History hasn’t always been kind to line art. Sometimes described as “simple” or a “lesser” form of artistic expression, line drawings — even famous ones — are often relegated to the corners of exhibits or presented as secondary pieces of art compared to the painted masterpieces around them.
But we believe that there’s a lot of power in a line, and that the art of line drawing is worth celebrating in its own right.
We’re honoring this form of self-expression by exploring its history, explaining why it’s an important technique for any artist to master, and introducing ways for you to try line art drawing for yourself. You might be surprised at how freeing this 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 abilities or career.
What is Line Art Drawing?
Line art is defined as the act of creating an illustration using basic strokes of varying weights and angles that demonstrate form and depth. It does not include shading or gradient, and instead, focuses solely on lines.
However, you shouldn’t think of lines simply as marks that connect point A to point B; lines can be two dimensional, three dimensional, abstract, descriptive, or implied (1). In addition, line drawings can include straight lines or curved lines, thick lines or narrow lines; they can be light and sketchy or thick and deliberate. Ultimately, that means that while line art involves fundamental techniques, it can be a powerful expression of creativity.
“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.”
What Are the Types of Lines in Line Art?
There are many types of lines that, when used together, provide a range of possibilities in line art (2). Types of lines include:
- Actual lines: Real lines that exist physically.
- Implied lines: Lines you see in your mind, which fill spaces between objects. For example, you might see an implied line in the spaces between lights on a ceiling or even in the gaze between two people.
- Geometric lines: Mathematically defined lines, with regularity and sharp edges.
- Organic lines: Irregular, curved, or fluid lines. While geometric lines are rarely found in nature, organic lines are common in nature.
Any of these lines can then be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. Beyond that, lines can exist in different widths, weights, or textures.
There are also many different line art techniques that can be used alone or combined to achieve an artist’s desired effect. For example, cross-hatching (closely spaced parallel lines) can create shading or patterns. Or, some artists choose to use one continuous line to complete their work — refraining from lifting their drawing instrument off the page. While line art may be seen as elemental or basic, this range of techniques gives artists a full toolbox of options to express their creativity.
Art History: The Origins of Line Art Drawing
Line art dates back nearly 75,000 years. In fact, the first known drawing made by a human was found on a rock flake in South Africa and is estimated to be 73,000 years old (3). The drawing on the rock, made by red ochre (a type of reddish-brown clay), consists of several criss-crossed lines.
Over time, the craft of line art has significantly evolved from that more primitive example. Some of today’s most famous artists, including Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci, created powerful line art. 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 (4). However, these line art drawings also often become prized masterpieces.
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 designers’ own takes 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 (5). He became famous for his splashy 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.
U.S.-based visual artist Shantell Martin is another creative who famously uses line art as her primary means of expression (6). 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 why so many artists are drawn to line drawing as a practice and form of self-expression (7). 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 (8).
“It’s the basis of any good work of art. It’s like bones to the human body; the structure upon which you build 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.”
“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.”
A Guide to Getting 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.
There are also a few easy line art drawing exercises to use to jog your creativity and get your pen moving (9):
Blind contour drawing: Choose an object or scene, and then draw it without looking at your piece of paper. Don’t worry about trying to make it realistic or precise — the object of this exercise is to connect your eyes, your brain, and your hand.
Gesture drawing: A gesture drawing is completed in a short time frame, with the goal of capturing the essence of your subject, rather than the details. Simply set a time limit (like 30, 60, or 90 seconds), and use fast, expressive lines to capture the essence of the object.
Continuous line drawing: As its name suggests, a continuous line drawing is completed without lifting your pen or pencil from the paper. You’ll likely have to trace back over existing lines in order to fully draw your object or scene, resulting in a rendering that may not be precise or hyper-realistic, but will convey movement and emotion.
Non-dominant hand drawing: You may be hesitant to put your drawing instrument in your non-dominant hand, but give it a try and see what happens. This exercise can help you give up control and learn to be more free in your drawing.
Many people use these exercises as a warm-up before making a true attempt at a line drawing. But in general, these types of exercises are meant to teach your brain, eyes, and hands to work together, so they are useful for regular drawing practice. Like any skill, you must put in the time to improve your abilities. The more time you spend with pen or pencil to paper, the more confidence and better technique you’ll develop.
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 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 win 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 the classes below.
- Drawing on Everything: Discovering Your Creative Voice with Shantell Martin
- Drawing Collections: Illustrating Stories through Taxonomies with Kate Bingaman-Burt
- Improve Your Ink Work: Brush Pen Adventures with Lines and Textures with Marie-Noelle Wurm
- Learning How to Draw: A Mindset, Method, and Exercises with Yuko Shimizu
- Doodle Magic | Basic & Advanced Techniques with Yasmina Creates
- Botanical Line Drawing with Peggy Dean
- Find Your Line: Develop Your Drawing Style with Jen Dixon
- A Make Believe Reality: Digital Drawing on Photography with Photoshop with Mimi Chao
- Jessica Stewart, My Modern Met, https://mymodernmet.com/line-art-history/
- National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/education/teachers/lessons-activities/elements-of-art/line.html
- Laura Geggel, Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/63565-worlds-oldest-drawing.html
- Museu Picasso, http://www.bcn.cat/museupicasso/en/collection/highlights.html
- The Keith Haring Foundation, http://www.haring.com/
- Shantell Martin, https://shantellmartin.art/
- Julianna Marie Wells, Odyssey, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/10-reasons-why-drawing-is-good-for-you
- Elaine Biss, https://elainebiss.com/
- Student Art Guide, https://www.studentartguide.com/articles/line-drawings