Line in fine art is an abstract concept, and the definitions tend to
reflect that. Artists, when they do speak of such things, tend to be
self-referential, that is, they explain what they themselves do in
their own works. Thus, Mondrian's comments define his ideas of the
function line should play in his own art. Dictionary definitions are
designed to show how a word is used in past and current general
contexts, that is, they explain how words are generally accepted and
used at any given time. In ordinary, dictionaries seldom give sources
for definitions, and only occasionally examples.
The Oxford English Dictionary
The OED gives a chronological order to the usages, and provides the
history of occurrences of the words that it includes.
Under the term line, the OED declares that the modern English word is
the result of a coalescence of two words, ultimately from the same
etymological root, one from a Teutonic (Germanic) word for flax
(linen) that might have been borrowed from Latin, and the other from
Middle English, a derivative of the popular Latin. In essence, the
word in both its contributing forms, is descended from a word meaning
flax, that is, the thread spun from flax. Thus, the primary definition
of line is:
"I. Cord or string (and derived senses).
II. A thread-like mark.
d. Fine art. Applied spec. to the lines employed in a picture;
chiefly collect. or in a generalized sense, character of
draughtsmanship, method of rendering forms. Also pl. (cf. sense 15)
the distinctive features of composition in a picture. Line of beauty:
the curve (resembling a slender, elongated letter S), which according
to Hogarth is a necessary element in all beauty of form. Also, with
reference to engraving (see line engraving in 32)
1753 HOGARTH Anal. Beauty vii.38 the waving line, which is the
line more productive of beauty...for which reason we shall call it the
line of beauty...The line of beauty, varying still more, being
composed of two curves contrasted, becomes still more ornamental.
15. pl. The outlines, plan, or draught of a building or other
structure; spec. in shipbuilding, the outlines of a vessel as shown in
its horizontal, vertical, and oblique sections.
32. ...line drawing, a drawing done with pen or pencil; line
engraving the art of engraving 'in line', i.e. by lines incised on the
plate, as distinguished from etching and mezzotint; and engraving
executed in this manner.
1895 ZANGWILL Master ii. viii. 205 To undertake wash-drawings,
*line engravings, colour-work, or lithography. 1810 Trans. Soc. Arts
XXVIII.14 *Line-engravings of Historical Subjects"
C H A P T E R VII. 37
"Thirdly, ++ those composed of all the former together with an
additions of the waving line, which is a line more productive of
beauty than any of the former, as in flowers, and other forms of the
ornamental kind: for which reason we shall call it the line of beauty.
Fourthly, || those composed of all the former together with the
serpentine line, as the human form, which line hath the power of
super-adding grace to beauty. Note, forms of most grace have least of
the straight line in them.
It is to be observed, that straight lines vary only in length, and
therefore are least ornamental.
That curved lines as they can be varied in their degrees of
curvature as well as in their lengths, begin on that account to be
That straight and curv'd lines join'd, being a compound line, vary
more than curves alone, and so become somewhat more ornamental.
That the waving line, or line of beauty, varying still more, being
composed of two curves contrasted, becomes still more ornamental and
pleasing, insomuch that the hand takes a lively movement in making it
with pen or pencil.
And that the serpentine line, by its waving and winding at the
same time different ways, leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the
continuity of its variety, if I may be allowed the expression; and
which by its twisting so many different ways, may be said to in close
(tho' but a single line) varied contents; and therefore all its
variety cannot be express'd on paper by one continued line, without
the assistance of the imagination, or the help of a figure; see *
where that sort of proportion'd, winding line, which will hereafter be
call'd the precise serpentine line, or /line of grace/..."
Leon Battista Alberti
Alberti was the seminal theorist, artist, and architect of the Italian
Renaissance, the original Renaissance Man.
Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36]
Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven:
Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956].
B o o k O n e
"I say, first of all, we ought to know that a point is a figure which
cannot be divided into parts. I call a figure here anything located on
a plane so the eye can see it. No one would deny that the painter has
nothing to do with things that are not visible.  The painter is
concerned solely with representing what can be seen. These points, if
they are joined one to the other in a row, will form a line. With us a
line is a figure whose length can be divided but whose width is so
fine that it cannot be split. Some lines are called straight, others
curved. A straight line is drawn [p. 43] directly from one point to
another as an extended point. The curved line is not straight from one
point to another but rather looks like a drawn bow.  More lines,
like threads woven together in a cloth, make a plane."
Leonardo da Vinci, the genius artist, scientific investigator, and
inventor of the Italian Renaissance, the ultimate personification of
the period, defined line in his Notebooks (really a posthumous
collection of his miscellaneous writings).
DEFINITION OF THE NATURE OF THE LINE
The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be
called an imaginary idea than a real object; and this being its nature
it occupies no space. Therefore an infinite number of lines may be
conceived of as intersecting each other at a point, which has no
dimensions and is only of the thickness (if thickness it may be
called) of one single line."
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,
Notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (Arundel Codex)
Turning the pages on the web
VIctorian art critic, perhaps the most influential critic in the 19th
The Law of Curvature
"You must ascertain, by experiment, that all beautiful objects
whatsoever are thus terminated by delicately curved lines, except
where the straight line is indispensable to their use or stability;
and that when a complete system of straight lines, throughout the
form, is necessary to that stability, as in crystals, the beauty, if
any exists, is in colour and transparency, not in form. Cut out the
shape of any crystal you like, in white wax or wood, and put it beside
a white lily, and you will feel the force of the curvature in its
purity, irrespective of added colour, or other interfering elements of
206. Well, as curves are more beautiful than straight lines, it is
necessary to a good composition that its continuities of object, mass,
or colour should be, if possible, in curves, rather than straight
lines or angular ones"
Paul Klee, the 20th Century Swiss artist, had a whimsical definition
of line, "a dot that went for a walk."
"Definition: The most basic design 'tool'. A line has length, width,
tone, and texture. It may divide space, define a form, describe
contour, suggest direction."
"A line is a dot that went for a walk." - Paul Klee.
Metropolitan Museum of Art - Special Exhibitions: Klee's Line
"A selection of works that displays the artist's imaginative use of
linechanging from early naturalism to spidery playfulness to the
thick contours of his late yearsis installed in the Lila Acheson
Wallace Wing's south mezzanine gallery."
"Paul Klee's class was planned as a supplement to the preliminary
course and as an investigation into formal means. His approach
involved the derivation of everything from the characteristics of the
line. Klee based his observations on the convergence point of two
lines in order to discuss the third dimension and its perspective
representation. It is from there that he developed the key image of
balance in the form of scales."
Wassily Kandinsky created a grammar of abstraction in the Bauhaus
Movement of the early 20th Century. In his book, "Point and Line to
Plane," (1926) Kandinsky wrote thus of line:
"Line is ... the ultimate contrast to the primordial element of
painting - the point.
...the point carries within itself only a tension and can have not
direction, whereas line necessarily partakes both of tension and
...the straight line...represents the infinite possibility of movement
in its most concise form.
The horizontal is...a cold, basic support that can be extended in
...the vertical is infinite, warm possibility of movement in its most
...the diagonal...has an equal tendency...equal combination of cold
III. Schemata: Point and Line to Plane
Kandinsky, Wassily; Point and Line to Plane; from Kandinsky: Complete
Writings on Art; Lindsay, Kenneth, and Vergo, Peter, eds.; Da Capo