Three ways to maximize shape in linocut compositions

Three ways to use light & shadow like Félix Vallotton

Self-Portrait , Félix Vallotton, 1891 Woodcut on paper

Self-Portrait, Félix Vallotton, 1891 Woodcut on paper

Shape is one of the seven elements of art and is, by definition, a flat, enclosed area defined by lines. If you strategically think about where to place lines, you can create more than just a shape. Your shape could read as light or shadow, imply invisible shapes, and become part of a pattern.

How do you leverage shape in linocut compositions to achieve a maximum effect?

That is what we'll explore in Félix Vallotton's (1865 - 1925) woodcuts. Through examination, we can see how shapes function on multiple levels at the same time to tell dramatic stories in his woodcut prints.

How Vallotton arranges shapes for maximum effect:

  1. Shapes read as light & shadow

  2. Large shapes invite the viewer to add details

  3. Repeating shapes create a pattern

1) Shapes read as light & shadow

Money,  Felix Vallotton, 1897, woodcut on paper

Money, Felix Vallotton, 1897, woodcut on paper

The shapes in Money act on two levels: They convey sunlight and shadow to reveal forms, and they represent the psychological space of the characters within the picture. 

The dividing line in Money is the right side of the woman’s bell-shaped dress that continues upward to describe the convex shape of the man, and represents several things:

  • Man’s stature and strength (strong legs and belly loom over the woman)

  • The eloquence of the woman’s dress and persona

  • The metaphor of light versus dark

Spending some extra time on this last point regarding narrative division, take note that the man’s body and the room are the same shape, thereby representing the same thing: darkness. The woman, by contrast, is mostly made up of light shapes, and she is fenced-off (but reaching into) the few light shapes. 

A line that separates shapes can also function as the separation of light and shadow, and as a line dividing two meanings.

2) Large shapes invite the viewer to add details

Irreparable,  Felix Vallotton, 1897, woodcut on paper

Irreparable, Felix Vallotton, 1897, woodcut on paper

If we continue to read shapes as light & shadow, we can also lead the viewer to “discover” details shrouded in darkness. Irreparable is an image in which a single object (a Japanese vase) is enough to hint at other information in the shadows. 

In the 19th century (Vallotton’s time), collecting Japanese ceramics was a cultural fad for the upper-class. Research other 19th century trends like fashion and interior design to see what else may be hiding.

Try this: Trace these images and practice!

  1. Print out Irreparable, and place tracing paper over the image. Use a sharpie to trace all the lines (without filling them in).

  2. Next, add details to the scene, knowing what you know about the environment.

  3. Extra step: Pretend that at this point, the lights are on in the room. Begin “turning off the lights” by gradually filling-in shapes in the composition. How dark will you make it?

3) Repeating shapes create a pattern

Piano,  Felix Vallotton, 1896, woodcut on paper

Piano, Felix Vallotton, 1896, woodcut on paper

The largest shapes in Piano convey shadow, with the addition of repeating shapes to create patterns throughout the composition to describe wallpaper, hardwood floors, piano keys, and wood paneling.

The Patterns in this image achieves multiple results:

  • Every pattern (the shapes are describing hardwood floors, floral shapes on the wallpaper, and piano keys act as a series of arrows, pointing directly at the pianist. Each pattern comes from opposite sides of the composition (lower left, upper right, middle right) to repeatedly lead the viewer back to the pianist.

  • Patterns break up what would be large white shapes, contributing to a sense of overall darkness

  • Patterns provide the viewer with additional details in the environment

Strategically placing pattern can direct the eye, break up large shapes, and give more detail. 

[^1]: Images sourced from and Chicago Art Institute

Coming soon: Free mini-course: Turning your drawings into dramatic relief prints

This free mini-course provides a step-by-step guide to push the elements of shape, pattern, and form in your drawings, just like Felix Vallotton’s does through his compositions. From using a pre-existing drawing to creating a dramatic design complete on its own, or ready to transfer to a lino block.