Dürer’s Ingenious Lines

Dürer was famous for his drawings.

He drew complex pictures with lines alone. Woodcuts like this Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made him famous  all over Europe before he was even thirty:

Durer_Revelation_Four_RidersFour Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer (1498) (public domain photo)

How did he turn everything he saw into lines?  How can that work?  “There are no lines in nature,” says the Swiss art critic Wölfflin. “Any beginner can learn this if he sits down in front of his house with a pencil and tries to reduce what he sees to a series of lines. Everything opposes this task: the foliage on the trees, the waves in the water, the clouds in the sky. And if it seems that a roof clearly exposed against the sky, or dark tree trunk, must surely be able to be rendered in outline, even in these cases it is soon apparent that the line can only be an abstraction, because it is not lines that one sees, but masses, bright and dark masses that contrast with a background of a different color…”

A painter might say that everything is not lines but masses of color.

But Dürer brought it off with lines, all kinds of lines.  “His historical significance as a draftsman lies in his construction of a purely linear style on the foundation of the modern three-dimensional representation of the world.” (Heinrich Wölfflin, in his introduction to his 1923 collection of Dürer’s drawings.)

Dürer wasn’t of course the first to draw with lines. Linear abstraction goes back to prehistoric cave scratches. But he discovered new ways to use those lines. His way of rendering some phenomena has never been surpassed.

One thing that makes his work different from that of other great draftsmen is the double function he gave the lines. They had not only to define form and show movement but also to decorate. They were meant to have an ornamental beauty.
Other great draftsmen use lines to build a picture but their lines aren’t important in themselves: they contribute to the general impression, that’s all.  For example, a group of them intended to indicate a shadow will get the artist’s OK even if, taken for themselves, they are an ugly knot.  Dürer wants them clean, clear, and pretty.

At least he did once he had found his own way. When he was starting out he used the lines the way everyone else did. Look at the non-ornamental pen scratches he used to show the deep shadow of his hand and the pillow:

Self-Portrait with a Pillow , c. 1491 (public domain photo)

Sometimes when he was older he even went too far. The ornamental pattern of lines seems to stand like a screen in front of the picture. You have to stare for a few seconds at the complex configuration until, a group at a time, the lines turn into those things they are meant to represent:

Durer  Christ_On_The_Mount_Of_Olives_1521Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1521 (public domain photo)

Maybe Dürer’s historical significance as a draftsman lies in his line-drawings, as Wölfflin says.  But his best-loved drawings, such as this one, are done with mixed media: watercolors and a brush:

durer arco_dürer_1495View of Arco (1495)  Paris, The Louvre (public domain photo)

See this excellent article on Dürer as a businessman.


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29 Responses to Dürer’s Ingenious Lines

  1. I have tried drawing with lines myself and it isnt easy. This guy is a master on his craft

  2. Ken Januski says:

    He was some artist wasn’t he? When I was much younger I know it was the drawings that really hit me. I’m not sure if that was because I just wasn’t exposed to his other work or because they just resonated more than anything else.

    But recently I’ve been much more taken with his naturalistic paintings, like ‘A Young Hare’, and ‘The Large Turf.’ But as I look through his work in a google search right now I find that they are all striking. His self-portraits among many other good paintings are very striking.

    And yet the self-portraits, naturalistic watercolors, and line drawings wouldn’t immediately make you think that they were by the same person. They seem to have slightly different sensibilities. Maybe he just used each medium to its best advantage?

    In any case it’s been a pleasure to be reminded of him and to take another look at some of his work. I just need the time to really pursue it……………….

  3. danu says:

    Finally, all images are more like dots, pixels…a line is a succesion of smaall dots, no? Durer was superbely talented, a natural talent which is not at all common… Rembrandt had it, maybe some of the moderns (Van Gogh in his «roseau» calumets drawings) but that quite rare… and it’s so good to read your blog again!

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Danu: Wölfflin streamlined to make his point that Dürer required all his lines to be ornamental. Of course there are hundreds of drawings where that wasn’t Dürer’s aim at all—and they include the ones most people like now. He developed the ornamental, every-line-counts style for his engravings and woodcuts.
      Just like you, he experimented constantly and did everything with a pen, a piece of charcoal, a silverpoint, and a brush that might give him the effect he wanted.

  4. Part of his early fame “all over Europe” was due to good fortune.

    Durer made woodcuts from his drawings,from which multiple prints were produced — no one knows for sure how many prints were made, but many. So Durer’s images spread across Europe aided greatly by the speed and quality of the Gutenberg press.

    Had his drawings been made before the advent of Gutenberg’s press and inexpensive mass produced paper, they might have had a limited audience. A hundred years later, they would have been just some of many massed produced images.

    Timing isn’t everything, but it counts.

    • 100swallows says:

      Judith: Good point. I deleted a paragraph from my post (because I thought it was getting too long) saying something like what you say here but without your catchy hundred-years-before and hundred-years-after scenarios.

  5. zeladoniac says:

    The mixed-media work is astounding; thanks for sharing it. His linework is always brilliant but that watercolor/ink piece just sings.

  6. Ken Januski says:

    Oddly enough I was just writing a brief interview today about printmaking. In doing so I remembered the first print that ever struck me: Durer’s Saint Jerome in His Study. I didn’t know anything at all about prints at the time, just what a powerful image it was.

    Even though I’ve read and responded to this before it’s a pleasure to read again. You always do a great job of showing/explaining just why a particular artist is so powerful, and more than just a name in an art history text.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thank you very much for your comments. I hadn’t seen the great Dürer prints in a long time and now I went to look at the St. Jerome. Then the two other famous ones: the Knight and Melancholy. I find myself spending more time on the objects in the prints than on Dürer’s drawing mastery–there’s so much to see and interpret. I think I’ll put copies into this post (or write another). Of the many paintings and drawings of St. Jerome, I always liked this one by Antonello da Messina in the National Gallery of London:
      I have been following with interest your experiments with linocuts and printing. You explain them very well and make us all want to try.
      By the way, Ivan asked me about a good art forum. Do you of any?

      • Ken Januski says:

        Hi Swallows,

        Happy to hear that you’re following my linocut experiments. I never had any idea I’d find it such a comfortable medium for myself. But I’m only 2 months into it so we’ll have to see if I’m still as excited a year from now. I think I will be but you never know.

        I noticed that a huge new book just came out on Durer, well at least new in an English translation. But at $130 I think I’ll be passing it by.

        I’m afraid I don’t have any recommendations for Danu. I spend time on the wildlife thread of birdforum but that’s strictly wildlife art. I think that there are sites like wetcanvas but I’ve never spent any time there. I’ve just heard others refer to it. Also things like Apaintingaday, which again I’ve only heard of never visited. For me there’s just so much time in the day and I’d prefer to spend most of it in the studio or outside. Still others seem to really like sites like these.

        It’s been years since I’ve seen that Antonello della Messina painting. But it sure does have a sense of quiet and clarity to it.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    I haven’t seen this post on Durer when you first posted it, Swallows, very informative. Everything I’ve every seen of Durer I loved. Thanks for the post, Swallows. Sorry I haven’t been around much, I’ve been trying to be more productive this year…

    Ken, I saw your linocuts, they’re wonderful, you’re a natural. I tried it myself a while ago, unsuccessfully, but my short experimenting was enough to appreciate yours. It’s a lot harder than it looks, and not everybody is “cut” for it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Erika! Keep sculpting: there are more important things than blogging. But I am glad to hear from you. And I agree with you about Ken’s linocuts. Have you seen that big watercolor of his with all the birds in his latest post?

    • Ken Januski says:

      Thanks Erika, and Swallows. Glad that you like the linocuts. I’m surprised at how easily I’ve taken to them. Just yesterday my wife pulled out an old, and really pretty sad, woodcut that I’d done for a holiday card in 1988. It doesn’t look at all like a medium that I was comfortable with back then!!

      And speaking of Brueghel and winter (in post above and its reference) Happy Holidays to you both!

  8. I’ll be posting something on this on my blog later today. Please drop by.

  9. wrjones says:

    I like your in depth thinking on these things. I would have just said nice drawing. That’s where a laggard mind takes you.

  10. Ken Januski says:

    Still a pleasure to read for at least the third time Swallows. It reminded me that I read a lenghty essay in the last 3-6 months about Durer as one of the original art entrepeneurs, staking his fortune on being able to live by his prints rather than at the mercy of a patron. That was something I hadn’t known.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thanks. I always judge a man not by what he reads but by what he re-reads. I didn’t know that about Dürer either. Can you remember where you read it?

      • Ken Januski says:

        HI Swallows,

        I wonder if re-reading is becoming a lost art. Oddly enough I read this in ‘The Economist,’ a somewhat surprising source. I read it the old fashioned way on paper but I do see that it’s available online: .here. I hope my link works correctly but think that it should. If not you can search for ‘durer, entrepeneur, economist’ to find it.

        Speaking of re-reading I should do so now to make sure I haven’t wrongly characterized it!
        I think I may be wrong but I don’t believe I’ve yet wished you a Happy New Year so: Happy Yew Year!

        • 100swallows says:

          Ken: the link works fine and the article looks good. Thanks for digging it up. No, you are right: this is a republished post. Since most of my readers are new here and have seen only the latest posts, I bring some of the old ones back up for them. Sorry to bore or disappoint my good old readers. At least your good comments come back along with the old posts. Happy New Year to you, too. You make birding (and sketching and painting and lino cutting) sound like so much fun, I wish I were with you on one of those excursions, though I bet you’d have to shut me up so I didn’t scare your birds away.

        • 100swallows says:

          Ken: the article is wonderful and I have put a link to it in my post. Thanks again.

          • Ken Januski says:

            Happy to be helpful Swallows. I did notice that a few comments took issue with the article but I think that’s inevitable. I found it very interesting myself.

            Oddly enough I might ask you to pipe down if we were to go birding, not because you’d be scaring the birds away, but because it’s often easiest to find them by listening. I something think it should be called bird-listening rather than bird-watching.

            But when we were done I’d be happy to have you talk at length. I’m sure it would be quite worthwhile.

            • 100swallows says:

              Ken: Reading through some of my old posts I was struck by the enthusiasm and quality of your comments (and also by those of Rich and Erika and Danu and Judith and Bill Jones and Kimiam and Robert and Zeladoniac) and how much information and, especially, interest they have added. This blog owes very much to you and to them. It is partly due to the lively comments that I can republish the old posts. I’m sure many readers enjoy the play of comments more than the posts themselves. By now I do. I have learned a lot from them too and I want to say how grateful I am.

  11. Rich says:

    Re-reading is truly a fine thing!
    Delacroix, in his fight against academic classicism of his times, rose a few objections against outlines: For instance he said something like:

    “Unimportant parts of a picture are often too much emphasized by outline. An unjustified accent is given to parts on the far background; with kind of a disturbing effect on the consistence of the object’s main portrayal. The manifoldness of objects illustrated is being reduced or even eliminated. Everything looks like made from one single tissue only. All the charm of surfaces is destroyed. No shimmerings; nothing reflects, no “velvet underground” anywhere, no veiled tears melting in a look…”

    Well, I don’t think all this would apply to Duerer with his magnificent outlines. But still, to quote Swallows:
    “Duerer’s best loved drawings are done with mixed media: watercolors and a brush.”

    Probably Delacroix would agree;-)
    How many books are there on your shelf, read two times? Awaiting a third reading?
    Anyway: to that category your blog belongs.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: You’ve reminded me that I meant to re-read Delacroix.
      I see what he means about the outlines giving surfaces (and objects) all the same importance. This is what happened in that last engraving of Dürer’s I showed in the post, though Delacroix was certainly talking about painting rather than etching. I think artists who want to do shimmerings and reflections and background effects know how to soften their outlines or do without them: it’s a question of skill and a good eye. Delacroix’s “veiled tears melting in a look” have gone out of fashion (except in movies).

      I don’t know if your question was only rhetorical but most of the books on my shelf have been read more than once. I consult them all the time. Of course if you really like an author then you want to “hear” him “say that again”. But it’s also necessary to re-read many books in order to get your own summary of them or keep it accurate. It’s the same with great artists and paintings, isn’t it?
      By the way, I have often re-read the best comments in this blog, like yours and Ken’s. Thanks.

  12. Dear 100Swallows,

    i stumbled across your blog and love it! Would you like to head up a Top 10 “To be discussed” series for Urban Times. You can check it out at http://www.theurbn.com.

    It could be artists, ancients or even scientists – whatever tickles your fancy.

    If you’re interested, you can reach me at alex@theurbn.com

    Best Wishes,

    Alex Phillips

    Founder, Urban Times

  13. JF David says:

    there a double image in Durer watercolor,

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