Line and Mass in Drawing

Line and mass are important concepts in drawing.  Line does not exist in the real world, but is used in drawing to show the transition from one value to another, or to delineate the shape of a  subject.  Mass, in a drawing is the shading used to indicate the volume of the subject.  Mass and line are often used together in a drawing.  Each has it relative strengths and weaknesses.

A drawing can be started using either line or mass.  Most beginners usually start with line, as they like to see the shape of what they are drawing, and then “color” in the mass.  If you have never tried it before, I would suggest that you shade in your masses first, then draw your lines in.  The final effect is the same in the end, but the feeling you will get towards the drawing is quite different.  Starting with line focuses you on the shapes of the subjects of the drawing.  Starting with mass, focuses you on the three dimensionality of the subjects.  Adding line afterwards enhances the viewers ability to see the shapes, and reinforces the mass.

When choosing to do line or mass in a drawing, often different drawing tools are better for each.  A tool good for one can be used for the other, but often this can lead to frustration especially for the beginner.  Line is usually thin and fairly precise.  Mass on the other hand is depicted by shading, and this usually covers a much larger area than a line would.  For example, if I am using charcoal, I might want to choose a woodless charcoal pencil for drawing my lines.  It will give me the control and the thinness I want for my lines.  I could use this charcoal pencil to fill in the shadow masses, but this would take lots of line close together.  There is more opportunity for unevenness, and it is more time consuming.  On the other hand, if I used a stick of charcoal for the shadows that indicate mass, I could draw the masses in more quickly, and more consistently.  This is not to say that line should not be used for shading.  Lines done using cross hatching, or parallel lines, or lines merged together to create a shadow that indicates mass can produce a nice effect, and may be one that you chose, but keep in mind that certain tools are easier to use for massing.

The same holds true for line.  If you want to draw a delicate line, it can be done using the corner of a charcoal stick for instance, but the corner wears down quickly, and so requires repeated shaping to continue.  On the other hand, a woodless charcoal pencil can be handled like a pencil, and because of the round, sharp point, can be used more easily to make our lines.

Again this is not to say that tools such as a charcoal stick should not be used for lines.  Some artists are renown for their strong, bold lines.  One that come to my mind is Kathe Kollwitz.  I myself naturally gravitate to strong, bold lines, and I have to be carefully if a drawing requires more delicate line.

Another interesting example is pen and ink for drawing.  Dip pens are primarily a line drawing media.  To expand this, these pen nibs come in various widths to the point where some of the nibs are called brushes, and make a very broad line.  Traditionally in pen and ink, the mass is indicated by hatching, or cross hatching of lines.  How close the lines are often determines how dark the shadow value becomes.  Another technique used in pen and ink for massing is using dots to indicate shadow.  The dots are of uniform size, but the density determines how dark or light the shadow area is.  While producing a very pleasing image, it is time consuming and requires a lot of discipline.  Seurat was famous for this technique.

I love dip pens and sketch with them.  I really am interested in masses, and found that dip pens took way too long to shade in the masses.  I then started to do the masses with watercolor, but found I was getting caught up in producing color paintings, more than drawings.  My solution to this problem was to move to pen, ink and wash.  I kept the feeling of drawing, yet the ink washes were quick to apply to create mass.

I use permanent india ink for my line work, and I use non-waterproof sumi ink for my washes, so I can get a range of values by just diluting the ink with water.  I find this keeps me focused on drawing, yet the brush with sumi ink lets me sketch at an acceptable quick rate so I can complete the sketch in a couple of hours.  A side advantage of using pen, ink and brush is that it focuses me on values, and keeps me aware of them.

Mass and line are two very important elements of a drawing.  Being aware of both will help you use one to enhance the other, and make conscious your decisions about when to use line and when to use mass.  Picking the proper tools for line work or mass and shadow work will certainly make the drawing process easier, and in special circumstances such as sketching, it may be necessary.