The Art of Line: Form-Contour Lines

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the hidden art of form-contour line

Contour Lines were used by artists in figure studies during the Renaissance, but the technique was never seen by the general public because it was merely a sketching technique. They rarely witnessed in ‘masterworks’ until the invention of lithographic printing. Lithographs were first created as a cheaper means of producing literature, however, it didn’t take long for the process to evolve and become a tool for artists to produce and distribute artwork. Lithography involved carving lines into a plate which would hold ink. The image was transferred to paper by being sent through a machine that would press the ink onto the page. This groundbreaking method of reproduction demanded the application of complex line techniques. For the most part, lithographic lines borrowed from previously developed methods used in sketch studies. This wonderfully constructed scaffolding of lines wasn’t as meticulously rendered as it was merely a step in the process of painting.

HOW LITHOGRAPHY EVOLVED LINE USE

However, once lithographic printing took root, the art of rendering with line contour evolved to new heights. To study these 18th-century lithographic prints is simply awe-inspiring. They created a full value of tones using line only. Gazing at the image from a distance produces a similar range in tones one would encounter from an ink wash drawing or even a photo in some cases. This variation of tone is almost entirely obtained through the use of line contour. I wanted to explore some examples of line contour.

Form contour lines are the primary foundation of most lithographic prints. This is the application of lines that travel across the form to add tone. Contour lines are spaced tighter together progressively as the form travels further from the light. When the form-contour lines are pulled closer together they produce a darker tone. Inside the interior of the shadows, the artist would add the addition of cross-contour lines when necessary to add a bit more rendering to the forms of the shadow. These are lines that travel in a counter direction to the primary form-contour lines.

Albretch Dürer lithograph

Albretch Dürer lithograph

The real beauty of these lithographic masterworks is that artistic display of the understanding of the form of an object. Paintings do this entirely through tone alone, allowing the reader to register the form with their own eye’s ability. With lithography, an artist is showing their ability to understand form and the lines act as an exhibition of the act of application. In some ways, this style of art was a precursor to the invention of a ‘painterly style’ in which the painter desires the viewer to see their strokes and thus act of creation (the artist's mental processes).

from lithograph to inking

Contour lines were used in traditional inking before the art of lithography, however not nearly to the degree and expertise that followed after its arrival. Once the use of contour lines had reached this near height and application it wasn’t long before it bled over into the art medium at large. A prime example of a mid-20th-century inking master who ran with this tradition is, Bernie Wrightson. If you pull back and look at his illustrations at their reduced size, they look like wonderful stylized photos. The execution is as masterful as the lithographic master artists. The beauty of the contouring of forms is it has the ability to create a hyper-depth. The lines following over the forms create an illusion of the reader's mind of tracing the forms into three dimensions in a way that is more powerful than mere tone.

Bernie Wrightson Inked drawing

Bernie Wrightson Inked drawing

form-contour lines in comics

In the world of comics, form-contour lines are widely used. Typically not to the degree one would find on a traditional lithograph. Most comic artists don’t use a heavy amount of form-contour lines to create the full range of tones to mimic photography, due to time constraints and deadlines. However, they still utilize the trick of having form-contour lines express the rounding of forms into the third dimension. Below is an example of some minimal use of form-contour lines to round the forms of the figure. This small bit of information conveys so much to the readers subconscious whether they are aware of the marks or not.

Arthor Adams Inked drawing

Arthor Adams Inked drawing

Ultimately with modern forms of digital-coloring, much of the tonal variation can be done more effectively on the computer with coloring. It used to be the coloring was flat (due to the coloring process) so the linework needed to carry more of the form weight by heavier use of form-contour and hatching lines. With comic line work, there is a balancing act between the line work and the coloring. If the linework has more rendering and tonal variation, the coloring has to serve it best by with selective with minimal coloring. When the line work is minimal, as in simple-line contour, the colorist has more room to play around. In any case, form-contour is a very powerful tool to help an artist evoke fully rounded three dimensional forms.