Elements of Painting: Line and Shape

Updated on June 30, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is a self-taught artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Lines and shapes are essential elements of painting. How you use them in art strongly affects the composition and overall feeling of the painting.
Lines and shapes are essential elements of painting. How you use them in art strongly affects the composition and overall feeling of the painting.

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.

Great use of line and shape composition in this still life by Paul Cézanne.
Great use of line and shape composition in this still life by Paul Cézanne. | Source

Shapes in Compositions

Each area of color can be seen as a shape. Shapes are easier to visualize if you focus on the masses of different value or tone.

If you squint looking at a picture you’ll be able to see beyond color variations and notice how details blend together and create simpler masses of similar value.

Squinting simplifies shapes and unifies value variation into few basic ones: lightest, middle, and darkest value. Being able to "see" this way is very useful for planning your composition and making some preparatory sketches.

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.

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.

Lines in Compositions

Lines are much more than the contour of objects.

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

Either used as a contour or as an 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.

Lines are a great way to guide the viewer's attention to different areas around the picture. 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.

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

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.

Edges of Shapes Read as Lines

Areas of different value form the main shapes of the composition.

To see them even better you can take a photo of the artwork and digitally eliminate color. When you look at a black and white image all you see are value shapes.

Each shape has edges, and our brain reads edges as implied lines. The second thumbnail below indicates the implied lines with red strokes.

Visualize the Lines in the Landscape

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Learn how the lines in the landscape carry your eye through the painting.Lines of the composition are easier to see with no colors. Squint at the scene to filter out colors and see contrast better.
Learn how the lines in the landscape carry your eye through the painting.
Learn how the lines in the landscape carry your eye through the painting. | Source
Lines of the composition are easier to see with no colors. Squint at the scene to filter out colors and see contrast better.
Lines of the composition are easier to see with no colors. Squint at the scene to filter out colors and see contrast better.

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.

Some Lines Are Bad for Compositions

Generally speaking, you are better off avoiding these types of lines:

  • Lines pointing straight to a corner of the picture: it takes the eyes of the viewer out, never to come back.
  • Continuous lines cutting the painting across horizontally. Typically the viewer enters the painting from the bottom left. 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!


Great Book on Painting Composition - One Simple Rule, Many Ways to Apply It

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting (Mastering (North Light Books))
Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles to Dramatically Improve Your Painting (Mastering (North Light Books))

I read this book cover to cover and continue to refer to it when planning compositions. Packed with great info for the landscape painter. Ian Roberts, the author, is a wonderful artist and instructor.

 

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. Try to include different types of lines, some organic, some straight, vary their angle, color, size, and brush marks.

In the same way, 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.

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

Questions & Answers

© 2013 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years 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 

      2 years ago

      lines is not clear to me :(

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      4 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 

      4 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 imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 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 

      5 years ago from Bangkok

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

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 years ago from Ohio

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

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      5 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 

      5 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 

      5 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.

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