Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: Line in the Visual Arts

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Line in the Visual Arts

Jacques-Louis David - The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In this lesson students will learn about one of the most important elements in painting and drawing: line. Students will learn how line is defined in the visual arts, and how to recognize this element in painting.

Guiding Questions

  • What is composition in the visual arts, and how do compositional elements guide the viewer's eye around the canvas?
  • What is line in the visual arts, and how does it affect works of art?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify line in the composition of a number of art works, and how this element works to make the painting successful as a whole
  • Explain how the artist's compositional choices guide the viewer's eye to important components of the image
  • Identify sight lines in several paintings and explain how they influence direction
  • Discuss ways in which the compositional structure of a painting effects the tone of the painting, or communicates information or emotional content to the viewer

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the curriculum unit overview and this lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Note: All diagrams, line drawings, and questions for this lesson are available for students to download directly through the Student LaunchPad for each activity. You should read through the Student LaunchPad in preparation for teaching this lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What Kind of Lines?

The tone of a painting is often greatly affected by the artist's use of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines in the composition of a work. In this activity students will investigate these effects in the composition of three different paintings.

Divide the class into three groups. Each group will work on one of the following paintings. When they have completed their investigation and answered the questions in the Student Launchpad the groups should reconvene to share what they have found.

Group One

Have students view the following painting from The National Gallery of Art:

Ask students their overall impression of the composition in this portrait of Napoleon—is it horizontal? Vertical? Students should recognize the vertical format and composition, from the shape of the canvas (width narrower than height) to the placement of the figure (standing). Line reinforces the vertical composition in this image. Ask students to describe how line supports the vertical composition. Students may access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussion. Students should note vertical line in Napoleon's figure, as well as the numerous elements which form vertical lines, such as the clock, the bookshelf and decorative elements of the wall behind the figure, the chair in the foreground, and the leg of the desk.

Ask students to think about why David created a vertical composition through repeated vertical lines.

  • What kind of an impression do vertical lines make on the viewer?
  • Why might David have chosen this format rather than an horizontal format?

Vertical lines within a composition often give viewers the impression of strength and stability. As emperor of France in the early nineteenth century, Napoleon, was one of the most powerful men of his day. David, in painting his portrait, wanted to show Napoleon as a strong leader. By depicting the emperor standing David suggests a sense of strength that would not be conveyed if Napoleon was shown lying down or sitting in a relaxed position.

Group Two

Have students view the following drawing, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Ask students to give their overall impression of the format and composition of this image. Is it vertical? Horizontal? Students should recognize the horizontal format and composition. Ask students to examine how line supports the drawing's horizontal composition.

Students may access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussion. Students should note the line of the man's body, from the angle of his legs and arms, to the line made by his torso. They should also note that Baldung Grien has drawn horizontal lines behind the figure to imply the presence of landscape elements.

Students should think about why the artist chose to compose this image in a horizontal format, and why his composition includes the heavy use of horizontal lines. Just as the vertical format and composition in the portrait of Napoleon gives the viewer the impression of the emperor's power, the horizontal composition in this drawing also conveys information about the drawing's subject. Christ's prone position, reinforced by dominant horizontal lines in the composition, communicate the his physical weakness, and even a sense of the suffering suggested in the drawing's title: Man of Sorrows.

Group Three

Have students view the following painting, from The National Gallery of Art:

As with the previous paintings, Ask students to give their overall impression of the format and composition of this image. Is it vertical? Horizontal? Although the format of this painting is not as obvious as in the previous images in this activity, students should recognize that it is horizontal. But is that format confirmed in the composition's lines? Students may access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussion.

Unlike either the David or the Grien images, Fuseli's painting is composed of diagonal lines. Students' attention will be drawn to the outstretched arms of Oedipus, on the right, and Polynices, on the left. Oedipus' and Polynices' arms form a diagonal line that cuts across the composition in a dynamic manner. A second diagonal line is formed by Antigone's (the woman at the top of the composition) line of sight. Students may also note the diagonal line formed by the titled neck of Ismene, who lays her head on her father's knee in despair. Have students read the background information about the story depicted in the painting.

Ask students what kind of an impression these lines make as they view Fuseli's image? Note that while vertical and horizontal lines suggest a static image, diagonal lines transmit a sense of motion and dynamism. Ask students to think about and explain the ways in which the diagonal lines of Fuseli's composition convey motion and action.

Activity 2. In the Line of Sight

Compositional lines do not always take the form of lines actually drawn on the canvas, or created by a form within the composition; lines are sometimes implied by elements in the painting. Artists commonly imply compositional line through the figures' line of sight to direct the viewer's attention. In this activity students will investigate the use of sight lines to direct the viewer's eye.

Having students view the following magazine cover-illustration, from The Smithsonian American Art Museum:

Ask students to identify compositional lines in Rice's illustration. Students may access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing line within the composition of this painting.

Students might note lines that are formed by the left arm of the woman and the left arm of the man which meet at the point of the basket of grapes that he is holding. They might also note the curve of the woman's neck and back, which leads into her right leg, which also leads the eye to the basket at the center. In addition, they might also mention the curving line that is formed by the tree branches ringing the man's head.

Another compositional line is formed in Rice's illustration: the line of the two figures' sight. When our eyes reach the eyes of one of the figures in the painting we follow the implied line created by that figure's gaze. In this case, the line of sight for both figures leads our own eyes to the opposite figure.

Next, ask students to view the following painting, from the The Smithsonian American Art Museum:

Divide the class into groups of three or four. Have each group work together to identify compositional lines in Waugh's painting. Have students access the line drawing of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing line within the composition of this painting. Students may note elements such as the curve of the boat's lip, the curve of the angels' wings around their heads, the line of the mountains in the background and the cleavage where they meet which draws the eye down towards the boat. Finally, students should be sure to discuss the lines of sight in this image. The angels all look down, lowering their eyes before the Holy Grail. Following their line of sight one's attention is drawn to the boat, and then to the young knight. Following the knight's eyes one's attention is quickly led back to the grail, which glows in the angel's hand.

Activity 3. Lining Up

While most of the aspects of composition that have been discussed in this curriculum unit, Composition in Painting: Everything in its right place, have been design principles, line is considered a formal element. Formal elements include not only line, but also components such as color, shape, and value or key (lightness or darkness). Design principles generally relate to the way in which the formal elements within a composition are organized. For example, repetition is one way of organizing the arrangement of color or shape.

Two main types of lines in the visual arts to be discussed include:

  • Contour lines: lines which provide the edges to shapes within a painting or drawing.
  • Compositional lines: actual or implied lines within the composition of a painting or drawing which guide the viewer's eye, or which the action within the picture designates.

This lesson will focus on compositional lines.

Have students view the following painting which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The National Gallery of Art:

If you are teaching this lesson as part of the curriculum unit Composition in Painting: Everything in its right place, then you may wish to begin by asking students to identify some of the compositional elements that they have learned about in the previous lessons, such as compositional shape, symmetry, balance, and repetition. Ask them to note which of these elements they find in the Woods painting, and to explain their answers. Students may access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing the painting's composition.

Remind students of the definition of compositional line, and ask them to think about what kinds of lines—actual or implied—are present in the Woods painting that move the viewer's eye around the picture. Students should note the lines formed by the piles of hay. Starting with the jug at the bottom left of the composition, the eye follows the line of hay piles to the road at the right of the painting. Next, the eye follows the line formed by the road itself as it moves up the side of the hill to the farm house. The piles of hay that come back down the hill to the left of the barn lead the eye back down to the jug in the foreground. Students can follow this path in the line drawing of the painting's composition available from the Student LaunchPad.

Have students view the following painting, which is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource The Smithsonian American Art Museum:

Ask students to examine the use of compositional line to move the viewer's attention around the canvas. Students should search for both vertical and horizontal compositional lines within the painting.

  • Where do these lines cross?
  • How do these lines move the eye from one corner of the image to another?

Students should concentrate on the lines that are formed by the streets, the paths in the snow being shoveled by the men, the edges of the buildings, the river, and the distant skyline. Have students access the line drawing and diagrams of this image through the Student Launchpad to aid in discussing this artwork with the class.

Next, ask students to compare the use of line in the Berman painting and in the Woods painting.

  • How is the use of line in the two paintings similar?
  • How is the use of line in the two paintings different?

Students may note that in both paintings the artists use formations in the landscape both to move the viewer's eye around the composition and to keep the viewer's attention contained within the space framed by those lines. In both paintings compositional lines draw the viewer's attention back into the foreground from the horizon.

Assessment

Divide the class into four groups and distribute the following images, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, and The Smithsonian American Art Museum, giving one image to each group:

Each group should examine the image they have been given, working together to find and elaborate upon the use of line in their image. Next, each group should be given a second image from the following list:

Students should then work together again to find and define the use of line in the second image. Then each group may compare and contrast the use of line in the two images, present their findings on compositional line to the rest of the class.

Extending The Lesson

In the third activity of this lesson students learned about the way in which different kinds of line can set the tone or convey information about a painting's subject. You may wish to extend the lesson by having students return to David's portrait of Napoleon painting by David from The National Gallery of Art:

Next, have students view another portrait of Napoleon also painted by David, which is available through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Internet Public Library:

  • Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps. While these two paintings have the same subject—Napoleon Bonaparte—and were painted by the same artist—Jacques-Louis David—they convey very different tones. Have students examine the two paintings, concentrating on elements of their compositions, particularly the way in which David utilizes line. You may wish to direct students to think about the differences between vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. Students should write short answers to the following questions:
    • What impression does each painting leave upon the viewer about the subject of the image? Is it the same impression? Explain your answer.
    • What information does the composition of each painting convey to the audience?
    • How does David's use of line affect the overall effect of the image in each painting?

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Visual art analysis
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Student Resources
Media