Blog: The importance of Line in a Painting Changes in the History of Art

Christine Alfery

Posted on July 14 2017

Blog: The importance of Line in a Painting Changes in the History of Art

Featured image: Radishes

” Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.” Ingres to Degas.

The importance of line in a painting changes in the history of art. When I read this statement in “The Art of Rivalry” by Sebastian Smee, it made me think about the history of line in art. From the classical training of Ingres to the action painting of Jackson Pollock, to how an artist sees reality. Does it begin with line as Ingres believed from which an artist builds up their paint from thick to thin paint and light and dark contrasts, or does it begin with a line that is made visible with brushstrokes and color like the work of Manet and later the looser, spontaneous, sensuous line of Pollock to the “no line approach of Delacroix who claimed (Smee) that there were “no lines in nature.” He was making the point that things in the world were three-dimensional, picked out by patches of colored light, modulated by the atmosphere around them and by conditions that were constantly in flux. … For Delacroix, life, myth, and history were in motion.”

If reality begins with an either or approach, line or no line, expressive or realistically representational for an artist then it seems to me that puts limitations, and rules on how an artist and in turn the viewer can see and know reality. On the other hand if the artist approaches their work with I will use both approaches, does that not mean art can be anything and everything and then in turn nothing? These two questions plague how we see art today. I think of the watercolors which begin with penciled in line and then fill in the spaces they create with color and build up the color to achieve contrasts and composition. And I think of painters who squeeze paint right out of the tube, no mixing, no blending and call that mark making their line. Where does a work become “art” through the rules one carefully applies and following, including the modern abstract notions of abstract composition and color, or does it become a work of art because it is valued as art? The question then become who establishes the value of art? Self or the collective? I for one vote for the self. But that returns me to how “self” is understood which will be for a later post. And it gets back to the notion of competing with our fellow artists and whether that is a good thing or not which is why I began reading Smees book.

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