16 Lessons in Lines (1999)

16 Lessons in Lines is a retrospective of my Visual Studies teaching since joining the Department of Architecture of the University of Hong Kong five years ago. The Line Drawing class in the Visual Studies syllabus offers incoming students introductory lessons in art and architecture with an emphasis in architectonic concepts and presentation techniques. There is no restriction to the breadth of material covered as long as the teaching remains lively and inspiring.

Years ago, when I first studied architecture, a drawing class somewhat similar to the Line Drawing class I now conduct was also given once a week for three hours in the afternoon. The teacher always managed to come up with a challenging problem that kept us working throughout class hours. The drawing materials were limited to a large drawing pad and two 2H pencils, which were to be sharpened constantly with a knife and a sand paper block. Erasers and rulers were strictly forbidden. I cannot quite recall what transpired during those lessons but am left with an impression of my intense concentration, because my drawings were collected at the end of each class and I never saw them again. The whole experience was rather surrealistic.

However, those lessons played an important role in my life. The seeds that were sown began to sprout many years later. I must admit that during my five years of architectural training, it was the drawing class, more than any other subject, which I most enjoyed and from which I still benefit. It is no coincidence that it is now my turn to pass down the lessons to a new generation, although the revised and expanded edition contains all my personalized interpretations and revelations. To be able to do that is simply remarkable.

In principle, I try to achieve the maximum with minimal means, whether in design, art, research or teaching. For example, in photography, I rely only on a single 55 mm-micro lens and relatively trouble-free slide films for all assignments. Instead of darkroom tricks or other fancy technical support, I stress a concentration of mind and keen observation. My line drawing is carried out with the same convictions. One can journey the whole world with only a sketchbook and a felt tip pen. Even though it may sound too fantastic, I have actually practiced this for years.

In Class

Not that they are unimportant elsewhere, enthusiasm and naiveté are essential in the Line Drawing class. It is not difficult to understand why I prefer to deal with a blank sheet rather than with a mind full of preconceived ideas. It is crucial to enlighten our students’ sensitivity to the world around them. Architecture speaks in a conceptual language. The vocabulary of such a language derives from common sense and living culture. Design is all about the searching of life’s meaning amid life’s activities; inflexible preconceptions only deter learning.

At the start of the term, I set up three rules – avoid lateness, absences and sloppiness. Before every lesson, the previous week’s assignment is pinned up for all to see. Also, since drowsiness invariably follows a hearty lunch, students are excused to leave the classroom anytime to wash up or to walk around and return to class refreshed.

As a rule, I supplement each new lesson with an explanation that seems to confuse rather than clarify. Students invariably react with puzzlement or helplessness, especially because I never demonstrate. The mutual stare between teacher and students is quite humorous. A sign of normality returns only when they can no longer hold out from putting down the first line. Some students even rely on a shut-eye meditation before execution.

I then proceed to examine the line work around the room. After some practice, the students are given the opportunity to look at each other’s work. This has the effect of consoling their insecurities — no, I’m no worse than the others. They then return to their seats only to practice some more. Only when I feel comfortable with everyone’s initial trials do I call all to gather around the pinned up drawings and engage in a review.


The review, also known as ‘crit’, is the moment of truth in Line Drawing classes as well as in any design studio. Good designs can be universally recognized, but the design approach varies from person to person and also by time and place. Individual background, personality, interpretation and approach determine the outcome of a myriad of designs. It is extremely difficult to assess the merits of an individual design, and to judge a design by personal preference or by a biased standard is a sure way to bankrupt one’s credibility.

The objective during a review is to understand the designer’s intentions and process, and to use those to evaluate his final product. What is the basis of his viewpoint? How does he make his assumptions, interpretations, analyses and deductions? How does he conceptualize, set the limitations, resolve and excel? How does he present, respond, argue and convince? The fact that the presenter is being scrutinized under the watchful eyes of the audience and the unpredictable ways of the real critic – the teacher – can allow the review to evolve into a lively debate. Teachers and students alike benefit from such proceedings, for the problems are often stripped naked and torn open for a rational examination. The result is always a clearer understanding of the problems.

I find that constant encouragement, responsible criticism, constructive admonishment and the occasional complement never fail to inspire learning interest and fire up the aptitude engine. It works repeatedly and I intend continued application. The exception: someone overflowing with confidence and self-awareness, who can afford to ignore either praise or defamation, who progresses at his own pace and critical criterion, and who is in full grip of his own fate.

During a review, I often raise controversial views and throw students off track. Their reactions range from quick wit to frozen expression. Just as often, I ask each to instantly respond without allowing a moment for thought or digestion. The more intuitive the reflexes and the more undisguised the answers, the more appreciative I am. When students show genuine ignorance in response to my questions, I rephrase the questions instead of letting them off the hook. From time to time, a student sidetracks the ongoing challenge and poses a tricky and sticky question to me. I more than welcome such a gesture and praise the student for it. Then I elevate the question to an altar and treat the question sacredly. I either reach into my resources for an exhaustive historical and theoretical discussion or present a razor-sharp, Zen-like answer to plug the questioning. At other times, I resort to a step-by-step strip-away method in order to delay the revelations. 

When review moves into high gear, the recitation begins to take on the form of theatrical audition while bodily gesture flows right out of the cuckoo’s nest. Chest pounding, abdomen hugging, wall banging and floor stomping provide the percussion of the orchestration. All this may seem highly unconventional, but only question and answer sessions of such intensity can facilitate the traffic and flow of the mind.

Asking Questions

Why should I stress the asking of questions to such an extent? Does it matter in our learning process whether we realize the existence of problems, the heart of the problem, ask the intelligent questions or challenge authority? The problem is really this: our students either do not ask questions or are afraid of asking. This roadblock to learning had reached crisis level and yet the students still display indifference.

Generally speaking, students who are accepted to the Department of Architecture not only excel academically, but are gifted in one way or another. Surviving the examination hell, most remain children at heart with irrepressible free spirits. Growing up under the traditional family influence, the collective consciousness overrides individualism and thereby results in a harmonious and cooperative atmosphere.

On the surface, students appear obedient, quiet, passive and cool, but their thin veils can hardly disguise the aggressive attitude in their pursuit of knowledge and excellence. When challenged, students react quickly with a trademark gusto and thoroughness. What surprises me most is that, despite fierce competition, they all remain close and helpful to others in need, much like family.

Regrettably, student-teacher relationships remain lukewarm, to put it mildly. Students would rather keep their distance with teachers than to engage in dialogue. Instead of asking for clarification during classes, they would wait until after classes to exchange vague impressions among themselves. This is a tremendous loss for both students and teachers. Students should realize that teachers were once students and will remain students for life. There is no end to learning.

Learning to Draw

Formulae and techniques should neither be the points of departure nor be the means for learning to draw, to design and to appreciate art and life. They are no more than necessary knowledge to be digested, filtered and metabolized. Failing that, we head into a cul-de-sac and remain entrapped. On the other hand, without technique or with poorly mastered technique, we do not go the distance. Cheng chu tsai hsiung, or being in possession of full confidence, is not an unobtainable goal. If, by relying on learned techniques or memorized formulae, the creation is already set before execution, then it is only a mass-produced specimen or kitsch. It is not even worth a glance.

Learning to draw requires a four-pronged effort – cultivation of common sense, appreciation of life, refinement of knowledge and the updating of concept. Combined with audacity, sensitivity, concentration and sincerity, one can then move on to manifest personality, character, thought and style. In due time, inspiration and vitality will greet one’s work naturally and ceaselessly. 

Line Work

During the first lesson, I ask the students the definition of a line and the meaning of it. The students are incredulous of my deliberate questioning. They probably think, “Just connect two points, stupid!” This may be correct as far as the math textbook is concerned, but looking closely at objects all around us and imagining all possible phenomena, we begin to realize the ambivalence and ambiguity in lines, whether straight, crooked, thick, thin, smooth, undulating, orderly or irregular. Furthermore, lines are generally the result of either intersecting or adjoining planes and silhouettes of people or objects. There hardly exists any independent line of crispness or clarity in the visual sense, much less in nature. Even lines drawn with the aid of a ruler, compass or laser printer appear to be fuzzy and incoherent close-up. Lines, after all, exist within the framework of abstract geometry and conceptual projection and therefore lack any substance.

With such understanding, our perception of lines moves to a more realistic level. Without a doubt, hand-drawn lines are distinct from person to person, much like fingerprints or other personal traits. It is unreasonable to expect identical line work from two persons with different appearance, behavior, background and mentality. In other words, spending a lifetime in deliberate imitation of someone else’s line work is not only an unnatural act, it is utterly foolish.

If all lines display individuality, how then is it possible to judge individual merit? Again, using human form and voice as an example: a person endowed with refined facial features and a perfectly proportioned body is called a “beauty.” Similarly, one blessed with an acoustically pleasing melodic voice coupled with musically sounding intonations, is also called a “beauty.” However, without the support of certain virtues in areas such as personality, skill, cultivation and charisma, this beauty would be seen as tacky and shallow, and would not be able to stand the test of time.

Therefore, intelligent people overlook superficiality and hold dear inner substance. Showing respect for personality is comparable to honoring humanity. Personality is shaped by inherited characteristics and social environment, and is further enhanced by continuous interaction between our survival instinct and willpower. Recognizing individuality rather than generality is an affirmation whether people are born equal or unequal. With different constitutions of fate, fortune and feng shui, all individuals aspire to pursue their own goals.

I have always believed that the ultimate aim of drawing is self-expression; a drawing that represents time, place or ethnic culture is probably coincidental. Every drawing, lighthearted or serious, is but an autobiographical self-portrait. It is a self-motivated monologue, self-induced entertainment, self-inflicted grievance and self-centered proclamation.

Skill and technique are two faces of the same coin, acquired and developed with constant practice. Anyone can draw a line, but mastering it is something else. The secret lies in what you want the line to say and how to say it. Whether your line can be understood or needs to be understood shouldn’t really matter. When the effort reaches critical stage, consciousness of techniques fades out while creative impulse fades in; thus giving birth to art.

Lines drawn under self-consciousness can hardly match those made under semi-consciousness. It has to do with a state of mind I called ‘suspended consciousness,’ which is neither disorientation nor unconsciousness. Instead, it is total dedication as a result of mental emancipation from reality’s burden and constraint. ‘Suspended consciousness’ enables one to reach meditative depth, an auto-pilot mode.  At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I put forward such observations because they seem so obviously true. All along, I have strived to dispel preconceptions and puncture myths. Had it not been personal experience, I would have refrained from spreading a heresy. 

Some students in my Line Drawing class can, within a short time, learn to draw with such proficiency and expressive power that I can only give credit to their intense interest, industry, concentration, and most of all, the ‘suspended consciousness’ in addition to their innocence and youthfulness. It is a pity that with the end of the semester, once the student-teacher dialogue ceases, comes the collapse of passion and devotion. The reason for such phenomenon is quite apparent: a lack of firm foundation, theoretical basis and diligent practice. However, the limited experience is to be treasured. Years from now, when situation allows, an injection of passion might just rejuvenate or even surpass the previous performance.

Cultivation and charisma actually derive from life’s revelations. When learning to draw, excessive rules and restrictions and a dearth of encouragement and enlightenment can turn a promising student into a dummy. On the other hand, indulgent spurts of idea and imagination can cause a rapid depletion of resources and exhaustion of potentials whereby interest is irretrievably lost. Cultivation and charisma are about avoiding a flippant attitude and expecting no immediate gratification. Self-discipline and perseverance will reap incremental harvest by daily practice of recollection and reflection. One naturally embodies cultivation and charisma by the enrichment, scrutiny and embrace of life.

A line of vitality may be compared to a person with flesh and spirit. Flesh absorbs nutrients, water, air and sunlight, while spirit reflects various ingredients that constitute vitality or the lack thereof it. A dynamic line not only exhibits primitive wiggling and quivering, it also expresses the human odyssey –repose, limping, crawling, rambling, crisscrossing, roaming, galloping and soaring. All are for the resonance of vibrant energy.


During another lesson, I ask the students how to draw a hand. One suggests spreading the palm flat on a table and tracing the outline. Some propose to show accuracy of anatomy by revealing the subtle variations in muscles and joints. Others believe that depicting the hairs and wrinkles realistically best symbolize truth and wisdom. Then I continue with a follow-up question: how does one render the hand alive? Silence falls immediately. Most people who are engaged in either making or appreciating a drawing demand similitude instead of vitality. This is not surprising because we are amateurs when it comes to art and are reluctant to invest time and effort to cross the artistic threshold.

Theoretically and conceptually speaking, to render a hand alive, or anything for that matter, is as easy as a flip of the palm – just think of it as being alive. Is it really that simple? A hand is one of four appendages on a human body. The brain and eyes coordinate its sense of touch and maneuver. The hand consists of bone, muscles, joints, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, skin and hairs, each performing a specific function. Before attempting to draw the hand, it is advisable to seriously consider its dynamic and static qualities. If all this is living proof enough, then one can easily render the hand alive using one’s intuitive sense. Technique is merely secondary, and not a prerequisite. Therefore, I dare say that it does not take great masters to depict the hand with sensitivity; any streetwise graffiti artist or kindergarten child can come up with pulsating lines with throbbing sensations.

So you have rendered the hand alive. This is only the first step in the thorough understanding of a microscopic portion of the natural world. What is to understand? Structure, that’s what!

Now take another example: drawing a tree. Imagine a mature tree with a distinguished presence – a gigantic trunk full of knots capped by a magnificent canopy of branches and leaves. This is not an easy task by any means, but we should not immediately resort to imitating the simplistic and lazy methods employed by too many an artist. Those quick-sketch ways of rendering a tree can only be habitual reflexes of formulae developed out of blind observations and no benefit is likely to come out of it. In order to do away with such desensitized practices and redress the whole issue, we have to start anew and embrace the tree with our mind and soul before drawing. Discern all details, microscopically and macroscopically, and observe from the point of view of the tree. We cannot rush into it.

Furthermore, do not overlook the fact that beside the trunk and boughs, a tree comes with underground roots. Like a human body, a tree is an immense system of biochemistry – the absorption and transportation of water and nutrients, the alternate cycles of photosynthesis, the cantilevered framework capable of resisting climatic and geotectonic tests, the spatial composition which allows the unobstructed inter-flow of air and sunlight despite the dense foliage. From birth, a tree necessarily endures ruthless cycles of harm and ravage brought about by disease, insects, birds, animals, natural disaster and human devastation. Despite all odds against its survival, the tree instinctively and fearlessly expands in all directions and marches toward prosperity and glory, even though decline inevitably follows after the pinnacle.

The moment it emerges from the ground, a tree bloats exponentially and seeks to turn and twist at every opportunity. Never meant for a trouble-free upbringing, a tree grows strong and resilient, reaching great height and breadth; never purposely pursuing everlasting youthfulness, a tree enjoys the seasonal cycles and celebrates the juvenile spring year after year. When the wind is calm, a tree exhibits dignity and stability; in a gentle breeze, it swings and sways; under a storm, it rages and roars. All these trigger our imagination and resonance and, in turn, cause all the lines, colors, thoughts and concepts to vigorously collide and interact, thereby orchestrating a heart-shaking and soul-stirring symphonic performance named tien-jen-he-i, or nature and man as one. Such scene and such vision inspire my own drawings.

What is in common between a magnificent tree in the open wilderness and a lonely tree in the corner of a courtyard? Trees are themselves a perfect species capable of self-generation and self-propagation, a species infinitely more deeply rooted and entrenched than mankind. Visually or analytically speaking, the form of a tree is unassailable. Despite its myriad variety and shapes, some aspects remain unchanged: the delightfully inflecting silhouettes, the spongy and fluid canopy, and the ever-shifting equilibrium of dynamics and static. Only a flexible existence that encompasses a three-dimensional symmetry that is not monotonous, a geometric volume that is not rigid, and a constant encounter that does not become boredom, can stand between heaven and earth. It is an independent and indomitable presence that can proudly withstand both the immensity of open space and the narrowness of the courtyard niche.

Then how do we go on to depict the vividness of trees? Some natural laws are not to be violated: the expression of concealed energy and the subtle changes in girth from trunk to branch. Since we have already recognized the vital signs of trees, the line drawings should somehow reflect the exertion by trees to reach up and spread wide, avoiding at all costs the metallic slipperiness or noodle-like impotency. A center-weighted brush stroke method projects three-dimensionality. There are plenty of tree varieties in our backyard garden to observe carefully before putting down decisive lines. Remember, draw a living tree!


Composition is inseparable from lines and structure. It is so full of possibilities that one can neither generalize nor itemize. If lines already vary according to people, place and time, one cannot even begin to speak of composition. However, believe it or not, original and ground breaking compositions may make their appearances anytime and anywhere. New terrain, from underground archaeological fieldwork to outer space exploration and from research in cultural relics to culling the discarded, may be discovered and rediscovered. The burden is on the ones with thinking eye.

If composition is inappropriate for discussion, how is it fit for classroom topic? I mentioned earlier that drawings are the self-expressions of the artist and that lines should reveal substances, that a structure should stand on its own, with an inner rationale and an outer logic, loaded with emotion and be able to withstand the odds against it. All these may be added up to qualify as a simplistic definition for composition.

Let me put this another way. Assume that one day, somewhere, someone walks through a quiet neighborhood. Though his mind is preoccupied with sundry things, he casually surveys the scene. Suddenly, inspiration calls and everything around him illuminates. A fateful encounter is at hand - the environment that he is so familiar with and yet never really observed is full of life and action. The otherwise silent objects all wear friendly countenances and seem excited for the occasion. Each object begins to respond and reach out, joining in a chorus. He feels that he has become the center of commotion and therefore he has to believe. The very ordinary man and the very ordinary scene have struck up a momentary and a lasting relationship.

Before he realizes what is happening, he begins to transform; his body, his heart’s pulse, his breathing rhythm and his movements’ pattern are merging with the moment. His eyes, reduced and condensed from his body, snap up the split-second window opportunity before the transformation is completed. He is able to witness the dress rehearsal of human drama – a drawn out serial soap opera; and observe the variations on the elapse of time – a never-ending single act show. He then ascends, glances afar and evanesces.

Here, in vast reserve, are hints of nature’s compositions. Let’s carry on with our search.

Sun-chang Lo