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The Elements of Art: Form

Grade Level: 3–4

Students will be introduced to one of the basic elements of art—form—by analyzing the types of forms and materials used in various sculptures. Students will then experiment with line in both two and three dimensions to see how shapes become forms.


Alexander Calder
American, 1898–1976
Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943
painted steel wire, painted wood, and wood, 77.5 x 75.6 x 61 cm (30 1/2 x 29 3/4 x 24 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls
© 2000 Estate of Alexander Calder / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



Curriculum Connections

  • Math (geometry)


  • Smart Board or computer with ability to project images from slideshow
  • Paper
  • Pencil or pen
  • A single length of lightweight wire (such as plastic-coated electrical wire, copper, or brass wire from a hardware store)
  • Clay or string for final presentation
  • Yarn in various types
  • Glue
  • Objects that show different forms such as a ball, box, paperweight, etc.

Warm-up Questions

What do the forms on this sculpture remind you of? Can you find geometric shapes? Do some of the forms look like things in nature?


Imagine using an air pump to inflate flat shapes. What do you get? Form! Forms are shapes in three dimensions:

Circle —> Sphere
Square —> Cube
Rectangle —> Rectangular prism
Triangle —> Pyramid

These are geometric forms, which are precise and regular. Have students feel the forms of various objects that are spheres, cubes, and pyramids. They are often found in human-made things, like buildings 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, and can also turn into forms. Sculpture is the most obvious place to see form, or three-dimensional shape, in art.

This work of art by Alexander Calder includes both geometric and biomorphic forms. His training as an engineer was important to his working method. Known for carrying a pair of pliers with him at all times, Calder’s first contribution to modern sculpture was working exclusively in wire during the 1920s. Early sculptures, which have been described as three-dimensional drawings, were mainly portraits of friends and depictions of animals or circus characters.



An example of one of Calder’s mobiles

Alexander Calder
American, 1898–1976
Untitled, 1976
aluminum and steel, 910.3 x 2315.5 cm (358 3/8 x 911 5/8 in.) gross weight: 920 lb.
National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Collectors Committee

Alexander Calder invented mobiles—sculptures that moved—in the early 1930s. During World War II, Calder created the Constellations series. The pieces are motionless, called stabiles, yet airy, like mobiles. Many, for example Vertical Constellation with Bomb, rest on a flat surface, but some Constellations are mounted from the wall at an angle. Generally, they are composed of small abstract forms carved from wood that are carefully arranged in three dimensions. The materials are either painted or left unfinished. Vertical Constellation with Bomb is one of the more complex works in the series, combining forms of varying sizes that define broader three-dimensional space than other Constellations. On the periphery, smaller forms reach out, suggesting movement into further horizons. There are five bare wooden forms and five painted forms, four of which are black. The wires are painted red.

Guided Practice

View the slideshow below to have students describe the forms they see by answering the following questions for each sculpture:

  • Are the forms geometric or biomorphic? Or both?
  • What do you think the sculpture is made of? Metal, stone, wood, plastic, clay, marble, or something else?
  • Do you think it’s made out of a single piece or multiple ones? If multiple, how would you attach them together? (If you look closely at Martin Puryear’s Lever No. 3, you will discover seams of laminated strips of pine, which the artist planed, sanded, and painted black. In many places, the bare wood shows through, giving the sculpture a distinctly handmade look. Puryear is an ardent craftsperson, who studied woodworking techniques as part of his artistic training.)
  • If the work of art is abstract, what does the sculpture remind you of? Something man-made or in nature?

Slideshow: Form in Works of Art


Alexander Calder
American, 1898–1976
Rearing Stallion, c. 1928
wire and painted wood, 57.8 x 34.3 x 24.8 cm (22 3/4 x 13 1/2 x 9 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls
© 2000 Estate of Alexander Calder / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


While studying at the Art Students League in New York, Alexander Calder developed a talent for continuous line drawing: creating an image with one single, unbroken line. He further honed his skills as a draftsman while working for several newspapers in New York City. Calder’s exploration of line moved into three dimensions when he began to create sculptures made of wire, like Rearing Stallion (right), a material that he had loved since he was a boy.

Students will experiment with line in both two and three dimensions to see how shapes become forms:

  1. Students will choose a subject they can closely observe: a fellow classmate, a flower, an object in the classroom, or—like Calder—an animal.
  2. Before picking up their pencil, guide them to let their eyes wander over the edges of their subject. Alternatively, students can follow the edges of their chosen objects with their fingers to get a sense of overall form.
  3. Next, using their index finger, students should trace the outlines of the subject in the air and then on their paper. As an alternative to accommodate visual impairments, students would be given a glue bottle to draw with on paper.
  4. Finally, students will use their pencil or pen to begin to draw, working slowly without lifting the pencil until the whole picture is finished. The continuous line can cross over itself and loop from one area to another until the single line has drawn the entire subject. Continuous line drawings take practice, so they may need to explore different strategies by making several drawings of the same subject. As an alternative to accommodate visual impairments, students would use lengths of yarn to place over the glue outline to create a raised surface drawing.
  5. Now try it in wire! Think of wire as a single continuous line. Demonstrate how to carefully bend and twist a single length of thin wire to create a three-dimensional “drawing.” Students will then recreate their line drawing in wire.


Exhibit the sculptures next to the line drawings for class discussion. (To display the wire sculptures, they can either be stuck into a lump of clay or be hung up with string.) Student artists should each answer the following questions about their process:

  • What was challenging about making a continuous line drawing?
  • What was different about making the sculpture?
  • What did you learn from trying both?

The Elements of Art is supported by the Robert Lehman Foundation

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn10.1.3 Develop a work of art based on observations of surroundings.

VA:Cr2.2.4 When making works of art, utilize and care for materials, tools, and equipment in a manner that prevents danger to oneself and others.

VA:Re7.1.4 Compare responses to a work of art before and after working in similar media.

VA:Re8.1.3 Interpret art by analyzing use of media to create subject matter, characteristics of form, and mood.

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