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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Our Visual Vocabulary: The List and Line

Writers have words. Words have roles. A noun tells us what a thing is; a verb tells us what it is doing. Adjectives tell us something about it. Adverbs tell us how it's doing what it is doing. We call that vocabulary.

Painters have a vocabulary we call visual elements. Each element plays a role in the way we see images in our paintings and drawings. This list goes like this:


As a student, I saw and heard the list over and over again. It took some time, though, before any one of the elements became a reality to me. Same in elementary school where I first met the parts of speech of the English language. "So what," I thought. But gradually it dawned on me that these very parts of speech enable me to say what I'm trying to say, that to comprehend their roles will help me to make myself understood without stammering or hesitating with "uh," or repeating that communication-devouring phrase "you know."

Same is true for the visual language. In fact, comprehending these roles is so important, I plan to spend the next several posts looking at them individually.

For example, what does Larry Roibal understands about line that enables him to do this?

Larry Roibal "Arne Duncan"

...and this...

Larry Roibal "Brother Can You Spare 34 Billion'

...and this...

Larry Roibal "Barney Franks"

Look what power Larry finds in a line. He finds the important edges of shapes that show their identity. He finds just the essentials reducing the number of lines needed. He finds a speed for making the line that communicates gesture while retaining contour.

Larry's lines cluster together where needed to communicate shadow, they become heavier where a point of emphasis is needed, and lighter where they eye needs to move on.

Larry's line is mostly a contour line. That's one that searches out edges and rides along them.

Then there's the gesture line that Rembrandt van Rijn understood and used so adroitly.

Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt found action in a line.

Rather than riding edges of shape, the gesture line rides movement, captures the thrust of shapes and action which may or may not follow the edges of shape. Gesture drawing catches what the thing is doing.

Look what Helen South finds that the gestural line can do.
Look to the right here at a smaller version. You can clearly see that Helen has done a gesture drawing of a closed hand, perhaps her hand. In the larger version which initially appears to be a collection of scribbles, we are aware of the movement, what the shapes within the hand are doing--edges circling other edges, edges traveling from one area of the closed hand to another. When we reduce the size, we see the hand itself more clearly. We see that drawing what a thing is doing also commuicates what it is.

Whether riding the edges of a shape or search out what it is doing, the line is a power tool. For a thorough course in gesture and contour possibilities, I recommend Kimon Nicolaides The Natural Way to Draw.

Happy drawing!


larry said...

Thank you for your kind words about my line drawings... Well, these are more quick exercises than drawings, but I'm flattered that you sited them. I believe that a well placed line, dash or squiggle is infinitely more useful than a beautifully rendered eye or nose placed in the wrong place. The former can be used as a foundation for a solid painting, while the later only stands as a monument to poor draftsmanship. That's why I discipline myself to observe and draw every day. Why on recycled newspaper? I have a million reasons but most importantly, it helps to place the emphasis on the the process rather than the art. Happy drawing!

Dianne Mize said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dianne Mize said...

Larry, I am enjoying your daily exercises so much. And placing them on newsprint--the image usually over writing about the person--is both clever and visually exciting. It is, after all, the process--not the product--that forms us as artists. I have always believed that what I see is evidence of not only who the artist is but whether he/she is growing.
Thanks for letting me use your work as an excellent example of putting line to work.

vickiandrandyrossart said...

Another fine 'drawer' is Charles Reid...using a combination contour/gesture drawing while he finds his muse painting outdoors.

Thanks for the article...great as usual!