Beginners Drawing: Making Better Lines, Making Lines Better

16 Mar 2007

0606drgheno1_300x450_2Line has been around for a long time. Ever since the prehistoric era, when that first artist picked up a lump of wood ash from a spent campfire and outlined a hand on the cave wall, lines have described forms of all types--human, animal, and landscape. On its own, line is a very powerful force. A line can depict the simple silhouette of a form as well as its more complicated interior dimensions. When used in a hatching manner, it can even simulate value. And when joined with softer, smudged tones known as value masses, you have a combined unstoppable force--except, perhaps, by a good eraser.

by Dan Gheno

Line has been around for a long time. Ever since the prehistoric era, when that first artist picked up a lump of wood ash from a spent campfire and outlined a hand on the cave wall, lines have described forms of all types—human, animal, and landscape. On its own, line is a very powerful force. A line can depict the simple silhouette of a form as well as its more complicated interior dimensions. When used in a hatching manner, it can even simulate value. And when joined with softer, smudged tones known as value masses, you have a combined unstoppable force—except, perhaps, by a good eraser.

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Seated Woman
by Egon Schiele, 1918, black colored pencil, 18 11/16 x 11 13/16. Collection Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Some artists will argue that you can most effectively render the human figure or abstract imagery with value-massing alone, that everything you can do with line, you can do with light and dark tonalities. That is true. Some of the most evocative drawings are indeed based on value alone. But at its core, all finely observed tonal shapes are bound by an implied "edge," or conceptual line, even if it exists only subconsciously in the viewer's mind. Personally, I'm excited by the explicit combination of line and mass in my own work. As I will explain in this article, why not use both? First I'll describe how to use line on its own. Later I'll show you how to merge both into a dynamic partnership.

Point and Line to Plane
Line first starts quietly on the page as a dot. Then, to loosely borrow from the title of Wassily Kandinsky's book, Point and Line to Plane, this potent mark or point transforms into a line and finally, in the hands of a trained artist, turns into a volumetric plane. By varying the thickness, darkness, and texture of the line, you can simulate a movement in and out of human forms, especially if you let lines cross over one another, digging past the outside edges of the figure, into its interior peaks and valleys. Depending upon your subject or your aesthetic intent, you can use lines that are sharp like wire, lines that are rough like Brillo, or lines that are so soft that they melt into the surrounding paper. Lines can range from the directness of Egon Schiele's often unmodulated outlines, to the pseudo-brushwork of an Anders Zorn or Charles Dana Gibson, to the curvaceous, engravinglike quality of Dürer. Depending upon how you apply your pencil to paper, lines can have an emotional, psychological aspect, and they almost always display some sort of a visual, rhythmic property in the way they dance around the page.

However, don't make the common mistake of thinking that line is nothing more than a conceptual concern. Throughout the drawing process, your line quality is dramatically influenced by your choice of materials, the texture of the paper, your drawing instruments, their sharpness, and the way you hold them in your hand. For instance, I prefer to start my figure drawings with long, sweeping, lightly plied lines—an impossible task if I hold my pencil or chalk between my thumb and forefinger as I would when writing a letter. (This hand position works splendidly when sketching in the final details, especially if buttressed by a mahlstick or a small, separate clean piece of paper under your drawing hand.) 0606drgheno2_300x450Instead, when starting out, I turn the back of my hand to the paper (see Fig.1, left), loosely holding the pencil toward the end of the shaft and sandwiched between my thumb, palm, and forefinger. I frequently change my hand position depending upon the intended direction of the line: If I'm drawing downward, I hold the pencil from below, allowing gravity to firmly guide my hand's descent (Fig.2); I hold the pencil from above if I’m drawing upward (Fig.3). Both positions allow for greater movement of the shoulder and elbow, putting less importance on the jagged actions of the wrist and fingers. You can also get a thin, clean line when you draw with the direction of the pencil lead, affected only by the roughness of the paper or the softness of the drawing instrument. But notice how easily you can vary the thickness of line when you suddenly change directions, say, from the vertical to the horizontal (Fig.4). When drawing with the shaft of the lead, instead of the point, that thin line suddenly turns thick. As you chart your way through the details of the figure, you will find your line automatically fluctuating with the direction of your hand and pencil.

Pure Line
You can say a great deal even with a minimum of lines. When working from life, you can suggest a fully formed human figure with a simple deadweight line just by carefully observing and mapping the

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Twisted Torso
by Dan Gheno, 2006,
pastel and sanguine crayon, 9 x 12.
Collection the artist.
outer edges of the model. Look closely at your subject, as Egon Schiele does in Reclining Nude With Raised Torso, charting the subtle variations of exterior shapes. Each bump suggests some bone or muscle. You can certainly distort the proportions of the figure or exaggerate its perspective like Schiele does with his drawing of the woman lunging forward into the picture plane, but try to respond candidly and directly to the outside shapes. Your viewers will then sense the volumes within, based upon the experience and instinctual knowledge of their own bodies.

Closure
You don't need to wrap your figures with a continuous, rigid, bold outline. You can create a more profound sense of closure by marking the edges of the smaller human forms with intermittent lines, in the manner Cézanne and Degas sometimes did. Working this way, you can take a minimal approach: For example, you can mark off the root, the base, and the tip of the nose, and the viewer will intuit the rest of the line. But if you're interested in simulating form, don't reduce the number of lines too much. You should at least place a hint of a line at important high and low points along the perimeter of an object and where one important subform crosses another. The drawing will look incomplete or jarringly blank in places if you don't.

Overlapping Lines
Although the outside shape is important and, as Plato seems to suggest in his theory of Ideal Form, is essential to the very identity and recognition of the object, we eventually need to travel inside the figure with our lines. It's difficult or impossible for the beginning artist to do this when working from photos, but while working from life, you will see how forms continuously overlap one another, as when the neck slides over and above the shoulder, or the deltoid runs in front of the collar bone and wedges into the upper arm. In my drawing Arm Swinging Back, note how I varied the thickness and value of the line to simulate the swelling of the underlying forms, particularly in the legs. Also, observe how I've portrayed the transition of the left calf into the upper leg, with the "overcutting" forms, as sculptors phrase it, represented by overlapping lines. However, don't become dogmatic. Notice how I use these techniques in a discriminating fashion. I emphasized the darkness in the line along the near shoulder so that the more faintly rendered far shoulder could recede. Even though the near elbow is closer to the viewer than the shoulder, I selectively chose to emphasize the overlapping, bony points of the elbow instead of the entire projecting shape of the arm to keep it from looking stiffly enclosed. I felt that the lines of the elbow were just dark and sharp enough to bring it ahead of the receding hand.

Hatching
Many artists like to take a topographical, hatching approach to their linework, such as in Albrecht Dürer's drawings. You can learn a lot from looking at the work of this Northern Renaissance artist. In Head of an Apostle, see how he weaves his line around the forms, using longer, gradually curving strokes on the softer, more rounded form of the overall head. Meanwhile, he uses shorter hatching strokes, alternating in direction, to describe the smaller, more angular forms of the wrinkles and bony landmarks. Observe how he overlaps lines in a graduated manner in the detail; he never layers the hatching in a tic-tac-toe, right-angled way. Usually, one stroke gradually leads into the other, and as in the highlight rendered in white lines, the hatching can take on an almost spirallike appearance. In another example, notice how the depth of Michelangelo's lines vary greatly and seem to become darker and more intense where they coalesce around the accented bony and hard muscles points on the figure in Study of a Male Nude. When rendered with pen and ink, his accents not only seem to turn darker but also appear to have an almost polished, burnished look.

Try spending some time studying or copying old engravings, as the students of the French Academy were required to do in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's also helpful to study comic-book artists such as Neal Adams or Mort Drucker for their smoothly interlacing crosshatching methods. This will attune your eye to the nuance of line and help you develop a subtlety and syntax for your hatching technique. But don't overdo it, and don’t become a slave to fancy pyrotechnical linework. When working from life, spend at least as much time looking at the model as you do rendering the lines. Otherwise, your drawing will look simplistic and stylized, wrapped up in a convoluted mass of barbed wire or what an artist and influential art-techniques writer of the 19th century, Jacques-Nicolas Paillot de Montabert, called "wretched studies" and "the somewhat absurd patience of those individuals who ... imitate exactly the engraving tool" instead of nature. According to the art historian Albert Boime, the teachers of the French Academy frequently whined about the tendency of their advanced students to draw in this mannered way, unaware that their early overemphasis on mindlessly copying engravings "fostered the cold and lifeless appearance which the Academy itself criticized."

The Fusion of Line and Mass
For a counterpoint to this hard-line approach, take a long look at Charles Dana Gibson's drawings,

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A First Night
by Charles Dana Gibson, ink.
rendered in softer, broader, and looser entwined strokes. Along with several artists and illustrators in this cross-century period, Gibson tried to emulate the flowing, painterly effect of value-massing with line alone. Although many of his freely curving and parallel lines seem to follow the volumes of his subjects, his goal seems less the tactile sensation of form that Dürer pursued and more an attempt to show the optical effects of light on structure. Observe how Gibson evocatively creates shades of light and dark by varying the closeness and number of hatching lines to indicate value change. He applies a delicate weave of subtle lines to the paper when he represents the softer forms that appear to be gradually darker as they turn away from the light source. He uses a greater quantity of harsher lines when he indicates the harder forms that sharply corner away from the light and turn dramatically into darker shadow masses.

It's not easy to draw in ink, but it is a great way to accelerate the learning process. You can't make any mistakes with pen-and-ink, so you quickly learn to observe and choose your lines wisely. There are many tools to choose for this torture; you should try all of them until you find the one that suits you. The Gibson generation used flexible dip pens and thin, pointed sable brushes to master their elegant thick and thin lines. Van Gogh made some of his own rudimentary yet effective pens out of common reeds and feathers. Today, we also have a wide variety of fountain pens and even fountain brushes to take some of the torment out of the process. I used to draw with both in my early years, but now I find that a ballpoint pen serves my purposes just as well. Some contemporary brands of ballpoint pens are prone to frustratingly splotchy accidents, but if you try enough different manufacturers, you will discover a few that provide a sensitive and dependable line. You will find a ballpoint pen quite useful while on the move, when you want a fluid, sketchy look, or when you want to indicate a large value mass across the page with a cluster of rapidly hatched lines.

Lines as Mass
If you pile enough fine, delicately rendered hatch lines onto your drawing, you can create the look of a soft, "lineless" tonal shape when viewed from a distance. I like to combine bold lines with these more delicate hatch lines. Sometimes I purposely use the parallel-lined texture of laid paper to enhance this effect, allowing my pencil to travel up and down with the direction of the grain, as I did in Seated Figure. In some cases, I smudge a little tone onto the textured paper with a stump so that the contrast between the ridges and gutters of the paper isn't too jarring. In most cases, I try to find a fusion of line with tone, aiming for a gradual transition of linework into pure value mass. The more I move into these soft-blended passages, the farther back I grip the pencil on the casing. I find it easier to control the pressure of my line with my hand in this elevated position, allowing me to stroke in a broader and wider arching motion. At these moments, I hold the pencil so gently that it often falls from my hand.

It takes a great deal of practice to manipulate line into tonal value mass. If you're just starting out, rehearse your line quality as much as possible. Even while watching television, you can pull out a pad and draw lines repeatedly in small square swatches, testing out different hand positions and varying the pressure. Try to practice blending your lines. Gently run lines parallel to one another, layering them closer and closer until they almost seem to disappear. Then try drawing lines in the opposite direction on this same swatch to get even more added subtlety and blending of line into mass. If you're an advanced artist, it's equally advisable to keep an extra piece of paper at hand when drawing, so you can test out your hand pressure or rehearse a complicated tone before laying it onto your finished drawing.

Wet Media
The ink-and-wash method is another effective tool in our quest to join line and mass, and because of its technical similarity to the watercolor medium, it even serves as a useful bridge between the artificial categories of drawing and painting. Observe how both Giambattista Tiepolo with The Holy Family and Jean-Baptiste Greuze with Woman Embracing a Recumbent Old Man run loose value washes across their compositions, joining their figures into larger, painterly abstracted value masses. Notice, too, how the harder lines sometimes melt into the wet wash, turning into softer, blended accents. Try this in your own work, using water-soluble ink. Often, you don't even need to use an accompanying wash—you can use a brush loaded with water to drag some ink out of the line and create an overlying value pattern.

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Soda Fountain
by Isabel Bishop, ca. 1954,
ink wash, 7 1/8 x 6.

Mass can sometimes so dominate an image that line may seem a mere adjunct to its partner, serving to accentuate the deepest darks or the brightest lights, or merely containing the outside edges in places. Even when used sparingly, as I try to do in most of my drawings (see Twisted Torso), line is still indispensable to my work. But remember that a little line goes a long way. On this quick, five-minute sketch, I confined most of my linework to the peripheral forms, overlapping and varying their weight to reinforce the interior, interlocking forms. I tried not to disturb the flow of the value gradations within, but in places I added a few strokes to accentuate some of the sharp bony points and areas of deep relief where action hardens the muscles. I retreated from tonal massing at the extremities of the torso, counting on the remaining solitary lines to ease the figure into the bare paper.

The power of line and mass doesn't end with the sculptural representation and the natural effects of light on the human form. They can serve a design function as in the previous example or, as in the Charles LeBrun drawing, where line and mass rhythmically fade in and out of the blank page. Value mass and line almost become one abstract unit in some of Isabel Bishop's ink-wash drawings. It's hard to tell where shape ends and calligraphy begins in her Soda Fountain. She also used bold hybrid line and shape marks in many of her paintings, sometimes overlapping them in a disembodied way that reinforces the essential flatness and formal potential of the canvas or paper. We shouldn't completely ignore the other conceptual assets of these contrasting strokes, either. Notice how Fragonard exploits both their emotive and expressive abilities in The Pacha. Known for his Rubenesque use of color and animated brushwork, he approached drawing with equal enthusiasm, here dragging a brush speedily across his textural paper in an impassioned, desperate script, and there filling the page with an almost modern, repeating pattern of rough marks.

The Use of Line in Painting
The use of line is not confined to the realm of paper and drawing. Even many mass-centered artists use line to start their paintings. I frequently begin my canvases with a vague charcoal sketch.

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Multicolored Figure
by Dan Gheno, 1996,
colored pencil, 18 x 24.
Collection the artist.
Then I reconfirm and build upon my initial charcoal lines with paint, usually a blue, or permanent alizarin crimson. I dilute the paint with a lot of solvent so that the color flows freely, like ink. Thanks to the heavy proportion of solvent, the painted lines dry quickly, usually within five to 20 minutes. This gives me a lot of freedom, allowing me to move into the painting process right away. If I think I've lost control of the drawing, I can scrape off some of the top layers to retrieve the original drawing below. But take care when you use this approach. Oil paint becomes transparent with time, and you must avoid drawing with an extremely dark line, especially if you paint in thin layers.

I sometimes use lines to redraw a painting that's in progress, changing to a new color each time I make a revision so that I can compare my changes against the previous incarnation. I sporadically do this in my drawn work, such as Multicolored Figure, just for the fun of it—I think it's also quite interesting to document the path of discovery, with each decision or adjustment recorded by a different color. Even when I draw in my normal, monochromatic way, I never erase my "mistakes" until I've scribbled in a possible solution. It's easier to make a revision in either medium when you can see where you've been. That way, you don't make the same mistake twice (or three times).

Quite a few painters use line extensively throughout their work. Van Gogh is probably the most obvious example. He used a highly calligraphic hatching stroke in many of his paintings, while ironically, in many of his drawings, he frequently emulated the textural aspects of brushstrokes. Like many other painters, I often use lines as an expressive outlet or as a way to imply forms overlapping just as I do in my drawings. Even a mass-oriented artist such as John Singer Sargent resorted to a heavy use of outline in much of his mural work. Many muralists of the time, including Kenyon Cox and, more recently, Dean Cornwell, used line to make the imagery more recognizable from a distance, and along with Georges Rouault in his easel work, they often used distinct outlines in an avowed emulation of the leaden lines that support stained glass windows. In some ways, you might even say these dark lines serve more a color than a drawing end; they reinforce and enhance the hues within. Try to imagine the Hans Hoffmann self-portrait without the lines. It wouldn't work.

An abstract artist like Hoffmann had no fear of lines or drawing in general. Indeed, some of his teaching revolved around drawing from the model. Unfortunately, today many artists and critics decry the fusion of line and mass, and they vociferously argue against contaminating the purity of the painting impulse with drawing concerns. This reminds me of another unfortunate time in art history, when the Poussinistes, partisans of drawing and restraint, and the Rubenistes, soldiers of color and emotion, were at each other's throats. Each was adamant in its view. In fact, a popular teacher and artist of the Neoclassical movement, Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, committed suicide because he was unwilling to sacrifice his emotional Rubenist side to honor his patron and artistic father, Jacques-Louis David, a zealous Poussinist.

Today, most people can appreciate both of those camps and can see their eventual fusion in the traditional art of the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Think of how much potential was lost by these art wars. Life is too short to be deterred by another artist's dictums. Use lines when it serves your visual purposes, and use value masses when they are appropriate. Let someone else worry about the alleged aesthetic rules. Your job is to draw. If you stick to it, you will be as unstoppable as the team of line and mass.


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Comments

RAFAEL SALAZAR PEREZ wrote
on 24 Oct 2006 3:10 PM
I AM A FORMER STUDENT OF AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ART AND I WANT TO HNOW MORW ABOUT DRAWING TECNICKES...THANK YOU I LIVE IN YUCATAN MEXICO.
Pete Sanchez wrote
on 29 Nov 2009 10:25 PM

I like the whole article very much. I would like to know what thick and thin lines do to a Drawing? Thank you .Pete Sanchez

Tremors wrote
on 19 Jul 2012 10:30 AM

I have Parkinson's Disease and always seeking tips to improve (overcome) tremors in my hands while painting, drawing, sketching, etc. as I take plenty of Sinemet and Aricept for the conditions of Parkinson's. Due to cost of doctors and many other medications, my funds are limited when it comes to purchasing helpful ebooks, etc. Thank you for any helpful hints and God Bless.