The Alphabet of Art

Line Direction

Type Contrast Resulting Attributes
Diagonal Maximum Emotionally Active
Esthetically dynamic
Spatially in depth
Horizontal or Vertical Minimum Emotionally passive
Esthetically decorative
Spatially static

The diagonal line has no equal in visual intensity. It suggests depth or movement. The periphery of the eye is very sensitive to movement or to any diagonal, so it calls for complete attention from the viewer. That is why traffic signs designed to warn of hazards are diamond shaped, using diagonals.

Vertical and horizontal lines infer a static or decorative visual condition. An example is a top hat. It appears taller than it is broad, but this is an illusion.

In architecture, the Parthenon in Athens is said not to have a straight line in it. In fact, curved lines are used in many cases to make the straight lines appear straighter. For example, there are three terraces at the bottom of the Parthenon. If they were not curved, they would appear to sag, as they are three inches higher in the middle than at the ends. The builders of the Parthenon placed all the horizontal lines at the bottom, the vertical lines in the middle and the diagonal lines at the top. This creates a decorative design by making the lines appear all on one plane.

The Parthenon is a linear composition, as illustrated by the diagram at right. This points to an important principle: It takes only a small amount of diagonal to visually equal or offset a great amount of vertical, or an even greater amount of horizontal.

In summation, the diagonal is much more visually intense than the vertical and much greater in impact than the horizontal.


Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue
by Piet Mondrian.
Many modern artists have experimented with the effects of line direction. Among the most important is Piet Mondrian. By showing how to eliminate the diagonal line, he showed the way to a whole new concept of art. He said, "Any object can be interpreted in terms of horizontals and verticals." To relieve the monotony of using only verticals and horizontals, he added small areas of primary colors, which he incorporated in his pictures.

Another place you can see the use of line direction is by comparing the automobiles designed in the 1950s and 1960s to the models from the 1920s and 30s. The cars of the later period were designed by lowering the verticals, emphasizing the horizontals, and using curved lines to emphasize function.


Choose a topic to read more about the Alphabet:
Line Line Direction Shape Size
Texture Value Color Composition
The Attributes The Picture Plane

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