talked about aspect of form unfortunately. You can change the cool light half tone to the warm dark half tone by subtly warming the color temperature. Depending on what kind of color it is you would mix in either a little bit of red, orange or other warm color. I have an article on color temperature here that might be helpful to understand how color temperature works and how to shift between warm and cool.

        Yes, you are correct, to go in the opposite direction you would add a small amount of a cool color such as white (if it needs to be lighter) or blue or green, depending on what direction your color leans toward.

    4. Thank you Elizabeth for breaking down the description of form. I particularly like the pictures with guided
      description of the concept of how light affects form.

    5. This is great. I have such a problem with warm grays and cool grays, maybe I need to focus on light source and use the opposite to create depths?

    6. Hi Elisabeth
      Learning something new everyday. I was not taught about painting as detailed as these by you.

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