Understanding formal elements and how to use them is like having a toolbox full of different tools. Everything you need is there, and you can choose which tools work best for the job--your artwork.. Breaking down visual language into specific formal elements and design principles will help you translate your idea into the visual language that expresses it most effectively and influences the viewer’s response.
What is a line? Geometrically, it connects two points. A line is a path traced by a moving point, i.e. a pencil point or a paintbrush. We see lines all around us. Line is a vital element of any artwork.
Actual and Implied lines.
Actual lines are marks or objects that are real lines; they exist physically. Examples of actual lines include lines painted on a highway, tree branches, lines incised on the surface of gravestone, telephone poles, neon signs, and words on a page. Contour lines define the edges of objects, like the sides of a bookcase, the edges of a table, a boulder, a window. Contour lines define both the edges of the object and the negative space between them, such as the space between the rungs of a ladder.
Implied lines are lines that we see in our mind’s eye that fill in the spaces between objects, such as a line of lights in the ceiling and the rows of windows in a large office building. Implied lines are also found in the gaze between two people. We imagine a line that goes from one person’s eyes to the other. Implied lines can also extend beyond the edges of an artwork.
Stonhenge c2500 BCE Wiltshire County, England
Image Source http://www.flickr.com/photos/garethwiscombe/1071477228/in/photostream/ Author garethwiscombe
This a good example of implied line: the horizontal stone on top of the vertical stones appears to extend across the vertical stones on either side of it.
Geometric and Organic Lines
Geometric lines are mathematically determined. They have regularity and hard or sharp edges. True geometric lines are rarely found in nature, but often found in man-made constructions. They convey a sense of order, conformity, and reliability.
Sol LeWitt Bands of Lines in Four Directions in Black and White 1977
screenprint on paper 15 x 19 inches
Collection Walker Art Center; Gift of the artist, 1983
Organic lines are the types of lines found in nature. They are irregular, curved, and often fluid. They convey a sense of gracefulness, dynamism, and spontaneity.
Hasegawa Tohaku Pine Trees (left hand screen) 16th century
Pair of six-folded screens; ink on paper. 156.8 × 356 cm (61.73 × 140.16 in) Tokyo National Museum
Horizontal, Vertical, and Diagonal Lines
Horizontal lines suggest landscape and the horizon. They impart a sense of peacefulness, vastness, and constancy.
Caspar David Friedrich The wanderer above the sea of fog 1818
oil on canvas 98 × 74 cm (38.58 × 29.13 in) Hamburger Kunsthalle
Vertical lines suggest alert attention. They imply strength, power, and authority.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres), Chartres, France 1193--1250
Diagonal lines suggest action and movement. They convey dynamism, vitality, and animation.
Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group
Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC.
Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.Height 8' (2.4 m.) Current location Museo Pio-Clementino, Octagon, Laocoön Hall
Horizontal and vertical lines used together suggest permanence. They imply sturdiness, solidity, and immovability.
The Parthenon,a temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece, dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, 447-438 BCE
Descriptive lines give us information. Descriptive lines are used in such things as handwriting, charts and diagrams. They can also be used as decorative elements. Descriptive lines are used in two dimensional work to suggest three dimensionality (i.e. cross-hatching), and texture.
Calligraphy Illustrations bismi-llāhi ar-raħmāni ar-raħīmi بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Source: made by a volunteer Author Faïcel Ben Yedder
Calligraphic variations that represent the phrase "name of God the Merciful", used in recitations of the Qur'an, during daily prayers, and on dedication inscriptions on gravestones, buildings and works of art.
Anglo-Saxon golden belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, Suffolk (England). 7th century AD.
With cast ornament and niello inlay British Museum Gift of Mrs E.M. Pretty
The linear decoration of this waist belt reflects the wealth and status of the owner.
Bones of the left hand. Volar surface, Henry Vandyke Carter
From the 20th U.S. edition of Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body, originally published in 1918
The lines used in anatomical illustration must accurately and effectively describe human anatomy.
Rembrandt Van Rijn The Three Crosses, 1653 etching, drypoint and burin 387 × 455 mm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Bequeathed to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam in 1962 Image Source www.rijksmuseum.nl
Rembrandt's many prints are excellent examples of cross-hatching, using line to create (or describe) a sense of three dimensionality. Rembrandt also used cross-hatching to create a dramatic contrast between light and dark.
32,000 year old Hyena painting found in Chauvet cave, France
Image Source Carla Hufstedler originally posted to Flickr as 20,000 Year Old Cave Paintings: Hyena
Although the lines in this cave painting appear very expressive, its intent is not to be an expression of the artist. The purpose is is to describe the essence of the hyena, not just what it looks like, but the fluidity of its motion. The artist understood the animal on a very intimate level.
The expressive qualities of line are as variable as each artist’s work.
Lines can be short, long, thick, thin, thick and thin, smooth, textured, broken, flowing, erratic, dark, light, dark and light, heavy, soft, hard, playful, ordered, even, variable, calligraphic, authoritative, tentative, irregular, smudged, uneven, straight, crooked, choppy, ghostly, graceful; the variety is endless.
Each type of line says something different; each evokes a different response. In some way, line is an integral part of every artwork. Careful consideration of the quality of line used support s and enhances the artist’s intent.
Expressive lines impart emotional qualities to lines. For example, lines with sharp peaks are not easily read by our eyes and impart a feeling of uneasiness. In contrast, lines without sharp edges, which allow our eyes to flow easily, make us feel calm and comfortable.
Sharply angled lines suggest excitement, anger, danger, chaos.
Mark Di Suvero Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore 1967 painted steel and cable
The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washinton DC
Flat lines suggest calm.
Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi Dnepr in the morning 1881 Oil on canvas 105 × 167 cm
Wide lines suggest bold strength.
Gently curving lines suggest unhurried pleasure.
Kate Harris, Presentation cup with lid 1901
William Hutton & Sons, Ltd.
Silver with semi-precious stones 14 1/2 x 12 x 6 1/4 in.
Creation Place:Europe, England, London Gift of funds from the Decorative Arts Council
Gestural lines reveal the touch of the artist’s hand, arm--and sometimes the entire body—in the artwork.
Piet Mondrian, Gray Tree 1911
Oil on canvas 78.5 x 107.5 cm (30 7/8 x 42 3/8 in)
Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague
Käthe Kollwitz Self-Portrait 1921 Etching on paper, 8 1/2 x 10 1/2 in.
Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition Fund © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS)/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1984 acrylic and mixed media on canvas
Grace Hartigan Billboard 1957
Oil on canvas 78 1/2 x 87 in. (199.4 x 221.0 cm)
Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Julia B. Bigelow Fund