July 24, 2016

What is the Job of Line?

Lines have strength, clarity, and simplicity. In a drawing, they are the most basic form of communication.

Artwork by Christy Olsen

Think of a bird on a wire, 'line' has a pretty fundamental job, to hold up the bird and represent the wire; however, without that one element of visual communication, the bird has no place to rest and would appear to float in the air, leaving the viewer to question the context.

In a comic strip, lines can create the illusion of motion or persuade us based on their characteristics and types, but what other jobs can lines do?

The more you study the nature of lines, the more confident you will become using them. Here's a list of some of the jobs that lines do.

Functions of Lines

Contour & Shape

Contour describes the limits of forms in space according to the viewer's perspective. It represents the edge of a particular object, usually chosen as the edges or extreme contrast in the values of two tones (i.e., contrast). These lines emphasize the boundaries or outlines of an object.

An enclosed line is a "shape." Shapes are the external boundary or outlines of an area surrounded by a line, contour, or silhouette.


'Form' is difficult to explain within two dimensions.

For example, a cylinder is a rectangle when looked at head-on but looking down on it.

Curves, angles, or ellipses convey the structure of an object and where it sits in space with regards to the viewer.

Geometric or organic, it provides the three-dimensional (3D) information needed within a two-dimensional (2D) space so that the viewer can determine their relationship to the object.

For example, the form of a curved ellipse will tell the audience if they are looking up or down at a cylinder and what angle.


Or sometimes referred to as a schematic, it is a structured framework or armature on which to build other lines in a drawing. When creating symmetrical objects, these lines help guide the draftsperson.

Construction lines and using an imaginary box may help the artist determine how the form or figure turns in space.


A dividing line can limit an area or divide a space, such as the ones in between each of these concepts. In drawing or painting, a grid, borders, or a rectangle may be used to organize a drawing on the page and help plan the composition, or we use it to measure proportions.

Symbols or Text

Lines create symbols. Everyone is familiar with hieroglyphics, the Egyptian writing that used pictures to communicate words and syllables. Lines also create text within a language to convey thoughts, memories, or ideas without speech.

Decorative Style

Sometimes lines are just meant to be ornamental, such as decorations or motifs that visually affect the viewer. For example, the lines shown within the frame are for decorative purposes only.

These lines are sinuous, graceful, cursive lines inspired by flowers & plants, typical of the Art Nouveau style. This art movement, developed in the 1880s, was a protest toward the up and coming age of the industrial revolution and the mechanization of the unnatural or 'man-made' artifacts produced and sold from it.


Lines that repeat predictably create patterns. They have a chosen effect on the viewer and are pleasing to the eye or as part of an overall design. Patterns can be radial or linear.


Lines that do not repeat predictably create the appearance of a textured surface.

Hatching or Tone

Lines close together to produce a tonal gradation, shade of gray, or a single tone depending on how close the lines are together. These can be loose and gestural or structured and controlled.


Lines can lead a viewer's eye through a piece of fine art or lead the viewer throughout space.

Have you ever stopped to ponder how you use lines?