An Orientation Orientation

During the last post, I wrote “…sometimes Liepke increases this formal stability by including strong horizontal and/or vertical lines in the scenes…” As the words hit the page, I began to wonder, “Why?” What about these horizontal and vertical lines that draw my attention? I always search for them when analyzing a painting, and I almost always believe their presence lend stability to the artwork. Why?

This proved to be an elusive subject, but I finally did find a few interesting ideas on the topic!


brain visual cortex

Projections from the retina travel through the optic nerve to the LGN (lateral genticulate nucleus), an area of the thalamus in the center of the brain. Here, information from both eyes are received and then transferred to the primary visual cortex (a.k.a. V1). Data from the LGN is arranged retinotopically in V1; in other words, the brain creates a map of the visual field by computing lines, forms, and edges in two dimensions, horizontal and vertical.4 How? Many cells in V1 (and V2) are particularly sensitive to orientation, and these cells are activated by strong lines or bars of a certain orientation, either horizontal or vertical. As information travels through the cortex, “the stimulus orientation that produces the largest response (i.e. the cell’s preferred orientation) changes systematically…” 9 Indeed, cells actually “increase their firing rate” the closer the perceived line is to the preferred orientation, and response is suppressed when lines are farther away from their preference. 9 This orientation sensitivity allows the brain to process/discriminate between horizontal or vertical lines more quickly and easily than other line orientations (i.e. varying diagonals).8

Because there are so many more neurons sensitive to vertical and horizontal stimuli than other angles, we experience what is called the oblique effect. People are more likely to judge line orientation accurately the closer the line is to being on the horizontal or vertical axis. Not only that “people tend to make judgments about line orientation that are biased toward the nearest vertical or horizontal axis; lines oriented close to the vertical or horizontal axis will often be perceived or recalled as truly vertical or horizontal.”8

*I should note that the oblique effect is legit, though the actual location of its origin in the brain is bit contentious between some scientists.

So, it seems not only do our brains use horizontals and verticals as a baseline by which to compare other angles, identifying these orientations is the first step our brain takes to determine where we are and what’s around us.


Plenty of folk have something to say about the effect distinct vertical/horizontal/diagonal orientations have on us and why.

Creation of Adam, c. 1510, Michelangelo

Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo

Horizontal lines
– Rest: a body in repose
“Horizontal lines are parallel to the horizon (hence the name). They look like they’re lying down, at rest, asleep. They suggest calm and quiet, a relaxed comfort.”7
“…suggestive of repose; it is the line of resting water, of the earth of alluvial plains, of everything that has reached a state of equilibrium. “3

– Peace: not fighting gravity
“Objects parallel to the earth are at rest in relation to gravity.”1
“Horizontal lines can’t fall over. They accentuate width. They’re stable and secure…”7

– Stability: the horizon line and the solidity of Earth
“Horizontal lines by their connection to the horizon are associated with earth bound things…”7

Iris Afternoon, by Christopher Greco

Iris Afternoon, by Christopher Greco

Vertical lines:
– Balance
“express a state of equilibrium with the force of gravity; they generate the psychological impression of steadiness, strength and simplicity.”2

– Strength: standing up to gravity
“a line of stability, of direct opposition to the force of gravity, of strength and vigor.”3

– The Heavens: physically and spiritually
“communicate a feeling of loftiness and spirituality. Erect lines seem to extend upwards beyond human reach, toward the sky. They often dominate public architecture, from cathedrals to corporate headquarters. Extended perpendicular lines suggest an overpowering grandeur, beyond ordinary human measure.”1

 Potential Energy: it could fall
“They are filled with potential energy that could be released if they were to fall over.”7

Landscape at Vetheuil, by Claude Monet

Landscape at Vetheuil, by Claude Monet

Both Horizontal and Vertical lines
“Horizontal and vertical lines in combination communicate stability and solidity. Rectilinear forms stay put in relation to gravity, and are not likely to tip over. This stability suggests permanence, reliability and safety.”1

Laocoön and His Sons, and Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and Polydoros

Laocoön and His Sons, by Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and Polydoros

Diagonal lines
– Drama: constant instability
“Diagonal lines are unbalanced. They are filled with restless and uncontrolled energy…Their kinetic energy and apparent movement creates tension and excitement. Diagonal lines are more dramatic than either horizontal or vertical lines.”7
“imply movement and are visually active and dynamic; they attract attention and can add drama, but they can be disturbing unless supported by verticals or opposing diagonals. Too many oblique lines can make the interior restless.” (Whew! Talk about your genre metaphors!)

– Kinetic Energy: your eyes are moving in a direction
“suggest a feeling of movement or direction. Since objects in a diagonal position are unstable in relation to gravity, being neither vertical nor horizontal, they are either about to fall, or are already in motion”1
“They can appear to be either rising or falling and convey action and motion.”7
“In a two dimensional composition diagonal lines are also used to indicate depth, an illusion of perspective that pulls the viewer into the picture-creating an illusion of a space that one could move about within.”1

Yes, I definitely make this topic a bit more complicated than anyone else…ever. But at least now I have something to back-up my “this [orientation] inspires stability” comments.

1. Jirousek, Charlotte. “Introduction to the Elements of Design: Point”. Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, Cornell University. 1995. Web. Accessed 24 July 2013.

2. Colli, Cristina. “Design Basics series: line, shape, form”. Web. Accessed 24 July 2013.

3. Cox, Kenyon. “What Is Painting? Part II. Painting as an Art of Relation”. The Art World, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Jan. 1917), pp. 245-250. Web. Accessed 24 July 2013.

4. “How Vision Works”. Posit Science. Web. Accessed 24 July 2013.

5. Heeger, David. “Perception Lecture Notes: LGN and V1.” Department of Psychology, New York University. 2006. Web. Accessed 24 July 2013.
6. Kellogg, Ronald T. Fundamentals of Cognitive Psychology. Sage Publications, Inc. 2007.

7. Bradley, Steven. “The Meaning of Line: Developing a Visual Grammar.” Vanseo Design. 29 March 2010. Web. Accessed 26  July 2013.

8. Lidwel, William l, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions. Rockport Publishers, 2010. page 176.

9. Simos, Panagiotis G. Vision in the Brain. Taylor & Francis, 2002. page 89.


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