History hasn’t always been kind to line art. Sometimes described as “simple” or as a “lesser” form of artistic expression, line drawings -- even famous ones -- are too-often relegated to the corners of exhibits or presented as secondary pieces of art, only to be understood as supplementary to the painted masterpieces around them.
But we believe that there is a lot of power in a rendered line; that the art of line drawing is worth celebrating in its own right. Today we honor this unique form of self-expression and introduce ways for you to try it for yourself. You might be surprised at how freeing this ancient art form is, how beneficial it can be when pursuing other skill sets, and how it can contribute to your own creative growth — no matter what stage you’re at in your creative abilities or career.
What is Line Art Drawing?
Before we dive into why line drawing is a vital skill that any artist ought to have in their tool belt, let’s first dive into a brief overview of what line art drawing is.
The art form is defined as the act of creating an illustration using basic strokes of varying weights and angles that demonstrate form and depth and it dates back nearly 75,000 years. Line drawings can include straight lines or curved lines, thick lines or narrow lines; they can be light and sketchy or thick and deliberate.
“Line drawing is to understand the world around you; even when the lines create something quite abstract, the interpretation of feeling and observing can come together in beautifully raw and unexpected ways,” says Jen Dixon, an abstract and figurative artist who teaches line art drawing among other subjects.. “A line drawing is the translation of our experience as a human into a two-dimensional, visual report. Artists are reporters.”
Notable Line Artists Throughout History
Some of the world’s most famous artists, including Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci, have created powerful line art. In fact, the works are often seen as “studies” or precursors to the painted masterpieces they’d eventually create. For example, the Picasso museum in Barcelona, Spain houses a number of the Spanish artist’s early works and thoughtful rough drafts” that helped him map out his larger, later pieces.
Fashion illustrators of yesterday and today utilize line art in a similar way — to put what’s in their brain onto paper before bringing it to life with textiles. Turn on an episode of Project Runway, or thumb through your favorite designer’s Instagram account, and you’ll see their own take on line art.
Other artists don’t see line art as a means to an end, but rather as their primary form of expression. Iconic American pop artist Keith Haring — who hit the height of his fame while living in New York City in the ‘80s — is one of the modern world’s most notable and celebrated line artists. He became famous for his splashy, almost child-like line art, created with chalk, that would pop up in New York City subways and other public spaces..
Later in Haring’s life, he was commissioned for full-blown murals. The juxtaposition of his simple creations and the provocative subject matter that he tackled, which included AIDS and homosexuality, made his work especially powerful.
US-based visual artist Shantell Martin is another creative who famously uses line art as her primary means of expression. She's most well-known for her massive black-and-white drawings, that she creates on the spot in front of an audience, in a meditative manner she calls “liveography.”
Today Martin is a highly sought-after performance artist, and her work has been featured everywhere from Vogue Magazine to Miami's Art Basel to retail collaborations with Tiffany & Co. and Vespa.
Why Line Art Drawing is a Good Skill for Any Artist
There’s a reason so many artists are drawn to line drawing as a practice and form of self-expression. Line drawing allows you to explore and understand the world around you. It can be used as a stepping stone to more “advanced” methodologies such as painting or digital art, or it can simply be one way (maybe even the primary way) that you choose to channel your creativity.
It’s the kind of art that is deceivingly powerful, says Elaine Biss, an east coast fashion illustrator and designer.
“It’s the basis of any good work of art. It’s like bones to the human body. The structure you build upon a masterpiece,” she says. “Whether it’s a brush stroke or a pencil line, and whether it’s an exercise in real-time observation or [putting a conceptual thought onto paper], line art has the ability to foster an intimate connection between yourself and the world.”
Artist Jen Dixon adds, “Every human experience is absorbed in a way that can shoot signals from the brain to the movements of a pencil —or whatever you choose to draw with — and that uniqueness is so important. I think a lot of artists have doubts regarding their abilities before recognizing their own ways of line drawing are just as important as any other artist, famous or not. Your line matters.”
How to Get Better at Line Art Drawing
For an art methodology as seemingly simplistic as line art drawing, it can still feel overwhelming to figure out when, where, and how to start. Truly, the key to improving your line art drawing abilities is to just go for it — make no apology for a mis-stroke and put all creative doubts on mute.
“I have never met someone who cannot draw. I have met a lot of people who think that they cannot draw, but I assure you that is not the case. If line drawing scares you, start with a stack of inexpensive paper — even printer paper — and a black crayon or ball point pen,” says Dixon. “Use simple materials and no erasing. Don’t get bogged down by the expectations of others and if someone looks over your shoulder, offer them a crayon and a sheet of paper. And smile often; you’re drawing!”
As Dixon says, honing your skill set can be as simple as taking an inky pen to soft paper and letting your hand move as it desires.
The important thing is to put yourself out there and just start drawing. In fact, start drawing obsessively. Begin with simple things — the drooping flower in your backyard that made you feel a certain way, the Moroccan tiles you spotted at the local café that you felt inspired to snap a photo of, or the designer dress you wish you could afford to buy but costs triple your rent.
And then, when you’re feeling gutsy, move on to drawing the things that really challenge you. The things that send a jarring, buzzing sense of discomfort through your veins, the things you feel like you have no business trying to replicate on paper. Really: what’s the worst that can happen?
“Comfort zones are traps,” says Dixon. “Not only will you improve your skills by drawing new subjects, but you will develop your own style. I tell my students that a pencil doesn’t come with an instruction manual, so go nuts. I also make sure that my students understand that drawing something realistically isn’t the only way. Sure, it’s useful to learn technical skills, but there are many artists drawing in beautifully untrained ways that create powerful connections with the viewer.”
The moral of the story here is that there’s really nothing holding you back from being a modern day Picasso or the next Shantell Martin. And even if you don’t with the art lottery and earn world-wide acclaim, you’ve created something and that’s what matters most.
Want to learn more about line drawing? Check out Skillshare’s Getting Creative with Line Art: Everything You Need to Know or browse hundreds of classes on line art to get started.
Cover Image by Skillshare student Azlen E. for Yuko Shimizu’s Skillshare Originals class, Learning How to Draw: A Mindset, Method and Exercises