Form is one of the easier elements of design to define and recognize. Form simply takes a 2 dimensional shape on a 2 dimensional surface and makes it appear 3 dimensional. It’s what makes a circle into sphere, or a square into a cube. We can do this using value, color, texture, and perspective, to create the illusion of light and shadow which reveals form.
Perhaps the simplest creation of form comes from values like in the pencil drawing in the Art & Copy poster above. Imagine the drawing of the smoke starting as lines and shapes, then being filled in with different values that suggests growing, bubbling clouds of smoke. The drawing then appears to have depth that isn’t really there because its on a 2 dimensional surface. The decision for creating the smoke comes from defining a light source, and wherever there is less light, the values become darker.
The logo above is in color, but it doesn’t use multiple hues to show its form. It’s a single hue with different values added to it. The values fall the same way as before where there is an established light source and the highlights and shadows fall around the object according to that light source.
Here, designer Kris Bazen only uses 2 colors in the entire logo. There are no gradients or transparency in the shapes, so the form comes from using the lightest color where the highlights would be on the car.
On the Army Knights logo it is the same principle. It is made up of solid colored shapes and the colors are arranged by value, the lightest representing highlights and black the darkest shadows. The logo is not perfectly realistic, but is good enough to be believable. The light source is coming from the upper left and all drawn shapes are determined by that.
What is known as Flat Design usually appears as though it was made up of construction paper and is a great way to study form, because it is focused on “stacking” shapes to create it. It is usually drawn in 1 point perspective and uses solid colors like the examples before. Fraser Davidson is one of the masters of using color to represent light and create form in design. Here is a great example of that; solid colors and 1 point perspective, but the images do not lack form because of the established light source and believable application of color.
In my opinion, there is no better “flat” illustrator than Justin Mezzell. Although you can find gradients and texture in his work, I think his most impressive pieces are those that only use solid shapes and limited colors. Mezzell’s style is a bit like cubism, where for example, he will show multiple sides of a building, but without perspective. It’s as if you took a cardboard box and flattened it out. From there he “stacks” shapes to create depth and form. In the illustration above, nearly every line runs straight across the page (top to bottom or left to right) but his use of color and light creates the form of a building with protruding elements and another building in the distance.
What makes Glennz Tee's illustrations so great is his ability to create form using solid colors. He is great with light and shadow, minimal color palettes, and uses multiple perspective points (usually 2) to create form and depth. All that is being used in the Space Defenders illustration and what is different here from work like Mezzell’s is the perspective, or viewer’s angle, which keeps the work from looking flat.
The Importance of a Light Source
As we’ve seen you can’t properly convey form without establishing a light source. All of your decisions will stem from that. So what happens when a design uses color and shape randomly to create form, or doesn’t follow a light source? You can look at the below images for an example.
This logo uses a confusing application of shape, color, and value to create its forms. It has no established light source and the entire logo appears chaotic. The shapes that were drawn are randomly placed, struggling to have form. Because there is no foundation of light to start with, the end result is unbelievable.
This logo also has no established light source and the shapes that fill the logo are also randomly placed. Does the light come from directly overhead and center? If so, the highlight (yellow) would not fall on the nose/snout as it does, which appears as if the light is from the upper left. The black and purple shapes fall randomly as well; there is purple where there should be black (according to the light on the horns).
It doesn’t take a lot to get started on the right path of creating form, it’s all about the light source. From there, the values fall from light to dark as the light disappears. If you’re using multiple colors, remember that the lightest color represents the brightest highlight, or try using warm colors for light and cool colors for shadow. Below are a few links to help you develop your form skills further: