The Powerful Persuasion of Line

Authored by Christy Olsen
3-minute read.

In the visual arts, 'line' is the most basic form of communication. However, lines may also enhance the mood, invoke feelings, or stir an emotional response from the viewer. Depending on the tools we use, we can create various lines that could make an object feel either sharp, jagged, man-made, graceful, smooth, or organic. For example, perfectly straight lines feel artificial or man-made, whereas squiggles feel more organic.

Artwork by Christy Olsen

The Definition of Line

LINE noun. a long narrow mark on a surface.

In geometry, the definition of a line is anything formed by the connection of two points. In drawing, when we make a one-dimensional mark on a surface, we are "mark-making."

The Characteristics of Line

Direction - Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, radial, curved, squiggly, implied, or psychic.

Length - Long, short, continuous, or broken

Width - Thick, thin, uneven, or tapered

Quality - this comes from how we draw the line, i.e., gestural, quickly, confidently, or carefully; robust and bold mark vs. weak mark, dark, highly contrasted mark vs. light or little contrast mark.

Focus comes from edges, which can be sharp, firm, soft, or lost. Note that what we often perceive as natural lines are changes in color, value, or edges.

Falling Tree

Most well-thought-out drawings always begin with the powerful persuasion of line, even at the most basic level. For example, a diagonal line expresses action, movement, or motion. It can be perceived as either rising or falling and is dynamic. Think of a forest. Right before it hits the ground, a falling tree can be communicated a diagonal among a sea of other trees, the vertical straight lines.

Diagonals are emotionally "active," meaning they engage the viewer because it is a freeze-frame of motion that has occurred or is about to happen. In contrast, a horizontal line is emotionally "passive" it puts the viewer at ease and suggests a lack of motion, stillness, or even a sense of order. Think of the horizon of a sunset or a figure lying down.

Line Types

Horizontal Line
HORIZONTAL - Straight from left to right or right to left
  • Spatially: STATIC
  • Example: landscapes or the line of the ocean in a sunset

Vertical Line
VERTICAL - Straight up and down
  • Emotional: PASSIVE, however, conveys a sense of ALERTNESS.
  • Spatially: STATIC but may indicate HEIGHT or ELONGATION.
  • Example: a tall tree trunk, building, or the gesture of a person standing up

Diagonal Line
DIAGONAL - Slanted or Angled
  • Spatially: DYNAMIC may indicate depth when using the system of linear perspective drawing.
  • Represents: COMBAT, CONFUSION, or CLASH
  • Example: an object falling or about to fall, i.e., a tree that has just been axed, i.e., much more visually intense than vertical or horizontal lines

Curved Line
CURVED OR PARABOLA - not straight, organic, or natural
  • Emotionally: ACTIVE
  • Spatially: DYNAMIC
  • Represents: EXCITEMENT, ELASTICITY, or ACTIVITY; Nonthreatening
  • Example: Found as contours for biological objects or materials

Curved Line
SEMI-CIRCLE OR ARC - Curved with a consistent radius
  • Emotionally: ACTIVE
  • Spatially: DYNAMIC
  • Example: Found as contours for biological objects or materials

Implied Line
BROKEN - A line that is not continuous or missing pieces.
IMPLIED - A series of points or marks that the eye automatically follows or the brain connects together; a line of dots or dashes
  • Emotionally: ACTIVE or PASSIVE depending on the direction, may express the ephemeral or the insubstantial.
  • Spatially: DYNAMIC or STATIC depending on the direction
  • Represents: direction or suggestion of the direction
  • Example: A trail of crumbs, a group of cars one behind another, a group of people in line at a concert, or a grid line

Psychic Line
PSYCHIC- Invisible line from one element to another, our eyes follow it, which creates a "line" in our mind's eye
  • Emotionally: ACTIVE or PASSIVE depending on the direction
  • Spatially: DYNAMIC or STATIC depending on the direction
  • Represents: direction or suggestion of the direction
  • Example: sign pointing in a particular direction or someone's eyes staring in a specific direction

Squiggle Lines
SQUIGGLE - a short line that curls & loops in an irregular way
JAGGED - not straight, angles or pointed elements
  • Emotionally: ACTIVE
  • Spatially: DYNAMIC
  • Represents: Curved = ORGANIC, not man-made; Jagged = ANXIETY or TURMOIL
  • Example: freehand drawn lines could be used for shading

Thick & Thin
CONTINUOUS - Solid line that may lead the eye in certain directions
LINE WIDTH - the thickness of the line
CREATION - How the line is made
  • THICK - Represents: STRENGTH
  • THIN - Represents: Fragile or delicate
  • FREEHAND - May express the personal energy of the maker and influence the mood or emotion
  • MECHANICAL - Digital or drafting made with a ruler for accuracy or precision may express rigid control

The Dot and the Line

Have you ever heard of The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics? It was a short love story written in 1963, which became a film produced by MGM. In this short 10-minute animation, multiple line types are shown, and the narrator describes their emotional content. Look it up on YouTube!

Creating numerous varieties of lines and understanding how to manipulate them will enable you to use lines to your advantage when mastering the art of drawing. What types of lines are you using?

Follow Christy Olsen
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