Anatomy of a curve

Dear Artist, In magic tricks, the curve has its beguiling ways. If a magician needs to distract someone’s eyes for a second or two, say with a coin, he need only move the coin in an arc. For some reason this curving action temporarily confuses the viewer and permits the magician to perform an illusion. On the other hand, if the magician moves the coin in a straight line, the viewer’s eyes spring back like an elastic band to the origin of the move, thus exposing the ploy. In visual art, the curve helps manage the movements of viewers’ eyes by keeping them within the picture. As well as making a work of art more voluptuous and appealing, the curve is the most effective device for leading the eye to centres of interest. The most useful and creative curve is what is known as the “slow-fast-slow.” I’ve drawn this type of curve, as well as other examples such as entasis and entrelac, with explanations, at the bottom of this letter. Fact is, there’s more to curves than meets the eye. Artists need to understand the species and subspecies of curves and the potential uses of each. All curves, in all art, begin with the human body. In a popular example, a distant range of hills may simulate a woman lying on her side. This sort of ploy engages the viewer’s subconscious (particularly but not necessarily a man’s) and adds a mysterious syntagma. A syntagma (from a Greek word meaning “arrangement”) is a juxtaposition of forms that relate to but are different from one another. An abstract painting with anatomical syntagmas enjoys the close examination of connoisseurs. They may not know what it’s all about, but they know what they like. Another use of the curve is in the description of forms when seen obliquely — the way a roundish pond or an ocean curves toward you to lie down flat. Their apogees, for example, are often slightly and briefly straight. Further, curves that diminish into the distance are an effective way to convey perspective. Also, intermittent stations along a curve cause activation and “stutter.” When interworked with flats, zips, gradations and patterns, curves have the potential to transform a painter into a magician. Best regards, Robert PS: “The line that describes the beautiful is elliptical. It has simplicity and constant change. It cannot be described by a compass, and it changes direction at every one of its points.” (Rudolf Arnheim) Esoterica: “The serpentine line, or the line of grace,” said William Hogarth, “by its waving and winding its different ways, leads the eye in a pleasing manner along the continuity of its variety.” Time-honoured to the point of cliché, the “s” curve slyly moves the viewer back into the picture. Motifs lost and found along the curve temporarily disarm, intrigue, and invite viewer participation. In what might otherwise be dull art, the curve is key to mystery and enigma. Throw them a curve.   Curves

Slow-fast-slow. The degree of curve away from straight is at first slow, then fast, then slow.


Pots-in-perspective: The degree of ellipse diminishes as they near the syntagmatic background.


Entrelac: A complex tangle of curves. Entasis: Not just for classical columns, but other straights as well.


Eye lead in: The time-worn but useful ‘s’ curve; whole, beyond the picture plane, or broken.

            Curves originating in animals and other forms by Adam Cope, Lanquais, Dordogne, France  

“The Abandoned Cradle”
watercolour painting
by Adam Cope

Just being pedantic about the assertion that “All curves, in all art, begin with the human body” … as this is something that has mystified me for a long time, as I also stare at the cliffs and hills here in the Dordogne. If you look at the prehistoric cave art in south west France, there are very few representations of the human body. But there are lots of animals. Mostly big animals, which weren’t necessarily part of their diet. The depicted animals not only resemble the lines of the hills (as you suggest) but often literally come out of the hills, as the curve of stalactite or rock face is frequently used to depict a back-bone or a trunk of an animal. Representations of the human body (other than the hand print) are rare in the caves but abound as portable sculpture, little figurines, voluptuous ‘Madonna’s, female fertility & pregnancy. Not so much Hogarth’s serpentine line but more like rich, round mounds… which were probably more appealing to an ice-age hunter-gatherer (who was more prone to making an image of a great beast than a babe). Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Primacy of Perception, enlarges on the idea that art is born out of our own corporeal awareness.   The beautiful curve in early penmanship by Valerie Vanorden, Kalamazoo, MI, USA  

original print
by Valerie Vanorden

Roger Platt Spencer, the man who “taught America how to write,” developed an elliptical pattern of letters and forms, taking his cue from the “trailing leaves and flowers from the river banks,” according to one Michael Sull DVD line. Ellipses in Mr. Platt’s mind were more beautiful and easier to produce than circles, such as found in the round hand script current to his time being used in Europe, also known as “Copperplate” or “Engrosser’s Script.” Thus ushered in the “Golden Age of Ornamental Penmanship” from 1850 to 1920, after which the typewriter took over. Many beautiful signatures were observed during this period and even afterward, as students of Spencerian Penmanship reproduced themselves and grew older.   There are 2 comments for The beautiful curve in early penmanship by Valerie Vanorden
From: Nan — Jan 18, 2013

I love this print! Are any available for purchase?

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Jan 18, 2013

Yes, on

  Coincidence by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England  

“The line of Beauty – Straight or Curved?”
original cartoon
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe

I’m sending this email from Athens near Santagma Square, and have been sketching in the marvelous sites dotted around everywhere. Amazingly, to complete the co-incidence with the subject of your letter, I did a cartoon a while back — sort of — on the very subject of the line of beauty including the same Hogarth quote you used.         There is 1 comment for Coincidence by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe
From: Kindy Kemp — Jan 18, 2013

Love the Hiroshige/Mondrian biff-bang-pow!

  Value of the serpentine form by Tony Angell, Seattle, Washington, USA  

“Mantling Hawk”
slate sculpture
by Tony Angell

A piece I recently carved in a Sienna marble is of a snake “curving” its form over a stippled surface. Your description of how the eye follows the curve explains why my eye and those of the other observers return again and again to the shapes of the serpent. Rather than a fearful form, it is an invitation for the eye to follow and the hands to trace.         Saved by a curve by Norma Hopkins, Manchester, UK  

“Travelling Through Moving Mist”
original painting
by Norma Hopkins

I had a heavy-duty artist’s block after my husband of 48 years, died suddenly — in front of me and I couldn’t save him… I was devastated! I could see nothing in my future for weeks… He was my childhood sweetheart! My life stopped in a moment! Months and months went by. I thought I had lost my creative spark. That was 4 years ago. I read one of your letters where others were working and overcoming artist block with your advice but I felt I was literally travelling through a moving mist… Then, one day I picked up a pencil and the curve was there on my drawing board… loud and strong! I grabbed a dinner plate… it had to be a perfect rounded curve… I made it stronger… Then out came the gesso and the emulsion paint and the watercolour pencils, and Voila!!! I was back… I had lost my beautiful creative colour, all my blues and oranges had disappeared, my colour response was cream and pale yellow in that time. Only a little bit of orange and tiny bit of gold was there, but I was back. Now, I am experimenting again. My work has changed from representational and semi-abstract to completely abstract. My life is different but I find meaning around every corner again. Thanks for your presence and your sage (esoterica). They have been a little speck of gold in a sea of turmoil. There are 4 comments for Saved by a curve by Norma Hopkins
From: Cheryl Moore — Jan 17, 2013

Ephemeral, your painting. Beautiful. Welcome back.

From: Anonymous — Jan 18, 2013


From: Marjolai — Jan 19, 2013

Beautiful words and beautiful painting…because they go to the heart.

From: Gigi from France — Jan 19, 2013

I stopped to look several seconds on your painting : it is just beautiful. It is what I dream being able to do one day. It is perfect.

  Happy-making curve by Marian Kemp, Powell River, BC, Canada   Rather than “confusing,” perhaps a coin moving in an arc merely distracts the viewer with an intriguing and attention-focusing action. Anything moving in an arc, especially if it’s a shiny coin, is visually pleasing, magically attractive and therefore happy-making. As for the rest of the message, it was intriguing but ‘way over my head.’ (I’m still a tyro at art…) What are “activate” and “stutter”? What are “flats, zips & gradations”? (RG note) Thanks, Marian Activate: Where a curved line is broken up into a series of items, as in Warren Criswell’s geese, below. Stutter: A broken line curve, often with stops of diminishing size. Flats: Flat areas that interact with curved areas Zips: Lines, sometimes curved, that diminish, such as a flash of light on distant water. Gradations: Areas, both large and small, that gradate from dark to light or across a range of colours.   Throwing a curve by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA  

“The Punishment”
original painting
by Warren Criswell

I went out on the deck outside my studio one evening at dusk recently and was ambushed by a sight I’ve seen a thousand times. Seen, as Sherlock Holmes said, but not observed. Highlighted parts of my Prius, my van and the lighted window of my sculpture studio formed a nice shallow curve leading up into the sky — except there was nothing in the sky. I liked the abstract elements of what I was seeing and made a sketch, but it was an unbalanced composition. Then the next evening a flock of wild geese flew over, yodeling furiously! I didn’t see them, just heard them, but they completed my curve. At first I saw it as a parabola with the focus over between the van and the sculpture studio, but as the painting progressed the geese (whose flight and flight paths I had by then researched extensively) chose to deviate from this geometry and instead warped themselves into a more sensually feminine S-curve. They were better magicians that I was; my original plan would have exposed the ploy. But usually the curves in my paintings aren’t so consciously deliberate. After altering the composition of The Punishment several times before finally getting something I liked but not knowing why, I discovered that I had unconsciously created a Fibonacci spiral! There is 1 comment for Throwing a curve by Warren Criswell
From: Warren Criswell — Jan 18, 2013
  Stays and the curve by Pat Kelly, Ramona, CA, USA  

original painting
by Pat Kelly

In the eighteenth century, the ideal feminine form was achieved with the stays that women wore a curve much like Hogarth’s line of grace. This led me to think again about the concept of masculine vs. feminine form that Art Historians refer to in a structural analysis of painting or architecture. Because still life is considered the realm of the feminine, I thought it would be interesting to pursue the idea of feminine form in still life compositions and see where it might lead. It seems there is a mysterious energy to the curve that goes beyond direction. In mathematics and physics, equations dealing with cycles, orbits and trajectory result in elliptical curves. Not only does the curve suggest the feminine form, it also indicates the cyclical, so often associated with Mother Nature, change of seasons, and the arc of the sun across the sky.  

There are 3 comments for Stays and the curve by Pat Kelly

From: Ida Waters — Jan 18, 2013

Wow! No wonder there were no women artists!

From: Jackie Knott — Jan 18, 2013

As women’s clothes evolved I’ve read the reason women’s clothes button right panel over left is because it took a servant or slave to dress a woman, while men’s garments button left over right.

From: kellianne — Jan 18, 2013

I like the idea of a garment of natural fibers, beautifully created, that supports good posture without be constrictive.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Anatomy of a curve

From: Tony — Jan 15, 2013

Robert, I enjoyed this post. Do you have a recommended book/resource to learn more about the use of these different curves in drawing and painting?

From: Tom Henderson Smith — Jan 15, 2013

Robert, I like the magic reference in your post. It resonates, as does your perspective reference, with the sense I often have that it’s the magic of surface and depth in tension together in a painting that draws one into its world.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jan 15, 2013

Suddenly taking a great interest in curves when I reached the “awkward age”, now I understand my desire to do art… in a traditional, more natural approach. Sorry, Mondrian.

From: Marilyn Smith — Jan 15, 2013

I learned about “line quality” in a figure drawing class from Don Doxey. I love a line that isn’t straight and isn’t a curve but directs the eye to a curve. After a life time of drawing and painting I am drawn to lines at this stage in my art.

From: Paol Serret — Jan 15, 2013

Thanks again Robert for your surprising letter … I too love to play with the viewer’s eyes … after all when nobody see the painting it is just a piece of canvas .

From: Jim Shannonhouse — Jan 15, 2013

I have recently become enamored with the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci’s Curve. A straight forward painting of this phenomenon makes for an interesting piece. Thanks to your letter today, I now understand why. Thank you.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jan 15, 2013

I have used curves before in my paintings like painting landscapes and seascapes in the form of the palm trees and trees. I was not sure of what they can do to the painting but somehow they always tend to make them more pleasing and dynamic.

From: Moncy Barbour — Jan 15, 2013

If I knew as much about art as you do I would not be able to paint, lol, no offense. Thank you!

From: Doris — Jan 15, 2013

Your way with words always drives me to the Funk and Waggnals. Thanks

From: Myron Bayles — Jan 15, 2013

“…the close examination of connoisseurs. They may not know what it’s all about, but they know what they like…” This is so clever, and so obvious. The curve, related as it is to body parts, is key to bringing in the eye for a closer look–even if this connoisseur (ha ha) doesn’t know what he’s looking at.

From: Jackie Knott — Jan 16, 2013

I am reminded of a comment by a WWII reconnaissance analyst who was instrumental in finding Nazi V-2 rocket sites. She was asked why she was so quick to find them. She answered, “Because there are no straight lines in nature.” So very simple an observation but we tend to lean toward the structural when we should be paying closer attention to the curvilinear lines of natural form. It is there … we just have to find it and not change it.

From: George Gallant — Jan 17, 2013

It is more normal and natural to paint straight strokes than curved ones as the curve needs a bit more thinking where the stroke is going to end up. Therefore, the painting of curves is a calculated effort that requires self training and the eventual influence of habit.

From: Patricia Pope — Jan 18, 2013

I have always loved the letter “S” and have used it in my art works; now I understand a lot more about curves. Thank-you. Patricia

From: Ron Wilson — Jan 18, 2013

Love the Aili Kurtis works – peace and strength.

From: kenneth flitton — Jan 20, 2013

Aili Kurtis’ paintings are beautiful

From: Peter Daniels — Jan 20, 2013

In Pottery, the Japanese were well aware of the double “S” curve. They spoke of it often in the lidded vases,(actually the Chinese were first with Ming and Chun ware).. The double “S” is the viewer looking at both sides of the pot, straight on,maybe after a few drinks!

From: Talaha — Jan 25, 2013

Greetings! The site is great. Thank you for a great resource.

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Khor Virap Monastery, Aremenian

oil painting, 24 x 42 inches by Seda Baghdasarian, UK

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