May 172008

In the previous post we talked about brainstorming on lines and colors. I would like to recapitulate that first, although it may seem like there is a lot to know and remember in order to brainstorm effectively, most ideas mentioned in this chapter only point to the obvious. Let’s not forget that we brainstorm on visual images (commercials, logos, television) constantly during our daily lives — only we do not call it that way. Often, all I am doing is merely giving a name to something you knew all along existed.

And second, it is important not to allow the influx of seemingly “new” information confuse you and throw you off the track. Brainstorming is first and foremost an intuitive activity, and we all possess intuition. This guide stirs and shakes it, — it is about rediscovering and regaining it, in a way like an ancestral roots travel into your own mind. So if you are feeling a little bit overwhelmed after reading this chapter, just take a day’s break, and give it some time. It will all settle in and, hopefully, you will come out with a renewed sense of trust into your aesthetic intuition.

Different people possess different sides of their aesthetic intuition developed: some are more in tune with colors, others with lines and yet others with shapes and space. To those who are stronger in one particular kind of intuitive perception, points mentioned here that touch that particular kind would seem outrageously trivial but, to others they may actually reveal something. Once again, either kind is learnable. My personal advantage is that after having written more than 150 art reviews, I have trained myself to be in tune with all of the elements of art. You can do the same.

But let’s move on to the details. This preface is especially relevant to shapes, forms and space because these elements of art are usually tightly linked to the context of the painting you are working on. It is more difficult to outline bundles of concepts and traits pertaining to either element, and intuition takes a step forward.


There are several things to notice about shapes, the two dimensional geometrical figures that appear on the painted surface.

  • Evaluate the size of the shapes. This may seem problematic, because size is relative. But there are three scales that you may use for that purpose.

  • First is the relationship between shapes withing the painted realm: how do they compare in terms of size? If you see outstandingly large or small shapes — even if the changes are governed by perspective and distance — they are worth mentioning as a notable feature.

  • Second is the relation of the shapes to the frame’s size. How big is the shape in regard to the frame, does the frame crop the shape/s or lets it float freely?

  • Use your general sense of proportion. If shapes jump out from the canvas as particularly big, small, or irregular, you should write down your impressions for further reference.

  • Consider the shape of the frame, independently of what’s within its limits: do you think it suits the theme, overshadows it, brings out particular aspects of it?

  • Round shapes, such as circles and ovals, often appear in important body parts (heads, eyes). They are also considered the “perfect” shapes.

  • Note imaginary shapes, by using imaginary lines. There may be several centers of action, or of particular value (a spot of very bright color, a line’s angle) in the painting. What shape can you create by connecting the epicenters with imaginary lines?

  • Count shapes, note what kind is the most prominent. This is all raw data that will help you to prove points about compositional and geometrical planning you think the artist might have been performing while working on the piece.


Made up by alternations of shadow and light, the illusions of three-dimensional forms in some ways pose visual magnets. We seek three-dimensionality because we see it everywhere around us. Many painters exploited that human trait, creating illusionist paintings. One particular story is still well known: a visitor once came to an artist’s studio; the artist asked the visitor to remove the veil from the parrot’s cage, which stood in the corner of the room. To the visitor’s amazement, neither the veil, nor the cage or the parrot were real. (But the room was. I think.)

  • Strong light effects sculpt forms. Try to spot chiaroscuro and tenebrism. Does the artist strive to achieve powerful three-dimensional effects, something out of the ordinary?

  • In human forms, look for deliberate distortions that may conceal important symbolical meanings, such as irony, compassion and so on.


This is probably the most difficult element to discuss. In some ways, talking about space is like talking about everything, at once. However, because you arrive here after having written feverishly on the rest of the elements of art, you in a way have already covered “everything.”

  • Assess perspective: is it tame, sharp or distorted, does it bring attention to itself?

  • Space accommodates mood and atmosphere. Do you think it would be hospitable? Try to probe into your general sensations about mood. Try to see the “big picture.”

  • How does open space interact with covered or closed space? (this will later link to light and color.)

  • Is there a lot of open or closed space? Try to think as an actor inside the painting — would it make you feel claustrophobic, agoraphobic?

Finally, it is important to try to figure out the artist’s relationship with space. Some, even most experienced painters, struggle with space throughout their careers — and it shows. There is always some unresolved tension in their work. This is not necessarily a bad thing! Others are very confident with space handling, and this ability allows them to progress quickly, and experiment. This is where you, as the critic and the interpreter, need to get creative and go through your most tentative impressions — but you can use the brainstorming list for guidance. Good Luck!

Stay Tuned for the Next Chapter!

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