Art Term Tuesday: Line

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

What’s in a line? That which we call a line by any other name would draw as sweet. Or would it? A line is, essentially, a dot taking a walk. [We took a dot for a walk in a previous Saturday Studio post featuring Francisco Valverde’s drip paintings, see gallery below, top right]. Now, this dot could be walking the straight and narrow or it could be jumping jaggedly, hopping parking meters. Maybe the dot had a little too much to drink with friends and is now tracing diagonal, parallel lines down the road. Or, perhaps the dots have gone to war, radiating in circular lines out from their fort to conquer the surrounding environs. Whatever the dot is up to, nefarious or not, it creates one of the seven visual elements of art, arguably the most fundamental: the line.  

Not just something you wait in, spaced six feet apart, to get into Trader Joe’s, the line is the most basic visual element used to delineate shapes and figures, motion and emotion, in any medium. A line, straight or curved, indicates the edge of a two-dimensional (flat) shape or a three-dimensional form. The expressive quality of the line derives from its various types: curly, thick, thin, horizontal, vertical, zigzag, directional, diagonal, curved, or spiraling. An identifiable mark moving between two points in space, the line assists with visualizing the movement, direction, and intention of the pen, pencil, or brush of the artist based on its orientation. Artists can work with both explicit and implicit lines, meaning they can draw an actual line or use an implied line through the arrangements of figures and objects on the canvas. Take Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, below. Do you see any lines?

Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1452-1519. Virgin of the Rocks. Oil on canvas, ca. 1483-86. Musee du Louvre, Public Domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not so much. The composition Leonardo da Vinci has chosen, or the way he has grouped his figures, implies a line and guides our eye over and through the image. Though the lines are not explicitly drawn, we recognize the situational elements because we understand the physical world, and, therefore, our brains are able to fill the spaces and connect the lines in our minds. Our focus falls first on the woman, as the tallest and most central figure. We then follow her eyeline down her outstretched hand toward the baby, who is making eye contact with the other baby. Even the other person, the man, his hand points toward the baby across from him, creating implied lines and an unfinished triangle, or pyramid. Without these implied lines, how would our eyes “read” the painting? Would we get lost in the detailed background? Where would our eye rest? 

Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1452-1519. Virgin of the Rocks. Oil on canvas, ca. 1483-86. Musee du Louvre, Public Domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to actual (real lines) and implied lines (lines created in our minds through their placement in the composition, as seen above), artists can also utilize vertical lines to draw attention; horizontal lines to effect calm, the landscape, and the horizon line; diagonal lines to elicit movement and action; gestural lines, which reveal the touch of the artists’ hand; and contour (outline) lines to define the edges of objects and the negative space between them. All the lines aid the viewer in leading the eye around the composition, or “reading” the artwork, and communicate information through their character and direction. Take a moment to look at the lithograph, below, by Irving Amen. How many types of lines can you identify? How do they help to lead your eye around the work? 

Irving Amen, American, 1918-2011. The Quest. Color lithograph. Gift of Irving Amen, 1981.06.1. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

 Our focus is pulled first to the man on the horse. Not only is he taller than the other characters and objects, but he is outlined by a dark, circular shadow. Our eyes move down to his arm, and following the diagonal line of his jousting stick, parallel to his horses’ neck, we come to the ground. Along the ground are more diagonal lines that lead our eye to the object in the far-right corner. What is that? It’s a windmill! From the windmill, our eyes follow the lines across the sky back to the people, particularly the smaller man astride the donkey or mule. His upturned face leads us back to the taller man, creating a closed, circular path. By using actual lines, contour lines, diagonal lines, and implied lines, the artist leads our eye around the entire composition. We call these “sight lines”, lines that not only guide our eyes through the image but also show us where to look and what is important to look at.  

Lines can be organic, loose and curving like those found in nature, or inorganic, straight or perfectly curving, like those found in mathematics. Some artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, choose to hide their lines while others, like Irving Amen, show their lines. They may also use their lines to create patterns or rhythm. A pattern is a repetition of lines or shapes while a rhythm is the regular repetition of lines or shapes. Both strategies assist artists, like Julian Stanczak, in creating illusions. Examine the painting below, how many lines do you see? 

Julian Stanczak, Polish American, 1928-2017. Tactile See Through. Acrylic on canvas, 1974. Courtesy of the Julian Stanczak Estate. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Mixing the repetition of actual lines of color (pattern) and color theory, Stanczak creates the illusion of movement. [This style, called Optical “Op” art, was pioneered by Stanczak and possible thank to acrylic paints, which don’t yellow or fade over time].  

Before the advent of photography, the line was the standard format for printed illustrations, whether newspapers or books, using stippling and hatching for shades of gray. German artist Albrecht Durer is recognized for his woodblock prints that employ line to illustrate texts. In the print below, an illustration from the Book of Revelations in the Bible, he uses horizontal lines to provide a sense of space, vertical lines for a sense of height, and diagonal lines to evoke movement. The curving lines convey energy and emotion; all of the lines, in fact, create shadow and negative space, as the white parts are the printed paper.  

Albrecht Durer, German, 1471-1528. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse. Woodcut, 1497-1498. Public Domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Now, let’s practice our lines! Grab a blank piece of paper and a pencil or pen (or, if you prefer, your tablet and pen). Your task? Draw a form using ONE single line. This means that you do not pick your drawing utensil up from your chosen drawing surface. We call these line drawings. Often, these are sketches, but they can be the finished work as well! Kaitlin Binkley, FWMoA’s Director of Visual Communications, made these line drawings for the covers of the 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards published books of the Gold Key and Silver Key Award recipients, which can be found online and on display in the 2021 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards exhibition through April 10th, 2021.   

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