Line Art, a look at the history of visual art, from line art to Op Art



It is often thought that the trait of an artist is the purest way to perceive his abilities. Like a line winding on paper or canvas, this continuous band can emit powerful emotions. So, it is not surprising that line drawing, or line art, is one of the most basic elements of visual art.

In fact, as one of the seven visual elements of art– with form, shape, color, value, texture and space – line is a characteristic of the arts. But what is line art? First of all, it’s important to note that a line doesn’t just move from point A to point B. Basically, the line art consists of separate lines on a mostly solid background. In art, a line can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional, abstract, descriptive or implied.

Line art is often black and white, but not always. Elements like shading and color gradients are absent, allowing the focus to stay firmly on the lines themselves. Line drawings can be sketches, but they can also be finished works of art on their own. Line is so fundamental to the arts that a common exercise for art students is to draw a shape using a single line, without ever letting the drawing tool leave the page.

It’s important to remember that line art isn’t just about painting and drawing. Lines can be visually formed in several ways. For example, sculptors bend materials into different shapes or photographers create implicit lines through the angle of their camera.

Now that we know a bit about the theory, let’s dive into line art through history, starting with the famous line drawings in art history.

Throughout art history, artists have created influential art using the line as the primary medium for visual expression.

Laocoon line art

Copy the sculpture of “Laocoon and his sons”, c. 200 BCE (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

The ancient sculpture group Laocoon and his sons, which is now in the Vatican Museums in Rome, has been influential since its rediscovery in the 1500s. It became a point of reference for Renaissance artists, who looked at how the sculptor used flowing lines to harmonize the group of figures. The curved serpent weaves its way through the three figures, connecting them and balancing the group. The artists of the time would continue to use implicit lines to create harmonious compositions in sculpture, painting and drawing.

Leda Sketch by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, “Study for the head of Leda”, circa 1506 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Leonardo DeVinci was a gifted designer, among his other talents. His sketches have become treasured works of art in themselves. This study for a painting by Leda and the swan shows the detailed line work used to construct the shape and dimension.

Albrecht Durer engraving line drawing

Albrecht Dürer, “Melencolia I”, 1514 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

One of the most famous engravers in history, Albrecht Durer is a real master of the line. By incising precise lines in plates, Dürer produced rich and intricate engravings that continue to influence artists. He was also a skillful painter in both oil and watercolor, as well as an accomplished draftsman. His work in all media is based on the line art for which his printmaking is known.

henri matisse dancing

Henri Matisse, “La Danse”, 1909 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [PD-US])

More and more throughout his career, Henri Matisse incorporated the expressive and rapid touch of his drawings in his paintings. One of his most famous pieces, Dance, relies heavily on the contours he created. With bold, flat colors and striking contours, spectators perceive the power and movement of the dancers through Matisse’s lines.

Pablo Picasso line drawing

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Igor Stravinsky”, 1920 (Photo: WikiArt [Public Domain])

Switching from the more articulate classic drawings that he produced at the beginning of his career, Pablo Picasso has stripped down his labor to produce a wealth of contour drawings. By using a single continuous line, he is still able to express the power in his work. In fact, these outline designs have become some of his most iconic images.

Jackson Pollock Painting

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 31’ at the Museum of Modern Art (Photo: Photo bank by dmitro2009 / Shutterstock)

The king of abstract expressionism, Jackson pollockS’s work is based entirely on the lines of liquid paint drops that move dynamically through his paintings. His most famous works were created during his “gout period” from 1947 to 1950 when he turned the world of contemporary art upside down with this innovative technique.

Bridget Riley Mural

Bridget Riley, “Bolt of Color”, 2017-19 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

British artist Bridget Riley was a pioneer of Op art, which is based on optical illusions. Interested in geometric shapes, her use of bold lines has helped create hypnotic visual illusions in her work.

Keith Haring fresco

Keith Haring, Mural in Collingwood, Australia, 1984 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])

Keith haringThe bold style of is defined by thick black outlines, often left black and white or filled with bright, flat colors. His signature style defined his career and made his work instantly recognizable. Whether the figures are intertwined, appearing to follow a flowing line, or whether they were defined on their own, Haring’s outline drawings continue to live on today and show a continuing influence on fine artists, illustrators and graphic designers.

Today, lines are more important than ever in contemporary art. From sculpture to painting, the tradition of line drawing continues through the work of cutting-edge artists.

Want to learn how to do continuous line drawing? Check out this excellent art tutorial.

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