CraftsDrawingPaintingPhotographySculptureTextiles & Sewing

Elements of Painting: Line and Shape

Updated on November 28, 2016
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

Amazing use of shape and lines by Edgar Degas (1838-1917) successfully keeps the focal point on the ballerina, and keeps the eyes of the viewer moving around the picture
Amazing use of shape and lines by Edgar Degas (1838-1917) successfully keeps the focal point on the ballerina, and keeps the eyes of the viewer moving around the picture | Source

Lines and Shapes: The Skeleton of Artistic Composition

A good painting is not made by photographic likeness, but rather by a good composition.

The knowledge and understanding of the elements of painting offer to an artist the keys that unlock the doors to successful compositions.

Good composition is extremely important for any type of painting or drawing, and how you use lines and shapes will strongly affect it.


Shapes in Compositions

Each area of color can be seen as a shape in painting; even more evident are the shapes of values.

If you squint looking at a painting you’ll be able to see beyond color variations, and notice more value unity of different areas.

Squinting simplifies shapes and unifies value variation into few basic ones: lightest, middle, and darkest value.

You can look at the values in a painting or drawing and divide them into few value categories, from the lightest to the darkest. Sometimes you can identify four or more degrees of value, but the more you simplify the better for your composition.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Landscape photoLines of the composition are easier to see with no colors.
Landscape photo
Landscape photo | Source
Lines of the composition are easier to see with no colors.
Lines of the composition are easier to see with no colors.

Edges of Shapes Read as Lines

The shifts in value will form the main shapes of your composition.

To see them even better you can take a photo of the artwork and digitally desaturate it. Once you eliminate the element of color from your composition, all you see are values.

Each shape has edges, and our brain reads edges as implied lines.

Lines in Compositions

Lines are much more than contour of objects.

When looking at any artwork, each edge between different different colors or different shapes can be seen as a line.

Either used as contour or as edge between different paint colors, lines define shapes and can be used by the artist to guide the eye of the viewer through the painting.

You want the viewer's eye to be carried to the focal point and at the same time you don't want it to be "stuck" there. Lines are a great way to guide the viewer's attention to different areas around the picture.

So lines not only define objects, but also determine the composition of the painting.

Lines can be used to communicate a sense of movement, energy, or stillness.

It is very important to be aware of lines, and it is not so easy to grow awareness of how some lines can be distracting or even ruin a composition.

Think of tree branches, tall grasses, roof edges, landscape variations, value shifts, they all create lines that guide the eye around the painting.

Value shapes of the composition can be seen easier when the photo is digitally desaturated. If you squint now they will be even more evident.
Value shapes of the composition can be seen easier when the photo is digitally desaturated. If you squint now they will be even more evident.

Some Lines Are Bad for Compositions

Some lines are better to be avoided:

  • Lines pointing straight to a corner of the picture: it takes the eyes of the viewer out, never to come back.
  • Lines cutting the painting across horizontally. Horizontal lines, when they are continuous, create a barrier for the eyes to continue and look at what is above them. Make sure you create a gap on those lines, either by interruption or change in value.
  • Angles pointing to the side of the frame. They work like arrows, and while if the angle is pointing to the focal point it encourages the viewer to look at the “hot spot”, if it points to the edge, the viewer may get directed out of the picture, to the painting hanging next to yours!


Types of Lines in Painting

Lines can be:

  • Round and organic.
  • Straight and geometric.

Your goal as an artist is to use the lines in the composition to direct the viewer's eyes to the focal point and keep it moving inside the picture.

Keep it Balanced

The good rule of thumb, like for anything else in life, is to use common sense and aim to create balance and unity in your artwork.

Don’t lose the focus on your big idea: what are you trying to represent? What kind of feeling do you want to convey?

Keeping the big picture in mind will help decide the kind of lines and shapes that will work best in your work.

Strive for a balance of thin paint and thick paint; sharp edges and lost edges; intense colors and dull colors; etc. The more you think about balance in your design, the more successful your painting.

© 2013 Robie Benve

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 11 months ago from Ohio

      I edited the info on lines, adding some more details, hopefully making it more clear. Thanks for your valuable feedback!

    • profile image

      alona 12 months ago

      lines is not clear to me :(

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi The Dirt Farmer, you are absolutely right: once you train the eye to see lines and shapes in art, you learn to appreciate it in different ways that go beyond the subject matter represented. Thanks a lot for your comment, share, and vote! :)

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 2 years ago from United States

      Good basic information for appreciating artwork, too. I am going to have to read this again! Shared & voted up.

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi beingwell, sometimes life takes over and our hobbies and passions take the back seat.

      Try to break the ice with a small, easy project, it worked for me a few years back. I painted a children's subject for my daughter's bedroom - I said, I'm not buying that painting for you, mommy can make you one. And I did. And I never stopped painting from there.

      Best wishes to you! Thanks for stopping by! :)

    • beingwell profile image

      beingwell 4 years ago from Bangkok

      I used to love painting. Somehow, I forgot why I stopped.

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi torrilynn, thanks a lot for your comment, I'm glad you found it informational and useful. :))

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

      You are so right carol, while I paint I have a little voice in my head that wants to remind me all the time what's important. It's kind of annoying, but very useful, it goes "Value, value, value, value...."

      Thanks!

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      Hi Robie,

      thanks for this hub.

      very informational and useful for any and everyone

      who is willing to learn the skill of painting.

      voted up

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      getting the values right is the most challenging. If that doesn't work the painting doesn't. Always a challenge for me. Great job as always. Pinning.

    Click to Rate This Article