Vocabulary of Art
The essential elements in art expression are:
By applying them consciously to a chosen medium, the artist can control the artistic outcome and embody concepts.
The knowledge and understanding of the elements of art offer to an artist the keys that unlock the doors to successful compositions.
In this article, we are focusing on the first two, line and shape.
Lines and Shapes: The Skeleton of Artistic Composition
A good artwork is not made by photographic likeness, but rather by a good composition.
Good structural arrangement is extremely important for any type of painting or drawing, and how you use lines and shapes strongly affects it.
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 masses: 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.
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.
Artists want the viewer's eye to be carried to the focal point and, at the same time, not get "stuck" there.
Lines are a great way to guide the viewer's attention to different areas around the picture. 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.
Types of Lines in Painting
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.
There are three major directions lines:
How they are used and how many times they repeat send a message to the viewer.
Lines can be:
- Round and organic.
- Straight and geometric.
Man-made objects have a lot of horizontal and vertical straight lines, especially at 90-degree angles. This does not happen in nature.
Energy and Perception of Lines
Implies cessation of movement
Leads the eye quickly from one point to another
Anchored by gravity
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!
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.
Great Book on Painting Composition - One Simple Rule, Many Ways to Apply It
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: How do artists use line, shape, and form in their artworks?
Answer: The main purpose to use line, shape, and form is to define the subject matter and provide the needed information in the painting.
Artists learn to visually organize those elements in ways that create strong compositions.
The placement, direction, and value of each element influences how the viewer's eye moves around the painting.
More on what makes a good composition in this article
© 2013 Robie Benve
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 30, 2016:
I edited the info on lines, adding some more details, hopefully making it more clear. Thanks for your valuable feedback!
alona on July 27, 2016:
lines is not clear to me :(
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 01, 2014:
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! :)
Jill Spencer from United States on August 01, 2014:
Good basic information for appreciating artwork, too. I am going to have to read this again! Shared & voted up.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 25, 2013:
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 from Bangkok on March 22, 2013:
I used to love painting. Somehow, I forgot why I stopped.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 05, 2013:
Hi torrilynn, thanks a lot for your comment, I'm glad you found it informational and useful. :))
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 04, 2013:
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...."
torrilynn on March 02, 2013:
thanks for this hub.
very informational and useful for any and everyone
who is willing to learn the skill of painting.
carol stanley from Arizona on March 01, 2013:
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.