Linear Composition

Line is second only to edge as the strongest element in compositional design. In this context, line refers both to actual lines and to the edges of areas of color, value, and form. Generally, a drawing begins with outlines that define these areas.

In all types of composition, variety is an excellent way to hold the viewer's attention. ln linear compositions, you can achieve interesting variety in the way you control:

  • the tilt and angle of lines
  • the placement of Intersections of lines
  • the places lines touch and divide the edge of the
  • composition
  • the proportions of lines
  • the proportions of areas enclosed by lines
  • the distances between lines

Linear composition is the thoughtful arrangement of edges and the proportions of the areas enclosed by them.

In linear composition, line refers both to actual lines and to the edges of colors, shadows, and objects.

The Single Line

We will start with the simplest composition, which consists of a single straight line. As other elements are added the composition becomes more complex, but the principles and concepts that govern it remain the same.

When a single straight line is the main element in your composition, you must pay attention to these features: where the line ends, its length, its placement within the composition, and, if it touches the edge, where it touches. Let's consider first the specific effects that result from the different ways a line ends in a composition.

No matter where it is located, the end of the line is the most dramatic part of the composition and our attention is immediately drawn to it. If the line ends very near a corner (the meeting of two edges), our eye is directed out of the composition; thus, it is a mistake to place something interesting there. A line that ends in the exact middle of a composition divides it into equal parts, which is less visually interesting than an unequal division. The most visually satisfying place to end the line is where the distance from its termination to each of the composition's four edges is different. Thus, when you want to emphasize a particular element in a composition, place it where it will be at a different distance from each of the composition's four edges.

A line that touches the edge of a composition divides it into two sections. Sections of equal size are predictable, requiring less of the viewer's attention and time. Unequal divisions, however, engage the eye more, and are thus more visually satisfying. It is not how many sections the edge of a composition is divided into that matters, but the proportions of those sections; it is best when no two of the sections are alike.

When both ends of a line appear within a composition, one end is dominant and the other subordinate. The end that is located in the more aesthetically pleasing place will dominate. The most aesthetically satisfying placement is usually where the distances to the edges are varied but not extreme in their variation. Thus, when two compositional elements are of equal interest, the element that appears in the more visually satisfying place will receive the most attention. A line that goes from edge to edge divides the composition into two areas, which are then compared for size relationships. Variety in these and other proportions will always add interest to a composition.

When you draw a single straight line in a composition, the first thing to think about is where the line ends. The end of the line is dramatic and its placement is important.

The preferred place to end a line is where its termination is at various distances from the composition's four edges.

This line ends so near the comer of the composition that it attracts our eye to that area and directs our attention out of the picture.

The end of this line is in the exact middle of the composition and is thus equidistant from all four edges. Such a configuration holds the viewer's attention for a comparatively short time because each half of the composition predicts the other.

After considering where the line ends, we consider the length of the line and its relationship to the compositional rectangle it fits in.

Does this line require a rectangle of this size to contain it? Or is this just a small present in a big box?

A line that crosses a composition divides the two edges it touches, as well as the whole composition. The proportions of these divisions are most satisfying when none is equal to another.

This line is placed too near the edge, creating too much emphasis in that area and thus aI/owing the eye to leave the composition.

Here the line is placed too close to the middle, dividing the composition into equal parts. Equal divisions tend to be less interesting because each half predicts the other.

Two Lines

Two lines that are drawn across a composition but do not intersect divide the composition into three sections. The eye considers the relationship between these three sections and the divisions of the composition's edges, seeking proportions that are interesting. If all three sections, or even just two of them, are the same size, the composition will be less interesting than if they were all different. Two lines that come together to make a point near or just beyond the edge of a composition form an arrow that points the eye out of the picture. If the lines form an arrow pointing to a corner, there will be an even stronger tendency for the eye to leave the composition.

Two lines drawn across a composition divide it into three areas. In this example, the relationship of these three areas is visually satisfying. Why?

The upper two divisions of this composition are equal in size, and therefore the composition holds our attention for a shorter time than it would if all three divisions differed in size.

These lines imply an arrow pointing out of the composition. They make the right-hand edge too strong.

These lines make the lower left-hand corner stronger and thereby direct the eye out of the composition.

The line in the upper left-hand corner creates an area that is too small in relation to the other areas. Because of its unique proportions, our eye is attracted to that corner and then out of the composition.

Intersections and Irregularities

Two lines that cross in a composition prompt visual assessments of the relationship of the four areas they create, the way they divide the composition's edges, and the location of their intersection.

The intersection forms an X, which is a very powerful linear configuration because it implies four arrows pointing to the same place-a place our eye is compelled to land. The most satisfying location for such an intersection in a composition is wherever you can achieve variation among the distances from this point to each of the four edges. (The intersection should not be too close to an edge or a corner.) Artists often place an important compositional element at the intersection of an X.

All intersections of lines attract the viewer's eye, whether the lines are straight or curved. Lines that form a T, Y, or K are specific examples. Curving lines that almost touch form a near-tangent that compels the eye just as much as an intersection. The X, K, and near-tangent are stronger visual attractions than the T or Y.

In addition to these intersections, sudden changes or variations in the direction of a line attract the eye, such as the point of a V or the curve of a U. Place such intersections and directional changes where you want to direct the viewer's eye In a composition.

Two lines that intersect divide the composition into four areas. These four areas, as well as the divisions of the edges and the placement of the intersection, are the design elements to consider in this type of composition.

An X configuration in a linear composition is very strong. It implies four arrows pointing to the same place.

The intersection of the X is best placed where it will be at unequal distances from each of the composition's four edges.

The intersection of the X is best placed where it will be at unequal distances from each of the composition's four edges.

All intersections of lines attract the eye of the viewer, whether the lines are straight or curved. This is an example of a T intersection.

This is an example of a Y intersection. Because the eye is naturally attracted to them, intersections must be carefully placed in compositions.

This is an example of a K intersection.

This is an example of a near-tangent. When curving lines nearly touch they create a tension that acts like an intersection. Extra care must be used in placing near-tangents because our eye is strongly attracted to them.

This variation in the line causes our eye to linger in this area.

The sudden change in the direction of this line demands our attention. It is the most dramatic part of the line.

In a similar but less dramatic way, our eye is attracted to the changing direction of this line. Sharp or angular changes in direction are more compelling than gentle or rounded ones.

It is important to place the intersections of lines carefully because they attract the eye. Avoid putting too many intersections. in one area, on an edge, or in the corner of the composition.

When a line comes in contact with the edge of a composition, it divides that edge. Such divisions should be unique in order to create maximum interest in the composition.

The distances between individual lines, as well as between the lines and the edges of a composition, are important. Too many lines in one area will create confusion. Lines too evenly spaced will create boredom.

Here, compare the shapes and proportions of the areas enclosed by the lines and study their interrelationships. Variety in sizes and shapes is desirable.

Internal Harmony

Repeated shapes in a linear composition lend harmony. When there are no repeated shapes in a composition, we get the impression of agitation, uneasiness, and chaos.

For example, if we want to draw the monster that ate Chicago and convey fear and panic, irregular unrelated shapes would enhance the mood. If, on the other hand, we wish to portray the monster more sympathetically, we would choose shapes that are closely related to each other.

For greater interest and variety, you can turn, reverse, enlarge, reduce, or stretch repealed shapes. Too much repetition of a shape, especially in similar sizes, tends to create order, predictability, and sometimes boredom. The perfect balance for each picture exists somewhere between no repeated shapes and too many repeated shapes. We choose that balance by deciding what degree of anxiety or relaxation we want the picture to convey. We then organize the shapes accordingly.

The irregular, unrelated shapes of this linear composition help to heighten the feeling of uneasiness and anxiety.

This composition seems much less chaotic and the monster much less threatening than in the previous example. Internal harmony has been created through the repetition of shapes, changing the way we think about the scene.

Positive and Negative Shapes

Included in linear composition is the concept of positive and negative shapes. A positive shape is the object itself. A negative shape is what exists between and around the positive shape. Imagine a doughnut on a plate. The doughnut is the positive shape; the hole in the doughnut and the area around it is the negative shape. Positive and negative areas of a given shape or subject should be neither equal in proportion nor extreme in their variation. The most important rule regarding positive and negative shapes is this: Complex contours of positive shape require larger areas of negative shape around them than do simple contours.

The doughnut is a positive shape. The hole in the doughnut and the area around the doughnut are tne negative shapes. Positive and negative shapes should not be equal to each other or extreme in their variations.

The face is a more complex contour than the back of the head, and thus needs a larger area af negative shape around it. Can you see the imbalance in this picture?

Here the fin is a more complex contour of positive shape than the face, and consequently needs a large negative area to offset it. In this composition, the positive and negative shapes are balanced.

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