“Columbus egg”, that is, about drawing the thinnest line in painting

An ancient historian from the 1st century — Pliny the Elder — in his 37-volume encyclopedia titled Natural history, compiled knowledge gathered from works of about 200 authors, thanks to which he preserved the echoes of lost writings and information about the Greek world for posterity, which included many stories concerning art.
It was he who repeated the now famous anecdote about the dispute between Apelles — the greatest painter of his time — and another representative of this craft: Protogenes. Apelles — once he had heard of the fame of his competitor — went to Rhodes to see his works. However, he did not find the painter at home, while a board ready to be painted was set on the easel, watched by an old woman. When she asked Apelles who was visiting, the painter grabbed the brush and drew an extremely thin line through the centre of the painting, then he replied: “That’s who.” When Protogenes came back and heard the story about what had apparently occurred, he immediately recognized the opponent. He took the brush and drew an even thinner line through the middle of the painting using another colour. He ordered the old woman to present the picture to Apelles by saying, “this is the one he is looking for”. When he arrived the next day and saw that he had been defeated, he drew an even thinner line through the middle of his opponent’s line using the third colour. The line was so thin, that he could not be defeated. Once Protogenes had seen the painting, he paid tribute to the winner. The board — on which only three intersecting lines had been painted — was given to posterity to admire the highest artistry. Unfortunately, the work was not preserved, because it was destroyed in a fire at Caesar’s house in 4 BC. There is nothing strange about the fact that the craft’s quality and the mastery of a painter was measured by the thickness of the drawn line. Drawing was the first stage of creating a painting, and learning this skill was the basis of painting. Each character and object was contoured. The line created shapes which were later filled with colour, making them spacious and deep; the hair structure was drawn with a line. As an aside, this method was opposed only by Leonardo da Vinci, who questioned the existence of a contour in nature, and thus its use in painting at the end of the 15th century.
Was it possible to go further than Apelles and cut through the thinnest painting line? Yes. The proverbial “Columbus egg” — a simple solution to a difficult issue — were the Concetto spaziale (from Italian “spatial concept”) paintings by Lucio Fontana from the mid-1950s. The artist cut the canvas, creating the thinnest possible line on its surface. At the same time, he created a spatial work out of a two-dimensional plane. Interestingly, the relationship between these two paintings becomes much more evident once the description of the painting — created as a consequence of the ancient artists’ dispute according to Pliny the Elder — is quoted and compared with the works of Fontana:

It was great and contained nothing but lines, almost invisible, so that it might seem empty when juxtaposed with the exquisite works of other artists, but that was the reason why it caught the eye and looked more noble than any other painting.


Check the meaning of the line and the outline in the following paintings on the website of Malopolska’s Virtual Museums, Triptych of St. Mary Magdalene; the icon Our Lady Hodegetria.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial Team of Malopolskas Virtual Museums),
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Myśliciele, kronikarze i artyści o sztuce. Od starożytności do 1500, oprac. Jan Białostocki, Warszawa 1988.