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Lesson One – Vertical lines

Zeuxis and Artemisia are again seated near the river. Zeuxis sits in his comfortable wooden chair and Arte is on her pliable seat. The sun is lower now and the air is hot from having been warmed all day by the direct sunrays.

Zeuxis: So, Arte, we are going to talk about lines and we will start with simple, straight vertical ones. They are the easiest among the elements of the art form of painting.

Arte: It is strange, Zeuxis, that you lend so much importance to lines. I do see lines in pictures, but I see a lot more areas of colours and when I painted -I did that occasionally in the past, without you, you know -. I drew no lines. I started to paint immediately with colours only.

Zeuxis: Well, you’ll learn more about colours later. You have to keep in mind though that by the word ‘line’ I mean of course first strictly what the word means, which is pieces of line, but I also mean directions. Look, the poplar trees here grow vertically, and they show their long trunks in elongated forms. Their silhouette indicates in a general way the vertical direction. So a whole tree could be represented just as one vertical line. Can you think of other examples?

Arte: I know such vertical directions in high buildings, in the masts of sailing ships, and in flag poles. I also once saw a painting in a book, a painting made by a woman, Georgia O’Keefe. Her ‘American radiator Building’ showed many vertical lines and directions. I felt elated by them.

Zeuxis: People, trees, buildings stand upright on the earth. They are slencer. They defy the laws of gravity but they are also shaped by that force they conquer. This, however, is our natural environment. So these vertical lines are very familiar to us. Vertical lines indicate the natural equilibrium, Arte, a man standing or a plant growing upwards from out of the earth. They suggest directions that a viewer needs in a frame, in order to feel comfortable. Therefore vertical lines are perceived by humans as being quite warm lines. Vertical lines are the basic lines of nature, of the living creatures and of plants that aspire to the sun. Vertical lines evoke feelings of liveliness. Yes, even simple vertical lines, like all the elements of the form of painting, evoke images immediately of things we have seen before, as well as feelings in humans, however delicately and subtly. I told you this morning that we call that the psychological dimension linked to the elements of form. Here, draw a few short vertical lines and tell me what you feel.

Arte draws plate 1:

Arte: Oh, wonderful. I felt so active and alert when I drew these lines. I liked finally doing something. You have been talking and talking, Zeuxis, and I did nothing. The lines however feel like an activity that remains in one place, fixed, even though I pushed my crayon up so that I had a slight feeling of going to the sky. I feel stiffness, rigidity. I felt the lines grow under my crayon. Look, they show an upward movement.

Zeuxis: Good, girl, let your emotions free themselves! Vertical lines in me too evoke feelings of transcendence, of a world or a concept that is more elevated than man. They grow to the sky, to the heavens! Vertical lines are also symbols of the elevation of the soul, of the aspiration of man from despair to salvation. Vertical lines lead to the mystic emptiness of the cosmos where you called me from.

Arte: But Zeuxis, I also followed the other direction. I looked downwards along the lines. I felt unhappy then, I didn’t like that!

Zeuxis: Sadness comes with joy, always, girl. People do not generally look along vertical lines that way, Arte. But you may thicken the lines at the top and make them slimmer at the lower end, so that the vertical lines resemble arrows pointing down. That downward direction then indeed points to the earth and that inspired you feelings of sadness. Now, look along the river, to the far. Suppose you drew the trees just as one line each. What would it look like?

Arte draws plate 2:

Arte: I see depth, space opening to the far, just as the trees are standing. Just a few lines and I see so much!

Zeuxis: That is the magic of illusion, girl, and as you see for yourself you can conjure it up with just a few vertical lines. Two sets of such parallel vertical lines starting from the left and the right and proceeding towards the middle, give indeed an impression of depth. Isn’t it as if you walked forward into the paper and were invited into a lane flanked by Greek columns, into a road that disappears into the distance?

Arte: And, hey, I can play with those lines! If I draw more lines and higher ones on the left than on the right, then it is as if I would be walking to the right. My drawing would be skewed in view. And I can do just the contrary of what I drew here. I can draw lines closer to each other towards the borders of my paper and wider spread in the middle. I might then be standing close to the middle, close to a corner of two streets receding to left and right.

Zeuxis: You learn quickly, Arte. Your imagination is vivid. Yes, you can do that. But as you drew first, in your second plate, painters have almost consistently preferred to show the right and left borders of the canvas closer to a viewer, which means they brought the open perspective in the centre. And that is how it is called, perspective. If you do the contrary from your plate two, then you split the painting in the middle and you obtain two parts, which viewers eye separately. You normally would want unity of vision in your frame. You can enhance the effect of perspective. Try to draw long lines close to the vertical sides of your paper and shorter lines towards the centre. Try it our and tell me what you see now.

Arte draws plates 3 and 4:

Arte: Zeuxis, you performed magic again. The sense of depth, of perspective as you call it is much stronger now. If I look to the river, this is what really happens to the trees. They grow smaller towards the far end of my sight.

Zeuxis: There is something more to learn. Look at the tops of your lines. If you connect all these tops, you will have lines again. If you connect them – please do, Arte, in broken lines – you have lines that were invisible in your third and fourth plates. But these lines, contours or outlines, were present in your mind. They were really there, I am sure that in a strange way you did saw them. Now these invisible lines are present too, even though you did not really draw them. In the future, when I will talk to you about lines or directions, I will also be talking about this second type of lines, the invisible ones!

The broken lines that Arte drew on plate 5:

Arte: You tricked me, Zeuxis. You play foul games with me. I have the impression I did not really see those outlines before you talked to me about them. Now I cannot forget them. I will forever see those invisible lines.

Zeuxis: It cannot be helped, Artemisia, child. You learn to see while discovering images. There is an even more important concept now to tell you. You looked at the lines you drew and those were then really the lines in black on your white paper. You knew that the lines represented trees and your mind also saw the – what we called invisible – lines that were built from the tops and the bottoms of the vertical lines. So you saw actually much more than what is on the paper. Your lines merely suggested a view. What is really in the mind of somebody seeing your drawing is infinitely richer than what he or she only really looks at with his or her eyes. The mind adds to the seeing! We will come back on this power of suggestion and of imagination later.

Arte: Great! I did not know I could play this way with viewers!

Zeuxis: I had no doubt you would like that. But you should also never overdo it, Arte, for the power can backlash on you and viewers do not like to be manipulated. Yet, all painters do it in subtle ways. These effects of lines are what humans normally observe. When we look at landscapes such as at this river and its trees on the banks, we are situated at one point in real space and we look towards one point in the distance. This is fundamental to our human vision. How the vertical lines that we perceive diminish in length with perceived distance and come to each other with distance is thus a familiar phenomenon that is due to our proper vision. We recognise it immediately in our minds when a painter imitates it on a canvas with just a few vertical lines. Painters can enhance such effects by modulating the thickness of the lines. You can hold thicker lines near the borders and then gradually thin the lines towards the middle of the frame. Then you would apply a principle of the geometrical construction of perspective. The thicker lines close to the borders of the frame of a painting suggest that the borders are closer to the viewer than the centre. We will talk also of that quite more, later. But enough of all that, Arte. I suppose you are getting bored?

Arte: Well, a little maybe.

Zeuxis: All right then; I have a few treats for you.

Zeuxis raises his hand and arm and suddenly appears a large screen. It is nothing more than a transparent rectangle of light, but the landscape is seen blurred through it. On the rectangle appear at first bright flecks of light, then a marvellously brilliant picture of a view of a water canal in an ancient town. Arte is utterly astonished. She has stepped a few paces back in awe. Then she is marvelled at the beauty of the light and the colours. She steps nearer and touches the screen, which merely flows like water around her finger and forms ripples then, which disturb the picture. Arte steps back again and her mouth falls open in wonder.

Zeuxis: This is Antonio Canale’s view of Venice’s Grand Canal as seen from the Campo San Vio towards the Bacino, as it was in 1730. Venetian landscapes made by this Canaletto, as he was called, are good examples of the vertical lines we looked at before. Canaletto’s painting shows the Venetian buildings on both sides of the water. Canaletto obtained a strong visual perspective by painting the ever-shortening vertical lines of the palaces on either side of the canal, fleeing to the eye’s point in the far. That point we call the vanishing point, by the way. Arte, remark the strong effect of space and depth that Canaletto obtained in this way. Canaletto’s canvas is of course entirely flat and it has only two dimensions, length and height. Yet, the effect of the vanishing point of the perspective, suggested by the shortening vertical lines creates an almost perfect illusion of depth.

-> Antonio Canale called Canaletto (1697 – 1768). Venice. The Grand Canal from Campo San Vio towards the Bacino. The Royal Collection. London, around 1730.

Arte: Canaletto used marvellous colours too, Zeuxis.

Zeuxis: Mmm. Yes. Eh … Look some more at Canaletto’s pictures, at its lines. We find often long vertical lines to the borders of the frame in pictures. Painters put high architectural structures against the borders to situate the scene, often classic architecture, monuments of antiquity, to add to the feelings of elation and of rigid dignity, as inspired by the verticals, and also to present a more intimate scene in the centre of a picture.

Zeuxis: Vertical lines can serve to separate a frame in various vertical parts in which then several scenes can be painted. Painters of medieval times often painted on several panels that were juxtaposed on altars of churches. These panels then each contained a different story of the New Testament, of Jesus Christ’s’ life or of other Bible narratives. There exist painters however who only represent lines and areas of colours on a canvas, and who do not want to represent recognisable things. We call these painters of abstract pictures, or abstract painters. Pictures exist that are formed of merely coloured lines along the borders of the frame, the middle staying white and inviting the viewer to let his or her imagination play. Abstract painters exploit the effect of setting the stage in this way as in a theatre. Abstract painters sometimes painted vertical surfaces in different colours one next to the other or they separated uniformly coloured areas by vertical lines to create several fields. This simple schema can induce strong effects of separation of space, depending on the combined colour areas. The twentieth century Russian-born but New York artist Barnett Newman made series of paintings in this way and also the Minimalist artist Frank Stella used vertical line patterns in his pictures.

-> Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970). Cathedra. Stedelijk Museum. Amsterdam. 1951.

Zeuxis: You see, vertical lines in direct use! We will look at one painting more.
Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) was also one of those twentieth-century painters who showed how with very frugal means of vertical lines powerful feelings could be induced in viewers. He made paintings of vertical cuts drawn in the middle of the canvas. Sometimes he imitated the effect with paint, but he also really cut open a uniformly-coloured canvas in other pictures. The effect on the viewer is as if the gap of the canvas drew open a wound. The feeling thus induced in the viewer is of a powerful physical act that makes you suddenly aware of the tension in the canvas strung tightly on the wooden frame. Yet, the only form that is physically seen is a white canvas with a vertical black line.
The paintings of Newman and of Fontana teach us something else. They teach us about the illusion of creating space in a painting. Newman’s thick white lines break the blue plane. The white lines are like representing a second plane lying behind the blue one. It is as if Newman made slits in the blue plane to show the second, underlying plane. So we have one canvas but two spaces, two different worlds. And Fontana not only makes you aware of the canvas itself as a tended piece of cloth but when he paints a cut in the canvas he creates an illusion yet again of space, even though the canvas is flat. It is hardly possible not to create such effects of space when you draw a few lines.

-> Lucio Fontana (1899 – 1968). Concetto Spaziale, Attese. Pinakothek der Moderne. Munich. 1959.

Arte: I understand that painting is illusion. Have I embarked on an art that is only illusion? You make me start to regret having asked you to teach me the art of painting.

Zeuxis: I detect a beginning of boredom, Arte, and some disillusionment. Well, yes, all arts are illusions to some extent. But art is rich too. It is rich in emotions. Tell me more about what you think when you see vertical lines.

Arte: I think of Gothic cathedrals. Yes, vertical lines are the dominant directions and elements of Gothic cathedrals, as I saw them in the Picardy region of France! Cathedrals throw their slender and long, coloured windows to the skies. You spoke about space, Zeuxis, well; these cathedrals seem to me also to conquer space!

Zeuxis: The Gothic period was a time in Europe when society was pervaded by the Christian religion. In the Middle Ages the fears of the Apocalypse, the fears of small communities that were helpless in front of heavily armed pillaging soldiers, the helplessness of man confronted with the elements of nature, were very strong and deeply rooted emotions then. Mankind felt a strong desire for escape into an ideal world of beauty and spirituality, for leaving the earth’s miseries, and man hoped and longed for help. Humans longed for God because they did not know the powers that nature was made of. This elation, this elevation of the minds and the religious aspirations of medieval man were naturally directed towards the cosmos. This was the first active attempt of European man to express a fundamental dissatisfaction with the horizontal state of the natural world. Man was shaping the world, was more aware of his consciousness, looking to the mystic heavens of his hopes first. Hence he emphasised vertical lines in architecture, in sculpture and in pictures. This tendency towards verticality realised a trend towards elongated stylisation also in sculpted figures of the Gothic period. Sculptures showed slender, long figures, clothed in robes with long vertical folds.

Zeuxis points to a new picture that appears on the dazzling screen. It is a picture of Rogier Van Der Weyden, the "Triptych of the Seven Sacraments".

-> Rogier Van Der Weyden (ca. 1399 – 1464) workshop. Triptych of the Seven Sacraments. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Antwerpen. Fifteenth century.

Zeuxis: in this picture, Arte, you see a Crucifixion set in a Gothic cathedral. The scene and the emotions could be centred on the three Maries and on Saint John, but the long, vertical lines of the gothic interior and the high, narrow nave of the church suggest the spirituality and the holiness of Jesus. These high columns are also apparent in the two side panels and you can remark also the elongation in the Gothic stylisation of the figures in their long, white robes.

Arte: Zeuxis, we talked of the Gothic period. From what period did you come from?

Zeuxis: I do not want to talk too much about myself. Suffice it to say that I was a painter from ancient Greece, even though I was born in Magna Graecia, in what is now Italy. I come from what you would call the fifth century before your era, and I lived in sweet Heraclea. You like Gothic cathedrals. Here is another picture that recalls cathedrals.

Zeuxis shows a marvellous picture of blue colours.

-> Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957). Study for the Language of Verticals. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1911.

Zeuxis: With vertical lines one can also create undulating patterns. Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) was a painter of Czech origin who worked most of his life in Paris. He was one of the first abstract painters. He studied for many years the effects of vertical lines combined with bright colour tunes, and he made many striking pictures on this theme. See this picture ‘Study for the Language of Verticals’. The verticals form contrasting coloured bars, which make one think of curtains that fall in multiple folds. In another painting called ‘Cathedral’, Kupka gave his impression of the Gothic windows of the cathedral of Chartres. Here verticals refer to Gothic and the predominant bright blue colours to ‘Chartres blue’ of the stained glass of the cathedral. In this last painting, however, there is no undulating movement and the Gothic’s rigidity is overwhelming in the abstract patterns.

Arte: It is also blue again! Would blue be associated often with vertical lines? But there are not just blue lines. Here I see nicely flowing patterns.

Zeuxis: Enough of this seriousness! Vertical lines indicate rigidity. Vertical lines were not restricted to Gothic times. Vertical lines are the lines of soldiers!

Zeuxis projects a picture of soldiers.

-> George Stubbs (1724 – 1806). Soldiers of the Tenth Light Dragoons. The Royal Collection. London. Around 1793.

Zeuxis: Look for instance at George Stubbs’ portraits of the eighteenth century. Stubbs was the typical English gentleman painting for other English gentlemen in a very ordered society. His picture of soldiers of the Tenth Light Dragoons only shows verticals to denote the military stiffness of the Dragoons. Most of his portraits and pictures of horses are made in this style, in which he emphasised verticals. Not only Stubbs painted thus the military. Printed pictures of Epinal, a town of the French Vosges region, where an artisan printing industry still thrives, show rows and rows of such soldiers standing rigidly in discipline.

Arte: You know, I think of vertical lines as of the lines of men indeed. Now that you show me these soldiers, vertical lines do have a male connotation.

Zeuxis: Artemisia, child, what are you thinking off? No, keep your thoughts for yourself! You are absolutely right, of course. In many pictures of nudes, a woman is lying down and resting in the splendour of her beauty, whereas a man is standing. Man keeps guard over woman, ready to defend and to hunt, but also ready to depart. Yes, vertical lines represent the male concept in painting. I’ll show you such a picture.

Zeuxis projects a picture of Adam and Eve.

-> Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné (1888 – 1942). Adam and Eve. Collection Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1912.

Zeuxis: Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné illustrated this in a painting of Adam and Eve. Here are the first man and woman and already Adam is standing and Eve lies down. Of course, the picture was made in the early twentieth century and thus reflects some of the ideas of that time in history. Adam is strong and muscular, Eve all round curves. The only hard lines in this picture are in Adam’s virility. Many other pictures of this kind can be found in the Classicist images of Venus or of Diana, in any period of art.

Arte: If my mother knew what you are showing here, and make me think off, with all your talk of emotions, she might not approve. I am getting tired. Couldn’t we stop here?

Zeuxis: We are through with vertical lines for the moment, Artemisia, dear. Have you remarked how the very simple, vertical lines can be used already to produce very powerful emotions in viewers? I believe you are quite convinced! This is an effect that we will encounter over and over again in further lessons. We will discuss other types of directions until you will understand the complexity of a full composition of a genius painter. We will analyse paintings in their lines, but you have to realise that these lines are only one supporting element of one global harmony that confronts the viewer.

Zeuxis: Something has happened in this lesson to you, Arte, that is, I believe, something marvellous but also a little frightening. Do you remember your drawing of ever shorter lines in a view that I called perspective? You saw Canaletto’s view of Venice then. I am pretty certain that indeed, as you stated, you cannot think anymore of such plates as you made, without thinking of Venice.

Arte: May well be true, Zeuxis. You are transforming me, I can feel it. I fear the change. But that is also why I called you, isn’t it?

Zeuxis: So if I show you your plate three again, you will look at that plate and people would call that "seeing" the plate. But you will not see just the lines anymore. You will "see" Venice. So there is an outer seeing and something else that I would call an inner seeing. Your eyes look at something but your mind sees something else. Painters work for that something else. Your imagination fills the plate with Venice until the image that you have in your mind when looking at that plate is Venice indeed. When I show you your plate again, you will see Venice. You may call that illusion, Arte, but it is much more. We, humans, live in our mind as much as in the physical world, so much so that we sometimes do not know anymore what the real world is. The life in our mind is as important as the physical world. When you become a painter, you will not make images for the world that is really out there. You will make images in the physical world, but for the mind-world. Where I come from.

Arte, yawning: And where you return to … I am tired. Good night.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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