Line in art is a primitive but powerful form of artistic expression. It’s a dynamic technique that captivates viewers and creates impact regardless of the format or media type—making it foundational to all great design.
Whether you create analog or digital line art, the impact of the art form is unmistakable. Learning about line art, including how and why to practice it, will help you become a better, more effective, and more dynamic artist. But first, let’s start with the basics.
What is Line Art?
The art of line drawing has quite a legacy. In fact, the earliest line art drawing known to date is more than 73,000 years old. As the craft has evolved considerably since then, our depth of knowledge of line art and its application for it has deepened considerably as well. So much so that many of the world’s best-known artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Pablo Picasso—as well as contemporary icons like Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley and Keith Haring—have created powerful art by wielding simple lines with purpose and expertise.
To define line art, you must first define its core element—the line itself. According to the folks at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “A line is an identifiable path created by a point moving in space. It is one-dimensional and can vary in width, direction, and length.
According to art scholars, there are five types of line in art:
The line art definition we use at Skillshare is an active one: to create an illustration using basic strokes of varying weights and angles that demonstrate form and depth.
The Science Behind Line Art
Drawing with lines is not a talent bestowed upon a select few gifted artisans. It’s a skill that can be learned with intention and practice--and it’s more useful than you may think.
On a basic level, drawing with lines helps you communicate with the 65 percent of people who are visual learners. Think about the times when you’ve had to give someone directions to your house, seen a coach draw up a play in sports, or planned where the furniture should go in your new place. Simple lines can convey a lot of information quickly, and people are bound to remember it.
Drawing with lines—even silly ones like doodles in the margin of a notebook—can also help you retain information yourself. A 2009 study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked participants to listen to an intentionally boring message on the phone. Some were instructed to doodle while listening, and others were not. Those who doodled during the study had a 29% improved recall compared to those who did not doodle.
Finally, practicing drawing with lines can enhance your creativity and alter your brain. Dartmouth College psychologist Alexander Schlegel demonstrated this in a study by scanning students’ brains before and after they took a three-month course in observational drawing or painting. As a result of the consistent practice, the researchers found that the brains of the students literally evolved in the areas that support creative thinking.
No matter what kind of line art you create, or how you create it, regularly practicing the craft can be useful to your career, your audiences, and your future creative imagination.
The Types of Line Art
Traditional, Analog Line Art
One of the most attractive aspects of using line in art is that it’s a technique that works across nearly every media. The subjects and applications of your line art drawings—whether they are still lifes, portraits, cartoons, or landscapes—can be as varied as your imagination allows.
If you feel comfortable drawing in any capacity, you can create great line art. Here are the tools you’ll need to get started:
Paper. A larger surface is better because it allows you more range of motion to create higher quality lines. Make sure that your paper type matches your drawing utensil.
Before you start sketching, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Start light and focus on quality of your lines. Draw slowly, softly, and with your whole arm. Get the sketch right without applying too much weight. Take your time, erase and redraw as needed. The goal is to get the drawing to a place you can be happy with before you start adding lines with significant weight.
Increase the weight of your lines and trace over your best. Once your drawing is lightly sketched, you can redraw them with increased weight. Go back over the lines that are most critical to your drawing—not every single line. If you decide to scan your work later, the lighter lines won’t be picked up as easily, so creating bolder lines from the outset will keep your art looking dynamic, even in Photoshop or Illustrator.
If you want to create line art that is less orthodox, consider using other drawing materials. Historically, most line art has been created using a pen, pencil, marker or brush, but there are exceptions--not all line art is hand-drawn. In fact, many of the earliest and most enduring examples of line art were created using woodblock carvings and metal engravings.
Woodblock line art involves making relief cuts into wood. The artist carves away the areas of the image that they don’t want to print. What’s left are the raised lines that are pressed into ink and onto the surface being printed—like a rubber stamp.
The Diamond Sutra, an ancient book discovered in a hidden cave in China by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907, is the earliest known example of woodblock printing. Experts say a single wooden block was used to create this line art tome in 868—long before the printing techniques popularized in the West by Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century.
Engraving is a line art technique that operates based on the inverse principles of woodblock printing. With engraving, lines are etched into metal to form the desired image. Then, ink is applied to fill the grooves, and the metal plate is pressed to create a print. Many of the Old Master Prints—the term that refers to the collective printed works created between the 14th and early 19th centuries—were created using engravings to produce intricate textures, patterns and designs.
Digital Line Art
Although some artists continue to work with only analog materials, modern technology has expanded the ways that others practice line art. Those individuals either physically draw their line art and then scan it, as noted above, or digitally draw it using an electronic toolkit.
If you’re comfortable using a stylus and tablet, drawing digitally may be the fastest and best method for you. There are three things you’ll need to consider when it comes to digitally drawing line art: Hardware, Software and Technique.
Tablets and stylus’ pens and brushes are the go-to tools for anyone who wants to dabble in digital line art. There are dozens of models on the market - from the very high-price point, to tools that are much more affordable. Looking for the latest and great stylus pen or brush? This list will help you sort through your options. Ready to to purchase a drawing surface? If you like working directly on a screen, there are plenty of digital surface products to choose from, or if you’d prefer to work detached from your monitor, check out the wide range professional-level graphics tablets on the market today.
No matter what equipment you aim to purchase, its critical to give it a test run (or at least hold it in your hands) before you make your final decision. Every artist is different, and you may find that after testing different devices for weight and mobility you end the buying process with a different preference than when you began.
Whether you’ve dabbled in digital line art before or not, it’s critical to select a software that you understand and trust. Photoshop, Art Weaver, and Procreate are just a few of the dozens of software options available to digital artists. Test software, read reviews and compare prices before you commit - but don’t worry, there’s ultimately no way to make the wrong decision. Every program has its advantages and disadvantages, the important thing is that you choose the ones that feel comfortable to you - so that you’re able to create what you want, when you want.
Line art is as varied as lines themselves, and there are just as many techniques to consider. That said, if you’re working on a tablet or surface, there are a few tips and tricks that will help you create line art specifically for the digital realm. Ian O’Neill, a self-taught artist, offers great tips for anyone thinking about getting started in applying the techniques of line art in digital form. In addition to providing detailed screenshots of his work in progress, he articulates which brush sizes and canvases are best to use, what the differences in line weights mean for your drawings, and why it’s important to learn how to draw from your shoulder instead of from your wrist.
Creating Your Own Line Art
One of the most freeing things about line art is that there is no “right way” to do it. The artist can use pens, pencils, brushes, wooden blocks, metal slabs, computers, spray paint or digital surfaces to create their work. The key to creating great line art, though, is to define what matters to you before you get started.
A Free Form Approach
Are you someone who uses art as an outlet? If so, it may make sense to throw preparation to the wind and get down to sketching and crafting whatever comes to you in the moment.
Find an inspiring location where you can work undisturbed for a long period of time, get your materials together, and surrender yourself to emotion as you enjoy expressing yourself.
A Structured Approach
If you are someone who prefers to follow a process when creating your art, take your time to determine how you want to develop any new piece of work.
Do you want to be lighthearted? Soft, sweeping lines can help you achieve that. Or are you going for something more solemn and serious? Thick, tightly notched lines can evoke that feeling instead. If you are intentional about the subject or object that you’re drawing, and the emotion you plan to evoke, line art can help you achieve your artistic vision.
Regardless of your skill level, line drawing can make for a fun and creative endeavor. Here are some exercises to put your creativity and line-drawing skills to the test.
Exercise #1: The One-Liner
This popular line art exercise is one that requires the artist to draw using one, continuous line. Unlike traditional sketching where you lift your drawing utensil off the page after each stroke, you keep your pen on the paper for set amount of time and see what you can create.
What you need:
What you do:
Set a timer for 5 minutes
Put your pen to paper and begin to draw
Don’t lift your pen until the timer runs out
Why this is a good exercise:
This exercise challenges you to flex your creativity by working within constraints.
You can film the process and enjoy watching the design unfold afterwards.
Exercise #2: Cross-Contours
The word contour comes from the French word for outline. Contour line art is a technique that involves using lines the edges, or contours, of the object that you’re drawing in order to define its shape.
What you need:
Image of your subject to reference (or, for experts who are able, just visualize the subject in your mind)
What you do:
Look at (or visualize) your subject
Use a series of layered lines to outline your subject. The lines should bend to create depth.
Why this is a good exercise:
This exercise challenges you to use one-dimensional lines to create three dimensional shapes.
Shading, color and capturing small textural details are de-emphasized in in contour line drawing; the point is to define your object with lines alone.
Less is More
Line art is sometimes compared to the best minimalist art because it employs basic elements, in this case lines, to create figures, dynamism, movement, and/or perspective. Although it appears to be uncomplicated, the best line art makes statements, challenges worldviews and provokes its audience. Other times, it helps artists achieve other artistic goals by helping them evolve their creative thinking, manual dexterity and problem-solving skills. Either way, the range of strokes, weight, length, and tools an artist must choose from in order to create their own means that even the “simplest” pieces of line art are the result of a complex and important artistic practice that can take years, or even decades, to master.
Want to learn more about line art? Skillshare has thousands of creative classes on line art, illustration, doodling and more.