Why Line Drawing is so Essential – A Painter’s Guide

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As a painter, it can be easy to write off line drawing as unimportant. As you might think – it doesn’t allow you to create dramatic light and dark shading (like a sketch) or work with color (like in a painting). However, it is precisely line that will help you to unlock key elements in your work – to keep it grounded.

In this post, we’ll delve into why line drawing is so important and provide some techniques that experienced painters can use to hone their craft and take their artwork to the next level. So get ready—it’s time to discover why line drawing holds such an essential role in painting!

What is line drawing?

Line drawing is an incredibly important practice for both painters and draftsmen. The insights you gain from it are invaluable

Line drawing is just as its name suggests – a drawing made purely just with line. It requires precision, as each line must be accurate and purposeful. If you aren’t measuring accurately or are not sure how to properly use line – this will show through. There isn’t any room to hide when it comes to line. Which is at the same time what makes it so beautiful and also important – it often reveals our weaknesses and what is necessary to work on.

Value and edges in line drawing

Line helps us to understand the values of what we are working on in a more intimate way. As a line drawing allows us to see the edges in our subject matter and how they interact more clearly.

line drawing with varying different values of lines
In this line drawing of mountains and valleys you can see how the degree of thickness and thinness of lines influences the depth perception.

For example, when you see two different colors or values next to one another in the subject you are observing. You will need to decide what type of line should go between them – a light narrow line or a dark thicker line.

These are important decisions and making ourselves go through the mental process of discerning the type of edge an area has makes us much more sensitive to value and edges.

Creating dimension with line

In this detail of a drawing by Ingres we see a varying degree of different types of edges – from dark and thick to very delicate and thin. A believable sense of dimension is created with the different values of line.

Ingres drawing with strong line drawing values
In this drawing by Ingres we see how the variation of thick and thin lines creates not just a sense of light but also a sense of volume and dimension

We see lighter lines where edges are more similar in value, and darker lines where edges have more different contrasting values.

Lines that change value

A single line might change value subtly into a darker or lighter form. You will see this happen in the Ingres drawing in different areas. This is why it is important to practice line drawing yourself – it helps to train your eye to notice and see such transitions happen in your subject matter, and then apply it to your painting.

It is very good to sensitize yourself to the subtleties that do exist at the edges of forms. At the same time, line also helps to to understand the importance of the non-edge.

Learning to see the non-edge

From the time that we are very young children we accustom ourselves to seeing objects as having defined edges. However, as artists and painters it is important to be able to see edges in accordance with how the light behaves, not the object. After all, the more focus that is placed on painting the light in your piece – the more convincing and true to life your painting will be.

Notice the non-edge area on the left side of the domed building.

In the drawing above (a detail of an Ingres drawing) we can see how the left side of the domed building is left entirely without any edge or line. This is because the edge of the building is very similar in value to the rest of the area and an edge is unnecessary.

Applying value in a line drawing

Sensitize yourself to drawing with a variety of different types of lines. Softer edges require delicate lines while hard edges require thick dark lines.

As briefly mentioned earlier – even in a line drawing, light and dark values can be represented through your use of lines. Thick, dark marks create darker values while thin, lighter marks create lighter values.

For example, if you’re trying to add depth by creating a cast shadow in your drawing, you would use thicker, darker lines to convey that sense of darkness and depth. On the other hand, if you’re trying to create a more subtle transition between two colors or values, you would use thinner lines to create gradual shifts in value. Learning how to effectively use line to create value can help take any drawing to the next level.

Geometry and line drawing

Geometry and line drawing go hand in hand. As line drawing allows for precise measurements when measuring distances between elements of a subject matter.

Line drawing helps you to more easily and accurately capture the geometry of a drawing. It allows you to focus more solely on measuring your subject matter.

Line drawing is often used to represent the technical aspect of a subject. As well as aid in understanding it more effectively. With line drawing, you can accurately measure, allowing you to better visualize and consider shape, proportion, and scale.

Line drawing is an important tool that can be used to accurately measure areas and provide better understanding of the subject matter. It is also a great way to create accurate diagrams and technical illustrations.

Using line and markings to measure

In this sketch by Ingres we can see how he uses dots to help himself measure the distances between areas on and around the houses.

Line drawings are best when they are studies and you use them as such. So, don’t be afraid to mark on them in order to measure distances between different areas. As this is a great way to get an accurate understanding of the geometry of your subject matter and help you to create perspective in your drawing.

How to practice line drawing

There are different tools you can use to start practicing line drawing. My favorite drawing materials are woodless pencils and a faber castell eraser. These are very versatile and can be used beyond just line drawing. What is most important is to use a drawing tool that has a sharp point.

It is very important to use a pencil that has a sharp point when making a line drawing. This helps you to achieve very light delicate lines.

Draw distinct lines in areas that have hard edges/ very distinctive value differences. For example a very light area against a very dark area is going to create a strong distinctive line. This will help identify the light and dark areas in your drawing.

Soft woodless pencils are great drawing pencils to make line drawings with. They are very versatile and can be used for more value based drawings when needed.

Work from subject matter that has clear values so you can easily understand where to use thicker or thinner lines. Practice holding and pressing down with your pencil very delicately when drawing very light lines. Once you start practicing you will start to build an understanding of various different line values.

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    14 thoughts on “Why Line Drawing is so Essential – A Painter’s Guide”

    1. Thank you for this great piece on line drawing. I don’t think i understood the significance of using thick and thin lines when creating a drawing for a painting. I tend to get mired in details that do not usually translate well to my paintings. Thank you for highlighting the importance of thick, dark lines in showing light and dark contrast. As always, your insight is so helpful.

    2. Hi Elisabeth.
      Thank you for this post; I have done plenty of technical drawing during my working career as a carpenter and general builder, but have never tried line drawing for art work, will have to give it a try. As for my watercolour painting; I am continuing with it after my enforced lay off in our very cold winter weather, and my continuing medical condition. Having said all that. I have been given some Acrylic paints for my birthday last month. I would like to ask for your kind help in deciding if I should have a go with acrylic, and is it easier to use than watercolour? I have only been using watercolour for the past 2 to 3 years.

      My kind regards and grateful thanks.
      Mike D

      1. Hi Mike,

        That is wonderful that you have been given watercolors – happy belated birthday! It is hard to say whether it is easier or harder. They are both quite different. As far as being able to change and adjust things, acrylic paints are quite a bit easier. I think the transition into acrylics will be a smooth one for you after using watercolors for the past years.

        Glad you enjoyed the line drawing post. Thank you for sharing –

        Kind Regards,
        Elisabeth

    3. I enjoyed this, well written Elisabeth. I can’t imagine painting without drawing, even if the artist is drawing with a brush and a single color of paint. Thanks

    4. Thank you so much Elizabeth. This is such a helpful introduction to the fundamental importance of line drawing. Your explanations are very clear and informative. You’ve inspired me to take my notebook, pencils and eraser with me the next time I go out for a walk!

    5. Hello Elizabeth,
      This article on line drawing was most instructive. Firstly the distinction between sketching as opposed to line drawing was a new concept to me. I just assumed they both came under the heading of ‘sketches’. Then the main teaching point that the degree of light, dark or thickness, of a line will show the degree of the change in values either side of the line was quite an eye opener to me as well. As you demonstrated using the drawings of Ingres then it all made perfect sense. Thank you. I am inspired to do some more drawing now, something that I know will benefit my painting development.

    6. Thank you, i love my Graphite and this has never been explained before, 68 suppose its time i learnt something lol. Again thanks for your time 🙂

    7. For me line drawing comes natural. It’s always the very first step towards a finished fully rendered drawing or painting whether that’s in oil or any other medium. A line drawing also doesn’t always have to lead to anything else, it can very well stand on it’s own. For more than 25 years i’ve worked as a layout and storyboard artist in the animated film industry in Europe. So most of the time i made nothing but line drawings and in those drawings perspective and composition were the main keys. If i didn’t get those right in the line drawing of a scene then the rest would fail as well. That remains the same with my paintings these days. So yes, i think the line drawing is very crucial.

      1. Yes! You are absolutely right – a drawing can fully stand on its own. Thank you for adding that here, as this is something that can often be overlooked.

        I can imagine how working as a storyboard artist in the film industry provided an enormous amount of line drawing practice and inspiration. And that it continues to play a big role in your work now.

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