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Making sense of art history
Making sense of art history

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7.3 The use of line

Lines can be a very powerful way of controlling the spectator's experience of an art work. When used effectively, lines can lead us into and through a composition, moving us along a visual path. Here you'll explore the effect of two types of line: directional lines and contour lines.

(a) Directional lines

Lines can create directional movement within the composition, leading the spectator's eye around and through the pictorial space. Lines can also keep the viewer's eye from leaving the picture. There are three types of straight directional line: horizontal, vertical, and diagonal.

Diagonal lines produce the most energy or movement in terms of the way that they draw the spectator into the pictorial space and control their reading of a composition. For example, in Gilbert and George's Life (Plate 7) it's arguable that the diagonal lines formed by the edges of the wings and the men's arms work in guiding the eye around the composition and towards the men's faces, as shown in Figure 7 below.

Figure 7: Use of diagonal lines in Life

Vertical lines can also add movement and energy to an image and can be particularly effective in stopping the spectator's eye from leaving the pictorial space. In Rego's The Policeman's Daughter (Plate 15), it's arguable that the strong vertical line created by the wall on the far right-hand side of the composition works in this way.

Plate 15

Paula Rego, The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987, acrylic on canvas backed paper, 214 × 53 cm. (© The artist. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery, London.)

Horizontal lines tend to produce a stationary feeling. The most common place for horizontal lines to be found is in the representation of a horizon. If unbroken, a clearly defined horizon creates a rather static composition, for example in Rego's The Dance (Plate 14), where it's arguable that the strong horizon counterbalances the implied movement of the dancers to give the composition stability.

Plate 14

Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988, acrylic on paper laid on canvas support, 213 × 274 cm. (© The artist. Courtesy Tate, London, 2005.)

(b) Contour lines

Line can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. A comparison of Rego's The Policeman's Daughter and Gilbert and George's Life shows the former using quite subtle, soft thin lines to outline the woman's figure, while the latter uses clearly delineated, thicker and darker lines. For me, the dark, sharp outlines in Life tend to give the art work a particularly unrealistic effect. What do you think?

You'll consolidate your work on line in the next activity.

Activity 12: Comparing the use of line in the composition of The Maids and No Woman No Cry

Timing: You should allow about 10 minutes

Looking carefully at Plates 3 and 4, make notes on the differences and similarities in use of line in these art works, basing your response on the discussion above.

Plate 3

Chris Ofili, No Woman No Cry, 1998, acrylic paint, oil paint, resin, pencil, paper collage, Letraset, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on linen with two dung supports, 244 × 183 × 5 cm. (© Chris Ofili. Courtesy of Chris Ofili – Afroco and Victoria Miro Gallery. Tate Photography.)

Plate 4

Paula Rego, The Maids, 1987, acrylic on canvas backed paper, 214 × 244 cm. (Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery.)

Don't forget to consider the relationships between techniques and effects in the art work in terms of the significance of line in conveying an emotional effect and the use of line to control the way that you read the work.


I felt that there was a significant difference in the way directional lines are used in each painting.

In The Maids, I found my eye being led around the composition by some of the more dominant directional lines. For example, those at the top of the table, the top of the door, the shadow on the wall, the edge of the central figure's skirt and the women's limbs.

However, in No Woman No Cry the only apparent directional lines are those of the grid-like pattern. Although this perhaps helped to keep my eye moving randomly around the composition, I didn't find that this controlled my reading of the painting in the same way as the lines in The Maids. You may disagree, however.

Both paintings feature the use of thin contour lines around the edges of the figures that are depicted. I felt that this gave both art works a slightly simplistic feel, as it is clear where each object begins and ends, especially in The Maids.

Don't worry if you didn't make all of the points mentioned. My analysis is intended to give a particularly detailed overview of the way techniques and effects might be related in terms of the composition of these two art works. Do revisit the art works in the light of my comments.