Great Works: Monteur John Heartfield (1920), George Grosz

Museum of Modern Art, New York

We often think that colour is the most elusive medium. There are a thousand hues, a million hues, and we can never hope to identify them. It is where their mysterious power lies. On the other hand, lines are considered to be most definite elements of art.

But draftsmanship has a palette as large as any colourist. And if we could notice all the possible marks, how many kinds could there be? Well, let's restrict ourselves, for a start, to pure, even and continuous lines – and with no breaks, dots, dashes or vague fades-away.

There are straight lines. That seems clear enough. There are regular curves. There are zigzag lines. There are wavy lines. And these lines sound quite clear, too. Still, you couldn't tell exactly what a "zigzag" line would look like, just from this name. And as for "wavy", this name might mean serpentine or it might mean peaked. The everyday language of line, which seems so simple, is already confusing. And as for the coiled, the looped, the curly, the tangled, the doodled, the scribbled... well, these lines could lead anywhere.

We might want a more technical language. And in fact such a language does exist. There is the traditional code of heraldry, offering a wide range of lines, each one defining a fixed contour. These could be helpful: nebuly (cloudy), dentilly (saw tooth), rayonny (sun rays), ingrailed (thought-bubble), invected (toast bite) etc. They have the advantage of precision. On the other hand, this code also gets pointless rather quickly, because it names many lines we hardly ever deal with.

Besides, why should such terminology be needed? Is there any useful precision in the field of draftsmanship, given that real lines are often infinitely elusive? Yes. It would be handy to recognise a large and definite repertoire of lines – just so long as, at the same time, we should recognise that freely drawn lines are something else. No lines are without basic character. All lines have particular identities, which support the strength of a drawing. For example, try the very emphatic lines used in this image by George Grosz.

This picture is itself a portrait. It is named for Monteur John Heartfield, after his colleague, the communist collage artist. "Monteur" means "engineer", as opposed to fine artist. Pieces of collage are added to this scene. Heartfield is shown imprisoned for his resistance to war service, in a bare cell. But in fact the likeness itself is not Heartfield. This portrait is recognisably Grosz's own head. And this work shows the typical power of his penmanship.

Ignore the elements of collage, and the watercolour too. This drawing is composed of very few and clear and regular ink lines. Some of them are rule-straight – like his lips. Some of them are nearly compass-curved – like his brow. And beyond that, these lines are steered around very slow spirals or bending graphs. The outlines are hand-drawn, but they insist upon the rigid forms.

These strict edges are metaphors too. This portrait as an engineer is declared by his quasi-geometrical lines; his body is made by his engineering tools and templates. More than that, its linear character matches the hard and heartless motives of this figure. His face is set, and his head is a bullet. His hands, though, are less mechanical, more pudgy and feral. They are rough scatterings of hair over his chin, crown and fists. But this is only a minor bit of personality.

So this is a drawing with very deliberate and limited resources. In the repertoire here, there is nothing wavy, nothing zigzag, nothing loopy, nothing tangled. Grosz's drawing is supported by only two named elements, and it's important to identify them: the straight and the curved. It's true that these lines have a slight freedom, but there is very little fluctuation in these very cool, hard, taut, definite lines. This is what gives the force of this picture. Or partly.

For this is a further thing. It can be almost invisible, but it is the crucial effect. His drawn lines are in fact not simply continuous. At one level they may appear to be even and pure. But at another, closer level you can see that each line is made out of tiny broken pen scratches, overlapping, like barbed wires.

Violence enters into this subliminal draughtsmanship. Go round the outline of the bonce, for instance. It may need an examining eye or a magnifying glass, but it has a graphic presence. It's what makes this tension felt, between the cool and the cut. So this is a different register of edge: it's a kind of twofold line, both continuous and broken. A new wider palette is needed.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

George Grosz (1893-1959) was a rare case of a great crossover - like Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec, both illustrator and artist. He Anglicized his name during the First World War, as an anti-patriotic gesture. He drew savage caricatures of Berlin society, scenes of sex and greed and violence, in his cutting ink-line. He joined the Berlin artistic avant-garde, with sharp collage and furious apocalyptic paintings. He was a big lefty. But his years of genius were brief: all over by the early Twenties. His later work, in Germany, and then in America in exile from Hitler, gets more and more sloppy.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit