We Have to Draw The Line.
Well, 7 of them to be exact. Literal to abstract, straight to curvy, Joan Brown to Ruth Asawa, and one big stoner moment... It's Line Drawing 101, GUT style.
Hello from a very, very rainy Bay Area!
A lot of new folks are joining us at the Grown-Ups Table this week (welcome!) so if you haven’t introduced yourself already head over to the intros and say hi. GUT subscribers get the full lesson, drawing assignment and access to the chat where we share our work. Questions? Leave them in the comments. Comments? Leave them in the questions. As always, a handful of last week’s drawing assignments are featured at the bottom of this email! Cool? Let’s do this.
Quick Intro: The Elements of Art
Something occurred to me: we are 5 months into the GUT (!) and I’ve never even mentioned the basic elements of visual art. Oh, Wendy. 🙄 Anyway, never too late. The basic elements of visual art are super helpful to know about and consider whenever we draw.
All visual art is comprised of seven elements: line, color, shape, form, value, space, and texture. That’s it. Across all visual art mediums, artists work with those seven things. Not so overwhelming, is it? And, GUT peeps, you’ve already learned about two of them. Last week we talked about space (specifically negative space), and a couple months back we talked about value (aka light and shadow).
After seeing so many people experiment and push themselves with last week’s negative space assignment (they are so inspiring! I’ve shared a selection at the end of this dispatch), I thought it would be fun to do one more little lesson on my favorite element of drawing. So grab your GUT sketchbook, friends. This week we dig into…
Line drawings are the oldest form of art making. 540,000 years ago, an early human carved a zigzag line into a shell. 73,000 years ago, someone in South Africa used red ochre to draw hashtag-lines on a rock. And over 30,000 years ago, deep inside a cave in Chauvet, France, someone drew a pretty darn realistic line drawing of a rhino. And today, line drawing continues to be the foundation of a lot of visual art.
What is line drawing, exactly?
A line drawing is made of a line or series of lines typically drawn on a solid flat surface, like paper, and can be made with any medium. Line drawings can be representational (meaning they are intended to look like something), abstract (not intended to look like something) and conceptual (when the represent an idea.) A line drawing can be the basis for another drawing or painting, as in a sketch, or it can be a finished piece unto itself. No matter what an artist wants to achieve, there are 7 types of lines we use when drawing. (That's right, 7 elements of visual art, 7 types of lines1.) These are horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, straight or curved, thick or thin
The Seven Types of Lines
Before reading any further, please grab a piece of paper and pencil (yes we’re using pencils today!)
No seriously, grab them.
Okay, great. Again, according to the drawing police, there are only those 7 different types of lines we can draw: horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, straight or curved, thick or thin. For the warm up: Draw a grid of 8 squares on your paper. Inside of each box draw one type of line. What about Box 8? Wild Card! To hell with the drawing police. Make up your own type of line. (I will gather these and send them to the authorities and together we will demand additions.) For all these lines, you can use a ruler like Agnes Martin or free hand it like Maira Kalman. Whatever feels right.
After you’re done, take a look at what you just drew. Those simple 7+ lines are all the lines that exists in the world. And those are all the tools you need to draw anything you want, ever.
While many artists use those lines to make a drawing that looks like something, many artists also use those marks to make abstract drawings.2 Below are a few very different kinds of abstract line drawings. See what different types of lines you spot in their work:
Great. Now let’s try it ourselves.
Grab a new piece of paper and draw a frame for a new, smallish drawing.
Within that frame, we are going to make an abstract line drawing that includes all 7 types of lines in one drawing. It can be detailed or simple or busy or sparse or whatever you like. Keep in mind what we learned about negative space last week as you decide where/how to make your lines. No rules! Except that the drawing has to include all 7 types of lines.
Easy fun doodle, right? And good practice at moving our hands in different ways and using line to think about space. And just like that, you’ve mastered the 7 types of lines. And made an abstract line drawing!3
Now that we’ve learned the 7 types of lines and messed around with making them, let’s get back to representational line drawing and our assignment.
Line Drawing (aka Contour Drawing)
“But what really IS a line, maaaan?”
Okay, ready for your stoner moment of the day? Ponder this: When we make a line drawing, we draw outlines of things - but outlines do not exist in reality!!
No seriously, if you think about it it’s kind of nuts. When do you actually see anything in nature outlined? Never. We see form and shape, and light and shadow, but outlines? Nowhere. So how come when we make drawings we instinctively translate the world around us into lines on a page?? There’s a pretty interesting reason, and it will help us understand our drawings better.
Our brains (via our eyes) are really good at registering changes between light and dark. When a change is extreme enough, our brains register it as an edge. Edges tell us where one objects stops and another starts, and/or when there are changes in depth and perspective. We see the world as a series of edges, even if these edges are not actually lines. So when we sit down to draw, we draw these edge lines, or contours as we call them in drawing. Heard of contour drawings? Those are drawings made of edges.
Here are a few examples of contour line drawings. Here’s Ellsworth Kelly:
And Ben Shahn:
And Joan Brown, whose painting retrospective is up at SFMoMA & it’s so good:
You’ve heard me say it so often, so much of drawing is looking. And in this case, so much of these drawings are the artist seeing edges and translating them to the page in a way that captures the feeling they had while looking. That strong, certain lines come from practice. Practice at drawing, and practice at LOOKING. And, at syncing up the two.
And there is no better way I know of to practice that than with one particular exercise…
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