The value of repeated shapes in your design

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Repetition is a form of shape design. Its main goals are to guide the eye throughout the artwork as well as give a somewhat calming effect. Repetition helps the eye to relax, it allows the viewer to look at something and only have to analyze it once. When you use many different shapes close to each other, your artwork might start to look a bit messy because it's hard to tell what is what and why. Repetitive shapes have the power to guide the eye to the focal point as well, which turns it into a really powerful tool.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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The value of repeated shapes: A roadmap to the human eye

Shapes in their primitive form are really strong communicators. They can tell the viewer about the nature and intention of a creature or character. But also even its place in the world. The next step is to use repetitive shapes in your designs. It’s a roadmap for the human eye. It can dictate where to look next, create order in every type of artwork, and like any other shape: Tell the viewer more about the artwork you made.

Unification of an artwork

Repetitive shapes are called that for a reason. If you want to make a good character or creature design you shouldn’t be using repetitive shapes haphazardly. They should be making sense and be part of the story you’re trying to tell. Repetitive shapes repeat themselves sometimes equally, but most of the time gradually. Leading the eye throughout an artwork is a very powerful tool in storytelling. But even when storytelling is not the goal and you’re just looking to get a nice creature or character drawn or something along those lines, repetitive shapes will still unify the artwork and lead the eye.

How to use repetitive shapes

If you want a repetitive shape to lead the eye to the focal point, the repetitive shape should be most prominent in the focal point area. This can be because of its shape or size, but also because of the contrast, color saturation, or something else that shifts the balance to it and therefore the focus toward the repetitive shape that is closest to the focal point.

Another approach is to make the repetitive shapes point toward the focal point, but not actually be part of it. A good example would be a dragon with spines on his back all the way to the tip of his tail, and this tail is pointing right back at the head of the dragon (the focal point).

As such, there are many more approaches, but all of them either point toward the focal point, lead to it, or are actually part of it.

Repetitive shapes that don’t lead to a focal point

There are situations in which the repetitive shapes have nothing to do with the focal point of your artwork. It may be that the tail of your dragon has a cluster of spines but the rest of its body doesn’t. There is nothing wrong with this. But because of its repetitive nature, it will naturally attract the human eye toward it. For this reason, it’s best to make sure that this feature isn’t too prominent. You can achieve that by blurring the area or making its colors blend into that of the background and keeping the lighting and detailing low.

Primary and secondary repetitive shapes

Shapes can be roughly put into three categories. Round shapes, square shapes, and (tri)angular shapes. round shapes are often viewed at as friendly, cute, and feminine. The square is sturdy, strong, and manly. (Tri)angular shapes are associated with danger, mischief, and death because of their sharp angles associated with claws and teeth. Pointy things tend to hurt in nature. They can however be used interchangeably to refine the message you’re looking to tell. A dangerous creature can be made to look more friendly when angular shapes are mixed with round ones for example.

A visual example

Two really good examples are Loki and his sister Hela. Both characters are villains, but one is male and one is female. Loki, although in many ways a likable character, is often the main antagonist in the movies he’s been playing in for Marvel Studios. He is described as mischievous and unstable, something that is clearly shown in his outfit below. It’s fairly triangular and if you watch the movie ‘Dark world’ closely, you will see that the lower part of his outfit shown below is also off-center, which highlights his unstable nature.

Hela on the other hand is pure evil, but she’s also a woman. There is nothing unstable about her. These three features are undoubtedly present in her outfit. It’s perfectly centered and has sharp angular shapes riddled throughout it. The rounded shapes don’t communicate that she’s nice and innocent, they communicate that she’s a woman. This is a perfect example of how you can use more than one repetitive shape. It’s not only the shapes of her feminine form that are accentuated but it’s also tucked right into the lines that make up her outfit, which still have sharp angles connected to them.

Colors and patterns

Shapes are not only defined outlines. You can also use colors and patterns to create repetitive shapes. Whether you want to use it to lead the eye, calm the eye, or both: Colors and patterns are very powerful tools as well. Brighter colors can lead the eye to the focal point. Large patterns, or the opposite: A high concentration of a small pattern can lead the eye toward the focal point or form a place for the eye to take a break.

The pattern on the back of this frog leads the eye naturally to the head of the frog.
Photo by Wallace Heng on Unsplash

Take this frog for example. The frog is blue, an interesting color in itself. But the pattern of this little frog is what is really the place our eyes are drawn to. It’s likely that the first place you looked at was its back or the top of its head. This is normal because this is where we see the most contrast (dark/light). But within a fraction of a second, your eye is pulled toward the head of the frog, because right there is one extra large round shape: The eye.

The pattern doesn’t have to end up being something else but a pattern on the skin or fur. It can also be a lead toward another shape/organ/prop, you name it. Whatever you want it to be. As long as you understand what it is you’re trying to communicate, and have a good understanding of shape design and repetitive shapes, you’re good!

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