Elements of Design – Line


In his popular art appreciation book, A World of Art, Henry M. Sayer writes:

One of the most fundamental elements of art is line. If you take pencil to paper you can draw a straight line or a curved one. Straight lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Curved lines can be circular or oval (or segments of circles and ovals), or they can be free-form. Lines can abruptly change direction, in an angle or a curve. They seem to possess direction – they can rise or fall, head off to the left or to the right, disappear in the distance. Lines can divide one thing from another or they can connect things together. They can be thick or thin, long or short, smooth or agitated.”

A line is the mark a moving point describes. A line can vary in weight (heaviness of the mark) and width. A line can also vary in shape, it can have smooth edges, or jagged edges, they can be sharply pointed or blunt. Lines create psychological and emotional responses in the viewer. It can communicate as a symbol or as a motion, by way of its direction. Each of these qualities contributes to the expressiveness of the line.

Lines vary in width. In a pencil drawing, lines are measured in both length and width. A line separating the sky and the edge of a building or horizon I measured by length, it has no width. It only delineates a border. These lines are created by contrasts, changes in color or value.

Martinique, Andre Kertesz, 1972

Image Source

An example exists in the image above, you see a photograph composed entirely of lines, shapes and tones. The line created by the horizon has no width, it is a boundary line, a line delineating two shapes. As mentioned above it is created by a change in contrast.

The wedge shaped strip of ocean above the handrail creates its own flat toned shape and becomes a line. The verticals just below the handrail create a counterpoint to the preponderance of horizontal lines and create a rhythm contrasting with the other flat toned areas in the image. The lines of the handrail and the thin cloud in the middle of the frame both converge toward what is assumed the subject of the shot, a human form behind the glass. It could be argued though that this image is not about the human behind the glass, but purely a study in design. Imagine removing any one element in the image; the glass, the railing the human form, the sky or the ocean.  Would it have the same visual power?

Ask yourself, what would you do to improve on the image given the subject matter? Squint your eyes and look at it as a collection of darks and lights. Does the image seemed balanced in use of line? Also, notice how the image does not seem to use the “rule of thirds” as a compositional device, instead Kertesz successfully uses an “L” armature for the placement.

Lines can be explicit or implicit. A traffic lane line in the middle of the street is explicit. It can be seen, and is an object within the space. A line that is “suggested” by placing objects near each other is an implicit or implied line. In the illustrations above, an implied line exists between the circles. In the first instance, there is an implied line between the two circles. In the second instance there are implied lines running between all three circles, creating a triangle.

An implicit line might also be a line suggested by “motion” within the frame as you see in the image below.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Image Source

Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

In this Cartier-Bresson image, Hyères, France, 1932, the bicyclist is in motion creating an implied line from right to left. The handrail sweeping in from the right reinforces the implied line and directionality of the motion. The bicyclist seems to be in a frenzied hurry. This frenzy is accentuated by the swirling of the handrail starting on the left and connecting visually with the spiral pattern of the steps and the handrail coming in from the right. The steps coming up from the street visually appear to run down to an unknown lower level. All of the swirling lines create a vortex shape enhancing the frenzy. The white line sweeping along the curve of the curbing in the upper part of the frame seems to pen the bicyclist in and hurry him along, squeezing him out of the frame.

Types of lines

Horizontal lines express repose or rest, weight and gravity, and can become the dominant lines in a composition.

Vertical lines express lightness, soaring, spirituality and grandeur, illustrated by looking at both the outside and insides of gothic cathedrals.

Perpendicular lines strengthen the feeling of grandeur and can overpower adjacent horizontals. Combining vertical and horizontal lines create stability, permanence, safety and solidity.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

Image Source

Both horizontals and verticals  create a solidity relative to gravity, as seen in this image by Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903. Here the massive steps leading to the portal heavily anchor the image. The open archways and vertical relief columns add height to the overall feel, yet retain the solidity needed in the ”sea” of undulating and foot worn steps.

Curved lines express qualities dependent on the amplitude of the curve.

Low amplitude, slow, shallow or soft curves evoke feeling of calmness, relaxation, comfort and safety. They can be familiar and comfortable like old friends. We see these types of line in the natural world on animals, landscapes, plants and ourselves; they are familiar and sensual. They suggest calmness, like a calm sea.

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Image Source

High amplitude, deeply curved, angular or complicated lines on the other hand suggest confusion, anger, disorganization, stress or frenzy. Consider the shape of a turbulent ocean and you will understand the idea.

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

Image Source

Diagonal lines create instability, tension, motion, direction or depth. A diagonal might create implied movement when isolated; it will appear to be falling in the direction of the lean due to gravity and will create a psychological tension and anticipation. This feeling increases if the diagonal is in proximity to a vertical or horizontal line implying a base.

Using diagonals can give the feeling of distance and perspective like in a photo of a long straight road disappearing in the distance. Used in combination, diagonals effectively create a sense of motion or depth. Diagonals are one of the major tools for creating a three-dimensional feel on the two-dimensional space of the photograph.

Consider the image below titled, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951. In this image Cartier-Bresson applies diagonals throughout much of the frame enhancing the sense of depth in the image. The procession of women and girls in the foreground creates a crossing counterpoint to the strong diagonal running from the lower right to the mid left side of the image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

Image Source

Notice also the use of similarity in the repeating form of the two arches coming off the handrail and the black forms of the women in both the foreground and background. Of these two groups note that the groupings also run at the same approximate angle to each other and the iron rails they align with. Each of these elements adds an amount of coherence to the image, making it a stronger composition and allowing the brain to find logic and beauty within the image. Below are image maps of the major lines and tones in the image. Note how tone maps can mimic semi-abstract paintings. In this one we can see the tone masses and how they carry am implication of a thought out design.

Diagonal lines used in non-symmetrical groups create tension, motion, apprehension, disorganization or clutter. Paul Outerbridge, another Master of Photography, understood almost immediately the importance of design in photography. Much of his work shows a heavy concern with composition of tone, shape and line.

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

Image Source

Next Time: Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.


7 comments on “Elements of Design – Line

  1. Professor Aamir Shahzad says:

    Guy, different types of lines convey different moods ! but what if the same picture has different types of lines? would it be confusing? how would we describe the mood, calm, dynamic etc ?
    in your examples, sea of steps and triumph off egg, (though not good examples to convey my thought) i see lines in all directions, how would we describe the feel and mood in such cases?

  2. Shazi,

    It is difficult to say without seeing a specific image. But in the presence of many lines, look for the ones that contrast. They will stand out and make the biggest statements.

    In the Evans photo “A Sea of Steps” it is obvious which line is the most expressive, the diagonal curve rising from left to right. the only other curves are the 3 Gothic arches that recede into the distance, one inside the other. A great example of similarity.

    The lines in the Outerbridge are maybe a little less about expression and more about form and division of space. Having said that they do express a sense of organized disorganization and tension, don’t you think?

  3. shazimalik says:

    organised disorganization? yes i agree. this term is more suitable for all abstract compositions. this is another area where i need your guidance. how to analyse and assess an abstract art. i hope you would find time to include a tutorial once you are through the basic teachings on formal art.

    • There are a lot of things I hope to touch on in the future. That could be one of them.

      Right now I am trying to re-write the last of the Elements of Design – Color for the third time, and complete a web site I have been working on for a client. Hopefully I will be adding to this within the next week.

  4. […] della composizione fotografica in Cartier-Bresson Elementi di composizione in fotografia. Elemtes of Design – Lines. See shapes. 5 Photo Composition Hints. Cos’è una foto […]

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