There are no outlines in nature, only edges with a contrast to one another. But lines have a language of their own and artists have learned to use it wisely. They can be used to represent light and shade, movement, force, contours of the form, to name a few.
Albrecht Dürer, Studies of Dürer’s Left Hand (recto), 1493/1494, pen and brown and black-brown ink, 27 x 18 cm (10 5/8 x 7 1/8 in.), Albertina, Vienna
Dürer’s drawings and prints have an exceptional use of contour lines to show the folds of the clothing, surface of the hands and body and features like hair. Crosshatching is used to show gradation of light and musculature on the form of the hands. This drawing also illustrates the use of different weight of the outlines (bold and thin) which is an excellent way to show the direction of light and add a sense of movement in the drawings.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Drawing of a botanical study, 1500, ink on paper.
This drawing has a masterful use of dark and light colors in the line work to show depth in the picture plane and also build focal point.
Vincent van Gogh
Harvest in Provence, 1888
Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper
Van Gogh’s drawings are beautifully patterned with lines, dots and swirls. Depth is suggested by varying the size of the patterns as well as by packing them tightly together. In the foreground the dots and lines are more loosely placed. He has used the same visual phenomenon as waves in the ocean to show depth.
The Fitting, 1890-91
Drypoint and soft-ground, printed in black ink from one plate
Mary Cassatt’s prints have been rendered mostly just in lines. There are no gradation of light or patterns to suggest details on the form. Where does your eye go first on the drawing? What do you notice next? Try answering these questions to see the visual flow in this print attained through line work.