The best pictorial compositions are simple. Simple shapes are easy to recognize and remember. Busy pictures with lots of little separate shapes have less impact. My own work stands improvement in this area, so I’ve been trying to figure out how the masters did it. Below: Mermaid, by Howard Pyle.
Achieving simplicity doesn’t always mean restricting yourself to just a few minimal forms, like one apple against a blank background. You can have plenty of elements or figures and still have an uncluttered picture. The trick is to cleverly arrange the elements so that adjacent tonal shapes fuse together into larger abstract patterns.
According to Charles DeFeo, Howard Pyle used to say, “Put your white against white, middle tones (groups) against grays, black against black, then black and white where you want your center of interest. This sounds simple, but is difficult to do.” The picture above is by Mead Schaeffer, a grand-student of Pyle through Harvey Dunn.
You can unify shapes by losing them in an enveloping cloud of shadow, and the light areas can spill over into each other. The Lincoln picture below is by Pyle.
This automatically sets up unexpected larger shapes with great abstract beauty and expressive power.
To my knowledge there’s no word in art theory for this idea, so I would like to suggest the term “shape welding.”
Shape welding shows up not only with Howard Pyle and the Brandywine School, but also with academic painters like Bouguereau (above). All these artists were clearly thinking about shape welding, but I don't know what they called it. The only word I’ve run across to name it is the French word “effet,” which in the academies meant the large overall pattern of light and dark.
Maybe someone reading this blog will know other terms that have been used by artists to describe this principle.