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Elements of Art: Line

Author: Lucy Lamp

What is a line?

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

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

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 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

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

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


Descriptive lines


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

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.


Expressive Qualities of Line

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

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



  • Go for a walk.  Referring to everything discussed in this packet, look for every kind of line you can find in the world around you.  Take your sketchbook/journal and record as many kinds of line as you can.  Make quick sketches of them and note where you found them.



  • Experiment with lines.  Fill  a page with as many kinds of lines as you can, using different colors and different media, i.e. pencil, crayon, watercolor, paint, marker, pastel.