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How To Use Leading Lines To Create More Interesting Compositions

Taco Winter

Leading lines are one of the most effective and under-utilized composition tools available to artists. Leading lines are essentially lines which lead people through the painting, usually towards points of interest.

These lines can either be created using actual lines in your painting or organically through the arrangement of elements in your painting (for example, the line created by the top of a mountain range in the distance).

There is a strong psychological element to leading lines which makes them such a powerful tool. Our eyes like to follow lines. It is as simple as that. This is powerful in that you can essentially use leading lines to direct people to wherever you want in the painting.

How Can You Utilize Leading Lines In Your Artworks?

There are many ways you can utilize leading lines in your artworks. The trick is to use the leading lines to purposefully direct people throughout the painting and towards points of interest. You do not need to boldly direct people straight at your focal point. It could be much more intricate than that.

It is also important not to overdo it. There is beauty in subtlety and some things are better left to the viewer’s imagination. So do not go and direct every line in your painting towards your focal point. That would be way too obvious.

Instead, use a few lines to gently draw people around the painting and ultimately in the direction of your focal point. People do not want to feel like they are being pushed in a certain direction. You need them to think they arrived there on their own accord.

Claude Monet utilized leading lines in many of his paintings to draw you in and around the paintings. In the painting below, lines are created by the shoreline and the cliff. There is also a subtle line created by the formation of the boats.

Sometimes, the leading lines do not need to be clear, like in the painting below by Alfred Sisley. In this painting the leading lines are created organically by the edges of the trees, the path and from changes in light.

Leading lines are often far easier to demonstrate when architectural objects are involved. In nature, you usually must rely on lines which are created organically through the arrangement of natural elements (such as the line created by a row of trees). But when architecture is involved, you can simply use the lines created by the architecture.

How Not To Use Leading Lines

As with anything in painting, you need to be careful with how you use leading lines. It is a powerful technique which you want to use to your benefit, not detriment.

Here are some common mistakes made with leading lines:

  • You lead people out of the painting. The purpose of leading lines is to direct people throughout your painting, generally to points of interest. You do not want to direct people straight out of the painting. This means you should try to avoid lines which directly point to the edges of your canvas.
  • You make it too obvious. People do not like being told what to do. You want them to think they arrived at a destination without any influence. Leading lines are often best used as subtle suggestions to gently push people to where you want them to go.
  • You do not have enough variance. There is nothing natural about having numerous leading lines which are all the same length, angle and thickness pointing in the same direction at your focal point. Try and mix it up. This will result in a more natural composition.
  • You lead people with no purpose. The general purpose of leading lines is to guide people to points of interest in your painting. You should always have a purpose in mind when leading someone through your painting.
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