Line Direction 101 | What you need to know to create powerful art

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Last Updated on December 23, 2022 by Dee

What is the difference between a horizontal line and a vertical line? What does it mean when you draw lines in different directions on your paper? In this post, we will explore the effects on composition of using lines that are drawn horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.  

We will also take a look at some examples of artworks with these types of lines to see what they might represent. After reading this article, you should have a better understanding of line direction and how to use it in your own art!

Line in art is an ancient form of representational mark-making. The history of line in art goes back to primitive man first appearing on cave walls as simple drawings or sketches. Line has been used since the beginning of time and can be seen everywhere from everyday life to nature and even the stars.

As line has been used by humans over the years, it has become a form of expressive power. One of the most important elements in an artist’s composition is direction. Artists can use it to create dynamic forms and express emotions without the viewer realizing how.

It is common for line direction to be used subconsciously without an artist even realizing it. It’s good to know that artists can control line direction in any way they see fit and use it to convey a message or feeling.

Line is commonly used to represent things such as power, stability and transformation.

what does line direction mean?

What does Line Direction mean?

Line direction in art refers to line that is either horizontal, vertical or diagonal. A line can also be curved not straight. Every line has a direction of some sort and it is important to know this when talking about line direction in art. Artists use lines to create different effects on the viewer’s eyes. Not only do lines create a line direction in art, they also create forms.

Why is line direction important in art?

Line direction plays a large role in line art. It is the line direction that attracts and holds the viewer’s eye on an image or art piece. Line direction can also be used to show stability, movement, and action all through line.

Types of Line Direction in Art

Horizontal line

Horizontal lines move from side to side and create a flat surface on the paper. Horizontal line is a very important type of line we use to help create a sense of depth and distance in an artwork.

Vertical line

Vertical line moves up and down, similar to the way we measure things. Artists use vertical line direction in art when they want to create a sense of height.

Diagonal line

Diagonal lines move diagonally and create movement in art. Artists use diagonal lines to create movement and convey a sense of energy.

Curved line

A curved line is basically any line that curves instead of being straight, vertical or horizontal. Artists use curved lines to show emotion, soften edges, create harmony and add feeling.

Spiral line

A line that curves in a circular motion is a spiral line direction. Artists use spiral line direction to show the beauty of nature or things like water.

The Effect of Horizontal Line in Art

Horizontal line is a very important line direction in art. When you use horizontal line in an artwork, it most often gives the painting a feeling of flatness and expanse.

Examples of Horizontal Lines

Providence from Across the Cove, Alvan Fisher, 1818

When we look at line direction in this painting by Alvan Fisher, we can see that the scene is dominated by horizontal line. The line moves left to right and creates a sense of flatness and distance. A flat line gives us the feeling of peace and stillness in the artwork.

The_Persistence_of_Memory Salvador Dali 1931
The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931

In Dali’s Persistence of Memory, line direction is a very important part of the composition. We can see the horizon line moving from left to right across the canvas. This still, flat, horizontal line adds to the quiet, dreamlike quality of his Surrealist subject matter.

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The Effect of Vertical Line in Art

Vertical line usually moves up and down in line direction. When line direction is like this the line gives us a sense of height and distance. Artists often use line to create height in their work by using vertical line direction.

Examples of Vertical Lines

edward hopper lighthouse-at-two-lights-1929(1)
Lighthouse at Two Lights, Edward Hopper, 1929

In Edward Hopper’s Lighthouse at two lights, we can see the predominant use of vertical line in the lighthouse. As the viewer, we feel as though we are standing at the bottom of a hill beneath a tall lighthouse.

Grant Wood American Gothic
American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930

Vertical line is also dominant in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The rigidity of the vertical pitchfork, the vertical positioning of the figure and the vertical lines of the house in the background give this painting a very serious quality.

The Effect of Diagonal Line in Art

 Diagonal line in art creates a sense of motion in an artwork. We often say that diagonal lines make the subject matter dynamic in that we get the sense of some sort of action occurring.

Examples of Diagonal Lines

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784

In this painting by Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, we can see strong diagonal line used in the stances of the figures. This makes us feel as though some sort of action is taking place.

Dante And Virgil In Hell, William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850

Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil in Hell is a very dramatic and dynamic work filled with diagonal line, and it is obvious that the action is the focal point of the composition.

The Effect of Curved Line in Art

When line curves, instead of being straight vertical or horizontal we usually think of line direction as indicating softness, subtlety, grace, and harmony – very much like gentle curving waves on the ocean. However, often curved lines can give us a feeling of instability and uncertainty like in the example below.

Examples of Curved Lines

The Scream, Edward Much, 1893
The Scream, Edward Much, 1893

Munch’ The Scream is filled with curving lines which makes us feel uneasy and adds to the horror of the atmosphere.

The Effect of Spiral Line in Art

 Spiral line is basically any line that curves in a circular motion. This sort of line can create frenetic energy, an electrical feeling of movement, and vibration.

Examples of Spiral line direction

starry-night vincent van gogh 1889
Starry Night, Van Gogh, 1889

In Van Gogh’s Starry Night we see spiral lines created through the brush marks in the foreground, middle ground, and background. This gives the painting a feeling of intense energy and movement.

This video below by KQED Arts gives you a great introduction to Line as an Element of Art.

Other Frequently Asked Questions about Line Direction in Art

How do you find the direction of a line?

To find line direction, look at the line and turn your head from side to side. Where does line go? Does it move up or down? Left or right across the canvas?

If line moves vertically (up and down), this is vertical line direction. If line curves in a circular pattern, this is spiral line direction. If line moves horizontally from left to right it is horizontal line direction. If line moves from the top corner of a canvas to the opposite, bottom corner this is called diagonal line direction.

Hold your arm out and point with your finger. Where does the line go? Can you make an imaginary line on a piece of paper moving in the same general direction as you pointed?  This line would be line direction.

What is a contour line in art?

Contour line is a line that shapes, forms or otherwise outlines an object.  These lines help define an object and create depth in a painting.  

What is the Horizon line in art?

Horizon line is the line at a specific level that marks the division between sky and land in a landscape. In art it refers to any line that divides above and below, or left and right.

What is directional line in art?

Directional lines in art, art lines that direct your eye around the artwork. Directional lines can be vertical, horizontal, diagonal or curvy. Directional line can direct your eye to an object in the artwork or can give the artwork a feeling of movement. Directional line can also help add to the emotional intensity of an artwork.

How important are shapes and lines in art?

An artist’s line and shape choices are very important.  Lines direct the viewer’s eyes to different parts of an art piece, while shapes help define objects and planes in a painting.

line direction pinterest pin


Lines have a powerful effect on the way we perceive art. Understanding how different line direction can affect our perception is an excellent place to start when analyzing any piece of artwork. Whether you are looking at paintings, sketches, or even digital drawings and illustrations, these images show just some of the possibilities that come from varying your lines’ direction. If you’re interested in exploring more about using line in your own drawing, please check out my article “Intuitive Perspective in Drawing“.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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