How Adding Linework Affects a Painting

“To outline or not to outline” – that’s the question that many artists ask themselves before starting an art piece, and perhaps you do, too!

That’s why in today’s blog, I want to analyse and compare the differences an outline makes to a painting so that you can make a more informed decision the next time you paint!

Without the Outline

The first thing you’ll notice is that paintings without linework feel softer and more natural, as, in the real world, there aren’t many things that have an outline.

The lack of lines also makes the painting feel looser and freer as well since they’re not confined to any shape or form (apart from the one the paint itself makes). Of course, this also means that shapes can bleed into one another, or the paint can be made to spread out to form soft transitions from one thing to the next.

And even if the shapes are clearly defined, not having an outline gives them more “breathing room”, as if they exist in a more three-dimensional plane despite being on a flat surface.

I will say though, that the downside of not having an outline makes it so that adding more details in paint is a more necessary component to create a better contrast between the foreground and background, which means it takes more time to finish as it requires more control to handle a paintbrush than a pen.

With the Line

Once a line is added, whether it’s in pen or otherwise, the entire painting takes on a more “illustrative” feel, and the painted shapes are now confined on the two-dimensional plane. It also means that they’re more clearly defined, even if they are a very light colour, or very similar to one another.

You can also add a lot of tiny details quickly using a pen, so it doesn’t matter as much if you forget to include them during the painting process. Even things like shadows can be added with a pen! This means a lot of time can be saved during the painting process, as there’s less of a chance of needing to add or fix something.

The darker outlines also tend to add more contrast to a painting and help it stand out more. However, as mentioned before, it may make the painting feel more confined and defined, which may be a good or bad thing depending on the style and atmosphere you’re going for.

Note: Some may think that adding linework to a painting feels too much like a “crutch” to rely on, as adding details with a pen means that the artist may not feel the need to brush up on their brush-handling skills. I think it depends on the artist – if you think your style will never need to rely on precise brushstrokes, then it’s fine to focus more on your linework skills than brush skills, using paint as just a way to add a splash of colour. Conversely, if you prefer the lineless look, then it’s best to start practising that brush control!

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the final choice is up to you and your art style. What are your preferences? What do your subject and/or concept require? And are you painting a practice piece or a masterpiece? 

While these are decisions you’ll need to make, hopefully, this blog has helped speed up the process! And whether you paint with or without the outline, keep exploring and experimenting, and make more art whenever you can. 

Do you prefer adding linework to your painting? If so, what tool do you like to use when doing so? Let us know in the comments below!

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the creative process, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. Whether you’re experimenting or want to dive deeper into the art world, we’ll notify you of all the latest happenings with Etchr!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
Tagged with: Sketch/Ink watercolour
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