In my previous article I discussed Shapes, their property, function and use in the context of a painting. Today, I am going to talk about line.

Line is everywhere. It’s versatile and universal. It is a tool that everyone instinctively uses for expressing their thoughts, be it through drawing or writing.

Line is also a very powerful element of design. It is good to remind ourselves that shape is the supreme design element. Still, line is a very powerful tool. After all, every line is in fact a shape with specific dimensions, and vice versa, every shape can be silhouetted by line to provide its contour.

Line suggests direction and sense of movement. When we see a beautiful linear expression such as scribble or a rope laying on the ground, we can feel, in our body, the forces and tensions that lead to its creation. Rhythm is suggested by line as well. Line suggests path, it leads somewhere.

Using line as an element of design means using it creatively. Line specifies the contrast between straight and curved. This is the contextual application of line in painting, one that dictates rhythm of the whole picture. The other application is using line as line for calligraphic effect.

In this article I’m going to try and make sense not only of the properties of line but first and foremost its function and application in the context of a painting as an element of design.

Line Properties

Line can be thick, thin, short, long, fast or slow but in the context of design, the most important property of line we want to discuss is the contrast of straight vs. curved.

Line that is straight is the most universal. It is very hard and direct. It can even replace the need for curved line as curves can be suggested by a series of short straight lines. In fact, it can be a good idea to draw our curves as a series of straight lines. This gives character to the curve and enhances expression. In manmade objects, the use of straight lines is predominant.

Curved line is soft, safe and calm. There is a lot of curves found in nature: cumulus clouds, crown of a tree, tree leaves, flower petals and so much more. I personally find curved lines more difficult to integrate and often use them as supporting players. Curved line can suggest either concave or convex effect, depending on its relative position on the picture plane.

Line as a Meeting Point

Line is suggested where shape meets shape, value meets value or color meets color. Even texture contrast can be defined by line. It describes the edge, or a meeting point of shapes.

Line sketch
Line sketch

Notice how on the image of the line sketch (above) I worked out my idea with lines. I defined the division of my picture plane with lines, although they are not going to be present in the finished painting (below). They only represent the borders, the edges, the meeting points of shapes and values and colors in the picture.

©2017 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.
©2017 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.


Literal use of line, line for the sake of line, in other words calligraphy, serves in painting a decorative function. It can add interest to otherwise boring areas, suggest texture, tie areas together or serve as a symbol.

In the painting above, line is employed to suggest texture. By contrast, it adds interest and enlivens the wet-into-wet shapes . It suggests texture of the beard, eyebrows, hair. It also enhances expression as these lines are not true to the model. They are used expressively and tell as much or perhaps more about the artist than the model.

When line doesn’t suggest texture, isn’t the edge of two shapes meeting or used for increasing interest within flat areas but instead describes an object, it is considered a symbol. It conveys association with real life objects as in the paintings below. Notice how the various elements in the first two paintings are being explained purely by line, such as signs, letters and words made of positive and negative lines as well as flowers or railings and other details that are suggested by the use of line.

©2016 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.
©2016 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.

The next painting uses calligraphy for railings, fences and a variety of industrial constructions. There is also a strong symbol in the form of “do not enter” sign.


The final example shows another symbolic use of line. Notice the boats are shown as a couple of thick and thin lines, palm trees are made up mostly of lines, as are the flags and the street crossing.


The Rhythm Pattern

Looking now at the bigger picture, line describes the character of rhythms of the whole pattern of our design. This is what I call a gesture. This is undoubtedly the most important consideration of line in a painting scenario.

As we discussed earlier, the two main properties of line are straight vs. curved. The big gestures in a painting should be thought out with these properties in mind. We want variety but at the same time need to establish dominance to assure unity. To help you better understand this concept, the next painting and the following illustration demonstrates how we look at a painting in terms of its rhythm pattern.


Hopefully, the diagram above explains clearly enough how to read line as a pattern. Notice how straight lines are dominant. Notice also that not all curves are literal. These curves are what we call implied. Notice the prominent curve along the bottom edge of the house shapes. It is made up of straight lines that, as a whole, can be read as one long curve. These invisible lines should also be varied, one should definitely be longest and they should exhibit a variety of directions: horizontal, vertical and slanted. Always one direction should be dominant to assure unity.

Following the example above, try locating the big gestures in the paintings below. What patterns can you see? Are the gestures predominantly straight or curved? What is the prime direction in the paintings? How do the rhythms feel?

©2017 Atelier Novotny

I hope you were able to locate the gestures and I hope that this exercise and the entire article helped you better understand how line is crucial in designing a painting. If you are having trouble or need more examples, feel free to let me know in the comment section and I can post additional analysis of the paintings. I encourage you to make your own designs with these principles in mind. Feel free to post them on your favorite social sites and tag me if you’d like me to comment on them.

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  1. Angel Villarreal October 6, 2017 at 17:01

    I can see that the painting with the boat and bridge have more verical lines with a curve under bridge and others implied as well. The second painting is mostly lines and because of the preponderance of line work looks more like a drawing than a painting. In the last one the boatcurved and dock is implied curve with lots of vertical lines for windows on boat.
    I like the fqct you point out a line is made when color, value, shape changes.
    Also enjoyed that you used your paintings to illustrate your point.

    1. Daniel Novotny October 7, 2017 at 14:59

      Thanks Angel. Very good. Glad you enjoyed this one.


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