The Art of Illustration – Form And Line

THE shape of the space occupied by any object animate or inanimate is that by which it is primarily and finally differentiated from others. It is tangible in the dark—a blind man may know it by touch—and a line that will mark off this limit of occupied space will be the simplest means of recording on a flat surface its existence and kind. The comparative bulk and shape of objects is of the first importance ; and, so far as appearances go, all other qualities are attributes of that shape and bulk. Length, breadth, and to a certain extent thickness, are expressible by means of the contour line of an object as it strikes the retina, and by this line it will be most generally recognisable.

In speaking of line, strictly rather than suggestively used, it is a convenience to call this primary line delimiting an object the Noun or Substantive line ; and all others included within its boundary by which the surface is qualified or modified, ” adjective lines,” and the value of these depends upon their aptness of application to the particular noun they qualify. It is important in pictorial art as in literary that the masculine force of the noun should not be frittered away under lacy, hesitant, or belittling qualifications. The line of movement or growth, or of the action of a figure or of rhythm in a composition corresponds to the verb.

An important point to consider is the thickness of this line. Its power should be sufficient in the first place to be readily seen at the intended focus of the drawing, and to dominate the space it occupies, and not be swamped by it. A thin line is sometimes regarded as an object to be aimed at for its own sake as being ” delicate ” or ” refined ” and a thick line as being ” coarse ” or ” brutal.” Neither thickness nor thinness of line has any particular virtue except in relation to the space it occupies, and the purpose of its employment. If it is a line that is intended to ” carry ” as an individual, it should have sufficient force or thickness to do so—but if it is to form part of a group of lines it must do team work, and not be obstreperous in the chorus. A common fault in line drawings is that the first lines set down are lacking in force. In consequence it is difficult to subordinate other lines to them, so that much subsequent work goes towards bolstering up the primaries in an effort to disentangle them from the confusion that results where such a course has been followed. If the primary lines are thin, still thinner lines will be required to qualify them ; and, while theoretically there is no limit to this thinness, in practice there is a very definite one, and the draughtsman finds that he is left with nothing ” up his sleeve,” having exhausted his store too early. It is remarkable how bold a line is the basis of many apparently ” delicate ” drawings, for by the time all qualifications have been added, and secondary forms on a more distant plane introduced, the ” noun ” line must have considerable force to hold its dominant place in the composition.

This is noticeable in the case of almost any of Phil May’s drawings, which depend for their effect principally on the use of a system of thick outline for foreground figures, with an outline of similar character for distant objects, but growing thinner in proportion to the distance. These outlines are drawn with a pen that normally would yield the thickness required without much pressure on the one hand, or an undue nervousness of handling to induce a line thinner than the natural stroke of the pen. A finer pen is then taken, and the modelling of the faces, fine shadows, and quite distant objects introduced with as slight expenditure of nerve in doing battle with the instrument as need be. Local colour is simply and boldly suggested by practically flat spaces of more or less parallel lines with little or no modelling, sometimes even by solid black.

Light and shade are introduced only to give solidity to form, and local colour for the sake of pattern, and the avoidance of thinness or monotony of effect.


A pen drawing should not be undertaken without an assortment of pens in good working order ready at hand in penholders laid out—their points towards the artist so that he may immediately pick out a suitable one for his purpose. For an ordinary sized drawing (up to, say, quarter imperial), a Waverley (Macniven and Cameron) and a Gillot’s 303 prove highly serviceable. Phil May was very pleased with a pen called the ” Camel ” for his strongest outlines—I forget the name of the maker, but it may still be obtainable. It was a very free working pen, with a turned up point, which made a broader stroke than the Waverley—and had an arrangement for carrying a good load of ink without blotting.

The most exciting pen to use is Brandaur’s 518, which was originally made specially for lithographers for work upon stone. It is cut from a narrow strip of very thin steel, and has only the tiniest slit at the tip, which is extraordinarily fine. With this pen it is possible to execute the minutest work, or by exercising pressure to obtain a line of considerable thickness, or by using the pen sideways to get a stroke from the whole or part of the side running up to the tip ; but woe betide the drawing if the point, which is as sharp as a pin, should catch in the paper, for the most terrific splutter is certain to result. It is a wonderful pen, and for gymnastics in penmanship, for richness or fineness has no equal, but it requires sensitive handling and a smooth surface for drawing upon. If great flexibility of line is aimed at with sensitive variations or gradations of thickness in the length of the line it has no equal, the characteristic result of its employment being not unlike a drypoint where the burr has been freely used.

The ” J ” type of pen is very useful for certain purposes. It is best to accept the width of its tip as the greatest thickness of line it will yield, rather than to apply pressure. By using it sideways a very fine line can be obtained ; so that if it is desired it is possible to draw a curve gradating in thickness from the full breadth of the tip to a very fine stroke, not by variation of pressure but of direction, and so yielding a result not unlike that of the work done by the elder stylists with their quill or reed pens before the introduction of the steel nib.

For decorative purposes such as Aubrey Beardsley’s, a stiffish, not very flexible, pen is the preferable instrument, and one that will hold a good supply of ink, in order to get the whole of a long line in one rhythmic stroke, otherwise the line may be broken ; and if this is not avoided there is considerable expenditure of nerve in resuming the line, and since pen drawing necessarily is a nervous task, any unnecessary expenditure should be avoided.


For the same reason it is essential that both pens and ink should be in good condition, and the right sort of paper or cardboard chosen for the work in hand. A smooth surface is necessary for a fine unbroken line and close work, but if this is not requisite a certain amount of ” tooth,” just sufficient to give a slight resistance to the pen and prevent a sense of slipperiness, is pleasanter to work upon, the sensation being comparable to the etcher’s as his needle curds through the wax of the ground. For photographic reproduction a clean line ” comes ” best, as if a line is composed of a series of dots, some of the dots are apt to be eaten away ; or on the other hand, if they are very close together, the printing ink may fill up the interstices. If the drawing is a bold one, these defects are generally so minute as to have little effect on the general result, and may be almost disregarded. It is better to risk these minor mechanical defects than allow the possibility of them to hamper the freedom of the draughtsmanship.

If an elaborate pencil drawing has been made upon the paper which is to carry the final pen drawing, any superfluity of lead should be removed before starting the drawing in ink, rather than after the drawing is apparently complete, since, in the latter case, it may be found that the lead has prevented the ink in places from soaking into the paper, and only a grey and ragged stain is left, which may have to be gone over again in ink.

It is generally better in laying a tone of more or less horizontal lines to start with the uppermost and continue downwards, not only because the work done is seen better, but to prevent the ink hanging below the pen from catching the still wet ink standing up on the line below, as frequently happens unless this precaution is taken, and a thick line results where two thin ones were intended. For the same reason, if the draughtsman is right-handed, he should start any vertical series of lines at the left and work towards the right—a left-handed artist would, of course, start from the right. There is always a risk of smudging the work unless these precautions are taken, and smudges, by a curious perversity, generally fall where they are most difficult to remove.

The surface of the paper should be carefully handled, particularly if it is a smooth one like Bristol Board, as it may become greasy if much fingered, and so reject ink altogether or in part.


Many artist’s colourmen put up so-called ” Chinese ” or ” Indian ” ink in bottles, and there are several well-known brands which save the trouble of working it up from the stick in the old way. There are also brands of waterproof ink, which are useful if it is proposed to use pen as the basis of a wash or colour drawing. These are apt to corrode and clog the legs of the pen very rapidly, so that they are not always an advantage in use.

These bottled inks should always be well shaken before being uncorked fbr the first time, as they sometimes become syrupy if they have stood long ; and the pen may come from the bottle with a long ropy mass hanging to it, quite unfit for use in that condition, but which dissolves if well shaken.

The price of these inks, always a consideration, became so high during and after the war that a thoroughly efficient substitute may be welcomed in Stevens’ Ebony Stain, which is in some ways preferable in the working as well as being incomparably cheaper. It may be used for the finest pen work, as it is very free running ; but it is not waterproof, and should not be used where it is proposed to mix methods. The best plan is to pour out a moderate quantity into a small bottle from the jar, and to renew this from time to time, as it thickens by evaporation—the fresher it is the more freely it works. All inks should be corked when not in use for this reason, as well as to prevent dust getting to them.

If ink is not poured out of the ordinary small upright bottles, in which it is usually supplied, into one With a larger base, it will almost inevitably be upset sooner or later. The ink is wasted, and besides the mess and loss of temper, if books or drawings are lying about much damage may be done. It is wise, therefore, to take some such precaution as the following. Place the bottle in the centre of a piece of stout cardboard about five or six inches square, and draw its plan upon the card by running the point of a pencil closely round it. Cut out the shape thus marked in the centre so that the bottle can only just be thrust through the hole ; then fit the cardboard upon the bottle about an inch from its base. This collar will serve the double purpose of catching the drops of ink from an overcharged pen, and also prevent the bottle from being readily upset. A card thus prepared will outlast many bottles of ink and effect great saving of ink and carpets.

Reference Books

It is a good plan for an illustrator, besides carrying a sketchfbook at all times in which to jot down ideas, types, backgrounds, and so on, to make collections in scrap books under some simple system so that they may be readily accessible if called upon. Stores catalogues, furniture catalogues, dressmakers’ circulars, the ” Architect’s Compendium,” and such like productions, where constructional facts are given prosaically but clearly, are often useful for reference.

Good illustrated books of Natural History, Architecture, and Historic Costume should form part of an illustrator’s equipment.

Quality of Line

A true draughtsman is interested in the construction, character, and articulation of his subject, as well as the proportion, so that he is never content with a vague indication or flat map. Even though he is restricted to the use of a single line, yet line is capable of many qualities, as slowness or tremulousness, so that in spite of its apparent simplicity it is, to its lovers, as sensitive and as expressive as the violin. Volume is not its primary aim, but selection, movement and quality of vibration, so that if we imagine a violinist playing his own composition we have a close parallel with the art of the pen draughtsman.

An excess of grace notes, or sliding from one note to another, has much the same effect upon the violin or in singing that an excess or curvature has in drawing. Though it is often said, and may be true, that there is no straight line in nature, we may accept so much of the line made by the calm sea on the horizon as comes within the limit of distinct vision at a glance, if accurately drawn, as sufficiently straight for the practical purposes of artistic expression, and any part or parts of it, and a ruler will have as much curvature as is necessary for its exact representation. Blake insists that there is every line in nature. If there is not such a thing, it was necessary to invent one. Einstein’s theory is popularly misconceived to be that straight lines are bent.

To return to the consideration of the weakness that is frequently given by continuous unstiffened curvature. It will be found that it is possible to communicate a sense of curvature to the whole of a straight line by a short curve ; but by no means can a straight line prolong its stiffness into the curve, but will rather emphafsize its significance. The artist’s eye often tricks him therefore in recording his impression into a lack of reserve : his line misses the pride of grace or the strength proper to it, and becomes weak and sentimental on the one hand, or robustious and podgy on the other.

In the ” living ” as opposed to the ” dead ” line there is a quality of elasticity through its whole length, as though pressure were visibly at work in two direcftions at right angles to it, one to press it outwards and another to keep it back. So that where it appears likely to bulge or balloon softly and roundly outwards it is pressed and flattened back by a restraining force always in play. Between these two powers it finds its way ; sometimes one sometimes the other of these appearing to get the upper hand, but it is the sense of these antagonistic pressures that gives the line its living quality even when coldly deliberate, as in the drawing of Holbein’s heads. In a swiftly drawn line, as in one of Helleu’s early dry points, we share a sense of risk and the excitement of insecurity with the artist—we watch him as we might Jessop hitting sixes, it is a case of hit or miss—while in Holbein’s hands we feel ” safe as the bank.” In one we feel that the mind is made up in a flash, and the line then cut in ; in the other that the stroke is deliberately carried out without haste simultaneously with the operation of the thought, the hand being all the time guided by the choice of the brain, and never dictating the stroke.

The eye caresses the form and the hand traces its passage upon the paper.

Unusual inflexibility of line, and in the amount of imitation of “cross-hatching” in woodcut.

In fine drawing, no matter how simple the line, its next move can never be exactly forecast—it may continue in its course or change its curve—but its continuance will be as unexpected as its change. Holbein’s line never travels swiftly even at its straightest, but is full of incident along its whole journey. A line so straight or a curve so unbroken that its centre or foci are obvious cannot convey this mental excitement, since the mind is not held in expectation or suspense about a matter that appears obvious. It is like a journey from point to point in a sleeping car—as though there were nothing between London and Edinburgh. Hogarth’s theoretic ” line of beauty ” might be truer were the two curves differently proportioned and separated by a straight interval. As it is it is too glib : containing no element of mystery or unexpectedness, and it lacks backbone.

A draughtsman might well spend a devoted lifetime drawing the fairy grace and light strength of the knotted grass ; the fern as it uncurls its spirals into a pastoral staff ; the long water weeds as, anchored to a common centre, the free ends reach out waving in an ever recurrent and harmonious rhythm in the stream, or in a still pool copying the radiation of the stems of the water lily. There are no more exquisite rhythms than the spirals and wreaths from the smoke of a cigarette, or a dance of flame and sparks when the fire is stirred. Whether these things be drawn or not, the loving observation of them, and even more the pleasure derived from them, will consciously and unconsciously, teach more to the artist than any treatise could hope to begin to do. These are things of nature’s own orderfing ; how or why they should have the effect upon our minds that they do is a mystery beyond analysis, but the cause of the effect may be imitated by the artist, not only by drawing those objects in which the effects are observed but by transferring like causes to other objects, and by this means many beautiful variations will be obtained, yet all in accordance with law.