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In the book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", the author shows two profile drawings of the same woman by two different authors. The author does this to make a point about artistic styles, calling the left more "painterly" while the right one more "linear".

Drawing on the right side of the brain

Here is what the author says (page 58)

We were using identical materials (the ones in your Materials List), and we both drew for the same length of time, about thirty-five or forty minutes. You can see that the model is the same—that is, both drawings achieve a likeness of Heather Allen. But Brian’s portrayal expresses his response to Heather in his more “painterly” style (meaning emphasis on shapes), and my drawing expresses my response in my more “linear” style (emphasis on line)

I admit the two styles are different but I don't understand what the author means by "painterly" as opposed to "linear"

2 Answers 2

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In my personal opinion, the difference between these styles comes from how the painter perceives the subject. As humans, we all see the world differently. Some people concentrate on the big picture and overall composition of an entire scene; others are drawn to the small details that might be hidden to other observers.

"Linear" painters concentrate on the lines that certain features form. In your right example, the hair flows in front of the shoulders and the hairline from the very tip of the forehead is continued in the slope of the neck. Other examples include representing movement by following bigger lines through the body, like this example from Design Host:

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If you turn the linear style up to the extreme, you can reduce entire bodies or objects to simple geometric figures, like this other example from Design Host:

enter image description here

"Painterly" painters (or "sculptural", as Joachim calls it more correctly), on the other hand, concentrate on the 3-dimensional planes and areas instead of lines. The entire hair on the left image is composed of 3 planes: the majority in the center, a raised plane from the forehead to the front ot the neck, and a deeper layer from the very back of her head to her back. Other very common examples segment a face into its planes, like this one from Nat Studies Art!:

enter image description here

A "sculptural" picture usually portrays the subject as a 3D object, giving it depth by emphasizing the structure. To stay with the elephant example, here are some "sculptural" ones from iStock:

enter image description here


The thing that might be confusing is that using a lot of lines to paint a picture doesn't make it a "linear" picture. Hatching and other shading techniques are common and don't define the art style.

I would still call this example from Do It Before Me a "sculptural" drawing, although the depth perception is created by lines:

enter image description here

However, the example below from Cherish LoveArt is (in my opinion) a "linear" drawing because it emphasizes the lines and textures of an elephant's skin:

enter image description here

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  • Very good addition that it is about the perception of the artist! I don't fully concur with some of the (details of some) points, but that probably simply illustrates that this division is gradual, and not binary, and (therefore) somewhat subjective.
    – Joachim
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 13:05
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  • A linear style uses lines to represent the subject. Hence it emphasizes contours and details, because these can be drawn more easily with lines. In the right image you can see how the hairs are more detailed. Usually the shading is done with hatching, as this is a linear way of representing shape and lighting.

  • A painterly style, on the other hand, is usually a more loosely way of representing things. The term is derived from the idea that with paint you work with larger areas, with spots and blots, and gradients. It is often more expressive, less concerned with details and more with the overall impression and atmosphere.

I get the terminology the author uses, but would call what she calls 'painterly' 'sculptural', because a sculptural approach emphasises shape, three-dimensionality/volume, and usually clair obscur (because the different planes are more clearly delineated, and express shading more obviously).
The hair in the left image is obviously seen as a single complex shape, not a bundle of multiple objects.

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