Start with a Shape - An Illustration Challenge | Amarilys Henderson | Skillshare

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Start with a Shape - An Illustration Challenge

teacher avatar Amarilys Henderson, Watercolor Illustrator, Design Thinker

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Start with a Shape


    • 2.

      WHY to paint from shapes


    • 3.

      HOW to paint your shape


    • 4.

      HOW to make it stick


    • 5.

      WHAT supplies I use


    • 6.

      WHERE to start


    • 7.

      WHERE is this going?


    • 8.

      HOW to build on top


    • 9.



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About This Class

When you just need to START... When you want to learn about your subject... When you need some variety brought back into your work... Start with a SHAPE! This unique approach has become a long-standing practice for Amarilys Henderson and she wants to show you its benefits. 

As part of the Confident Watercolors Series, this class focuses on the creative sparks that fly when you couple a challenge with a regular practice for the sake of your creative growth. It's a simple, quick, and powerful exercise for those who want to put the fun back into painting.

Watercolor insights include:

  • preferred supplies
  • tips on how to maintain momentum
  • four tactical ways to approach your shape
  • loads of examples

Take a shot and START with a shape. You may impress yourself with your cleverness and execution.





Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Amarilys Henderson

Watercolor Illustrator, Design Thinker

Top Teacher

Hello! I'm Amarilys. I process on paper and I problem-solve with keystrokes.

As a commercial illustrator, I've had the pleasure of bringing the dynamic vibrance of colorful watercolor strokes to everyday products. My work is licensed for greeting and Christmas cards, art prints, drawing books, and home decor items. My design background influences much of my recent work, revolving around typography and florals.

While my professional work in illustration is driven by trend, my personal work springs from my faith. Follow along on Instagram


Learn a variety of fun and on-trend techniques to improve your work!

See full profile

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1. Start with a Shape: I'm Amarilys Henderson, I'm an illustrator. This challenge of starting with a shape and then making it something, really opened my eyes to a lot of different subject matter. Start with the shape and hold on to it. I'll show you how to go about it and how to stick to it. I want to show you guys my sketchbook. 2. WHY to paint from shapes: I want to show you guys my sketch book. I used to not keep up with a sketchbook very well. But since I started this challenge where I paint a shape and then paint on top of it, I've been able to do something every day. When I break in the paper with something, it takes away the intimidation. Sometimes I'll just throw a splatter on, and sometimes I'll do a circle as I've done with this challenge. It's all about starting. That's one of the great things that comes with starting to work in this way. It also spurs ideas while narrowing your ideas. When you're creative, you have so many ideas. With this, you have a perimeter, so that your ideas are narrowed down and yet you still have a good chunk of possibilities of things that you're excited to draw or paint. Honestly, this is my first time doing a challenge for a prolonged amount of time, but something that was collective. I haven't done a sketch a day or a doodle a day, because I felt like I couldn't commit to something daily and yet with this I've been able to. 3. HOW to paint your shape: I know that the idea of painting as circle doesn't seem that complicated, but I'm going to show you how I do it anyway. The reason is that I like to start with just water. I start with water and then I put the colors in. This method is called the wet on wet method. What it allows me to do is to combine two different colors or more and let them blend themselves. So my circles aren't boring, aren't stale, they're already interesting, then I just get to build on top of that. 4. HOW to make it stick: Give you some tips on how to maintain a regular practice. Use a timer. I know it sounds trite, but if you know that you only have ten minutes, you will paint differently. It'll actually be a lot more creative because you'll have to go with your intuition more than your reasoning. Another tip would be to prep, this is huge. Have your sketchbook, whether you fill in each page or just the next one. Have it ready to go so that when you finally find that window of time where you can sit down and just work with what you've got, you have something to start from. My last bit of advice for how to keep a daily challenge is just to carry it with you. You'll find me painting during a church sermon in my seat or at the grocery store, a coffee shop. I've painted in my car. I've just pulled over when I had five or ten minutes. So I take my paints and my sketchbook with me everywhere. 5. WHAT supplies I use: These are the supplies that I usually take with me. This is my preferred watercolor sketch book, 140 pound watercolor paper. I usually tear this off and just keep this book. As you can see, it's spiral bound. It's a nice size, about the size of a five-by-seven card. I can take it with me wherever I go, and at least blacked. This is the travel palette that I like to use. It has all these places for putting in paint and mixing wells. This, right here, is for holding it with one hand. I'll show you what mine actually looks like and it's a bit of a disaster. I take it wherever I go. This is a Sakura Koi water brush, and this is a four-point, right here. It has the water well here, to travel with two sizes, there's the small one and this larger one. So I'll make my circle with this and add my details on top with this one. What's great about a water brush is that it's ready to go. So I take out my palette, I squirt out a bit and I'm ready to paint. To wash it out, I'll do the same thing. Squirt, get some water through there and clean it off. Sometimes I do bring along another brush, a clip, a pencil and a kneaded eraser. I put them in a bag that is water-resistant in case anything leaks and I put that in my backpack or purse. 6. WHERE to start: As you decide how to approach these first steps of this, create a challenge, think about what colors you're going to use, if they're light, if they're similar to toned, if they're unsaturated, it's going to be better for layering and working on top of those. But you know what? Once you get comfortable, you can flip those ideas on their head and go for colors that are darker and brighter and more colorful. Choosing which shape to go with really depends on your style and what you tend to like to paint. If you like to use flat brushes that are square and boxy versus round brushes that teardrop shape then that will help you decipher which kind of shape you want to use. The shape that you start with will help decipher which direction you're going to go in for the subject matter that you choose. I tend to work a lot more with fluid organic shapes that are a round. I will use a round brush or a round shape. Here you can see that I wanted to do a bunny and the circle became part of that bunny's anatomy. I started noticing shapes in a lot of things. I love to do portraits, so I did quite a few of those. You may also feel prompted by the things that are going on in your life at the time to help motivate you to paint whatever you want for that day. On this particular week, there was a lot going on in the States. A lot of violence surrounding racial division. Painting from your heart really helps to take away that fear of technique and wanting to do things right and doing really just what you're passionate about. But let's talk more about developing your subject matter now that you have a color and the shape in mind. 7. WHERE is this going?: Let me help you answer the question, where is this going? You get your beautiful shapes or shape, just one I've painted out, whether be a triangle, a square, or a circle. The most critical question is, what are we going to do with it? I have four ways that I look at how I'm going to develop this shape into my subject matter. The first is pretty simple. The shape is the subject matter. If you've painted a circle, it could be a ball and if you painted a square, it could be a block. Here I have a triangle and it's time to take out that small brush. We're going to add the details to bring this shape to life. I'm going to do something super simple and I made this triangle a mountain. My shape is the mountain. To give you an idea of a different shape here is a square that I converted into a store front. Now admittedly, this second way of working is the way that I worked the most often because I'll see something along the road, maybe a flower and I'll see that it has a circle in it. The shape that I started with is part of the subject matter. Here I'm turning a triangle into a hut. Working in this second way where the shape is like an element in your subject matter, helps you put in a lot of details and a lot of creativity into this final piece to make this quirky and fun. There is my final hut. Here's a square example where I turned that square into house. The third route you can take with your shape is for those who just want to treat this shape like a splash of color to work from. If you're just needing to break in your paper and get to painting, this is a really great creative challenge of how you can cover this shape with whatever you want to have. It's best to work with a shape that really light color when you're choosing colors. But just for the sake of a challenge, I went with something pretty dark, dark blue. You see how I am going to make a butterfly out of it. The first thing I do is to make my shape outline of the subject matter so I know what I need to cover up, what I need to work with. I will carry that blue that was in the triangle throughout the butterfly so you can't tell exactly where that triangle was at first. I also had a lot of water to the background to make it reactivate that paint. This is something that I covered in the class just before this. It's just a technique, a method to reactivate that color so that you can work with what you've already painted and make your own changes, make something different out of it. You'll notice that I'm using something that's not watercolor. I'm using white acrylic ink to add these details into the butterfly. It's so dark that I don't really have too many options and it's a fun way to bring new life to your watercolors. Something else that's really important when you're approaching your shape in this way and you're wanting to cover it and create something else that has nothing to do with the shape is to create context. I didn't make a butterfly floating in midair. Earlier in the example with the circle, I also covered the shape with the background, so that it really isn't noticeable. There's the butterflies you can tell. Details go a long way in focusing the viewer on what you've created out of your shape and not on what was underneath. Here's an example of how I turned a square into a suburban house. If you look really closely, you see the square that goes from each corner of the top of the roof to make a house. Now I could have easily made a house like in the last part where I just added a roof on top and boom, I have a house, but in this way, I added a garage, I added some context so really I'm just using that blue square as a block of color that I'm working on top of. The fourth and last strategy that I'm telling you about is a lot like the first. This shape is a, but not the subject matter. Here the cherry could have easily been my subject matter and I could have called it a day and said, my circle turned into a cherry and I'm done but I kept working with it. The subject matter is actually the ice cream cone and not so much the cherry, but it is an aspect of the subject matter. These are the most fun, I think, for the element of surprise. I'm taking this red triangle and it's turning into the hat of unknown. I don't think I've painted unknown before, but it seemed about right for a red triangle. I think he's coming out a little bit like Santa Claus. Again, I'm using some of those techniques from that, oops class in how to deal with time mistakes but the key for working in this way is that your shape that you started with is actually going to be pretty small in your composition. If you are a shape is taking up a lot of your page, it cannot go this route. You can make it the subject matter, you can cover it and you can use it maybe to be as a part of your piece, but it will not be easy to do it this way. A difference between that second strategy of making it a part of your subject matter. This one would be that in that second one, that circle, that square, that triangle was not rendered as such. I'll often use those circles to be the center of a flower but it might not necessarily be that shape. It's just more incorporated into the piece. These last two, I think really push you to think a little more creatively about your shape. You might want to start these exercises with the first two ways of working, really showcase your ingenuity and come out being very fun pieces. So there's my Gnome and my square example is a hotel, except the subject is not really the square. The square is just this small shop that's next to the hotel. These are four different ways that you can approach those shapes and hopefully this has gotten you thinking of a lot of ideas of how you want to take your shapes and move them toward something that would be a creative, fun, surprising, finished piece. 8. HOW to build on top: You may still be wondering how to get started, how to actually paint on your shape. I'm going to show you how I go about it. Like I said, I like to do the next set of shapes when I finish that day's painting. So once I have that ready, I have to sketch with my brush. You might prefer to sketch with a pencil, but I'll go ahead and either boldly or lightly go in with some thin lines to help me get a grasp from what I'm doing. This is not how I usually paint with watercolor. I might start with lighter shades and then build to dark but when it comes to this exercise and just being able to translate that subject matter that I'm wanting to do, I go straight to doodling with a brush. I use a really thin brush. This is a four-point liner brush. Liner brushes have a really long body. Use whatever brush you feel most comfortable with. The larger the brush, the larger your subject matter only to be in your brushstrokes will be. So the reason why I'm using a smaller brush is just to get to those thin little lines. When I usually do a painting, I will build up, but when it comes to this exercise, the reason why I'm going straight to sketching is to give me a better idea of what I'm going to do. It's all about building confidence. Since you're really wanting to push your creativity, you have to set aside some of the ideas you have on technique, so that you can go forward and be confident as you create. Let's talk about some mental shifts that need to happen for you to be able to stick to a challenge like this and really juice your creativity. For one, this is a practice, it's an exercise. If you get to create something that is a finished piece, then wonderful, but approach your pieces like they're just a practice. You'll be pleasantly surprised to take that pressure off. Along with that, do it for the fun of it. Do subject matter that you're excited about, that would be fun, that you would enjoy, that's really on your heart. Something that's impulsive is honestly very creative because you're using that reflex that can't do it. That really makes you get in that creative zone. Have confidence that what you're doing is going to make you a better painter, whether you have a nice piece or not. I think it takes a lot of courage and a lot of hope to be able to approach your paper and get to work. That's something that artists do and it's something that should be accredited to them more; that it takes a lot of courage to just go for it and especially, if you're sharing this in social media or in some sort of a public setting. My last bit of advice is if you are stuck, sketch it out. Have your sheet of your shapes ready to go and give yourself a very limited amount of time and just sketch out as many ideas as you can. As I went along with this, I really didn't plan actually to do examples of each of the ways that you can approach your shapes, but it just happened to be that way. So in this one, this is the body of the beetle, whereas the other one, I was just really just using it as a color swatch. You'll find yourself trying different subject matter and trying to visualize your shapes as different things. This could be your project too. If you just want to dip your toe in and try it out, just do your shapes and sketch on top feverishly and you'll use that as a great creative exercise to get your juices flowing to then do whatever work that you want to do. 9. START!: I hope you're overflowing with ideas because it's time to get started. Whatever you do I want to see it. So grab your supplies if you need more help with that, check additional resources in the discussion and in the notes, whichever is easier for you to access. Paint your shape, choose which shape you're going to do, what colors and go for your subject matter. If you have a hashtag and let us know in the discussion so that we can follow your progress through your challenge, whatever it may be on Instagram or Twitter. Till the next class.