The Elements: Line
Line is not necessarily an artificial creation of the artist or designer; it exists in nature as a structural feature such as branches, or as surface design, such as striping on a tiger or a seashell.
It can function independently to suggest forms that can be recognized, even when the lines are limited in extent. This can be seen in drawings such as the Saul Steinberg illustration shown here, or in Alexander Calder's minimal wire sculptures, which convey a great deal of information about the figure with the most limited line.
Lines can be combined with other lines to create textures and patterns. This is common in engravings and pen and ink drawings such as the one on the right (click and enlarge to see linear detail). The use of line in combination results in the development of form and value, which are other elements of design.
Expressive Qualities of LineCertain arrangements of line are commonly understood to carry certain kinds of information.
For example, calligraphy is recognizable as a representation of words, even when we do not know the language. Calligraphic imagery is often used by modern artists simply because of the mysterious messages implied in the "code" of unknown language.
Line in the form of maps is readily recognized as a symbolic representation of a place. The place may be a local neighborhood, or the entire world. It may be a carefully measured representation, or a stylized diagram, such as a subway map. In either case, we understand it to be a device by which we can understand the relationship between places; how to get from "here" to "there."
Floor plans are a specialized kind of map, a commonly understood device which describes a building. This linear language can be understood even when the building is as unusual as this one, which was to be constructed of a sprayed foam material in a decidedly unconventional form.
Graphs are another readily recognizable linear device. They are widely used to communicate quantitative information and relationships in a visual way. From the time we first meet them in basic algebra, to the last time we picked up a copy of USA Today, we encounter and interpret graphs.
Line also communicates emotion and states of mind through its character and direction. The variations of meaning generally relate to our bodily experience of line and direction.
Horizontal line suggests a feeling of rest or repose. Objects parallel to the earth are at rest in relation to gravity. Therefore compositions in which horizontal lines dominate tend to be quiet and restful in feeling. One of the hallmarks of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural style is its use of strong horizontal elements which stress the relationship of the structure to the land.
Vertical lines communicate a feeling of loftiness and spirituality. Erect lines seem to extend upwards beyond human reach, toward the sky. They often dominate public architecture, from cathedrals to corporate headquarters. Extended perpendicular lines suggest an overpowering grandeur, beyond ordinary human measure.
Diagonal lines suggest a feeling of movement or direction. Since objects in a diagonal position are unstable in relation to gravity, being neither vertical nor horizontal, they are either about to fall, or are already in motion, as is certainly the case for this group of dancers. In a two dimensional composition diagonal lines are also used to indicate depth, an illusion of perspective that pulls the viewer into the picture-creating an illusion of a space that one could move about within. Thus if a feeling of movement or speed is desired, or a feeling of activity, diagonal lines can be used.
Deep, acute curves, on the other hand, suggest confusion, turbulence, even frenzy, as in the violence of waves in a storm, the chaos of a tangled thread, or the turmoil of lines suggested by the forms of a crowd. The complicated curves used to form the mother in the family group shown above suggest a fussy, frivolous personality.
Curved lines do vary in meaning, however. Soft, shallow curves suggest comfort, safety, familiarity, relaxation. They recall the curves of the human body, and therefore have a pleasing, sensual quality.
The quality of the line is in itself a fundamental visual language, to an extent that cannot be claimed for any other single element. Its use is so universal that we are all profoundly sensitive to it. Even without an artist's training, we can extract considerable meaning from the kind of line used in a drawing. It is possible to recognize the soft, irregular lines of a quick sketch from life, as seen in this study of a lion.