Digital Art Creation Basics (Part 2): Shapes and Silhouettes


Previous article discussed confidence and courage, mainly addressing the issue of how to take the first step, which is essentially a psychological aspect.

Psychology is abstract, while operation is concrete.

In this article, I will discuss the problems encountered in practical operation and my solutions.

Drawing a picture, the first stroke of the draft, there is no other possibility, it must be a shape.

If confidence and courage are the first steps of creation, then shape is the first step of a work.

What is "打形" (Da Xing)?#

If you have ever been an art student, you must be familiar with "打形" (Da Xing). The first step taught by art teachers in the studio is always "打形". It means using a pencil to determine the height, width, and position of the object (usually still life) on the paper, and then using straight lines to connect the objects as geometric shapes. The most typical example is "peeling an apple", where a real apple is seen as a peeled apple. I believe that more than 99% of art students cannot skip this step. Only after this step do we move on to perspective, the intersection of light and shadow, black, white, and gray theory, which will not be discussed here. Let's take it step by step.

Image from the internet

"打形" literally means "to shape". "打" actually means to establish order, to establish an order that makes the picture realistic. Whether this method comes from the Soviet Union or some Western academic ideas.

This is a realistic painting method for the domestic examination system and has nothing to do with creation. "打" is not a problem, but "形" is dead.

Once it comes to creation, it has a different meaning.

What is Shape?#

Shape, a term that has rich connotations in art and design.

Simply put, shape usually refers to the outline or contour of an object, which is the basis for our recognition and judgment of objects. In the process of observing the world, our brain automatically recognizes and categorizes various shapes, which become the foundation of our understanding and depiction of the world.

When it comes to shape in creation, it is no longer simply the depiction of the outline of a physical object, but a medium for the artist's personal expression. This medium has rich possibilities, and it is not limited to the inherent shapes in the physical world, but also includes shapes generated by the artist's thinking and perception during the creative process.

For example, a simple circle, when combined with imagination, can be transformed into various new elements, characters, and scenes. It can also transition from abstract to concrete, and then from concrete to abstract.

Transformation of a circle

At the same time, the creation of shape is not isolated, it is closely connected with elements such as color, line, space, and texture. Let's not add too many complex concepts to our minds for now, and only consider simple shapes in a single color.

The creation of shape is not isolated, it is closely connected with elements such as color, line, space, and texture, influencing each other and collectively constructing the visual language of the artwork. Through the use of shape, artists can express various complex emotions and thoughts, making the work full of vitality and tension.

When learning to draw, we usually start with the simplest geometric shapes such as spheres, cubes, and pyramids. This is because the structural forms of actual objects in reality can be summarized to the greatest extent using these basic geometric shapes. And these geometric shapes are built from basic shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles.

For example, a square usually gives people a sense of stability, rigidity, weight, reliability, seriousness, and so on. A circle usually gives people a sense of perfection, infinity, softness, smoothness, and so on. A triangle usually gives people a sense of sharpness, danger, guidance, imbalance, and so on.

Therefore, shape can also be a projection of the artist's personal emotions. The artist's use of different basic shapes will naturally evoke corresponding feelings in people's minds.

In art creation, the definition and use of shape are much more complex. It can be representational, directly depicting the shape of objects in reality, such as the shape of an apple or a tree. Representational shapes require artists to have keen observation skills to capture the true form and subtle changes of objects, and reproduce them on canvas with lines and colors.

Shape can also be abstract, such as the shape of a color block or a line. Abstract shapes are no longer a direct depiction of reality, but the artist's understanding and expression of the essence of shape. The creation of abstract shapes requires artists to have rich imagination, and through distortion, deformation, combination, and subversion of shapes, create unique and expressive shapes.

In fact, from this perspective, a line magnified is also a shape, and a point magnified is also a shape. That's why I said in a previous article, "The essence of calligraphy is also painting."

What is Silhouette?#

Silhouette, literally meaning a shadow cut with scissors. In the era without photography technology, a piece of paper and a pair of scissors were enough for creation. Its essence is the external outline of an object, the combination of shapes.

Seemingly simple, dividing a plane into "inside", "outside", and "edge". The "inside" and "edge" are the soil for imagination to evaporate.

When drawing basic shapes, even if there are two identical silhouettes, they can form different combinations of basic shapes.

Here, the shape is more accurately referred to as "projected shape". As the name suggests, it assumes that there is a backlight, and the shape of the shadow projected from this backlight.

Therefore, in my understanding, the essence of silhouette is the combination of these "projected shapes".


Since a silhouette is a combination of several "projected shapes", it can also be said that a silhouette is the projection of a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional plane perpendicular to the human eye. Therefore, a silhouette represents purely flat information.

Shape, on the other hand, contains three-dimensional information. In any picture, the first stroke is always a shape. At this time, as long as the artist intends to create elements with perspective, there will inevitably be an invisible three-dimensional structure in their mind while drawing. This three-dimensional structure is reflected in the "edge" of the silhouette, and it will form associations with details, rhythm, tension, dynamics, weight, and so on.

And the quality of a silhouette is judged based on these factors.

What Makes a Good Silhouette?#

In digital art creation, a good silhouette should be able to clearly express the shape and overall structure of an object. First and foremost, it should be appropriately exaggerated and proportionally correct. This allows people to accurately associate the internal three-dimensional structure.

Initially, it needs to be concise and clear, removing unnecessary details and only retaining the core outline to reveal the essence of the object. At the same time, a good silhouette should be creative, creating unique and distinctive images through changes in the outline.

A good silhouette should be clear, concise, and powerful.

It focuses on the outline, emphasizing the shape and structure of the object rather than the details. This concise and clear visual effect allows viewers to immediately distinguish the main shape and structure of the object, making their interpretation of visual information more direct and efficient.

It should showcase the artist's unique perspective and creativity.

Through clever handling of the outline, artists can create unique and expressive silhouettes. This innovative way of expression not only showcases the artist's personality and creativity but also provides viewers with new visual experiences and feelings.

It should stimulate the viewer's imagination and guide them to explore and understand the deeper meaning behind the artwork.

Through the form of silhouette, artists can abstractly express the shape and structure of an object, allowing viewers to fill in and understand the details of the object through their own imagination. This way of stimulating the viewer's imagination not only enhances the artistic appeal of the work but also provides viewers with more enjoyment and satisfaction while appreciating the artwork.

Architects and Archaeologists#

After understanding what makes a good silhouette, let's discuss the two approaches I like to use when creating silhouettes. These two approaches did not come to me at the beginning, but are a summary of my long-term creative experience. Combined with my recent interest and research in knowledge management, it has given me new insights into the creative process of digital art, which I would like to share with you.

Architects and archaeologists are two ways of thinking in knowledge management to establish a knowledge structure system.

Simply put, in knowledge management, the architect's mindset is to first think about classification and structure, just like planning the design blueprint before building a building, and then fill in the content in order. Similarly, in digital art creation, it means first thinking clearly about what content to create and having a sketch and line drawing in mind.

The second approach is the archaeologist's mindset. As the name suggests, this creative process is not pre-planned. At the beginning, there may only be a vague image or element in mind, which is especially suitable for abstract creative themes.

For example, in the Meditation Series, many of the works are not what I initially thought of, and even at the beginning, they were just "clusters" formed by combining shapes. Then these "clusters" gradually formed a character performing an action, and an appropriate background environment was depicted. However, after a day or two, when I looked at the theme of the creation from a different perspective, the entire picture became a detail of the final work.

The architect and archaeologist mindsets can also be flexibly applied and are not strictly limited to one approach. I think these two mindsets are suitable for solving two types of situations in the creative process:

  • The first situation is when you know what to draw, but you can't draw some details. In this case, it is more suitable to use the architect's mindset to re-draw the sketch and find some reference materials. Applying the architect's mindset to the details will make it easier to continue.

  • The second situation is when you have drawn what was in your mind, but suddenly realize that it is not what you wanted. At this time, you can try duplicating the original draft, finding the unsatisfactory parts, removing unnecessary details, and returning to the initial silhouette. Then, using the archaeologist's mindset, rediscover new possibilities within it. Of course, if you find that you need to start over, it requires the "courage" mentioned in the previous article, the courage to start over.


Depicting shape and silhouette is the first step in any digital creative practice.

Understanding them will not immediately make your work better, but it will open up new creative directions. Techniques and routines are certainly important because they can quickly produce eye-catching results. However, over time or with exposure to more content, they tend to become homogeneous because the content itself is eye-catching. The only advantage is that it makes it easier for people to become interested and start learning. After this stage, you will find that techniques and routines are secondary, and even only serve to improve production efficiency, which are problems to be solved later.

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