How to Capture & Draw Shapes

Note from the page: QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:

Where Ada Fagan invited those who had any questions about art and painting, that they could leave their questions in the comments block below or if they required privacy they could email her at:

Draw things

A5 watercolour: Autumn time.

Today’s Question deals with: HOW TO DRAW SHAPES

How do you start drawing-in the shapes of things, when composing paintings? I can’t get my objects to look right. My attempts are pathetic. For example nothing looks natural. My trees look stiff like Egyptian fans and my cars look squashed with high roofs!

You’re not the first to have this problem.

Many art students start out like that, until they see things as simple basic shapes.

When you start out composing a composition you don’t copy every detail you see. You may see the big picture, but to capture and place things on your canvas, you first have to look and select the bare facts.

Ask yourself the question:

  • What stands out?
  • What’s important to you?
  • What are the most exciting objects?

Instead of seeing objects as intricate complex things, rather look at things as simple shapes and with basic skeleton structure. General outlines speak volumes! So don’t worry about the fine details at this stage.

What type of shapes should you be looking out for?

Round, oval and ovoid, cube, square and rectangle, cone and dome shaped, pyramid and triangle, tube and cylinder, half-moon shapes, etc.

For example:

  • Bubbles and apples are generally round. Teapots and jugs have round bellies.
  • Houses and buildings generally have block shapes with square or rectangle shapes.
  • People seen in the distance, don’t have to show everything, not even feet. As long as there is a dot for a head and a suggested triangle for a woman’s skirt.
  • The structure of humans (close-up) is made up of ovals, triangles and wedges for feet.
  • Glasses and cups have ellipse ovals. Just because a glass stands on a flat table doesn’t mean you draw the base straight across, it has a curved bottom contour.
  • The outline of trees can be fan or top-shaped (like the shape of a child’s toy top) or ball-shaped. Fir trees have cone and triangle shapes.
  • The wheels of cars, trucks and bicycles are round, and the inner frame of the bicycle is a triangle.
  • The shape of leaves is club, spade and heart shaped.

Note: Basic forms create reasoning. When people see basic shapes in a painting, it makes it easier to ‘read’ your painting.

Lines also give structure to things in your composition:

  • Hills and distant mountains have undulating wavy contour lines.
  • Cars these days are not so square looking. They have more flowing contour lines.
  • Rivers, streams, roads and pathways have diminishing S and Z perspective contour lines.
  • Foliage of trees have upper canopy or umbrella shaped contour lines.
  • The growth pattern of tree trunks and the more obvious branches are the skeleton or structural lines of the tree. The flow, direction and angle of these lines clarify the characteristics of the tree.

Note: Not only the shape, but the bones of the object, makes it easy to translate the object onto your canvas.

 For tree example:

If you look at a tree more carefully you will notice that the trunk is leaning, even if it’s only a little, at an angle. And the main obvious branches have a pattern or flow of growth.

And the outer overall shape of the tree’s foliage differs according to its species. Whether it has leaves or not, the overall shape has an outer canopy shape, which can be an umbrella shape, round or oval shape, or as grouped rounded outlines.

Then look at the possible composition and decide where to place the bones of the tree structure. If it’s on the left side, you can have the lean of the tree leaning inwards to direct the eye into the scene. And if on the right-hand side of your canvas, have it pointing inwards, to redirect the eye into the scene or pointing towards the main point of interest.

As to winter trees that have no leaves, you don’t have to put in every twig, if your overall structure and canopy shape describes the type of tree you are trying to convey.

Always remember trees also have branches in the front and at the back. And don’t draw straight neat branches, vary the length and description.

Note:  If everything is neat and tidy, it doesn’t look natural.  Loosen up your strokes to give your drawing and painting a freedom of expression.

For car example:

First consider the size of the car compared with the immediate objects, buildings, trees or people.

Make a synopsis of your vehicle on a piece of paper:

Consider the perspective of the car: Is it directly facing you? Somewhat like a block shape, the back will be small than the front. Or turned three-quarter away from you? The front corner facing you will be bigger perspectively. To get it into perspective, run diminishing lineal lines down its sides and over its top.

  • The body is a ‘rectangle’ shape with smooth flowing lines.
  • The wheels will be partly covered with mudguards.
  • The shape and angles of the windows will depend on the model of the car.

Once you have made the synopsis, cut it out and place it on your painting. Does it fit perspectively and comfortably in your painting? If not, make another one, this time the right size. Repeat if necessary to get the right size.

Note: And of cause the colour of your vehicle is important. If the colour of the object is analogous to its surrounding colours, it will settle comfortably into place.


If you draw your objects in a simple uncomplicated way, it makes it easier to compose your composition. Without the complexity of finer details, it makes it easier to visualize the enormity of your composition.

If you use light colours draw in your synopsis shapes, you can easily shift their position if necessary, if you are not happy with your first placement decision. The replacement or shift, must of cause be made at the while composing you composition, That is, before you start piling on thick paint, defining the shapes and adding finer details.

Each object that is placed in your composition must sit comfortably with its nearest neighbour. The tangent space or links between objects is important, in their relation to each other. That is, there should be easy flowing lines or transitions between and through them, so that the object of your painting is easily ‘read’.

Now for practice:

Start by looking around you, at the things you’ve always taken for granted.

  • How can you simplify what you are looking at?
  • What are the basic shapes and linear directive lines?
  • What is the basic skeleton structure?
  • Which way do the lines lean? How do they flow?
  • And then consider how to simply the drawing-in of your composition’s format.
  • Where would you put the biggest or boldest shape?

Last word:

If the foundation of your composition is good and strong, the rest of the painting will fall into place and it will be a pleasure painting it.

And you know what I’m going to say?

Great artists weren’t made overnight. The more you practice observing shapes and practice your drawing skills, the more they will improve.

So draw as often as you can, the things you see around you. Make it a game, something fun to do, like doodling while waiting for something to happen.

If you too have a question to ask:

Feel free to put it in the comments block below, or email it to me at:

Cape Mountains

Cape mountains:

On our way to the town of McGregor via Worcester, we went through the Du Toit mountain range. You must admit the Cape mountains are so spectacular. And going through the DuToit Pass is very inspiring for any artist. For here the mountains are very close up and majestic, almost over powering in their height above and around you.

To take photographs of mountains it’s best to be close up to them. Because if they are further away the camera is inclined to reduce their height making them look flattened small and insignificant. Zooming-in doesn’t always give you the full magnitude of their enormous majestic glory either. It calls for quick assessment of the situation. What do you need from the scene and how would you compose it as a painting later?

The art of taking photographs from a fast moving car:

You can’t stop the car to take photos on busy roads and highways. It’s too dangerous. And to take a photo in a fast moving car is quite a feat. So as a passenger photographer, it’s all about timing.

From the interval between when you press the shutter button and when the digital camera actually snaps the shot, you’re likely to land up having a bizarre image of a telephone pole, trees or a high bank where the road has sliced through a knoll or hillside.

This means you have to look ahead and gauge an opening between hills and trees, and then press the shutter button slightly before you expect the next opening …only to get a tall fence or signpost in the way of your precious sort-after shot!

And of cause taking shots from a fast moving car you are likely to get blurred foliage in the foreground. That is blurred weeds, grass or even vineyard fields in the case of the Cape, beside the road.

And another thing, if you are pointing the camera forward through the windscreen, most of the time you’ll get tarred roads, tall trucks and cars ahead of you. And if you are quick you may land up with the car licence sticker covering the scene you want so badly! So what can you do? Delete the offending digital image and wait for the next opportunity. And just make do with whatever you can get I suppose and worry about it later. That is how you would convert the image into something worthwhile later.

Photograph of cape mountains

Photo of Du Toit mountain range

Cape mountains 1

Oil painting of Du Toit mountain range in the Cape

Photo and oil painting demo:

This is what happened with this photo. I landed up with an uninteresting tarred highway, cars and a signpost dead centre. To make the scene more dynamic one has to resorts to ‘artists’ licence’ and some inspiring imagination.

So let’s pretend:

How would it have been years ago before tar and signposts infested roads? And perhaps surmise the possibly of a river down in the valley below? I choose to put in a stream and not a quaint tranquil dust road. Streams I feel are a little more appealing than dirt roads.  If I had put both in the scene, on the small 21×15.5cm canvas, it would have been over crowded. Giving the stream dramatic linear perspective gives the scene depth.  I also simplified the scene and made it look more plausible under those conditions.

How would you have used this photo and how would you have painted this scene?

If you haven’t seen previous blog posts and want to see more demos: