Line in Art – The Most Fundamental Visual Element

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Line is perhaps the most fundamental of all the visual elements. It broadly refers to a mark which spans between two points. But there are many different types and uses of line. In this post, I cover:

Albrecht Durer, Christmas,1514
Albrecht Durer, Christmas,1514

Line Types

Lines can be:

  • Straight or curved
  • Thick or thin
  • Rigid or organic
  • Horizontal or vertical
  • Broken or continuous

Notice how there are always two opposites. This gives many opportunities to create some interesting juxtapositions in your paintings using line.

Leonardo da Vinci, Sketch the Tuscan Landscape, 1473

Different Uses of Line

Outlining

By outlining the boundary an object, you can help distinguish it from its surroundings. In Nicholai Fechin’s drawing below, notice the use of crisp outlining combined with subtle tonal changes to render the subject. The end result is a delicate and intricate drawing.

Nicolai Fechin Drawing
Nicolai Fechin Drawing

Tonal Changes

Line can be used to pick up tonal changes in a subject by varying the density and thickness of the lines. For example, in the drawing below by Leonardo da Vinci, the lines get denser in the shadows. This is also referred to as hatching.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Skull
Leonardo da Vinci, The Skull

Cross-Hatching

Cross-hatching is another technique mostly used for shading and picking up tonal changes. It involves the use of lines which cross over each other like a mesh. Areas around the intersecting lines tend to be denser, creating an interesting variance in tone. In Albrecht Durer’s drawing below, you can see cross-hatching being used on the face, neck and for parts of the clothing.

Albrecht Durer, Portrait of the Artist Lucas Van Leyden, 1512
Albrecht Durer, Portrait of the Artist Lucas Van Leyden, 1512

Reiterating Form by Following the Contours

You can use line to reiterate the form of the subject by following the contours. Vincent van Gogh did this in many of his paintings, like Pair of Shoes. Also, notice how van Gogh used lines around the shoes (on the right-hand side), not just on them.

Vincent van Gogh, Pair of Shoes,1888
Vincent van Gogh, Pair of Shoes,1888

In the following drawing, notice how da Vinci’s strokes follow around the form of the arms. You can also see some exploratory lines from da Vinci feeling out the drawing.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hands
Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hands

Creating a Sense of Movement

Line is useful for picking up a sense of movement in your artwork, particularly for subjects like water or wind. In Claude Monet’s Stormy Sea, thin lines of blue reiterate the movement and flow of the water. These lines also come to an abrupt stop as it comes to the end of the turbulent whitewater.

Claude Monet, Stormy Sea, 1884
Claude Monet, Stormy Sea, 1884

Implied Lines

Implied lines do not physically exist, but are instead implied or suggested through the arrangement of elements or objects. One of the most powerful implied lines is a line of vision (the invisible line which marks where we are looking). In Joaquín Sorolla’s painting below, implied lines created by the researchers looking down draw your attention to the area on the table. We want to look where the men are looking.

Joaquín Sorolla, Research, 1897
Joaquín Sorolla, Research, 1897

Other Examples of Line

Rigid lines depict the girl in the woods in van Gogh’s sketch. Dense cross-hatching in the background pushes the area back into darkness.

Vincent Van Gogh, Girl in the Woods. The Figure in the Letter, 1882
Vincent Van Gogh, Girl in the Woods. The Figure in the Letter, 1882

Michelangelo used line to pick up the gesture of the human figure below. Notice how he explored variations in the pose.

Michelangelo - Gesture Drawing
Michelangelo, Gesture Drawing

Line sketches are great for exploring compositions; they are quick and efficient. You can convey a significant amount of information with just a few clever lines.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Trivulzio Equestrian Monument
Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Trivulzio Equestrian Monument

Take note of all the varied lines da Vinci used to draw the horse’s face: short, long, thick, thin, dark, and faint. The result is a very expressive drawing.

Leonardo da Vinci, Horse's Head, c.1503-1504
Leonardo da Vinci, Horse’s Head, c.1503-1504

Below is another drawing by Fechin. This is a masterclass in linework, particularly the outlining.

Nicolai Fechin Drawing 2
Nicolai Fechin, Drawing

Learn More

If you want to learn more, you should check out my post on the other visual elements or the principles of art.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

1 thought on “Line in Art – The Most Fundamental Visual Element”

  1. Dan, your posts, books, compilations, explanations – all are joyful meditation. Thank you for making one and all fall in love with Art.

    Reply

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