How to Draw a Line – The First Step in Mastering the Art of Drawing
Learning how to draw a line can be as fundamental as learning how to write or read. Drawing is one of our most direct and universal forms of communication, and lines are the foundation of that language. With each line technique you master, the better and more precise will be your ability to relay information visually.
Lines in History
In mathematical terms, a line represents the distance between two points. In the visual arts, a line shows the border between a form and its surrounding space. In both cases, lines are used to relay very specific information.
Before there was the written word, there was the line. In prehistoric times ancient man used rock art and cave painting both for shamanistic purposes and to pass on information to peoples in their tribes and for others to come. The oldest cave paintings are said to be more than 64,000 years old. They began with linear symbols, abstract marks, and hand stencils. These were then followed by depictions of animals such as pigs, horses, and deer. 10,000 years or so later, figurative representations also emerged, showing human figures hunting and interacting with animals.
As the sophistication of the cave paintings evolved, so did their usage as tools of narration and storytelling. Soon, drawings began to show up not only on walls but on pottery and transportable items. This eventually led the way to pictographic language. The earliest forms of written language began with pictographs. A pictograph can refer to any symbol or drawing that stands in place of an idea or in terms of language, a word.
Today the most globally recognized form of ancient pictographs are Egyptian Hieroglyphs which were used extensively from around 3000BC up until 5th century AD. Although countless walls of temples and pyramids were covered in this ancient script, some it seems found the need for an even bigger canvas.
Between 500 BC and 500 AD, these curious Nazca line drawings were etched into bare earth by the removal of desert stones in Peru. Here, lines take on a superhuman quality as they are long, continuous, unbroken, and best seen from the air.
Making your Mark: How to Draw a Line
It may sound pretty basic. You may be thinking that literally everyone knows how to draw a line, but have you ever sat down to draw something and felt that tinge of hesitation subtly pulling your pencil back before you made the first mark on your pristine piece of paper?
Sure, anyone can draw a line – a child can draw a line, but can you draw it with purpose? There are several methods and factors that can produce varying kinds of lines. When learning how to draw a line, the characteristics you choose from when making a line include the quality of the medium, the weight of the line, the clarity of the mark, and the angle of application. Familiarizing yourself with these line characteristics can empower your drawing style.
Characteristics and Qualities of a Line
- Quality of the Medium
When drawing by hand you can use a variety of materials, made usually either from graphite or charcoal, which each yield a different quality of hardness or softness.
If you go to an art supply store you may find a set of charcoal pencils or sticks with distinct Grades of Softness and Hardness. These Charcoal Grades are given in either H, B, or HB. H is used for Hard Grades, B represents Soft Grades, and HB is a middle Grade.
The Soft Grades can range from 9B to B. The softer the grade, the more black the mark. Also, because the charcoal is soft the tip of the pencil is likely to dull more quickly and will provide a less sharp line. However, their softness and line texture allow them to be useful for easy shading, blending, and erasing.
Contrastingly, the Hard grades go from H to 9H. The harder the grade, the sharper and lighter the line will be. The pencils themselves can be sharpened to a very fine tip, providing the ability for drawing very detailed lines.
The weight of a line refers to the amount of pressure applied to the drawing surface by the drawing instrument. Most often this pressure is applied with our hands through our writing tool, and the pressure can influence how dark or how light the line is. It can also influence how thick or how thin the line is.
Varying the thickness and thinness of a line can make the mark more dynamic in a similar way in which varying one’s tone of voice can make listening to someone more engaging and less monotone. Furthermore, thickness and thinness or darkness and lightness of lines can be used to show differences in light and shadow, even without shading.
Light lines can allow forms to feel freer and less restricted, as opposed to heavy dark lines which can create rigid borders around an object.
- Clarity of the Mark
Clarity of the mark refers to the degree to which the line is broken to achieve its form. You may draw in a feathered fashion lightly sketching over a form until the desired angle or shape is achieved. This form of drawing can feel vague, but it also can lead to a high degree of accuracy in proportion and perspective.
Likewise, you may opt for a solid contour line technique.
A contour line drawing traces the outline of a form, while a continuous contour line drawing remains as an unbroken single line. This can be achieved by drawing a form without lifting the writing tool off of the paper. This kind of drawing is more deliberate and requires a high degree of confidence and commitment to one’s mark. Sometimes, this also involves less accuracy but more fluidity.
In fact, one form of contour line drawing is blind contour, where the artist will purposely only look at the subject and avoid looking at the paper itself, thereby placing the accuracy of the line purely on one’s hand-eye coordination. This exercise can be done using one’s own hand or small daily object and can be a very good way to train the accuracy of your marks and the sharpness of your eyes.
- Grip and Angle of Application
The final factor that can influence the quality of your line is your grip and the angle of your writing tool to your writing surface. If you are using a graphite pencil or charcoal stick, the lower your angle is, or in other words, the closer you are to being parallel to the writing surface, the broader your stroke will be. This wideness of a mark, based on the angle of application, won’t necessarily affect the lightness or darkness. Instead, it will be more likely to affect the texture of the light.
Holding the pencil low to your surface will allow for greater shading control while holding the utensil perpendicular to the paper will allow you to draw directly with the tip, creating thin lines.
Your grip may also show how much control you have in your line, straight or wavy, shaky, steady, or still. These very subtle differences in the quality of the line tell us less about the nature of the form or the lighting, and more about the state of the person who is drawing.
What your Drawing Style says about you?
The lines you draw will combine to make up your drawing style. As a teacher, I enjoyed seeing the personalities of my students come out in their still-life drawings. A still life drawing is a drawing taken from a carefully displayed arrangement of objects. Since the students in my class all draw from the same still-life arrangement, differences in the outcome have little to do with the subject matter and everything to do with the temperament and individual ability of the artist.
While ability can develop with practice, temperament and personality come across through choices the students make in regards to the quality and characteristics of lines. When you learn how to draw a line, you decide which writing tool to use, how hard you tend to press, and how bold your line will be. Timidness or Shyness sometimes comes across in a feathery broken or light line, whereas continuous heavier lines can reflect vitality. However, drawings that are made up of lines that are dominantly heavy and dark can feel more aggressive. When you take all the characteristics into consideration you begin to form a constellation of traits reflective of your choices.
Our individual lines are even seen in our signatures. The way we write our names can also reveal aspects of our personality. For instance, are the lines following a straight line or do they curve upwards? How close together are the letters. How hard is the pressure on the paper? The analysis can be similar to the same factors that distinguish our drawings.
For a great example of handwriting analysis check out this video where the signature of former President Donal Trump is examined to determine his personality.
Mastering drawing begins with how to draw a line. Lines are our vocabulary and help us express what we want to say through visual means. The more variety in your lines, the more nuanced your expression will be. The choices you make in how to draw a line will tell us not only about what you want to say but how you want to say it, so make your choices count.