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Line as an art element

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse,1498, woodcut, 38.7 x 27.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse,1498, woodcut, 38.7 x 27.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Line is the most basic visual element. Lines can be used to define shapes and figures, but also to indicate motion, emotion, and other elements.

Contour lines and hatching

In a woodblock print of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer, contour lines — lines that define shapes — are used to mark the outside of all of the elements of the image.
The outline of the hat on one of the horsemen, for example, is clearly made by a few black contour lines. This simple device is so effective that it is hard to remember that there is no hat here, only a few black marks on a white page.
Detail, Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse,1498, woodcut, 38.7 x 27.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Detail, Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse,1498, woodcut, 38.7 x 27.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Note, though, that lines are also used to show shading – the shadows caused when light hits one side of an object, leaving the other in shadow. On the hat, for example, the closely spaced lines, called hatching, show that the left side of his hat is in a shadow. This also helps the hat to look more three-dimensional, giving it a sense of form.
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963, oil and magna on canvas, 172.00 x 203.50 cm (National Galleries, Scotland, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2018)
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963, oil and magna on canvas, 172.00 x 203.50 cm (National Galleries, Scotland, © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2018)
Contour lines outline all the figures and forms in the image, creating the illusion of shading and form. In addition, there are horizontal lines in the background. While these create shading, but they also help create the sense that the riders are moving rapidly from left to right. Motion lines may be familiar to you from comic strips, but they appear in all sorts of work.

Organic and inorganic (geometric) lines

In the Dürer print, we can also divide the lines into organic and inorganic (or geometric) lines (see the section on shape for more on organic and inorganic). Organic lines are loose, curving lines like those found in nature. In the Dürer print, the lines of the horses’ manes and tails, the figures’ hair, and the ruffled clouds are all organic. Inorganic lines are generally straight or perfectly curving lines, like those found in geometry. In this image, most of the lines are organic, but the horizontal lines in the background are inorganic.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm (Louvre, Paris)
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm (Louvre, Paris)

Implied lines

We can also look for implied lines. These are not actually drawn, but we can connect the dots (literally or figuratively) to create the lines in our minds. Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks contains wonderful examples of implied lines.
Here, the implied lines are sight lines, which guide us throughout the image. These help us know where to look, and show us what is important in the painting. Follow the gazes of the figures as they look and point at one another. The angel in the red cape to the right looks out at us, and then points at the infant John the Baptist, at the left. He looks at the infant Jesus, who in turn looks back again at him. Above, Mary looks down at Jesus, and also gestures toward him with her hand.
Detail with implied lines, Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm (Louvre, Paris)
Detail with implied lines, Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86, oil on panel, 199 x 122 cm (Louvre, Paris)
Basically, once we make it into the space of the painting by meeting the gaze of the angel, we become locked in a cycle of movement between the holy figures, guided by their sight lines.

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    In the case of the implied lines in the da Vinci, what determines that we should begin with the angel's gaze and read from there? Could we not begin with any of the figures' gesture or gaze? How would the painting "read" differently depending on where we began?
    (21 votes)
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  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user 26dlam
    what is the purpose of the implied sight lines
    (4 votes)
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  • mr pink green style avatar for user Jaquavius
    in it it said " and this helps give it a more three dimensional look" wich art drawing are they talking about?
    (5 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Art 3D - 2B
    What is this painting about?
    (6 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There were 3 paintings in the lesson. The first one is an illustration from the Revelation to St. John the Divine in the Bible. There's lots of fantastic imagery in there. Martin Luther referred to the Revelation as "a gospel of darkness".
      The second painting, by Roy Lichtenstein, is used to show us how "lines" can indicate motion.
      The third painting, by daVinci, is a group of people and an angel. It is NOT a photograph of anyone or of anything that ever happened at one time. It is a devotional work to demonstrate the relationship between St. Mary, St. John the Baptist, and Jesus. The angel is included as an indication for God's care over them.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ceades65
    How is it known that Jesus is not the baby closest to the figure in the middle? I look at this and think baby Jesus on the left and baby John & mom on right.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Maria Clara  Barbosa
    Why one can know this is an angel and not another human?
    What is the meaning of this figure pointing out baby John?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Klyde Warren
      I was having a hard time telling whether this was an angel too. Either way, I think she's telling us a story. She's pointing at John because John came before Jesus to announce His arrival to ministry. That's where we start. Jesus is looking back at John because John is the one who baptized him and foretold his arrival. Mary is gesturing towards Jesus as the future "hero" of the story. Jesus is the center of this story because it essentially ends with his death and resurrection.
      (4 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Nesreen Salah
    how can I download these articles? I need it as a source for a class in uni. Thank you so much.
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      1) Open the article on your computer screen.
      2) Zoom "out" so that it's very small.
      3) Use the snipping tool (in older windows machines) or whatever does that function in your computer to take a snapshot of the article and save it as a .png file.
      4) Open the file in a photo editing program and expand it back up to where you can see it.
      Conclusion) No, that's not the same as downloading, but you at least have the contents without having to log back in.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user yalani pagan
    what is the purpose of the implied sight lines
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Minho Takei
    I thought dots are the most basic element of art?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user arico23
    what Material did he use?
    (2 votes)
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