How to Use Line Effectively

This article explains the different types of lines that can be used in art. It discusses the ways in which they can make a composition more effective by guiding the viewer through a piece in a planned manner.

Line is more than the straight, continuous mark with which we are all familiar.  The function of a basic line like this is simply to divide two spaces. Or perhaps it is an arrow and it serves to direct your attention to a specific spot. However simple the concept of line may seem, it is a much more complex element of design than this standard view suggests.

First, we must redefine the term line. In addition to the continuous mark I mentioned earlier, lines can also be implied. The space between two planes of color (fig. 1) implies a line, even though there is no mark there.

Another type of implied line can be created through a figures line of sight. Though there is no mark on the canvas, your eye will still follow the direction that you see the figure looking. In figure 2, notice how your eye goes first to the Madonna figure, then follows her gaze down to the Christ child, and then follows his eyes down to the book.

Another way that artists imply lines is by essentially creating a connect-the-dots piece using similarly sized or shaped objects within a composition. An example of this is shown in figure 3. Albrecht Durer uses round objects to draw the eye down to St. Jerome’s head and then down to the lion at his floor.

Once you understand these different kinds of lines, it is important to understand how to use them. The primary way to use line is to direct the flow of the piece and show the viewer where to look. In general people read an image in the order shown in figure 4a. A poster or piece with text is more likely to be read as shown in figure 4b.

Understanding the way that people view your work allow you to put the important elements of a design in a place where they will receive adequate attention. Contrary to popular belief, the dead center of the page isn’t the most interesting are to place an object. S-shaped compositions are effective because they allow the viewer to read the piece in an intuitive way. Another benefit of a well-planned linear composition is that you can actually make someone look at the piece for longer. Refer to 4a and imagine that the focal point of the piece is in the bottom right corner; people would only look long enough to see it. If there were points of interest along all of those lines, then people would spend longer viewing and understanding the piece.

That is the meaning of using line effectively – it isn’t just about line quality (straight or curved, dotted or dashed) and about direction. Anyone can draw a line and people’s gaze will follow it. The real art lies in a nuanced approach to this practice, where the invisible implied lines guide the viewer gently but purposefully through the content of your pieces.

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