The Language of Lines

Lines Do More Than Lead

by Janet Garrity Saucier

When photographers tap into the guiding principles of graphic design, we move
beyond simply recording photography. We move toward expressing photography.

– Les Saucier


In previous articles, we’ve been discussing some of the graphic design tools that make the difference between recording vs. creating images. Texture and color have been the topics to date. Read previous blogs.

This month’s installation is about the use of lines. We’ve been taught to use lines as a visual trail for the viewer’s eye to follow, typically toward the subject. When we do so, the images can be quite effective, but lines do more than lead. Lines communicate visual information that, if expressed in words, can be quite complex.

In Betty Edward’s book Drawing on the Artist Within, the author uses the example of our signatures to demonstrate how lines are a language that are read “visually, perceptually and intuitively.” Each person’s signature, or drawing of their name, is unique, and we interpret the signature to have meaning about its owner. Without speaking words, we see a signature and our minds can “grasp the whole signature in a split second, comprehending the ‘message’ of the line by a ‘leap of insight.'”

Going beyond signatures, look at all the fonts available on our computers. When you select a font, are you not selecting a feeling? Why would there be so many font choices if lines weren’t capable of speaking to us beyond the readable letters?






Intuition is first a feeling before it becomes consciously defined. Lines speak to us intuitively. Recognizing how the mind responds intuitively to different types of lines is important to visual artists because lines put feelings in our images. When we understand and use lines (as well as all graphic design elements), we move into the realm of expressing photography.

So how do different lines make us feel? We perceive lines that are fast and lines that are slow. Take a pencil and quickly draw a line. Then draw another line, but slowly this time. Can you see the visual differences? The fast line may be light and smooth, the other darker and thicker.

Meandering leading lines are slower, more leisurely, than straight leading lines. The image to the right, taken in the Palouse of Washington State, demonstrates how an S-curve leads us toward the horizon at a medium slow pace. Our minds are forced to slow down as our eyes travel around the curves to the sloping horizon. The slowness of the line balances with the sense of a country road, whereas on a busy city street the S-curve would feel out of place.

Lines convey visual energy. Horizontal lines have little energy, which can be interpreted as sleepy, passive or peaceful. Vertical lines have more energy. They can feel strong, active or static. As well, lines that draw the eye up can feel happy or joyful, while lines that draw our eyes down may feel solemn or sad. Think of the difference in the feeling between a sunflower with its face to the sun and one that’s drooping over toward the ground.

Diagonal lines are energetic and convey a sense of movement. Any time you can include diagonal lines in your images, go for it. We’re drawn to diagonals.

In the book The Simple Secret to Better Painting by Greg Albert (a book we highly recommend photographers read), the author defines types of diagonal lines and the feelings they convey. We’re drawn to diagonals because we feel dynamic energy. Diagonal lines scattered around the image convey energy in motion. Random diagonals feel like uncontrolled motion. And vector diagonals are explosive motion.

The image taken from the back of a flower at the top of this article is a good example of vector diagonals. By getting close and emphasizing the lines to the viewer, the image has the feeling of energy extending out from the base of the flower.

From now on, be conscience of the lines in your images and what they are saying to the viewer. Lines do more than just lead the eye, they speak to the viewer visually, perceptually and intuitively. You as the visual artist will be well served to learn their language.

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