Not long ago while at a workshop, a fellow student attendee asked me what I thought of his art. At a glance I knew that the biggest problem was that it lacked structure along with other bits. I told him as much but I knew that I wasn’t making much sense. After years of drawing and painting, a lot of what I know is instinctual. I can see and do it without much thought. I felt quite embarrassed by the fact that I sounded— even to myself— like I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was rambling searching for the right words to help him understand but I failed.

So, here’s where I make it up to him and myself.

Shape, structure, and form— each of these 3 words describe different things and have different functions within the context of art.

  • Shape is any flat image with a defined imaginary perimeter.
  • Structure is the way in which parts are put together to form a whole.
  • Form is the three dimensional description of a thing separate from it’s material.

I’d say shape comes easiest to everyone since it seems to be the most natural. Structure requires an in depth understanding. Rendering requires observation, patience and time.

When we first started drawing as kids I’d bet money that we all started by drawing an imaginary border around an object to begin defining it’s shape. Then we’ll the draw individual parts inside to add details. In reality though, there are no lines any where in the world but that’s how our brains catalog what we see— as simple shapes without structure.

In terms of realism, artwork that doesn’t have a sense of structure feels flat and airy. It’d feel as if, in the real world, it’d crumble under it’s own weight. Structure gives a sense of solidity to a thing. If it’s a cup, it’d look like it’ll hold liquid. If it’s a building, it can withstand mother nature. If it’s a person, it’ll feel like there are bones and flesh under the skin.

Lastly, rendering form should be treated like icing on the cake. Everyone wants their art to be beautifully rendered. Personally speaking rendering is the easier than drawing structure. It seems hard to a lot of people because it takes a long time but all it is is a careful manipulation of light and shadow to fool the eye into thinking something is three dimensional.

Despite what anyone says, there are ( as far as I know of ) no child prodigies in art like there are in math or music. There are however lots of people who after some trial and error seem to excel at certain aspects of art better than others. Everyone who has ever started to seriously learn art had to practice a lot before they got good.

So, to myself and the young student— on the topic of structure— in realistic art, you should approach your subject by first indicating the angles of the subject through use of line, value or shape of color. As long as you carefully map out all of the structural angles of your subject your artwork will have a solid foundation to render on. Find those visual cues that let the viewer know where there are plane changes. Those plane changes give solidity to your artwork. In the early stages of drawing include lost and found edges. As you’re rendering a painting pay close attention to where a soft edges becomes hard. Those lost and found edges along with the soft and hard edges are visual indicators of the underlying structure of your subject. Use light and shadow to turn your edges. Consider the shape of your brush strokes to emphasize the planes of the subject. Your highlights are the cherry on the cake and should come at the very end after all the middle and darker value work has been completed.