Types of visual outline

The visual outline is the line or group of lines that define a shape or figure. By limiting the shape, the lines isolate this shape into the space or the composition. The outlines configure the shapes.
The length or measure of a contour is called perimeter, used especially in mathematics and technical drawing

The stroke is the line of the outline. We will determine whether the stroke is more or less thick, more or less bounding and closed, or whether it will be discontinuous, for example.

The silhouette is the full form that can be drawn or cut thanks to a delimiter and clearly visible contour.

Man on crocodile, Carlos Luna
The Island II by Carlos Luna

The Island II (Man on crocodile), by Mexican artist Carlos Luna. De 1998 y mide 118 x 73 cm. Gouache on Amate paper.

This is a work very interesting about the visual outline. The figures are limited by the contrast with the background. These silhouettes are very strong shapes, but as they are so close, the crocodile and the man are almost together in the same shape. Thin white lines are defining the outlines of each silhouette, the man and the crocodile, and thanks to these outlines the work is better understood.

Types of visual outline

1. Marked sharp and strong contours

This outlines are clearly visible and distinguished. The marked strokes are better seen.

Heritage, by Matt Sesow
Painting Heritage by Matt Sesow

Heritage (herencia), by Matt Sesow, is a painting with strong outlines on the characters. It´s used in the Expressionists and strong styles.

Matt Sesow website.

2. Blurred outlines

The lines fade under the painting, with atmospheric effects, and even sometimes, purposefully breaks made to break the line.

Monet painting
London Parliament at sunset by Monet

Monet painting, London Parliament at sunset. The black outlines are very subtle and the type of brush fades it.

In the realistic and hyper-realistic paintings the outlines are also very subtle, it is said that the outline does not exist in nature or reality.

3. Simplified outlines

The basic outline shapes are square, rectangle, circle, triangle, star, and all polygonal shapes (hexagon, octagon, etc..). After these shapes that contain the minimum lines to create an outline, there are infinitely more complex outlines with more and more lines.

Independent visual elements were studied extensively at the Bauhaus school. For this reason, the works played with simple geometric shapes where the line became visible.

Circles within a circle, by Kandinsky
Circles within a circle, by Kandinsky, 1923.

4. Complicated contours

Diver, de Arnulf Rainer
The diver by Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer drew this picture called The diver in 1949. Complexity of lines makes more confusing to see the outline of the figures.

5. Insinuated – incomplete outlines

Insinuated - incomplete outlines
Sleeping, drawing by James Ensor

La dormeuse (Sleeping), drawing by James Ensor. 1887, Etching on old laid paper.

Drawing drawn with broken lines, which delimit the figure perfectly and at the same time are loose, free, active and allow the air to circulate, relaxing our eyes while the beautiful lady continues to sleep. She loses strength in the contours but gains expressive softness.

And in addition, there are the qualities within the contour: width of the line, cleanliness and sharpness, with texture and what kind of visual texture, color, transparency, and many other elements of the image that are integrated into the line itself. For example, in this painting:

Matt Sesow
Painting by Sesow Matt

Another painting by Sesow Matt with very pictorial strokes. For example the circles in the eyes. The outlines also can be filled with color or not, as in this case. This is why a shape and a outline are not the same, although sometimes, the contour and the shape are attached.


Once you understand what the contour is, the types and aspects that influence it, from here, it is about reflecting on this visual element within your own works. For example you can ask yourself these questions …

  • Is the line too thick what is left in your painting?
  • Maybe a thicker outline would make more expressive your drawing?
  • What if the line that delimits the figure was only hinted at?
  • Or for example … What is the main outline of your painting and how much space does it limit?

Good luck with your visual outlines!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jim Flosdorf

    Interesting thoughts, but you NEED to edit your writing.

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