As I promised in this post overviewing this series, I’ll be breaking down each of the seven elements of art over the coming weeks. More than just telling you what they are (there are a million websites that do that very proficiently), I’ll be showing you why all seven elements are already present in your own life and why they’re a shockingly useful tool for evaluating how balanced, rich, and vibrant your current life is looking, relative to where you want it to be.
Plus, you’ll be one giant step closer to knowing how to think and talk about all different kinds of art by learning all seven. Win win!
Today we’re tackling the first and, in many ways, the most versatile element: Line.
As many of you know, I went to law school, and now that we’re a few years out from graduation, it’s been really interesting to see what my classmates are up to. While you’re in law school, there’s a pretty overwhelming feeling that you’re all on the same conveyor belt that leads you through three years of hell, into a year of a level of hell you didn’t know existed that they call Articling, and out into yet another circle of torture known as Associate life. Okay, I’m over-dramatizing (sort of…). But the visual definitely holds true: it all feels like one, big, mandatory, straight ass line.
Yet here we are, a few short years later, and several of my friends have left practice, some work in non-practicing but related fields, and others are very happily building thriving practices and helping clients. I’ll be honest – people did tell us this would happen while we were in school. But no amount of lunch-and-learns or inspirational speakers can actually compete with the power of the mean. If it’s what “most people” are “supposed” to do, it’s awfully easy to get sucked onto a life line that you may or may not resonate with. The pull is just so strong. But, lo and behold, it’s more of a scattershot situation with a common starting point than one long airport moving sidewalk that we’re all unable to get off of. It’s a different use of line than we expected it to be.
As I said, in visual art, line is considered the most versatile of the seven elements. Forget just thinking about line as one ruler-straight slash of a pen, and expand to picturing every kind of line you can think of. Curvy, jagged, fuzzy, sharp, thick, thin, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, broken, solid, freehand, mechanical, singular, repeated, overlapping, parallel. The list goes on. Line can be two- or three-dimensional (think of lines drawn on paper versus, say, power lines, or a climbing structure at a playground). Line can be descriptive (“look, there’s a line!”), or implied (like when all the people in a painting are looking and gesturing in one direction and you feel your eye travel from where they start to where they’re looking).
In music, line is generally synonymous with melody. When our ear catches on to and then closely follows “line,” it’s us actively listening to a melody. And pop artists (and professional pop songwriters) manipulate our emotions in the BEST ways using melodic lines (and know where they learned it? Duh, from classical music). For example, let’s take a handful of sad songs: “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinéad O’Connor, “Brick” by Ben Folds, and “The Scientist” by Coldplay. Sing the chorus of each of those songs to yourself in your head (or out loud! You do you.) Notice how the melody makes a little sighing or falling gesture, from a high note downward? “Nothing compares, nothing compares 2 u….”, “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly, off the coast and I’m headed nowhere”, “Nobody said it was easy… it’s such a shame for us to part…” That’s an example of a classic line that we recognize, even subconsciously, as connected to human experience (here, suffering). We get that line. We’ve DONE that line.
Here’s the saddest version ever from classical music (IMO): the aria “Senza mamma” from Puccini’s opera Suor Angelica. The character singing has spent years in a convent after giving birth to an illegitimate son, who she just found out died in his infancy without her (“senza mamma” means “without mother”). Listen to the opening lines, sung here by the truly amazing (fellow Canadian!) Joyce El-Khoury, and note the falling line:
We connect to what the character is saying largely because the line resonates for us with emotions we know. We can feel her shock and sorrow from that line that keeps pulling downward; we’re pulled down with it.
Same in visual art. We can make associations with our own lives – and with human experience in general – through the artist’s choices of line. Curved lines can make us think of the human body, the gestures we make, and even gentle human emotions. Hard, thick, straight lines can remind us of rigidity, rules, strength, and power. Broken lines can cause us to turn our minds to things interrupted or unfinished. Jagged lines that zig and zag make us feel uneasy, uncertain, even uncomfortable. A freehand line in a sketch by a genius artist can feel like the artist’s very essence, freely communicating with the divine. I often find that I am profoundly moved by a piece of art but don’t know why. Once I notice the artist’s use of line, I can often figure it out.
Take for example the following classic example of line as a representation of movement: “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” (c. 1829-33) by Katsushika Hokusai. Like the falling lines in our pop songs and in “Senza mamma”, we get this line. We understand (and are moved by) the piece not JUST because we understand the ocean and the feeling of being pulled forward and up and over by the sea, but because we also know the emotional equivalent of that experience: being caught up in momentum we don’t desire. Being powerless. Fighting nature. Being swept up. Being overtaken.
Oh. WE GET THAT LINE.
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m pretty obsessed with the idea of line in our own lives, especially the idea of line as a “moving point” (a phrase you’ll often see in visual arts). As you’ve probably figured out, line isn’t just about “oh hey look there’s a line on this picture or in this song,” it’s often about movement. It’s about your ears or your eyes moving from one place to another, as if the line were being instantaneously produced by a little moving point that you’re following. THAT’S line.
I did a guided meditation a couple years ago from the incredible author Tara Mohr, and the start of it was picturing yourself on a rainbow or beam of light speeding wayyy up into the stars, pausing to float and look at the earth for a sec, then riding that same stream of light back down to a different place. I often think about that beam of light, and I think I know why. Sometimes people get awfully caught up, like we all were in law school, on plotting out and then executing the next few years (or next few decades) of their lives. They’re trying to lay the line out in front of themselves in advance, like a brick pathway, then just follow it along to the place they think they want to go. There’s a bit of wisdom in this, but, like that big scary wave that evokes the sensation of being caught up and pulled contrary to your own well-being, there’s also a lot of danger.
Have a look back at the lines in your life to date and reflect on whether they’ve all gone exactly where you thought they would. And be honest with yourself about whether the self-created lines were really as true to the most honest-to-goodness, realest version of your innermost you as they could have been. Did your line get interrupted? For good, or not so good? Did your line cross with those of others? Did it take a little wander at some point, or circle back around?
Were you building and then walking on a little brick path you built for yourself? Or were you riding your own mother-loving cosmic rainbow.
The more woo woo interpretations of line in our lives are a lot closer to the rainbow, and they may not resonate for everyone. You might believe you’re being guided by Spirit to always return to your best and truest life line, and you may be like “put that garbage away.” But, if art teaches us anything about being human, it’s that there are a lot of really dissatisfying ways line can lead us. Melodies can be cut short. Thick, jagged lines can pull our attention here and there. A heavy, inflexible line can divide a canvas in ways that feel menacing, immovable, and even threatening. The same line in a symphony repeated over and over can cause tension to rise, with our ears and our inner beings crying for resolution.
But, like the idea of a line that is good and holy and meant for you, there are also ways line can just feel so right. For example, line is THE thing in classical ballet, and it refers to the shape of the dancer’s whole body in movement, and even their core essence as they dance. The best part is that line in ballet includes a huge amount of je ne sais quoi. It’s the combination of perfect form and energy travelling through that form and out into the world.
Did you catch that? Energy travelling through form. The moving point.
Have you had times in your own life when you felt so fucking lit up every day when you jumped out of bed because you just knew you were ON. YOUR. JOURNEY? Perhaps you had a new job you were fired up about, or you were in a new relationship that felt so good you literally could not believe it, or maybe you were just so in the zone in a whole bunch of areas of your life that you didn’t even stop to think about it, other than to notice how great you felt and how everything just seemed to work. You were the form, and energy was travelling through you.
You were the moving point just letting the line happen, baby. Ain’t no brick-laying necessary.
Remember that scattershot image I mentioned at the beginning? in my own life, I’ve been really amazed at how that image has been reproduced, in reverse. All the disparate lines – my experiences, my studies, my interests – have all fed into this new mega-line and now are just focussing all up together like a mother flippin’ meant-to-be rainbow that I NEVER saw coming when I had my head down on each little path. Could you look at the last few years of your life in the same way? What lines of narrative or experience could be pulled together, focused as if through a prism, to result in one epic beam of RAINBOW light you could travel along going forward? If you stopped laying down bricks, what rainbow could you look up and step on to?
I find examples of line in all different art forms so incredibly moving, and I think you will too, now. Interrupted lines remind me of starts and stops in experiences and relationships. Repeated, symmetrical lines remind me of stories or types of people that come back over and over again in my life. Sometimes I just feel the heaviness of repeated lines, or the lightness and gentleness of a soft and fluid line, and I reflect on it. And so much of this happens at a subconscious level that often I just take it in and see what comes to me.
Appreciation of the arts isn’t all about knowledge (though, of course, that learning brings its own kind of magical joy). Sometimes it’s just about knowing what sort of experience to be open to. So open those ears, eyes, and most importantly, hearts to all the types of line not only in arts you encounter, but also in your experience. See how artfully you can light those bitches up. I think you’ll find a whole lot of insight… and perhaps, even your own rainbow.