implied lines

Implied Lines: A Guide to Composing with Visual Contours

Visual communication is key to creating art that resonates with viewers. One powerful tool in this realm is implied lines, also called leading lines, which can guide and direct how a viewer interacts with an artwork. In this blog post, we’ll explore what implied lines are, the distinctions between them and actual lines, and how they can be used in compositions.

What are implied lines?

Implied lines are visual contours created by the arrangement of shapes, values and colours within an artwork. Even though you don’t see an actual contour line there, implied lines act as if they were there to direct the viewer’s eye to a certain point. These lines are not static, they can create moods and evoke feelings such as energy or rest.

Implied lines can be seen in an artwork where there is a change in contrast, between colour, value or shape. A solid line may not be visible, but the shift in elements helps to create the illusion of one.

implied lines demonstration
Vincent van Gogh: Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun

While actual lines are sharper and more distinct, implied lines tend to be much more subtle—like a whisper in the artwork’s composition. They’re an effective tool for guiding the viewer around an artwork, to create a sense of rhythm. In this painting by van Gogh, the shadows of the trees create contrast, giving the impression of implied lines. These are repeated across the bright colours of the soil of the olive grove, which rhythmically directs the viewer around the painting.

Why are implied lines important

Implied lines create contrast and structure in a composition. These lines can function to lead the viewer’s eyes around the artwork, tracing the contours of the shapes and shifts in colour and value.

In life, you will naturally see implied lines everywhere you go. This is because you hardly ever see contour lines in life. Rather you will discern between the edges of different objects and subjects as the appearance shifts from one colour to another, or from shadow to light. These implied lines have the function of creating a successful composition in art. The amount of contrast in a piece, the direction the implied lines lead, the spacing between the implied lines and the amount of implied lines all contribute to the amount of energy and movement in an artwork.

implied lines example
Vincent van Gogh: Fishing Boats at Sea

However in photography and art, implied lines are described in order to better help the artist create an effective composition, to create focal points, contrast and rhythm in a piece. The ships on the horizon in this piece by van Gogh creates a leading line out to the distance and makes the boats a focal point in the piece,

Implied lines and leading lines

The two terms are often used interchangeably, as they often describe the same element in an artwork. However, there is a slight difference between the two.

Implied lines describe the change in value, colour or shape, which implies the line itself. Whereas the term leading line describes the function of the lines, in that they lead the viewer’s eye around the artwork, creating points of focus.

Implied lines vs actual lines

Vincent van Gogh: Farmhouse in a Wheat Field

The major difference between the two lies in their look and feel. As mentioned above, actual lines or contour lines are distinct, with hard edges, as you would see in an ink drawing or illustration. Meanwhile, implied lines are suggested and create a more natural look within an artwork.

Leonardo da Vinci: Isabella d’Este

For example, in this artwork by da Vinci, the face is outlined by an actual contour line. There are also contour lines seen on her dress. However, implied lines are seen in the shadows of her hair and skin, directing the viewer around the piece.

Line is one of the seven elements of art. A line is described as a physical direction or an implied connection between two points. An actual line may be straight, curved, dashed, dotted, thick, thin and even broken. Implied lines are made up of shapes that the eye can connect together to form a sense of continuity or directionality throughout the artwork.

Using implied lines in compositions

From the viewer’s perspective the appearance of the subjects and scene that sits within the bounds of the canvas or frame can be manipulated by the artist to appear more aesthetically pleasing. The artist will design the composition of an artwork to elicit particular effects and to create atmosphere and meaning. Artists alter the appearance of elements such as value, colour, shape and use compositional principles such as rhythm, contrast, proportion and focus, to create balance, movement, harmony and dynamism. The way that the artist uses leading lines in an artwork can have a considerable effect on how the piece is perceived by the viewer, on where their eyes linger and the relative importance they decide different elements to be.

Winslow Homer: Sunlight on the Coast

Implied lines are used to guide viewers through an artwork, to create movement, rhythm and focus. They’re especially useful when it comes to communicating different themes or ideas. For example, if you wanted to evoke feelings of energy through the artwork, rhythmically repeated implied lines can direct the viewer’s gaze to specific elements that create a sense of movement in the composition, just as you can see in this painting by Winslow Homer, where the lines of the rippled reflections on top of the wave lead the viewer’s eye to the barrel of the wave, creating a sense of dynamism.

How to use implied lines in art

If you wanted to highlight certain points or objects within an artwork, implied lines can be used to gently shift the viewer’s focus towards those areas. For instance, you could frame a subject in the centre of the artwork by using the silhouettes of foliage around the edge. The shift in value draws the viewer’s eye to the centre.

When using implied lines, it is key to keep in mind the rhythm of the artwork. It’s important for these lines to feel natural and unobtrusive. Too many contours can make an artwork cluttered and difficult to navigate. Try experimenting with different placements to find an arrangement that looks and feels right.

Examples of implied lines in art

Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper

Implied lines have been used throughout the history of art, from Renaissance paintings to modern photography. A famous example of this technique can be seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting. In this work, the use of implied lines create focal points in the composition. The lines of the window frames Jesus’ head and the light backlights his figure, creating the most contrast and strongest appearance of implied lines in the piece. This makes Jesus the focal figure and portrays him as the most important part of the composition. The linear perspective of the panels on the wall receding into the distance creates an implied trapezoid shaped line, that points downwards towards Jesus’ head. This is another example of an implied line in this artwork that leads the viewer’s eye towards the main focal point.

Caspar David Friedrich: The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

In Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, the implied lines of the mountains in the distance converge towards the centre of the piece, creating a sense of balance and symmetry. They also work to lead the viewer’s eye to the centre of the figure.

Asymmetrical balance
Vincent van Gogh: Irises

Vincent van Gogh used leading lines in interesting and novel ways, to create movement, rhythm and dynamism within his impasto paintings. The leading lines of the leaves in his famous artwork ‘Irises’ swirl and twist organically, directing the viewer’s eye in all manner of directions. The repetition of the leaves make the viewer’s eyes flit irregularly around the piece, creating the impression of wind blowing through the leaves. These lines creates a sense of liveliness.