The Line That Went for a Walk
By John Warden
This article was first published in the Winter 2016 Edition of BC Nature Magazine, Volume 54, Number 4.
It was the Swiss German artist Paul Klee who said “a drawing is a line that went for a walk”. Seen through the view-finder of my camera, the rigging of sail boats triggers an instant reference to Klee’s metaphor. Perhaps it’s the old photograph I have of a tall ship, parked in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Ropes, lines and spars, all silhouetted by the sun, criss-cross the image creating a dramatic, drawing-like composition.
Drawings, one of the oldest forms of human expression, are made up of lines which are a common design element across all the visual arts. In fact, the word photography comes to us from the Greek words phōtos, meaning light" and graphé, meaning to represent by means of lines or drawings. The two Greek words together mean light represented by lines, or more commonly, drawing or painting with light. Extending Klee’s metaphor then, we might say that a photograph is a line of light that went for a walk.
In nature, we see those lines as contrasts between light and dark, between differing tones of colour and between different degrees of texture.
Let’s imagine for a moment a line that takes a walk across the page of a sketch book, a painter’s canvas or across the viewfinder of your camera. It’s a straight line that is traveling from one side to the other, so, a horizontal line. In nature the horizon is a line that separates the earth (or the water), from the sky. The poet Patrick M. Pilarski, gives us a sense of the mysterious power of the line of the horizon when he notes that, “there is a place on the shore where a line becomes a question”.
The horizon, then, is an in-between place, and Pilarski goes on to describe it as “a place of drying froth, a highway where we can walk without footsteps at the thinning edge of the world”.
Then, from design theory and art appreciation, we learn that lines divide space and that a horizontal line placed in the middle of our viewfinder, puts equal weight to the earth and the sky. That same line placed in the top half of our viewfinder creates a focus on the earth. Similarly, a horizontal line placed in the lower half of our view finder apportions attention to the sky. As we compose an image then, where we place the line of the horizon becomes an act of artistic creativity.
Island View Beach in Central Saanich was the setting for my own study of horizontal lines. The sky was amazing the morning that I was there, a vault of swirling, texturized clouds that were almost, but not quite, blocking out the sun. Clearly, my photograph should emphasize the sky and so, I put my horizon line in the lower half of my viewfinder. As a result, the dark and moody sky tells the story of my walk along the beach where the waves would eventually, wash away my footprints.
Design theory also tells us that horizontal lines provide us with feelings of comfort and stability. They give us a place to stand and once we’re comfortable, we can step forward and it is the leading line that will be our guide and the walkway for our eyes. From the outer edges of our viewpoint, leading lines take us diagonally, or obliquely, on a journey to the heart of our image. One of my favourite examples of power of leading lines is from French Beach Provincial Park. My wife, Debra and I were walking along the water’s edge towards ground fog that was billowing off the sand at the far end of the beach. A strong diagonal line, created by the contrast between textures of the half sand, half gravel beach pulled us forwards, towards something…a stump or a structure, hidden in the mist. As the line drew us further into the picture, we could see that the structure was a drift log lean-to. Was someone sleeping there? Would we be intruding on young lovers in the mist? A leading line of contrasting texture pulled us along the beach and into the mystery.
Horizontal lines take us across an image and leading lines walk us diagonally into an image. But to help understand vertical lines, I return to Emily Carr. In 1935, Carr painted one of her most famous paintings, Scorned for Timber, Beloved of Sky. The painting is of two tall trees, Douglas Firs perhaps, the surviving remnants of a logged out forest. Her trees are back lit by a swirling sky that the Vancouver Art Gallery describes as “ecstatic and transcendent”. Carr’s painting was from a sketch she had done in the Colwood-Metchosin area, but I found my own photographic example of sky-loving trees, while I was walking along the trail down to China Beach. Right beside the pathway, two tree trunks loomed up out of the undergrowth, aspiring to the sun, taller than everything else around them. With vertical lines, they soared up and up into the blue, blue sky, creating feelings of strength, power and grandeur.
Lines that converge add depth and a sense of scale to our view. They are a measure of our distance from the horizon and are one of the ‘wow’ factors of our quest. Curved lines are soft and feminine and allow us to connect to feelings of grace and beauty. They move us with a sensuality that other lines cannot. Curved lines bend us into the S-curve, which is one of my favourites. On the coast we see S-curves in the soft and rounded limbs of arbutus trees and in the elegant necks of herons. The S-curve is a meandering river or a stone pathway through a Zen garden. It provides us with permission to wander and to take all the time we need to discover the hidden gems waiting for us on our journey.
Every photographer is a storyteller and lines are tools that point us in the direction of our story, moving us hard and fast, or slowly and methodically, through the foreground, middle ground and background of our composition. Lines lead us to the subject of our image and can help to generate feelings and questions. What’s this image all about? And as the artist, we get to decide.
I like the idea of a line of light that goes for a walk. It implies a journey, which really fits with my vision quest, to really see, with heightened awareness, the awesome beauty of the natural world around me. Part of that journey involves understanding composition and how we are moved by artistry of lines.
A line of light goes for a walk and becomes a question, which becomes a story and in the telling of the story, we create art.
Carr, E. (1966). Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto / Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd.
Emily Carr. (n.d.). Retrieved from Vancouver Art Gallery: http://www.museevirtuel.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/emily_carr/en/about/landscape.php
Klee, P. (1964). The Diaries of Paul Klee. (F. Klee, Ed.) University of California Press.
Limbrick, E. (2012). Emily Carr: A Guide to Artistic and Literary Sites on the West Shore. Victoria: West Shore Arts Council.
Pilarski, P. M. (2012). Tide Lines. In Canada's Raincoast at Risk: Art for an Oil-Free Coast. Raincoast Conservation Foundation.