There are a lot of good articles out there that will explain the elements of design for you. So, why do I want to write yet another? I was curious about comparing how the elements are used in different digital media; namely digital art, graphic design, and digital photography. 

For this series, we’ll not only explain how the elements are used, but also show some excellent examples and explain why artists, designers, and photographers make certain choices and how it affects their finished result. We’ll also walk through some simple tutorials in multiple programs that will help you understand how to use the elements better in your own work.

So…let’s start at the very beginning…When you read you begin with “ABC”, when you make art (of any kind) you often begin with line. It is the most basic form of art making one can create and you will find line in ALL different areas of art and nature. 

Simply put, line is a mark or mass that is longer than it is wide. It is a starting point for most designs and creative expressions. If learning how to read starts with learning what the letters are, then learning how to make art starts with learning how to use line.

Directional lines (vertical, horizontal, and diagonal) are often used to lead the eye from one side of the design or image to another. Lines are the simplest way to create movement in a design, artwork, or photograph.

Vertical lines

Vertical lines could give an image or design a sense of power. They suggest height and may seem unmovable. Often, these lines lead the eye up the image or design.

Take a look at the image created by Sean Charmatz below. The clear vertical lines created by the writing utensils give special prominence to objects that are normally seen laying flat. They literally stand tall and present themselves as important objects. So in this artwork, the drawing equipment become more important than the drawing they may be used to create.

Now consider the book cover design created by Chip Kidd in Rough Justice. Not only do the strong vertical lines of the side of Batman’s face and his cape serve to make him seem bold and courageous, but they also create the white space needed to present the artist name and information. 

Anytime you take photograph from the ground up (or a worm’s eye view), you’ll give the object of your photograph a sense of power or prominence. In my photograph below, add this worm’s eye view to the strong vertical lines leading up to the brilliant blue of the sky and you’ve got leading lines that create a very intriguing photograph.

Horizontal lines

Horizontal lines often give a feeling of stillness. Because of the direction that most people read, they have a way of leading the eye from left to right (but sometimes vice versa). These kinds of designs or images can sometimes seem static because of the lack of movement.

In the digital painting below created by Alexis Franklin, there are multiple places where horizontal lines are shown. The horizontal line created by the bed on which the child is sitting is repeated in the intentional solid lines behind the child’s head and multiple “brush strokes”. These strokes are seen both in the circle and the blue mark over the child’s right arm. All of this tends to create a feeling of rest.

In the Amazon logo below by Turner Duckworth, the layout of the letters creates the horizontal line. Notice how ALL of the letters in the logo are lowercase and none of them go below letter’s base plane. This creates two SOLID lines for the eye to follow and read from left to right across the design.

I just love capturing silhouettes! In my image below, I use the horizon line to create my horizontal lines (…not all art names are obscure…). In the flat farmlands of midwestern Kansas, the image shows the really restful state of the fields as the evening hours take over for the day.


Diagonal lines

Diagonal lines have the most capacity to lead the eye and they tend to make a design or image look more “dynamic”. Since they are neither vertical nor horizontal, diagonal lines can seem unstable, like they are about to fall or they are moving somewhere. Diagonal lines can also show perspective. These lines lead the viewer into the image.

In Erik Johansson’s image below the diagonal lines (which are accentuated by the arrow at the end of the ramp) lead the eye up into the sky where the sheep’s wool is going to go. This affectively leads the eye from the lower right of the image to the clouds in the upper left.

The Adidas logo by creative director Peter Moore displays a broken diagonal line. But broken or not, the line is still there! It almost seems to create stair steps for the eyes to follow as they move through the design.

My clothespins image below shows the diagonal line from the upper left to the lower right. Even though the line itself is slightly hidden due to it’s color, it is accentuated by the cloths pins themselves, leading the eye across the image.

Implied Lines

Lines can also be solid or implied. Solid lines, as the name implies, are firm and stable. Designs and images like this are bold and often precise. Implied lines are created when the viewer can see the line, but it isn’t an actual line. It is a “psychic” line. With the slightest suggestion of a line, our brains interpret that it actually exists!

Similar to her painting of the child earlier in this post, Alexis Franklin presents some powerful implied lines in her digital painting below. In this case, she has chosen to continue the diagonal line created by the left arm of the subject through the eyes. The brush stroke that goes down through the subject’s eyes added to the blues used in the background could represent sadness within the subject

The rather trippy book cover design below by Chip Kidd really captures the confusion and frustration behind getting a migraine! Though the white lines stop to display the name of the author and a recommendation from the Washington Post, you can still clearly see how they are aligned to move down the page to help the reader’s eye read from top to bottom.

Something as simple as a finger pointing can help lead the eye across the image. In my photo below, the child’s finger points across the landscape and the lines created by rocky ridges continue the line that the child’s finger began!

Finger pointing

It is amazing that something as simple as line can create the complexities that make up almost everything we create! As an artist, you just have to learn how to control it so that your art/design/photograph says what you want it to say!

Download the FREE reflection worksheet that goes along with this article below. This worksheet is available in both Word and Google Doc; click the button below and enter your email!

Leave a Reply