Elements of a Composition – Lines Part 1

Published: December 3, 2015

by Erin Nolan

We’ll let you in on a little secret. There isn’t anything magical about designers or artists. Yes, some work more intuitively than others, but the basis of great design or inspiring art, however hidden, is the same: strong composition.

Remember back in grade school when your art teacher tried to teach you the elements of good design? Just in case you need a bit of refreshing, they are: line, shape, color, texture, tone, form, space and depth.

Let’s talk now about the most basic element of composition: the line. It doesn’t sound very complicated, does it? After all, a line is a line, right? C’mon, you know the answer already. There wouldn’t be a blog here, let alone a TWO PART blog, unless there were more to lines than just that.

There are visual and invisible lines. Visual lines do not exist in nature. Look out your window; there isn’t really a line that differentiates the telephone pole from the rest of the landscape. However, if you were to draw that telephone pole, you would most likely use line. Why is that?

It is because our mind’s eye senses the contrast found between foreground and background and creates a way for us to interpret the 3-dimensional world 2-dimensionally. When we draw a line, it is the visual representation of separation of light. There are many types of lines: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, long, short, curved, dashed, mechanical, biomorphic, hand-drawn, wavy, haphazard, dotted, dashed, thick, thin–too many to mention all of them!

These different attributes of lines provide an emotional context. When lines are knitted together, they form a composition. See an example below:

Vincent Van Gogh Saint-Rémy Olives
Vincent Van Gogh | Saint-Rémy Olives | 1889 | Reed pen and brown ink | Van Gogh Museum | Amsterdam

Notice how Van Gogh’s drawing engages the viewer. The lines are staccato, yet they flow one into another. Longer, thicker, darker lines are used to divide the tree trunks and branches. Directional horizontal lines are used to ground the lower portion of the drawing. Leading lines are part of the ground. They are shown as a pattern of angular lines which connect the foreground to the background to create depth and texture. Each tree has its own line type, which helps to differentiate one from another. The lines used for leaves are scattered, suggesting that it is a windy day.

The artist’s layering of lines hints at how the composition was created and even when the pen was dipped into fresh ink. The drawing invites viewers to share in the emotions felt by the artist as the work was created.

Join us for the second part of the discussion of line as an element of composition by clicking here.