Hi and welcome back. In this this fourth article in the series on the Elements of Design I am going to discuss direction and explain what it is and how it functions in the context of a painting design.

In Frank Webb’s Composition for the Painter, the chapter on direction is subtitled as follows:

Animate your painting with pictorial direction.Composition for the Painter by Frank Webb

That’s as on point as it gets. There is a couple of points of interest in this short sentence I want to point out: 1. The word “animate”. This suggests action. Do. Animate. Generate effort to make happen. “Animate” is defined in Oxford Dictionary as “Bring to life,” or “Give inspiration, encouragement, or renewed vigour to.” In this sense our job is to add vigor, life to our paintings. We do this intentionally. After all, it is we who are making the painting in the first place. 2. Pictorial direction. The significance of the word “pictorial” here is very much suggested. For the word clearly defines that the sense of direction is in fact not concerned with movement in 3-dimensional space. At the same time, it is necessary to realize that the directional orientation of which we talk here is concerned with the marks, brush strokes, shapes which we make on the paper. It is not a necessarily a question of movement into space or a problem of plane organization. It is very simply an absolutely abstract concept of judging lines and shapes by their directional placement on the flat surface in relation to the edges of the picture.

Naturally, and if you’re familiar with my teaching you might have expected this, just as each gesture, each stroke in a painting has a definite sense of direction, so does the underlying pattern a sense of direction – the rhythm of the gestures as a whole. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. Let’s start at the beginning.

3 Directions on a Flat Surface

Edgar Whitney says in regard to direction that “lines – vertical, horizontal, or oblique – engender emotional reactions. An oblique line is dynamic, personifying movement. A vertical line expresses or suggests the qualities of austerity, uprightness, and balance. A horizontal’s quiet, tranquility, and repose have obvious uses in expressive design.”

And so we can see that there are 3 directions we work with in a painting scenario: vertical, horizontal and oblique (or slanting). I always like to think of these elements and principles of design and the way we work with our paintings as an imitation of the principles of the natural world. Just look at, or better yet, imagine a forest interior, surface of a lake or a patch of high grass on a windy day. There’s such variety of directions, of movements, of colors and shapes, yet they are perfectly harmonized. Their similarities are called in design “repetition“, their subtle differences “alternation“, the opposing elements such as horizontal branches within a vertical pattern are what we call “contrast” but almost always we find a profound sense of “dominance“. And that’s pretty much the perfect recipe for unity. Now if we can only recognize these natural patterns, we can gain the understanding of these principles, our paintings will no longer be done from without (observation) but from within.

The three main directions: Vertical, Horizontal and Slanted

If we judged each of these little sketches above with direction in mind, we could say that the forest is predominantly vertical, the lake sketch predominantly horizontal and the grass predominantly oblique. And notice that when we consider these directions as qualities of the scenes, immediately we see that we do in fact associate them with a set of qualities based on each particular direction. We perceive lakes as a quiet places, tranquil and calm. Forest is, on the other hand, very tall, impressive and awe inspiring. Grass on a windy day makes wind visible. Wind is wild and free and the grass reflects this energy in the movement and dynamic slants of the grass blades.

As you can see on the examples above, verticals are very dignified, also very energetic as they stand erect and against the pull of gravity. Horizontal marks express stability and calmness as they relate to horizon and we can literally feel the stability in our body. Slanting direction suggests both two- and three-dimensional movement. Balancing slants is important as they need to be “anchored” against each other as if they held hands, thus being contained and not running off the edges of the painting, or else we could feel the pull to one side and balance being off is never a good feeling for us.

Based on this understanding we can conclude that direction is much more absolute than any of the elements of design I talked about so far. I touched on the relative vs. absolute aspect in my previous article on size if you’d like to check it out. The point here is that we as humans can’t mess with gravity. For us these three directional gestures will always have a very strong presence regardless of the context. As long as we are on the planet Earth, our associations with horizontals, verticals and slants won’t ever change. We stand upright to feel important, we lay down to feel calm and stable, we run down a hill and we generate more energy and movement than we can control.


By rhythm I mean pattern. In my understanding and in the context of this article and the elements of design in general these terms are interchangeable. So what I mean by pattern, or rhythm when talking about direction?

Imagine standing right before a painting with your eyes only a few inches from the picture. What would you see? Let’s say you are far enough so your eyes can focus. You can see a set of abstract marks, each going its own way. You can’t very well, if at all, read the painting and understand what it says. But when you step back from the painting, those individual marks and their directions are not of concern anymore as they start to make sense in its entirety, making up a whole that in itself has a sense of underlying direction that gives the painting a tone, purpose and rhythm. I’m certain everyone saw at least once in their life how small fish move in groups or how birds fly in patterns. These patters reflect the rhythms of the universe – the most profound nature and function of organisms on our planet. For some reason we, humans, the most evolved of the species, forgotten to move in these natural, profound rhythms. And we’ve also forgotten to apply them in our art. Now some people have retained these abilities and I think they are called “naturals”. A gifted draughtsman, pianist or even athlete. Learning the technique goes fast and they immediately understand that, despite their enjoying the tools, their function is only to give form to their expression. In these cases, I think, the link of the self to the underlying principles of how the nature of things functions has remained intact. They are more in tune with the natural principles embedded in us. The rest of us, unfortunately, have to re-discover them. Fortunately though, we all have the ability, it’s in our genes, built within us. It’s as custom to us as to the fish and birds flying in perfect rhythm. We just forgot it and need to remember.

Before we move onto the examples of actual paintings, I’d like to mention one more aspect and for that I want to return to the quote of Edgar Whitney from earlier: “Lines – vertical, horizontal, or oblique – engender emotional reactions. An oblique line is dynamic, personifying movement. A vertical line expresses or suggests the qualities of austerity, uprightness, and balance. A horizontal’s quiet, tranquility, and repose have obvious uses in expressive design.”

We talked about the 3 directions already but notice what he also mentions at the very beginning: lines engender emotional reactions. And this goes beyond a mere abstract organization. Beyond a good design. Although a good organization, of course, leads to a correct, intentional expression – consequently engendering an emotional reaction. Sometimes when we learn about design, we can get overwhelmed and forget that all this is not to make our paintings look exceedingly complex or superior – quite the contrary, the goal is to learn the basics of how the world works and how we can best and most directly express it in our work. This is why we work with direction at all. The way we express direction in a painting should be very much expressive of both the natural world and our own, interior world – so our viewers can connect as easily with what we find interesting in the world as what they themselves find interesting from their point of view when looking at our picture.

Analysis of Direction in a Painting Scenario

Now that we covered direction in fair amount of theory, let’s see how these principles apply in an actual painting scenario.


For the analysis I selected a painting from my “Tree Meditations” series. Above is a finished painting. Following are illustrations and analysis of the work.

Direction: Analysis #1

This first diagram shows the individual directions that are actually painted on the paper. It shows us each individual stroke.

From this illustration we can observe that the majority of directions is vertical or vertical with a slight slant. There are some oblique movements with one pronounced slanting gesture on the far right. We talked about unity through dominance and contrast. As we can see, these vertical and oblique marks are not balanced with an actual horizontal direction. Which brings us to the next image.

Direction: Analysis #2

If you go back a bit and look at the original painting you may sense a presence of horizontal direction, despite there being none actually painted on the paper. The horizontal is implied in this case and it doesn’t feel like there’s a need to explain it explicitly. Perhaps it’s even better to refrain from doing so because the horizontal would put too much pressure on the image, the contrast could easily destroy the overall sense of unity.

Which brings me to the paper format. My selection of landscape/horizontal paper format is deliberate in this piece. It is true that the horizontal format does not support the idea in this painting as well as it could. The logical choice would be vertical format and it would certainly add more energy to the tree symbols. However, my idea of the implied horizontals is what in my opinion keeps the painting balanced without the need for explicit horizontals.

Direction: Analysis #3

Now that we analyzed the individual gestures we can move on and focus more on the bigger picture. If asked, back when I was learning about patterns, to make a diagram of the painting in terms of patterns, or the big gesture, I could be tempted to produce something like the image above. And although it does capture the big gestures and filters out the unnecessary detail, it is still only a selection of gestures saying almost as little about the actual pattern as the examples #1 and #2. If we really want to focus on a pattern, or rhythm, in this painting, we must think bolder still.

Direction: Analysis #4

The above diagram shows in a much more general way the overall rhythm in the painting. It is most certainly vertical in its character. However, we don’t need to be as strict as to expect any one painting having a very clear and precise, completely explained sense of direction. The above diagram is perhaps trying too hard to stick to one direction. Let’s look at one last diagram.

Direction: Analysis #5

We don’t look down on trees, we look up at trees and so the pattern shape has also, as an abstract configuration, an upward pull. The total direction of the painting is indeed upright/vertical but the added slant on the right side adds further dynamic and energy to the pattern. Created is a more dramatic movement (not movement into space). As a result the direction in the painting is united with added interest on the right edge.

The horizontals balancing the pattern are located on the horizontal edges of the pattern itself. They are varied in size and function as grounding elements.

More Examples

Usually paintings with strong sense of linework are read easier as far as direction is concerned. Lines are indicative of the direction straight away. Below we can have a look at some examples of paintings that are not inherently calligraphic so we need to “read” the big gestures with a bit more imagination.


Horizontal Direction Breakdown

Despite having a prominent upright gesture this painting still reads as horizontal. There’s enough gestures that contradict this primary movement but despite them there is a definite sense of horizontal pull.


Vertical Direction Breakdown

Despite being slanted the big gesture in this painting is still very much vertical in its nature. The two primary gestures are upright and force the sense of verticality.


Horizontal Slanting Breakdown

We could be tempted to focus on the directional gestures found as lines in this painting but that would not explain the forces that keep the painting together. The illustration shows a counter-movement or counter-direction of the big gestures. In slanting directions you need to compensate and balance the two pulls against each other. We have to disregard the details in order to see the bigger picture. The two large areas pull against each other, paradoxically keeping themselves united and contained. The small gestures only add variety and admittedly a lot of interest, but they still are only small gestures.


  • Share this post on your favorite social sites.
  • Subscribe to my newsletter to be notified about all future articles from my website.
  • Consider supporting me. There are several ways to do so. You can also show your appreciation for this particular post by making a one-time donation. You can use the provided button below. (The service is provided by PayPal and the process is secure and safe. PayPal account is not required.)

As always, don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments, I’m always happy to chat with you.



  1. Marylin Smith December 12, 2017 at 21:41

    Thank you so much for sharing this Daniel – it was really helpful to me.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.