Using Shapes to Make Sense of What We See

Right now, I’m reading Homo aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, by Ellen Dissanayake. In Chapter 4, Dissanayake particularly explores the idea of rhythm and control over the uncontrollable.  To do this humans simplify and try to make what we see tangible. That is, we can use art, and art may have been necessary evolutionarily, in order to simplify the world around us and allow us to control it and make sense of it. Further, finding a rhythm of making shapes, such as repeating circles or lines, is calming, and a learned but natural practice. Drawing from observations of children scribbling with a crayon. They make lines without intention or an end goal.  They then transition into recognizing shapes which they produced by accident and repeating them, learning how to draw a square and a triangle. Just basic geometric figures. To quote Dissanayake on the subject, and to further sum up her arguments, “Circles, rectangles, triangles, and diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines are all abstract, non-natural shapes impose by humans on the natural world; they are also constructions to which the human mind is from childhood “naturally” disposed.”

Primary Color Shapes with EyesBut it is not only children who learn how to draw in this way, and our tendancy for simplification is a trait which never grows out. All art is created from shapes which can be found nowhere in nature. Rigid shapes with rigid lines. The most simplistic tree to draw is a vertical line with a cloud-type shape on top. Not a realistic cloud, but a combination of overlapping ovals and circles, traces just along the outermost edge. This in itself shows our ability to comprehend simple geometric shapes as real and more complex real things.

To demonstrate, below you will find a process of me drawing out a very quick and simple human face. I chose this subject to demonstrate because we are most likely to notice things that are wrong with the human face, things which make it look “wrong”, than we are for any other subject. We instinctively discern between a correct human face and even a slightly incorrect one. This is the basis for what is known as the “Uncanny Valley”, the area where something, typically the design for a robot’s face, is almost lifelike but just so ever slightly wrong so as to cause us discomfort at the sight. The point being, the human face is what we are most “tuned-in” to, and yet we even have the natural capability to recognize it as essentially “realistic” when only comprising of geometric figures.


From the second image, I think most would begin to understand which direction the picture is going to take. That is a human face-shape. By the third, it indisputably becomes a face, and the fourth image only serves to add detail and to bring the sketch further away from the basics of the human face and closer to a realistic depiction of the human face. It would be hard to argue that I drew anything else. Yet all I put on the page were lines and shapes, simple ones at that. Individually, a one-year-old might scribble them down. When put together in the right way, it becomes something. So, no matter how old we are, we are still drawing and learning to draw by shapes and repetition. We start from the basics, the anatomy and structure, and just build on that.


Robot on Stepping Stones in Space
The stepping stones of space

This image (available on Redbubble) is made entirely out of simple geometric shapes, merely embellished. The robot is an oval with lines for his arms and legs. The star is just a circle, and the stepping stones are ovals. That really is all. That’s what every artist is doing, at the very core of their work. I just find it so interesting that we have been born with the ability and learned to recognize real-world things in a specific pattern of lines.

Thank you for reading, and if you are interesting in this subject or wish to offer a suggestion for a future topic, feel free to leave a comment below. Until then, goodbye!


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