Line: An Art Study - Edmund J. Sullivan

There are some books that just don’t stand the test of time, and honestly, I think this is one of them. 


From the blurb, I expected this book to be right down my alley. A book about the fundamentals of drawing, written by a teacher and illustrator from the early twentieth century, that covers everything from basic perspective to figure drawing? Count me in. Unfortunately, the reality wasn’t such a great fit. 


While I wouldn’t recommend this to an aspiring artist, it might be an enjoyable read for an art historian. Sullivan talks quite a lot about contemporary times and practices--often with racial epithets thrown in--and his opinions illustrate the disconnect between generations at that time. For example, he has a section about “War and Art Students” in which he expresses the opinion that the War--that’s the Great War, a.k.a. World War I, where over a third of the British soldiers suffered casualties-- had

“Little effect upon the outlook of the normal student. Those who left their studies and return seem in the main to look upon the war as a hyphen between the serious businesses of life--an interruption of their studies, like, an ill-spent vacation. They have been through hell and appear to have forgotten.”

(Pardon me while I laugh hollowly.) The section on art supplies was basically incomprehensible to me, but someone familiar with antique pens and materials might find it fascinating. While I can’t see myself needing to correctly express heraldry in black and white, it’s certainly interesting to know that such things were still a concern in the 20s. Sullivan also remembered a time when left-handedness was indeed considered sinister, and the left hands of such children were tied behind their backs to teach them to use the right hand.


Possibly my disappointment is due to a mismatch of expectations. I expected an instructional art text, with lots of pretty diagrams and helpful notes, but quite a bit of the book is a treatise on the artist’s beliefs about art. While there are a few pretty diagrams, they’re generally floating disconsolately amidst a wall of text. Considering it is an art book, Line is impressively wordy, and not just in terms of the text-to-illustration ratio. Sullivan writes in a flowery, overblown style that would make Charles Dickens blush. Just trying to distinguish the objects and subjects of the sentences tended to leave me with a headache. A few examples:

“While wishing to insist on a close study of Nature, it is not intended to inculcate a photographic or imitative reproduction of the external facts observed. Equally with Nature, Art and its purposes and its conventions must be taken into account, with the necessity for selection from the mass, the choice of the right means to employ, in order to present the selection when made, and the method of that presentation either simple or complex.”

“He suddenly realized that he was speaking to a generation that had sprung up to whom the names so familiar to him were but names of lives remote--that he was telling of a vanished time which to these youngsters was as ancient as the history of Greece and Rome, out of which he, like a newly-discovered gramophone of the period, had, by the chance touch of a spring, been set going, so that they heard in the present a voice speaking from the past.”

When I managed to disentangle the sentences, I learned quite a lot about Sullivan’s thoughts on good versus bad art, but I didn’t learn all that much about the principles of line.


My favourite sections tended to be those that focused on basic principles, and -- I’m not ashamed to say it-- had illustrations. When the illustrations were present, they tended to be brilliant-- Sullivan drew the same image multiple times in different ways to demonstrate the different techniques. In my favourite section of all, Sullivan drew the same picture multiple times with different types of shading and crosshatching. It was amazing to see how drastically the direction of the shading lines changed the tone of the piece itself.

Overall, if you’re interested in art history and looking for a book that illustrates the clash between generations, then Line might be an enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a book to help you draw better, however, you may want to give this a miss. 


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Dover Publications, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~