Understanding Expressive Lines

 There are many different types of lines. Lines are; straight, curving, angular, soft, outline, implied, etc. Lines define, enclose, connect, and/or dissect! Lines are lighter and more fluid than other elements of design such as forms and shapes. And yet lines add their own special energy to design.

Technically, lines are 1-dimensional, meaning they only have a length (not width or depth) but those of us in the arts know better!

Line Movement   Lines, like shape and forms, contribute to the feeling and energy level in a design on an unconscious level. As we discussed with the rectangle (see Working with Expressive Shapes and Forms), lines are also affected by its direction or major flow. The directions of the line are:

  • Horizontal lines implies quiet and repose; lower energy.
  • Vertical lines implies strength and stability; medium energy
  • Diagonal lines imply motion and action; higher energy.

Line quality is affected by the type of material used to create it. Just like shapes and forms, lines can feel either man-made or organic.

Examples of man-made lines

Hard edged lines will have distinct boundaries and will imply strength and have a man-made quality.

Outline is a line that is of even thickness throughout the shape. It is flat and will tend to segment the shapes it is used on.

Examples of organic lines

Soft edge lines are softly drawn and can feel more organic by nature. They imply gentleness and lower energy.

Contour Line creates the illusion of being 3-dimensional.Thinner where the light hits the object, thicker where the line is in shadow. Contour line can feel playful, spontaneous and organic. It has a flowing energy.

Image courtesy of Basic Design

Which line(s) express:

Nervous
Calm
Graceful

Let’s look at the word nervous. Either the top line or the line that is sixth from the top express nervous. They share an organic line quality, a strong diagonal flow, and multiple peaks and valleys.

Line Direction & Energy

Lines, like shapes and forms, contribute to the feeling and energy level in a design on an unconscious level. As we discussed with the rectangle lines are also affected by its direction or major flow. The directions of the line are:

  • Horizontal lines imply quiet & repose; lower energy.
  • Vertical lines imply strength & stability; medium energy.
  • Diagonal lines imply motion and action; higher energy.

Line Qualities

Line quality is affected by the type of material used to create it. Just like shapes and forms, lines can feel either man-made or organic.

Man-made

Outline
  • Hard edged lines will have distinct boundaries and will imply strength and have a man-made quality.
  • Outline is a line that is of even thickness throughout. It is flat and tends to segment the shapes. It can imply man-made.
Hard Lines

Organic

Soft Lines
  • Soft edge lines are softly drawn and can feel more organic by nature. They imply gentleness.
  • Contour Line creates the illusion of being 3-dimensional.Thinner where the light hits the object, thicker where the line is in shadow.
Contour line

Line Quality Speaks Volumes

Now let’s take a look at a piece by Saul Streinburg. Based on what you understand about lines, what do you think is happening in the illustration below? Look at the line quality, and energy level while assessing.

It feels like an adult, who is talking over a little girl’s story. He seems authoritative, possibly angry, while the girl seems to tell a gentle story possibly about her day or her dreams. She talks about animals, home and kids, while the line energy is soft and organic. The line quality of the adult is thick, implying loud. It is also organic, but the energy level is high due to the multiple diagonals.

Implied Line & Psychic Line, which are not real lines!

Implied lines are not actual lines! They can be formed by dashes, dots, etc. and because they are grouped near one another our mind reads them like lines. Implied Lines are used to lead the viewer’s eyes into and around the picture plane.

Line Examples, top, actual line; middle implied lines; bottom, psychic line

Psychic lines are not “real lines” either, yet we feel a mental connection between two or more objects. For example, when we look at an arrow pointing to an object, we look at the arrow then the object, as if they are connected with a line.

Let’s look at psychic lines in action. What is happening the painting below? Look at the directions of the eyes of all of the people in this piece. Next, what is happening to the purse of the man participating in the magic show (in the Medieval era men carried sacks that tied to their belts and these were called purses).

The Conjurer by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch

The conjurer is watching his victim. Our victim is watching the ball in the hand of the conjuror. In the meantime the victim is being pick-pocketed! The pick-pocket looks innocently into the air, but at least a few of his accomplices keep an eye on the victim! In this humorous example of psychic lines, the eyes of the figures as “lines”. Note, weather human or animal, we humans unconsciously follow the direction that eyes point towards.

Credits: Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer; Point and Line to Plane, by Wassily Kandinsky.

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