The Physical Characteristics Of Line

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The Physical Characteristics of LineThe physical characteristics of line are many. Lines may be short or long, thin orthick, straight or curved, direct or meandering, zigzag or serpentine, distinct orblurred. These characteristics have certain built‐in associations that the artist maymake use of. When we say that a person is a “straight arrow,” we mean that he orshe is straightforward and reliable; a “crooked” person, on the other hand, isdevious and untrustworthy. In most cases, we have adjectives that fit the lines wesee. And, like the word associations just cited, those meanings are part of line’ssubconscious power of suggestion.MeasureMeasure refers to the length and width of line – its measurable properties. A linemay be of any length and breadth. An infinite number of combinations of long, short,thick, or thin lines can, according to their application, unify, divide, balance, orunbalance a pictorial area. This emotional dynamic is set up by line’s measure. Forexample, thick lines tend to communicate more of a sense of stability than thinnerlines. When applied to the development of typeface, a thick font seems more forcefulthan a thinner one and provides a hierarchy for delivering information like titles,subtitles, and so forth. Thin lines are generally more elegant, gentle, or delicate.

In Pat Steir’s Summer Moon the repetition of fine fluid lines ties the image togetherand suggests movement. The measure of the line must be appropriate for thedevelopment of the image. A property of fragility in a flower like a translucentbougainvillea could be destroyed by a rendering using a bold wide line; but thatsame vigorous line quality could be used to convey strength in an architecturalpresentation.TypeThere are many different types of line. If the line continues in only one direction, it isstraight; if changes of direction gradually occur, it is curved; if those changes aresudden and abrupt, an angular line is created. By joining the characteristics of

measure and type, we find that long, short, thick, or thin lines can be straight,angular, or curved. A straight line, in its continuity, ultimately seems stiff and rigidand, if rendered thinly, may appear brittle. The curved line may form an arc, reverseits curve to become wavy, or continue turning within itself to produce a spiral.Alterations of movement become visually entertaining and physically stimulating ifthey are rhythmical. A curved line is inherently graceful and, to a degree, unstable.

The abrupt changes of direction in an angular line create excitement and/orconfusion.

Our eyes frequently have difficulty adapting to an angular line’s unexpecteddeviations of direction. Hence, the angular line is full of challenging interest.DirectionA further complication of line is its basic direction; this direction can existirrespective of the component movements within the line. That is, a line can be azigzag type but take a generally curved direction. Thus, the line type can becontradicted or flattened by its basic direction. A generally horizontal directionindicate serenity and perfect stability, whereas a diagonal direction might implyagitation, motion, and instability.

A vertical line generally suggests poise and aspiration.The direction of line is very important, because in large measure it controlsour eye movement within the composition.A slanted line could move our eyes in either direction, but when it becomes a line oftype in a layout, it has a direction implied by the way it’s read. Generally, whenwords or sentences slant upward, there is a sense of strength, expectation, orpositive energy. When slanted in a downward direction, the message delivers lessenergy. In addition, direction can facilitate a sense of continuity in a compositionthat contains lines with contrasting properties. For example, lines of various widthsand lengths can be made to harmonize if they all share the same direction.LocationThe specific location of a line can enhance or diminish the visual weight and ourpsychological response to the other characteristics of the line. The location of animage on the picture plane, with regard to the effect of gravity, can create emotional

responses ranging from excitement and anticipation to relief and calmness. Line isaffected by its location in the same manner. A diagonal line high in the picture planemight appear to be soaring, while that same line placed in a low position mightappear to be plunging.Printmakers know of the importance of location and the development ofline’s visual weight. Having spent many hours developing a composition on a plateor woodblock with a left‐to‐right orientation, they find the image location reversedduring printing. The feeling of balance within the composition is often so disturbedby the new location of the linear image that it requires adjustment. The same line ina new location appears to assume a new visual weight. As with any othercharacteristic of line, location should be carefully considered, since a line’splacement can serve to unify or divide, balance or unbalance a composition.A line’s location is also important because it can affect the way in which weperceive the line. In the work of Ann Jonak, noted children’s illustrator, the line’slocation has a bearing on the interpretation of what image the line is suggesting. Inthe illustration from Round Trip, you will find lines depicting people in a movietheater. However if the illustration is rotated 180 degrees, the image becomessomething completely different; what we previously saw as people now becomeceiling tiles. The way we interpret the line is greatly influenced by its location on thepicture plane.

CharacterAlong with measure, type, direction, and location, line possesses character – a visualsurface quality related to the medium with which the line is created. Eachinstrument – brush, burin, stick, pencil, finger, and so forth – has its distinctivecharacteristics that respond in different ways to different surfaces. As such, thecharacter of a line can vary from chalk’s grainy dots of varying density to thefeathery reticulated edge of an ink line bursting across a wet surface. Some media,like ink, can provide a wide range of textures and edge qualities, from soft andblurred to crisp, while other media, like an assortment of pencils or conte crayons,have a wide range of potential values depending on the pressure applied and thehardness of the drawing material.

The personality or emotional quality of the line is rooted in the nature of themedium chosen. In Rembrandt’s sketch Nathan Admonishing David, the expressivequalities created by the soft brush lines of ink, juxtaposed with the precise and firmlines of pen and ink, can be clearly seen.

As artists become familiar with materials and the range of their expression, theywill quickly discover the formal properties and expressive possibilities of each.To create visual interest, the artist can exploit all the individualcharacteristics of a medium or use an assortment of different media in the samework. A consistent use of lines of the same character could result in monotony,unless the unity so gained were balanced by the variation of other physicalproperties. The artist, who is the real master of the situation, controls whether theviewer sees lines of uniformity or accent, certainty or indecision, tension orrelaxation. It is the artist’s ability, experience, intention, and mental and physicalcondition that determine the effectiveness of line character.resource: Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practicepp. 99‐105

The Physical Characteristics of Line The physical characteristics of line are many. Lines may be short or long, thin or thick, straight or curved, direct or meandering, zigzag or serpentine, distinct or blurred. These characteristics have certain built‐in associations that the artist may make use of.

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