The Nuance of Line

Charcoal Drawing of Ben
Charcoal Drawing of Ben

This week in TIME the author Claire Suddath expresses her generations inability to write in cursive, “we’ve given up beauty for speed, artistry for efficiency. And yes, maybe we are a little bit lazy.” (TIME, I’m 26 Years Old, and I Can’t Write in Cursive”, August 3, 2009, p.48) What she fails to realize is that by giving up one’s ability to write, one does not only loose the skill of penmanship but also the ability to “read” a line. By read, I do not mean understand the words but the “skill” to interpret in a line the hidden emotions, desires and hesitations that a written line contains. Reading a written line requires a certain attentiveness but what about the drawn line, one composed by the artist?  Will we be able to interpret this- the subtlety of which  can only be understood intuitively? The loss of this skill where man will no longer have any physical attachment, even in a practical way, toward the written or graphic line seems like a loss of something on the magnitude of Homer’s Iliad or Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The beauty and power of a line is sublime and worthy of contemplation. A line written or drawn or painted is an unconscious sign of thought united to deeper inexpressible  emotions. It is a symbolic language that can only be understood intuitively, allowing the unconscious to present its own interpretation. We need to not only comprehend what is said but more importantly what is left unsaid-too difficult to give a word to. If man’s physical hand is no longer in touch with language or draftsmanship, it becomes strictly cerebral detached from any physical correspondence. There will no longer be any intuitive insight because we will no longer have the experience or skill necessary to interpret. That part of ourselves will become atrophied.

Periodically, I look in the archive of Robert Henri and what I see there is amazing. When you are in the presence of the same material that Henri, himself, has manipulated- written, erased, scratched out, painted, hesitated over- I am in the presence of the man himself.  I see him closer to who he was because I see how he reflected on himself and his work. I could not see this if it had been merely transcribed graphically to a page. I need to see the line itself and feel it. Mind, spirit and hand must be joined, otherwise we miss something profound.

Self reflection is inherently human. And the contemplation of  subtle things such as the rhythm and beauty of a line or  paint stroke is even a more elusive skill. When an artist composes an image- the design of what it will look like-this  is only part of the piece. The other, and possibly more important aspect, is the translation of his deep feelings in the creative process- through line, color and brush stroke.   Henri states in The Art Spirit, “strokes carry a message whether you will it or not. The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it. All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of his spirit and all the littlenesses are in it.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.71)

A tactile and immediate feeling is always translated through the materials (pen to paper or brush on canvas) whether it is conscious or not. And this can really only be “read” in the presence of the image  itself- this cannot be seen in a reproduction. In the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston there is this wonderful painting by Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man in a Kimono. This image is freely painted, the brush strokes loosely applied and full of feeling. But if one looks closely at it you can observe Hal’s fingerprint of his pinkie on the lower right side of the canvas and see that although this work is freely stroked he held his right hand steady to work on the hand. Again, at the Francine and Sterling Clark Museum, there is a late landscape by Winslow Homer of a rocky Maine shore with the surf pounding. In this painting in the bottom left corner there is a huge hand print of  Homer’s holding the canvas against the wind to steady it enough to paint on. We see his struggle with the elements. This, plus the direct transmission of the artists  attentive engagement with his subject, is the difference between great work and mediocrity. And when the viewer is in the presence of great work he needs no one to tell him it is such. He can see it for himself- the power of the line or stroke is self evident. Presently, he has the intuitive skill to read it, but will that remain inherently apart of our human nature in the age of technology?

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

2 thoughts on “The Nuance of Line”

  1. Judith,

    Strange to think that we were chatting yesterday about looking at the original master drawings to discover the initial traces, traces which generally cannot be seen in reproduction. It’s odd that to me those traces bear the weight of the import of the drawing.

    Speaking of drawing I found a free copy online of Boisbaudran’ work on memory. Go to and write boisbaudran in the text search field. The entire 1911 english version is in pdf format.

    1. Ric, Thanks for the info. I have yet to locate my copy of the work on memory. I hope Boisbaudran’s work on memory can provide some insight for you. Remember it is hard work and it does not come easy, but with constant practice it does improve one’s ability to work without the model. Begin with memorizing an image such as a painting in a museum since it is set and worked out verses something like a living model. I believe this is one of Boisbaudran’s first suggestions. My only other insight would be to work from a lay figure or a simply constructed model such as Bridgeman designs at the beginning of his life drawing book ( although, this seems to work best for a standing figure and seems impractical for a seated study). Good Luck. Judith

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