Leading Lines | Art Appreciation

What do a pathway, the direction a person is facing, bright light, and warm colors all have in common. It’s not the start of a bad joke but it is the start of an art appreciation.

When I was studying photography, leading lines was an integral part of the process of composing the photo. It had to become second nature to see the lines as you took the shot. Which is why really good photographers anticipate lines before they get the shot. They may wait for the moment or move to get a better line but it’s almost always in their minds what lines are being drawn in their shot.

Same goes for art.

I’m choosing though to look at 4 ways lines are drawn in photography and art: with people, with light, with a pathway (or a literal line), and with color.

Below is Asher Brown Durand’s The First Harvest in the Wilderness and he uses 3 of the above leading lines. First your eye mostly likely enters at the brightest spot in the painting: where the sun is peeking through the dark clouds. Light can mean the brightest part or the part of most contrast. Here, he does both. It is high contrast and the brightest part of the painting.

This brightest part is vignetted by the dark clouds above and to the left and right so our eye naturally goes down the painting to the second most lit area: where the water and land meet.

Asher Brown Durand's The First Harvest in the Wilderness

Then your eye hits the pathway on the edge of this sunlit landscape. The pathway is another leading line that is more obvious. Our brains love following paths because it’s ordered and logical. So our eyes move down the canvas, following the path until it reaches the right bottom corner. Here our eyes may take different routes – the tendency is to notice the vertical trees that give structure to the painting. They make it feel strong, yet lead back to the dark clouds which push us back down to the bottom of the tree where we notice the rocks which also create a much more subtle line. More of a suggestion really. The rocks create a diagonal path that leads to the left corner. Diagonal lines create movement in our brains and we can feel our eyes fall down to the last rock crossing the creek. This last rock then shows us a small grouping of trees that we can’t help following upwards again but this time it drops us off within the brightest part of the painting again. Our brains then begin the same trip again – never leaving the painting.

And this my friends is genius – when you can continue to travel in a composition over and over again and not be led outside of the piece. It holds you there and keeps you listeneing to the story it’s telling.

Let’s try one by Monet: Women in the Garden. Where do your eyes go first, then pay attention to where they follow around the painting.

Claude Monet Women in the Garden

Once again our eye is drawn first to the brightest part of the image. This would be the woman on the right. But our eyes will follow the direction a person is looking so this draws our eye to the left of the painting. where the other 2 women are. One is looking at the other but the other is looking down which then brings out eye to the woman who is seated. She is also looking down which brings our eye to the brightest part of her and the same light that illuminates the first woman. This light creates a path back to the first woman and Monet has created a circle for our eye to travel through the painting. Here, people are used to create a more subtle line that is a suggestion to our brains. When we see people looking in a direction we tend to follow their line of sight.

Lets look at one more Monet: Autumn On The Seine At Argenteuil. Where do you start and how does your eye travel through the painting.

Almost always we go to the brightest area. Here it’s most of the painting but that bright area creates a path straight through the middle to the distant landscape where it stops. Here it’s much more subtle because our eyes tend to go to more colorful items, especially warm reds. So we are drawn to the left and the boats lined up there lead us back to the left where the warm reflection of the vertical trees leads us either up or down but either way we are led back to the brightest part of the painting.

Here’s another little trick that our brains use on us. Warm colors almost always come forward and cool colors recede. Pay attention to how your eyes receive this painting as a whole. The left side seems to come towards us while the right moves away.

Even in lettering, an artist can direct your eye with the placement of lines. Joy was my attempt at doing so. Each line points back to the word Joy to keep you within the composition.

So next time you are looking at photographs or paintings pay attention to how the artist is using lines to move you through their composition.

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