The motive line in a painting is the most powerful design tool you have at your disposal.
Lions painted in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, c. 30,000-28,000 BC. This is a replica; the cave is sealed from human visitation.
If you had to isolate the fundamental element of art, across all media and forms of expression, it would be the humble line. By definition, a line is a connection between two points. In math, that’s an ideal, but in art, the line is a visceral reality. Lines can be broken or continuous, violent or serene, implied or obvious. But if you haven’t got a line, you probably don’t have much in the way of art.
Lines are also implicit, in their abstract form, in performing arts like dance and music.
In the drawing stage of a painting, I try to isolate the major line from which my compositions hang. This is the motive line, although it could also be called the kinetic line. It’s the motive force that drives the energy of the painting. It is frequently interrupted, as in the lost-and-found edge. But:
- It is tied to the major area of focus;
- It divides two areas of different values, creating a high-contrast edge;
- It’s complex and carefully-drawn.
“The only stable thing is movement," said Jean Tinguely, the sculpture who pioneered Kinetic Art. It is true in nature, and it has been true in art history since the Greeks, for whom contrapposto (counterpoise) represented a moment in motion (as I wrote earlier this month).
We think of Impressionism as a color movement, but it was also a great shift in how paintings were composed. Motion is suggested through a lack of equilibrium. Horses and people are off-balance in a way that suggests they must move to catch their balance.
Before the Race, 1882–84, Edgar Degas, oil on panel, courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
That extends to the very balance of the paintings themselves. Consider Before the Race, by Edgar Degas, above. The strongest line in the painting is not the horizon, but the bottom edge of the horses. The complex up-and-down eddies of the horses’ legs breaks and softens as it moves to the right. The painting wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without that amazing see-saw of action.
The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
In Winslow Homer’s The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog, a line describes structure against sky. But the real motive force is created by the strong diagonal just below it, in counterpoint to the white froth of the sea. In fact, there is nothing to this painting but line. Drawing it is a good exercise in discovering the subtlety of powerful lines. Notice the subtle convergences; they are a hallmark of Homer paintings that give his work its incredible thrust.
Man and Pool, Florida, 1917, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
The motive line can be subtle as well. The value structure in John Singer Sargent’s watercolor, Man and Pool, Florida is choppy, to depict a brightly-lit ground. Still, the figure makes a diagonal leading down to the spot of light and contrasting, cool water. To support this, Sargent subtly scribed the outline of the leg in blue.
Your homework—should you choose to accept it—is to find and note the motive lines in nature, architecture, photos and paintings. They may be curved, straight, rough, smooth, intersecting, broken or complete. Each time you identify the strong linear element that holds together a scene, ask yourself what it might be like without that.