The Elements of Art: Shape

Grade Level: K–4

Students will be introduced to one of the basic elements of art—shape—by analyzing the types of shapes used in various works of art to differentiate between geometric and natural shapes. They will then create their own cut paper collage based on a theme they select.

matisse

Henri Matisse
French, 1869–1954
Beasts of the Sea, 1950
paper collage on canvas, 295.5 x 154 cm (116 5/16 x 60 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

 

NAEA Standards

1-C Students use different media, techniques, and processes to communicate ideas, experiences, and stories.
1-D Students use art materials and tools in a safe and responsible manner.
3-B
Students select and use subject matter, symbols, and ideas to communicate meaning.
6-B Students identify connections between the visual arts and other disciplines in the curriculum.

Curriculum Connections

  • Math (geometry)

Materials

  • Smart Board or computer with ability to project images from slideshow
  • Heavy cardstock (to prevent curling when painted)
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Large sized colored paper to attach cut shapes to

Warm-up Questions

What shapes do you recognize in Beasts of the Sea? Can you find shapes that remind you of playful fish? a floating seahorse? spiral shells? waving seaweed? sinuous eels? curvy coral? What about geometric shapes like squares, rectangles, and triangles?

Background

Everything has a shape, right? But what exactly is a shape? Shape is a flat area surrounded by edges or an outline.

Artists use all kinds of shapes. Geometric shapes are precise and regular, like squares, rectangles, and triangles. They are often found in human-made things, like building and machines while biomorphic shapes are found in nature. These shapes may look like leaves, flowers, clouds—things that grow, flow, and move. The term biomorphic means: life-form (bio=life and morph= form). Biomorphic shapes are often rounded and irregular, unlike most geometric shapes.

An artist that loved to explore the possibilities of mixing geometric and biomorphic shapes was Henri Matisse. In the last few decades of his artistic career, he developed a new form of art-making: the paper cut-out. Still immersed in the power of color, he devoted himself to cutting colored papers and arranging them in designs. “Instead of drawing an outline and filling in the color…I am drawing directly in color,” he said. Matisse was drawing with scissors!

Matisse enjoyed going to warmer places and liked to watch sunlight shimmering on the sea. He often traveled to seaports along the French Mediterranean, also visiting Italy, North Africa, and Tahiti. Beasts of the Sea is a memory of his visit to the South Seas. In this work of art, Matisse first mixed paint to get all the brilliant colors of the ocean. Then he cut this paper into shapes that reminded him of a tropical sea. Lastly, he arranged these biomorphic shapes vertically over rectangles of yellows, greens, and purples to suggest the watery depths of the undersea world.

Guided Practice

Students will explore other artists who experimented with different kinds of shapes. View the slideshow below and have students point out the shapes they see and define them as being either geometric or from nature/biomorphic:

Slideshow: Geometric or Biomorphic?: Shapes in Works of Art

  • Geometric or Biomorphic?: Shapes in Works of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/5/2/6/1/4/52614-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Piet Mondrian
    Dutch, 1872–1944
    Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black, c. 1924/1925
    oil on canvas, 142.8 x 142.3 cm (56 1/4 x 56 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Gift of Herbert and Nannette Rothschild

  • Geometric or Biomorphic?: Shapes in Works of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/1/0/9/7/6/6/109766-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Edward Steichen
    American, 1879–1973
    Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), c. 1920
    tempera and oil on canvas, 92.1 x 81.9 cm (36 1/4 x 32 1/4 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee

  • Geometric or Biomorphic?: Shapes in Works of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/7/2/3/2/8/72328-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Vincent van Gogh
    Dutch, 1853–1890
    Roses, 1890
    oil on canvas, 71 x 90 cm (27 15/16 x 35 7/16 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of W. Averell Harriman

  • Geometric or Biomorphic?: Shapes in Works of Art Lessons & Activities http://media.nga.gov/public/objects/7/1/0/7/1/71071-primary-0-740x560.jpg

    Henri Matisse
    French, 1869–1954
    Woman Seated in an Armchair, 1940
    oil on canvas, 54 x 65.1 cm (21 1/4 x 25 5/8 in.)
    National Gallery of Art, Given in loving memory of her husband, Taft Schreiber, by Rita Schreiber

Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. IV; Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black, c. 1924/1925

What kind of shapes did the artist use?

  • Geometric? (Yes, triangles, a square, and rectangles.)
  • From nature/biomorphic? (None.)

Edward Steichen, Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), c. 1920

What kind of shapes did the artist use?

  • Geometric? (The artist used mostly geometric shapes.)
  • From nature/biomorphic? (The big green shape—the vase—in the middle of the painting seems more like something found in nature with its rounded edges.)

Vincent van Gogh, Roses, 1890

What kind of shapes did the artist use?

  • Geometric? (No hard-edged shapes here.)
  • From nature/biomorphic? (Yes, it makes sense that a painting of flowers uses biomorphic shapes—things "from life.")

Henri Matisse, Woman Seated in an Armchair, 1940

  • Point out that this is the same artist as the one that created Beasts of the Sea, however, this one uses paint instead of cut paper.
  • Did he mix kinds of shapes in this painting too? (Yes, the artist used shapes from nature and geometric shapes here.)

Activity

Using Matisse’s Beasts of the Sea as their inspiration, students will create their own colorful collage:

  1. Students will select a theme for their work. Like Matisse, they can choose a memory of a vacation as their inspiration.
  2. Also, like Matisse, students will make their own colored paper by painting entire sheets of white paper one color. Use heavy cardstock so the paper doesn’t curl.
  3. Using scissors, students will cut the paper into different shapes that remind them of that place.
  4. Then, they will arrange their cut-out shapes on a large piece of colored paper. Encourage students to move the pieces around, rotate them, and experiment with layering.
  5. When they are satisfied with the design, glue the shapes in place.

Extension

While creating the cut-outs, Matisse hung them on the walls and ceiling of his apartment in Nice. “Thanks to my new art, I have a lush garden all around me. And I am never alone,” he said. Have students brainstorm unique ways of hanging their artwork. How could they transform their surroundings? Could a hallway be lined with underwater scenes to make it seem like students are swimming to class? If possible, execute their exhibition desires and invite others students to explore their work. Student artists should describe their process and choice of shapes to convey their theme.

The Elements of Art is supported by the Robert Lehman Foundation

More Lessons in this Unit

Related Resource

Download a family-oriented guide to Matisse and Derain's friendship

Contact

Questions or comments? E-mail us at classroom@nga.gov