Artists across cultures and times used lines as a primary means of their visual expression. Painters, sculptors, designers, and photographers use lines to arrange their layouts, group objects, create shapes, forms, and a sense of balance in their composition.
Our primary goal is not to photograph lines, although they can be treated as a subject. The goal is to look for lines in a scene, either in literal or implied form, and then arrange them in a way that leads the viewer’s eye to the focal point, or to the center of interest. How you arrange those lines creates a visual rhythm and determines how viewers will engage with your photograph. Lines guide them when they explore different areas of an image, and they remain completely unaware of it.
Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions.Ansel Adams
Lines are so fundamental to photographic and visual composition almost every photograph is made of it, yet only a visually ignorant person will fail to notice. As an artist, you should not only train yourself to see it but also take advantage of it to achieve a compelling composition. Line is considered to be one of the most powerful compositional tools and the strongest of the six elements of design-line, shape, form, texture, pattern, and color.
One of the reasons visually ignorant people will not see lines is because lines are not obvious; lines don’t exist. What we see as lines are elements with a strong value contrast. If there is a strong difference in values, it creates a separation or an edge between those contrasting elements. These edges serve as lines that you can use to guide your viewers’ attention. Once you train yourself, you will begin to notice countless things that serve the purpose of a line, although they aren’t apparent; but they have enough differences in values to form an edge or line.
Why Lines Are So Powerful in Visual Composition?
A line is what connects two points. Naturally is has some directional energy. It takes you from one point to another; it leads you from one thing to another. Other elements of design, like form and shape, cannot exist without lines. These are the physical characteristics of the lines. There are also cultural and psychological meanings associated with lines.
Just by putting a margin around a blank sheet of paper instantly tells you where to look. It sets a boundary, so you treat objects within it with higher priority. Subconsciously, you begin to dictate to yourself what’s important and what’s not. You also notice them on streets, zebra crossings, and dividers. Which influences your decisions while driving or walking. This indicates you’re already trained to perceive lines in a certain way, and that facilitates your survival.
Another important thing worth mentioning as we discuss the power of lines is line-art. There is a whole category of artists who use distinct straight and curved lines against a solid background to draw a fully-realized three-dimensional picture. They do not require any shading, texture, or color. Lines alone are enough to make their work comprehensible.
Here, we make a sincere attempt to explain how we perceive lines and what meanings we associate with different types of lines. So we can use them consciously as a tool to arrange our composition and to guide our viewers’ attention, which dictates how they should explore the scene.
Understanding Literal and Implied or Assumed Lines
Things that show real or noticeable lines are literal lines. You will find them in man-made objects, architectures, fallen trees, logs, branches of a tree, shorelines, waves, on the edge of an object, areas of great tonal contrast, and at plenty of other places.
Objects that don’t have the physical attributes of a line, but they direct us to something are implied or assumed lines. Like an arrow, however small or short, it points to something, and our eyes tend to follow it as it suggests a direction. A more subtle example would be the effect of a strong perspective. Objects in an image, with a strong perspective, progressively get smaller towards the vanishing point. Another classic example would be a person looking at something or pointing his finger at something. It’s an implied or assumed line, and our eyes instantly follow that.
Horizontal Lines and Its Effects on Visual Perception
The most familiar thing that describes the horizontal line is the horizon, where the earth meets the sky. When we think about the horizon, it instantly gives us a sense of distance, stability, expansiveness, and tranquility.
In other contexts, a single and dominant horizon line can split the scene into two rectangles. If it splits the scene in the center, it often makes the scene very static and boring. On the contrary, a scene with a high or low horizon can dramatically alter your perception and overall mood of the picture. There are situations where we notice multiple horizon lines in a landscape. This gives us a sense of space, and emphasizes the calmness and restfulness of the scene.
A scene with a high horizon emphasizes the earthiness of the scene. You pay more attention to the land features. For example, you will pay more attention to texture, pattern, trees, rocks, man-made objects, the body of water, etc. This makes you feel more intimate with nature and gives you the impression of stability and heaviness.
A picture with a low horizon emphasizes the eeriness of the scene. One may regard it as more spiritual in some sense. As it introduces the expansive sky and its heavenly bodies. This often evokes an ethereal feeling in the artist and its viewers’ minds. Soft moving clouds can add some delicacy or create a contrast between its lightness and the heaviness of the earth.
Vertical Lines and Its Effects on Visual Perception
We photographers often change the orientation of our frames to treat the subject matter properly or just out of curiosity, to learn what’s working best with a particular scene. When we change the orientation from horizontal to vertical, it instantly gives us a sense of height. It’s just changing the orientation of the layout that alters our perception.
Anything straight up has to work against gravitational forces to maintain its position and balance. It becomes so apparent when you look at man-made objects, architectures, pillars, etc. For this reason, many artists think vertical lines imply strength, dignity, sturdiness, activity, energy, assertiveness, and masculinity.
Similarly, a man who cannot sit or stand straight sends out a subconscious message that he is weak, burdened, not active, low in status, lacks confidence, is informal, and harmless, which is quite the opposite of an upright person.
Diagonal Lines and Its Effects on Visual Perception
If you understand how artists see vertical and horizontal lines, it becomes clear that a diagonal line neither suggests strength like vertical lines nor does it suggest restfulness like a horizontal line; it seems to be falling. In other words, it’s a state in between, where it’s about to fall, but hasn’t yet fallen.
When we run, we hold a very aggressive and diagonal body posture to gain speed and the speed we gain also prevents us from falling as it’s not a stable posture. So it suggests instability, motion, speed, movement, action, threat, and tension. Diagonal lines are more dynamic, powerful, and directional than horizontal or vertical lines. You must be careful when using diagonal lines in your composition. It’s not as easy as using horizontal or vertical lines.
Diagonal lines also suggest depth; because they converge with one another. As you know, all perspective lines are diagonals. So when two or more lines meet at a distant point, we call them converging lines. Triangles are made up of diagonal lines. They either suggest the height of a scene or distance.
Curvy Lines and Its Effects on Visual Perception
Curved lines are another form of diagonal lines, but they are much rhythmic, beautiful, graceful, and sensual. Unlike diagonals, they suggest a delicate and slow movement. Curvy lines are organic because they are more readily noticeable. You will find them in rivers, winding roads in the mountains, sea waves, surf, dunes, and even living creatures.
Jagged Lines and Its Effects on Visual Perception
Because of its irregular jagged notches, points, sharp diagonal edges, and rough and uneven quality, the jagged lines appear instantly threatening. Like curvy lines, you will also see them in nature. For example, a mountain that has sharp and jagged cliffs, and a pointed peak looks scary and intimidating.
We even find jagged lines in a knife, spear, or weapon. It is by nature, very intimidating for the dangers associated with it. Because of its irregularity, jagged lines also suggest chaos and a lot of activity.
Converging Lines and Its Effects on Visual Perception
All of us have seen railroads. It happens to be the best example of converging lines, although they never converge in the real world, and it’s an optical illusion. We are quite familiar with it. Sometimes you will find them going straight to the horizon, and sometimes it bends and looks curvy. But ultimately, they meet at a distant point.
The rails remain parallel, but in our visual perception, they meet or vanish at a distant point. This is critical because that’s how the real world translates into a flat or two-dimensional surface. This distinction will help you find what might potentially serve you as converging lines so you can arrange your scene along those lines to guide your viewers.
A convergence requires at least two or more diagonal or curvy lines. Since it vanishes or meets at a distant point, it suggests depth or height depending on how you use it in your composition. It’s quite the opposite of parallel lines, as they always remain parallel to each other. Be it horizontal, or vertical parallel lines can never converge. Unlike parallel lines, converging lines give us a sense of direction. So, one can use converging lines to lead the viewers’ eyes to the focal point.
Continuation of Similar or Group of Similar Objects
We have discussed different types of lines, and I believe that helped you change how you see and find more interesting lines around you that you didn’t notice before. Now we are taking a step further, which will be more interesting.
An individual element or a group of elements that repeat themselves across the scene gives us a sense of continuation and leads us to something. Similar rock formations, bushes, trees, light posts, or any object that repeats, are linear and predictive. Their repetition creates an imaginary line that leads us through the scene.
Now you have an in-depth understanding of one of the six elements of design and how powerful it can be. But we should remember they can make or break your composition, depending on how to use them in your layout or visual composition. They can attract or distract your viewers; they can take them in or take them out of your frame. So be careful when using lines that suggest a direction. However, lines that suggest rhythm, depth, and height are much safer than the ones that quickly take you in or out.