Great Line Drawings

Draw the outline of a figure. Shade one side of it. It looks three-dimensional!

That shading was invented in Greek times and was a great breakthrough in drawing and painting.

But soon after its discovery, vase painters were learning to give the impression of volume without shading.

They were doing that with lines alone.

They had started by using lines to decorate the figures on their beautiful vases.

They painted a black area on a red vase and then scratched lines in it with a stylus. The lines decorated the figures and also helped define them.

In time they began to indicate features of anatomy inside the black silhouettes. They drew a line to represent prominences, like bones, but also shadows. Somehow that worked and gave the figures depth. The folds of drapery that they drew also seemed to show them three-dimensionally.

The vase-artists became experts at showing volume with their lines. And when a new method of vase painting allowed them to paint in rather than scratch in their lines, they carried this kind of representation farther still and produced some of the most beautiful figure drawings in art.

Theseus slays the Minotaur, while Athena looks on–a Greek platter, about 425 BC

Drawing with the absolute minimum of lines and yet showing the whole volume of a figure has been a challenge to artists ever since. Artists like Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer experimented with these anatomy lines and produced beautiful figures. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is famous. Here is Dürer’s version of the man in a circle:

And here are other experiments by Albrecht Dürer  based on Leonardo drawings :

In more recent times men like Picasso and Matisse excelled at this type of drawing too. Few are able to bring it off. Here are two portraits–the first of Stravinsky by Picasso; the second , called Woman in Russian Blouse II, by Matisse.

Stravinski by Picasso



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39 Responses to Great Line Drawings

  1. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Love those Greek vases. I think it takes a special talent to do line drawings. One of the best these days in my opinion is this guy, who modestly calls his drawings “doodles”.

    I really hope he makes it in the art world…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Oh, erika, I hope he’s not one of the best these days.
    Of course even among the Greek vase painters there are degrees of good. I couldn’t find the best I remember for this post.

  3. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Just my personal opinion, Swallows…

  4. zeladoniac – Debby Kaspari travels the world with sketchbook and binoculars, drawing and painting in wild and not-so-wild landscapes. Norman, Oklahoma is her home base, and she lives there with her tropical ecologist husband and a mackerel tabby named Gizmo.
    zeladoniac says:

    The Picasso is wonderful, but one of my favorites for linework is Egon Schiele. Even in paint he never loses the outline or the energy it gives his work.

    Did the Greek vase painters ever sign their work and are there records of who were the best in the game?

    • Zoe says:

      yes; there’s a documentary about the Greeks in which they spend quite a bit of time covering the vase painters. Apparently not only did they sign their names, but they were quite competitive about their art!

  5. rich says:

    Beautiful examples you have given us here, swallows.
    Didn’t even know those Leonardo copies by Dürer.
    I was wondering: Do you think Matisse and Picasso (and even the vase-painters) did some drawing-copy before, kind of preliminary drawing
    (what’s a Vorzeichnung in English?) or did they go at it right away?

    By the way: Even Klimt admitted that Schiele was better at drawing than him.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Rich: The Dürer drawings, studies after others by Leonardo, are in his Dresdner Skizzenbuch. That is not really a sketchbook but a collection of drawings made for his own reference or in preparation for some of his works. I don’t think there’s a good word in English for a bozzetto—only a preparatory sketch or drawing.
    I guess no two artists did those line drawings (or any others) the same way. Some clearly made several preliminary tries. Some brought them off first-go. Dürer’s sketchbook is full of rough studies and even tracings over his own good sketches. Picasso made several portraits of Stravinsky on that same day—this was just one. I found in my own work that when you have an idea trying to be born the first try is the best and all the later copying of it or remembering never has the freshness of the first one. That’s just the way it is. Of course etching is usually done by copying a preparatory drawing as accurately as you can.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Zeladoniac: I looked up Greek Vase Artists in Wikipedia and got a list a yard long. There must have been fierce competition. Some of the best ones are known for only one vase—the one that has survived. Others are “famous” because their signed vases have turned up all over the Mediterranean—not necessarily because they were the best artists. Click on some of these names and see which you like best. There are many very good ones, both in the black figure and red figure styles.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Robert: I have a three volume Dover edition of Lanteri and the remarks about the thickening of limbs are in the third volume at the end of Chapter Four (pp. 28, 29), which treats the comparative measurements of horses.
    I’m glad you like the book. I suspect it influenced me years ago like an old teacher, so that now I don’t even realize that some of my opinions are actually his, or his ruminated.
    I found his “spaces of rest” idea interesting too, though that and all theory disappear when you do a statue and only your eye guides you, right?

  9. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    danu says:

    The best draftsmen draw without any hesitation, a la prima. Sometimes, quite often for artists like Matisse or Picasso, it gives superb drawings…

    I do not know where you found the Matisse drawing (in what book) but the good title is Woman in Romanian Blouse (not Russian!). I can tell you that for sure because Theodore Pallady, a Romanian painter, was a good friend of Matisse and send him some blouses (which Matisse loved). In Romanian folk art those motives are quite frecvent, usually in blue and red and black on the white transparent (kind of silk we call `borangic`) textile…

  10. Of course now I am looking out for others who do these spaces of rest! I don’t think the book I have has volume three unfortunately. His main ‘thrust’ is on the male figure and although I have been commissioned to do 2 male figures I think the female ones amount to 20 or more!

  11. 100swallows says:

    Danu: here is the link to that Matisse drawing (actually a heliogravure, whatever that is–an etching, I guess).
    Scroll down almost to the bottom of the page. The etching of the girl from the front is also very good, don’t you think? Here the blouse is called Russian and I just copied their title.

  12. 100swallows says:

    Bad luck, Robert. Order the three volume Dover edition from Abebooks–volume two is about reliefs and medallions (very interesting)and as I see you do animals you will probably find the third volume good: on the horse, the bull, and the lion. Good luck on those twenty girls (all skinny?)

  13. I am afraid I am on 19 and 20 now Swallow, one or two were intentionally skinny but most are ‘Adequately covered’ but certainly not fat. I have to go where the patron up to a point!

    From your quotation from Lanteri’s book I will check out ‘Peace in her Quadriga’. I did not notice anything unusual about the limbs and you can’t get much bigger than this!

  14. I think it would be fair to look at The Horse Tamers too. Easier to see. The legs of the horses are quite thick but not abnormally so. The male figures are , to my mind, about right.

  15. Lynne Diligent
    wpm1955 says:

    100 Swallows, I think you must have quite a home library at your disposal!

    Madame Monet

  16. 100swallows says:

    Robert: Here are the two paragraphs I left out of my first excerpt of the Lanteri on thickening the limbs of figures. The first was cut from the first paragraph and the second, from the second. Now you have him complete.

    “For an equestrian statue placed in these conditions, and a quarter larger than nature, I have made the leg, at the part where the cannon-bone is, one and a half inches larger in circumference in proportion to what it is in nature, and the statue once in place, I have only regretted not having made it another half inch bigger.”

    “Indeed, the Coleoni statue [by Verrocchio] is the most striking example of this principle, for if one has occasion to examine closely a reproduction, one is surprised at the heaviness of the legs and tempted to see in them a gross exaggeration, but if afterwards one chances to see this masterpiece in Venice, placed on its high pedestal and completely standing out against the sky, the proportions become admirable in their strength and their elegance—in thickening the legs the sculptor has avoided the appearance of thinness.”

    Of course this is a technical consideration. Another thing is a personal taste for thicker arms and legs.

  17. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: Not a big collection, though I know all my books well. They are pretty banged-up from much moving around. I have often used public and private libraries, such as the great Basel University library and the British Institute library in Madrid. Now I have a town library across the street.

  18. kimiam says:

    Great selection of drawings, swallows.

  19. 100swallows says:

    Thank you, kimiam. How’s that stone face coming along?

  20. zeladoniac – Debby Kaspari travels the world with sketchbook and binoculars, drawing and painting in wild and not-so-wild landscapes. Norman, Oklahoma is her home base, and she lives there with her tropical ecologist husband and a mackerel tabby named Gizmo.
    zeladoniac says:

    Thanks for the link, 100swallows. Looks like an entire field of study cut out for me. I was at the Getty Villa Museum (where they keep antiquities)a few weeks ago and now after reading this post I wish I’d spent more time looking at the vase collection. I always go straight for the marbles.

    They have a traveling exhibit of polychrome statuary there now, ancient to modern. It’s off the topic here but have you written anything about polychromy?

  21. John says:

    Who would really stake their life on these outlines being a great line drawing(or anything close)??? Looks like it could have come from a comic or coloring book even. Dur’er line art is anatomically correct but that doesnt make it great. I would just call them sketches(Not even great sketches).

    ALL of the others are closer to crap though.

  22. Ken Januski says:

    Couldn’t agree more about the force and beauty of line drawings, especially those of artists like Matisse, Picasso and the vase painters. As I was thinking about why I like them so much I happened upon the last comment by John on them being ‘crap.’ It reminds me that they are not appreciated by all.

    For me the beauty is partly due to their clarity (and I have to confess that today this is the first time I’ve ever posted anything at this site and both of my posts talk about clarity). It is a risky business to think that an artist can make something complete out of just line and background. There is no fudge factor of tonal modelling. And yet when it is successful it is striking. It reminds me of a violin solo versus a large orchestrated piece. Both have their places but there is a clarity and purity in the clear tone of the violin. What the artist is attempting is very easy for all to see. And so is their success or failure. That seems to me to be the same with line drawings. Most will probably seem dull or lacking. But the successful ones shine brightly. It also reminds me of Oriental brush painting. When the brush hits the rice paper the ink is instantly absorbed, like a sponge. So an artist needs great deftness of touch to get down clean and clear lines before the paper turns them to mush. To some degree it is a test of skill and of nerve. Maybe some of this comes across to experienced viewers. But I think that these drawings are also appealing to inexperienced viewers. My best guess is again that for some the purity of the drawing is itself enough. Just as some people who don’t know the first thing about music will be thrilled with the first good violin solo that they hear.

  23. anagasto – madrid, spain
    cantueso says:

    Swallows, sorry, off-topic as always, look what I just found:

    I can’t tell the quality of the drawings, of course, but I mean the idea!

    It is from the NYT.

  24. Pingback: Line Drawing « We Love… Life

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  26. waltenire says:

    This is a fantastic blog you have here. I visit here every week. I have already subscribed to your rss feed to help me stay update with your publication. Are you on twitter so that I can follow you?

  27. angela says:

    can u please tell mewho was the artist who drew Stravinsky ?

  28. elizabath says:

    can you tell me who are the best artists in the world.

  29. Very beautiful post,like your blog very much.Bookmark your blog and sharing with my friends.

  30. I’m happy to visit your blog. I am looking forward on reading the next hub.Thank you so much for your sharing.

  31. Dearest Elizabeth,
    You asked who the best artists in the world are? Sincerely, it is the next one you discover. One hundred responses will give a hundred different artists. Best thing I found in coming up with the best artists is to make a dozen categories, like a favorite book, favorite movie, favorite food, etc and fill and edit those selections. Best western artists, best impressionist, best ancient sculptors, best Chinese watercolorists, etc. when I finally got serious about being an artist 30 years ago, all I cared about were animal artists like we have in the west. I was just about to name a few, but that is up to you to discover. Explore, google, visit every museum you can think of, or have access to. What’s funny is that after all the education and thousands of dollars spent in travel and leisure around the world, I have come full circle and still appreciate my first love, animalier sculpture. Yet I have discovered, or uncovered an artists eye for greatness in all aspects of art. I never would have thought about east Indian art, Precolumbian, African, Chinese, scrimshaw, quilt-making, and cross over art such as movies and plays(set direction, cinematography, photography). It’s all good.
    A quick story to illustrate what I wouldn’t recommend. I was working in an Art Museum while in college and I had two arrogant roommates who wanted to see the collection of Warhols we had. One of these roommates had the gall to take down artwork in our rental house I bought from students at school and replace them with prints of famous 19th century artists. He said he was making the living room more worthy of consumption. I had no problem with the prints he choose, but he was a pseudo intellectual with pompous ass tattooed to his frontal lobe. My roomates made a reservation at the museum to see the artwork without me. What they failed to recognize was the Warhols of Marilyn Monroe in every assorted garish combination was the very least important of anything we had in our collection. It was one of the most famous because of its pop status, but like most of Warhol’s things, worthless except for the long over-extended 15 minutes of fame accorded him. Right next to them, unknown to them I thought I would surreptitiously place some Hans Holbein, Albrecht Durers, and several other fantastic examples we had in our print collection for their enjoyment. I’d gotten tipped off by the museum registrar that they were coming. When they arrived, again I got tipped off, came to the print room and wanted to surprise them with the extras hoping they would appreciate the “in” they had with me. When I showed up, they ignored me and tried to coddle favor with our cute registrar by quipping typically stupid observations of cheaply done works of art. They oo’d and ahw’d over the crap while right next to them were priceless works of art done centuries before with a lot more facility than any modern screenprint. The registrar tossed me a knowing aside nod, and I dismissed myself to let my roommates simmer in their newfound importance in the art world. I should cut these guys some slack though, they were both the firsts in their families to go to college and were business and law school grads. Like Seinfeld says, ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that!’
    I guess there was a moral in this story somewhere. . . . Oh yeah! Look a lot, learn more, and don’t get yer cues from guys with tat-2’s.

  32. What exactly truly stimulated you to compose “Great Line Drawings | The
    Best Artists”? I reallycertainly adored the blog post!
    Thanks for your time -Earnest

  33. will says:

    Thanks,Swallows for your kind reply on my recent comments, asking for some breathing time before answering them – so legitimately. Actually, it is me who should apologize for inundating your blog with my prose!
    This post is a new great discovery to me. I am quite interested to learn that you are an animalier sculptor. I enjoy drawing animals, and I admire animals sculptures from a lot of artists across the world.
    This discussion about line drawing is great. I too am a fan of line drawing, and I never quite understood why so many drawing teachers (at least in my country) look down at them, and require that the draughtsman should consider ‘masses’ only, and should look at the subject as a collection of blocks of values including shadows. Not that I find this point of view useless, but it should not justify devaluating line drawing.
    One reason why line drawings are so appealing was said by Picasso:’Seul le dessin au trait n’est pas imitation’ ‘Only line drawing is not an imitation’. My take on this intriguing statement is that lines do not exist as such in a subject/model which offers only areas (stemming for 2D projections of volumes) to the observer’s eye, and therefore that line drawing demands a special creativity in selecting these ‘invented’ lines in a minimum number, and with the strongest significance.
    I look forward for further discussions at your best convenience!
    Thanks in advance

    • will says:

      I forgot to mention an other key reason why line drawings are so attractive to watch, and even more to do. It is the beauty of lines themselves, regardless of what they are meant to represent. Smooth, elegant curves, harmonious junctions/crossings, judicious position of inversion of curvature, accurate angles (so important for the correctness of the drawing) , all this provides the drawing with a special rythm which enhances its beauty.
      Mathematical curves have always pleased me for themselves, and I remember one of my Maths Teacher (long ago…) who required perfect drawing of mathematical curves: I owe him the discovery of the beauty of Mathematics.
      Our dear Renaissance painting Masters would probably not disagree with these points. Did not Botticelli, among others make great, and subtle use of spirals based on the golden number for underlying his compositions?

  34. will says:

    As I progress through the reading of this fascinating blog, I have just discovered that your excellent post about Duerer develops the very arguments, in a much better way, than those I have tried to pull together in this comment. My apologies for what could have appeared as a (unintentional) plagiarism!
    My learning here is that I should read faster, and wait longer before writing!
    To come back to the topic, just a quote from another great Master of line drawing, Ingres who goes:
    ‘Draw lines, a lot of lines, and you will become a good artist’
    Best Regards

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    MuralForm says:

    Line drawing have always mesmerized me by the slightest change it can look brilliant or like chicken scratch.

  36. Anonymous says:

    art is my favorite thing to do .art is my hobby i love to draw and make as people would say weird but unique paintings and things art is like someone is expressing their feelings or their mood

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