Research Point: Drawing with Line

The primary focus of this research point is the use of line in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and David Hockney.  I have chosen to supplement it with reference to Paul Klee’s work, in particular.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Glaswegian architect and designer.  As the leading light in the Glasgow School of Art at the end of the nineteenth century, he was largely responsible for Glasgow’s reputation in Europe for architecture and the decorative arts during this period (1).  Apart from his work as a designer and architect, Rennie Mackintosh also produced drawings and watercolours. One example in which a diversity of line is clearly evident is Mount Alba, in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland.  In this painting, line is used to suggest texture, for example, sharp, jagged lines in the rock face on the left, as well as smoother lines which are used to divide up space in a way that suggests differences in terrain in the landscape, as well as atmospheric perspective. Within some of his delineated blocks of space, sets of parallel lines suggest furrows.  Brushstrokes are also lines in this composition, denoting roads, creating sweeps of colour that carry the eye towards the farm cottages in the distance.  Brushstrokes following  different directions create undulation in the landscape, increasing the sense of distance between the viewer and the cottages – the viewer feels that the journey on foot would be arduous. 

As I am focusing on drawing flowers in my final assessment, I was particularly interested in the way in which Mackintosh combined line with watercolour in his own flower paintings, such as in Spurge, Withyam (June 1909) and Japonica (1910).  In these paintings, he uses fine dark lines to depict shape but also to convey a sense of transparency, which is accentuated by the watercolour.  His lines run across each other, creating a fine network from which he then selected some to receive watercolour.  The use of colour brings certain flowers and foliage to the front, and yet the transparency also creates depth because we don’t lose track of the structure of the whole.  He has also used simplified lines which avoids confusion and too complex an image.  There is not too much information for the eye to feed on here. 

In Japonica, the tinted paper contributes to the warmth of the image and unifies it, even though comparatively little colour is used and then, often on details rather than on entire flowers.  This could give an unfinished appearance on a white background but the choice of toned paper avoids that.  


A reviewer of a 2001 Hockney exhibition mentioned the influence of Matisse’s line drawings on Hockney’s work (2).  When Glueck compares the styles of the two artists, she concludes that Hockney’s style is “tighter and fussier, his line more broken, his subject far more particularised” (2); however, she concedes that Hockney has “learned much from Matisse’s willful looseness, his ability to imply by the sketchiest of suggestion elements of hair, clothing and body language” (2).  

Because it is always possible to find evidence to back up any stance you wish to take in art, I have not deliberately looked for images that reinforce this  view.  I selected two drawing that have a similar subject – a seated woman albeit of different ages and posture: Hockney’s Portrait of the Artist’s mother, Mrs Laura Hockney (1972) and Matisse’s Woman with folded hands (1918-19).   However,  I can see a simplicity of line in Matisse’s drawings – this and others that is not evident in this particular example of Hockney’s work.  Hockney’s work seems more considered, Matisse’s more spontaneous but this could also be an individual response to their subjects.  I imagine that both caught a likeness in their own ways but artists draw with different purposes and intentions and a drawing may capture more than the purely physical.  Matisse’s drawing has captured the young woman’s expression and a sense of his subject, and, by not including all of her head, he somehow draws the viewer in to more closely examine her, creating an intimate portrait.   Matisse has used line playfully, and there is implied line where the woman’s shoulder meets her neck.  Hockney has used line to create a sense of the age of his subject, small broken lines emulating the wrinkles of an older woman.  The drawing is a record of a woman and her life. 


The idea of drawing as  “taking a line for a walk”  is associated with Swiss artist, Paul Klee. Klee integrated line, colour and tone in interesting ways that, though often non- representational, explored perspective and created a sense of movement in the surface of his paintings.  Two examples of this are Highways and Byways (1929) and Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black (1925, oil on cardboard).  In both paintings, Klee created a sense of undulations in the surface through the use of straight lines (compare Rennie Mackintosh’s painting Mount Alba, which uses curved lines to create a similar effect.) In Ancient Sounds, Abstract on Black, this could be interpreted as a visualisation of the distortions that occur to sound waves as they pass through materials. 


In The Fruit (1932, oil on burlap), Klee uses line to define regions of tone and colour, which in turn help to convey the illusion of three dimensionality and add interest  to the subject which dominates the format.  There is a sense in which this painting is representational but the use of line also hints at a secret interior, suggesting that there is more below the surface.  Since writing this and the comment which follows (and while searching for an image to link to), I have come across two different representations of the same painting – the same but inverted.  The comments below were written about the version found on Bridgeman Education.  The link above is to the version hanging in the Los Angeles city museum of Art.  Which one is right? The orientation of a work of art affects what we see and any symbolism that we associate with it and, therefore, how we interpret it.

My original comment regarding the version seen on Bridgman: That the fruit fills the canvas conveys a feeling that it is larger than life and might actually conceal a figure within and this leads on to ideas about the association of fruit with fertility so that the painting becomes symbolic. The extension of the line beyond the fruit produces movement; is someone holding the other end? What could happen with a tug on the line?  Does it unravel or simply create a new and different structure? The idea of a figure is lost once the image is inverted.  

While checking this image out, I came across two further images on the fruit theme which involved taking a line for a walk.  One of these is At the Core (1935, Oil & mixed media on burlap mounted on board), in which oil paint has been scraped off the burlap in places to create areas of high tone.  It is a simple image but interest is retained through not only contrast in tone, but also in the size and shape of the areas created by the lines, as well as the movement of the lines (one?) themselves. 


A fairly recent (2010-11) exhibition at MOMA was entitled “On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century”.  There is a virtual gallery available on the MOMA website at the moment which is good for those of us who had no chance to visit the exhibition.  A drawing which caught my eye was Tanzärin (Dancer) by A Russian artist, Vaslaw Nijinsky. (Chalk, pastel and pencil on paper).  What appeals is the flowing use of line and the way in which he has captured a figure within a figure creating a semi-representational fluidity of shape and movement, not unlike Klee’s fruit.  The different tones and intensities of line create depth – the eye not only moves around the drawing but moves from the surface deeper into the drawing and then back again. 

Reflection in context of present assessment: 

Mackintosh’s approach works well with coloured flowers – I am not sure how such an approach would work with white flowers but possibly it could on a coloured ground, or if white were abandoned. I am interested in trying to use line a similar way. 

I thought that I would take a line for a walk and try to complete an orchid drawing without taking pen from paper and compare this with earlier drawings – what might it teach me?

I like the flow and movement of Nijinsky’s drawing and would like to see how this might be used in drawing orchids.  

The accidental inversion of Klee’s fruit has produced food for thought: how differently can an image be viewed / interpreted when the image is flipped?  I cannot immediately imagine the potential of this for an orchid, but… 





1 The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society,.   Web.  Accessed 01.03.13


2  Glueck, Grace (2001) ART IN REVIEW; David Hockney and Henri Matisse — ‘Line Drawings’  The New York Times, 26th October, 2001.  Web.  Accessed 01.03.13



I enjoy Klee’s work immensely for its use of colour.  Some online sources for images of Klee’s work for future reference:



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