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Line Control: Saying a Lot With a Little Part 2

by Taylor Slattery | August 14, 2019

Drawing with any sort of realism is all about creating an illusion. We’re using a 2D surface to depict 3D forms and to do so, like any other illusionist, we rely on tricks that exploit the human eye.

The world is an incredibly complex place. Over the course of a single day, we’re bombarded with an overwhelming amount of stimulus. To reduce the mental load, the human eye has evolved a series of behaviors to help cut straight to the most pressing of this information. Because these behaviors are automatic, our understanding of them is purely intuitive. It isn’t until we begin to try to replicate them in a painting or drawing, that we realize how little we actually understand. Beyond getting comfortable with a pencil, learning to draw is largely about studying the way the human eye processes information so that we can better exploit these tendencies and make our drawings feel more realistic.

When we draw using only lines, we remove a lot of the tools that help to create realistic illusions. So, with only one tool at our disposal, we have to be clever. Through subtle manipulations of line, we can maximize impact by hinting at the properties found in a more rendered drawing.


In this part of the series, we’ll explore how we can use line to communicate depth. Lines are fairly limited in their properties. They have shape (the C, S, and I lines we covered previously), length, and width. In order to emulate realistic subject matters with only these 3 properties, let’s first take a look at what it is we’re emulating, decipher its properties, and work backward from there.

The human eye primarily perceives depth in 2 ways, through scale and lighting. We understand that the farther an object moves away from us, the smaller it will appear. A lesser known factor is the effect that lighting has on objects as they move away from us.

line control

Let’s take a look at this mountain range. It’s safe to assume that all of the rock formations in the image are made of the same material, and despite the color edits, because the skies are mostly clear, it will nicely illustrate the effects of atmosphere and distance on the way we perceive value and color.

line control 2

Here I’ve desaturated the image and selected portions of the rock from the foreground, midground, and background. From the isolated samples we can observe 2 things. First, as an object moves away from us in space, its perceived value becomes lighter. The darkest value present in each of the samples moves from a pure black in the foreground, to a much lighter grey in the distance. Additionally, from the value scales on the far right, we can see that the overall value range of the rock is compressed as it goes into the distance.

The reason being, there is a greater deal of atmosphere between us and the rocks in the background. The atmosphere is comprised of millions of tiny particles, each reflecting light and lessening this perceived contrast. This effect is most prominent outdoors, though it is also observable indoors and at shorter distances. The strength of the effect will largely depend on a scene’s lighting situation. All this to say that a lifetime of unconsciously observing this effect has programmed us to understand that dark = closer.

So if we seek to communicate depth through line, we’ll have to create contrast using the 3 line properties at our disposal. Utilizing line weight to communicate depth is particularly important when drawing something with a confusing silhouette. An object’s silhouette is another means by which our eyes simplify visual data. When the shape is unclear, we struggle to make sense of it. Of course, the better solution is to choose a pose with a stronger silhouette for a better first read but to highlight how drastically line weight can improve a drawing, let’s start with an example with a silhouette that is hard to read.


Based on the silhouette alone, at distance, we might mistake this shape for an ostrich. To clear things up, let’s add a bit more information.


The silhouette still has a bad read, and there are some problematic overlaps, but now there is enough internal detail for us to understand what we’re looking at. Let’s start by examining the line shapes, the first of the 3 line properties. The C, S, & I lines are doing a good job of separating forms and communicating material changes, but overall it feels very flat. We have enough contrast in line shape, but the pitcher’s head and raised leg still feel like they’re equal distance from us. We need to pull the head and torso forwards while pushing the raised leg and gloved hand further back.

With the line shapes all sorted out, we are left with 2 line properties we can experiment with. Let’s first try to change the length of the lines, which in this case, means making the shapes bigger.


We accomplished one of our goals, the head and torso certainly feel much closer, but now the overall proportional relationship feels off, and the raised leg looks like it’s growing out of his shoulder. Not quite the look we’re going for.

The only thing left to try now is to play with the line widths.


That’s much better. The reason being, as mentioned before, objects closer to our eyes have a greater opportunity for contrast. While in the real world, objects don’t have outlines, this ingrained behavior of our eyes causes us to perceive the darker lines as being closer. By using a thicker line to pull objects forward, and a thinner line to push them back, we can capitalize on that effect to create the illusion of depth.

Beyond just mimicking real world lighting scenarios, this technique also exploits the eye’s tendency to seek out contrast. Amongst a sea of similar things, our eyes will quickly find the thing that is unlike the rest. Against a white background, black is the strongest form of contrast, so in this case, our eyes are drawn right to the center of the player, the part closest to us, reinforcing the feeling of depth.

Varying your line weight not only adds visual interest, but it helps to create a better read, particularly where objects overlap. Create tracings of some of your past drawings and boost the line weight in areas that should feel closer. Having the two drawings side by side will help you to see the effect for yourself.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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