Seven Elements of Visual Art: Lines, Patterns & Tones (Part II)

“No matter how much shape, or form, or texture, or tone, or line, or any of the visual elements are present, if they aren’t put to some purpose all you have is a picture about a visual element.”

— Peter Glendinning



Lines give the viewer a sense of direction to move their gaze along a certain path. It also creates certain mood (and emotions) depending on the nature of lines used in the composition.

Implied lines are created by mind’s eye to draw connections between similar visual elements. Whether visible or implied, lines can be found in many forms like, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, zigzag, radiant, or irregular.

ArtistsWassily KandinskyPicasso, Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin, Christian Rosa. Read more about lines in art forms here 



Pattern can be described as successive repetition of similar visual elements. However, it is more than simply grouping of similar visual elements and should have an element of direction or organisation.

Pattern exists when the number of repetition is at least more than two. However, it need not always be regular or geometric. It can be found in irregular or broken form as well.

Artists: Gustav Klimt, M.C. Escher (Day and Night), Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, William Morris, Piet Mondrian, Andrew Goldsworthy, Bridget Riley. Read more about pattern in art forms here


Tone/ Value

Tone relates to gradation of darkness and lightness in the scene and conveys a mood (or message) to the viewer. Tonal range is all that comes between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.

Tonality is basically visual appearance of the scene in terms of the distribution of tones and levels of gradation between them. Tonal contrast can create visual interest in the subject. Tone/ value can also create an illusion of depth.

Artists: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Juan Sanchez Cotan, Albrecht Dürer, Georges Seurat. Read more about tones/values here

Lines, Patterns & Tones in Photography

The beauty of this image is darker s-curves leading the viewer’s gaze to the reflection of trees on the wet beach and the white s-curve formed by sea waves leading the viewer’s eye to the vanishing point.

Vertical Lines usually convey a certain sense of solidity, power and firmness. It can also be used to restrict viewer’s gaze from moving beyond the right/left edge of the photograph and return to the image. Using thin vertical lines can give a feel of elegance.

Horizontal Lines can be used to create separations between spaces in the photograph and convey a sense of rest, stability, relaxation or lack of movement. Horizontal lines, when continuous can create a barrier for the viewer’s eyes to continue and look at what is above.

Diagonal Lines can create a dynamic sense of movement leading viewer’s gaze from one corner of the photograph to the other.

S-curved Lines direct viewer’s gaze through the photograph gracefully and creates a sense of harmony and relaxedness.

Irregular Lines create a sense of uneasiness, discomfort, tension, confusion or fear.


  • Including lines in your composition (whether visible or implied) can help you get the viewer’s eye moving to the key point of interest (focal or resting point) in your photograph (a function of leading lines), or lead the viewer to a vanishing point (a function of path);
  • Avoid compositions in which the lines direct the viewer’s eyes out of the image, shortening the attention span on the image itself;
  • Lines, if not used thoughtfully and with a purpose, can also cause confusion and result in weak composition;
  • You can use lines to emphasize perspective;
  • Try to include multiple types of lines without making the image busy, if you can.
The lines in this image serves as a path, as they wind through the image, creating a vanishing point on the horizon.
Wassily Kandinsky – Composition VIII, 1923.
The lines in this image formed by white railings and their shadows on the ground lead to the focal point of interest, i.e., the couple, for a pre-wedding shoot. The vertical lines also connote a sense of stability (of the relationship).

– Lines formed a major part of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings.
Leading lines have appeared in many paintings such as the Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David (1784).
Reduction of an image into flattened lines was key element of Cubism.

This composition was achieved by using a telephoto lens (24-105mm) to only include the pattern created by overhead iron structure and zigzag lines on both the sides. You may also notice a pattern in the triangle at each interval leading to the vanishing point.
The above image is a good example of pattern created by curved lines and stark contrasts in the form of distinct black and white strips.
The above photograph is a good example of breaking the patterns to create interest in other visual elements like a diagonal line cutting across the veins and a different shade of green.
The above photograph is a very simple example of pattern created by crisscross lines formed by the wooden frame. The bigger square in the top middle helped me break the pattern.


  • Practice looking for patterns in your composition that can add value to your image; 
  • Finding the right vantage point, perspective, or angle (so as to include directional element) is the key to use pattern as a successful composition;
  • Pattern may not always work in isolation and should be complemented with other visual elements in the frame;
  • Looking for patterns and then looking for differences in those patterns (or contrasting patterns) can be an interesting way to compose images;
  • In order to get the viewer’s eye right on the pattern, try to remove distracting elements from your composition by filling most of the frame, zooming-in or cropping;
  • You may also sometimes break the pattern to create interest in a visual element in your photograph.
The above image is a good example of symmetry and pattern at the same time. I have included a small portion of the finger to introduce a human element in the frame (creating more visual weight) for the viewer to start looking up across the centre line (vein) of the leaf, breaking the pattern on both the sides. A shallow depth of field in the background along with the interplay of light and shadows on the leaf’s surface helped me emphasize the other visual elements like form, lines, and texture as well.
The above photograph is a good example of curves used as pattern and highlights not only the vibrant green colour of the banana leaf but also the texture. The vantage point (top angle) did play a crucial role here to include a sense of direction in the pattern to make it more interesting.

The photograph in the left can be considered as bad example of lines and pattern used for composition, for three reasons. Firstly, as there is no focal point in the image, lines have nothing to point towards. Secondly, most of the lines are taking the viewer’s eye out of the frame. Thirdly, the pattern created by these lines are not adding any value or purpose to the image.

“Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.”

— Alfred North Whitehead

© Fstoppers
© Digital Photography School
© 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans

The actual effect of tones i.e., how light or dark they appear, also depends on the surrounding areas where they are concentrated, as you can see in the above image. A tone that is usually light in one situation may seem darker in another if the neighbouring tones are even lighter.

© 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans.

The range of tones that can be produced by a particular colour may also vary. For example, while lighter hues may give you a smaller range of tones to play with, darker hues may just do the opposite.

  • Cool tones like green, blue and violet, can be used to convey isolation, calmness, tranquillity, freshness or even sadness.
  • Warm tones like reds, yellows, oranges and browns can be used to convey a sense of warmth, happiness, upliftment or nostalgia.
  • Dark tones convey mysterious, sombre, oppressive, heavy, sad, or depressing feelings.
  • Bright tones convey feelings of joy or happiness.

What I am talking about in the list right above is the ‘global tones’, which is the overall look and feel of colours that you get when you see a photograph as a whole (or with squinted eyes). Local tones, on the contrary, refers to the lightness or darkness of individual objects or areas in your photograph. If processed effectively, local tones can be utilized to bring attention to a particular area in the frame or to contrast such area with the rest of the photograph.

T O N E S / V A L U E S

  • Just like other visual elements, you must use your judgment to decide how much (or how little) of tones to use in the composition to communicate your message;
  • You can also use tonal values opposite to the usual norm (that most people use) to present your work in a different or new manner;
  • Familiarize yourself with the zone system and works of Ansel Adams to effectively use tones for great composition here;
  • In nutshell, the idea here is to include more tonal range in your composition to make the image look more dynamic instead of flat. However, a limited range of tones can also sometimes produce great results, if you use the relative tones effectively;
  • Try to convey a mood (sombre, dark, gloomy, lively, bright etc.) through the choice of your tones;
  • Do not instinctively go for an extreme light or extreme dark (i.e., high contrast) as it compromises the overall tonal balance of the photograph;
  • Shoot in RAW format using Manual Mode;
  • Experiment with light meter and spot metering in your camera to get a varied tonal range;
  • Make use of histogram information displayed by your camera to avoid overexposure and underexposure which can lead to loss of tonal range;
  • Make post-processing adjustments (like, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks) and use ‘dodge’ and ‘burn’ tools to enhance the tonal range in your image.
  • Consider using ‘graduated tint’ for greater tonal range, instead of regular vignette.

Highlights are the areas in your photograph with high luminance values and some discernible details.

Shadows are the areas in your photograph with low luminance values and some discernible details.

Whites are the areas in your photograph where the highlights are so ‘blown out’ that no details are visible.

Blacks are the areas in your photograph with zero luminance and shadows so dark that no details are visible.

Midtones refer to all luminance values that are neither dark nor light.

The below value scale was introduced by Denman Ross in 1907 and still holds as a standard to identify light, mid-tones and darks.

© Illustrators’ Lounge
You can see a smooth gradation of tones in this image with the taller building being complete black and the sun in the top right being paper white. Within this extreme range of pure black and white, you may be able to see various shades of grey from light grey to dark created by sunrays, clouds and distant buildings. The overall image, having prominence of darker tones, conveys the message of gloominess created by overcast sky.
Tones in Colour
  • Value is independent of hue. Pay attention to the tone or value of a colour, rather than the hue. A good photograph should ideally have wide range of tonal contrast or values in it.
Tonal range can also be present in colour photographs. In the above image, you can notice the smooth gradation in the blue colour of sky from darkest blue to lightest blue. You can also see the tonality in the beach’s colour created due to shadows cast by nearby trees.

Published by Vivek Kumar Verma

Investment Banking Lawyer | Photographer & Blogger | Connoisseur of Food | Poet

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