Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter i

Origin and Function of Outline — Silhouette — Definition of Boundaries by — Power of Characterization by — Formation of Letters — Methods of Drawing in Line — The Progressive Method — The Calligraphic Method — The Tentative Method — The Japanese Direct Brush Method — The Oval Method — The Rectangular Method — Quality of Line — Linear Expression of Movement — Textures — Emotion — Scale of Linear Expression.

Outline, one might say, is the Alpha and Omega of Art. It is the earliest mode of expression among primitive peoples, as it is with the individual child, and it has been cultivated for its power of characterization and expression, and as an ultimate test of draughtsmanship, by the most accomplished artists of all time.

The old fanciful story of its origin in the work of a lover who traced in charcoal the boundary of the shadow of the head of his sweetheart as cast upon the wall by the sun, and thus obtained the first profile portrait, is probably more true in substance than in fact, but it certainly illustrates the function of outline as the definition of the boundaries of form.


As children we probably perceive forms in nature defined as flat shapes of colour relieved upon other colours, or flat fields of light on dark, as a white horse is defined upon the green grass of a field, or a black figure upon a background of snow.


Definition of Boundaries

To define the boundaries of such forms becomes the main object in early attempts at artistic expression. The attention is caught by the edges — the shape of the silhouette which remains the paramount means of distinction of form when details and secondary characteristics are lost; as the outlines of mountains remain, or are even more clearly seen, when distance subdues the details of their structure, and evening mists throw them into flat planes one behind the other, and leave nothing but the delicate lines of their edges to tell their character. We feel the beauty and simplicity of such effects in nature. We feel that the mind, through the eye resting upon these quiet planes and delicate lines, receives a sense of repose and poetic suggestion which is lost in the bright noontide, with all its wealth of glittering detail, sharp cut in light and shade. There is no doubt that this typical power of outline and the value of simplicity of mass were perceived by the ancients, notably the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks, who both, in their own ways, in their art show a wonderful power of characterization by means of line and mass, and a delicate sense of the ornamental value and quality of line.

Coast and Mountain Lines, Gulf of Nauplia

Formation of Letters

Regarding line — the use of outline from the point of view of its value as a means of definition of form and fact — its power is really only limited by the power of draughtsmanship at the command of the artist. From the archaic potters' primitive figures or the rudimentary attempts of children at human or animal forms up to the most refined outlines of a Greek vase-painter, or say the artist of the Dream of Poliphilus, the difference is one of degree. The tyro with the pen, learning to write, splotches and scratches, and painfully forms trembling, limping O's and A's, till with practice and habitude, almost unconsciously, the power to form firm letters is acquired.

Writing, after all, is but a simpler form of drawing, and we know that the letters of our alphabet were originally pictures or symbols. The main difference is that writing stops short with the acquisition of the purely useful power of forming letters and words, and is seldom pursued for the sake of its beauty or artistic qualities as formerly; while drawing continually leads on to new difficulties to be conquered, to new subtleties of line, and fresh fascinations in the pursuit of distinction and style.

Proportions of Roman Capital Letters and Method of Drawing Them (From Albert Dürer's “;Geometrica”;).

The practice of forming letters with the pen or brush, from good types, Roman and Gothic, however, would afford very good preliminary practice to a student of line and form. The hand would acquire directness of stroke and touch, while the eye would grow accustomed to good lines of composition and simple constructive forms. The progressive nature of writing — the gradual building up of the forms of the letters — and the necessity of dealing with recurring forms and lines, also, would bear usefully upon after work in actual design. Albert Dürer in his "Geometrica" gives methods on which to draw the Roman capitals, and also the black letters, building the former upon the square and its proportions, the thickness of the down strokes being one-eighth of square, the thin strokes being one-sixteenth, and the serifs being turned by circles of one-fourth and one-eighth diameter. The capital O, it will be noted, is formed of two circles struck diagonally.

Proportions of Lower-Case German Text and Method of Drawing the Letters (From Albert Dürer's “;Geometrica”;).

Methods of Drawing in Line

Letters may be taken as the simplest form of definition by means of line. They have been reduced through centuries of use from their primitive hieroglyphic forms to their present arbitrary and fixed types, though even these fixed types are subject to the variation produced by changes of taste and fancy.

But when we come to unformulated nature — to the vast world of complex forms, ever changing their aspect, full of life and movement, trees, flowers, woods and waters, birds, beasts, fishes, the human form — the problem how to represent any of these forms, to express and characterize them by means of so abstract a method as line-drawing, seems at first difficult enough.

But since the growth of perception, like the power of graphic representation, is gradual and partial, though progressive, the eye and the mind are generally first impressed with the salient features and leading characteristics of natural forms, just as the child's first idea of a human form is that of a body with four straight limbs, with a preponderating head. That is the first impression, and it is unhesitatingly recorded in infantine outline.

The first aim, then, in drawing anything in line is to grasp the general truths of form, character, and expression.

The Progressive Method

There are various methods of proceeding in getting an outline of any object or figure. To begin with, the student might begin progressively defining the form by a series of stages in this way. Take the profile of a bird, for instance; the form might be gradually built up by the combination of a series of lines:


or take the simpler form of a flask bottle:


or a jar on the same principle:


or, simpler still, a leaf form, putting in the stem first with one stroke (1):


and building the form around it (2, 3).

The Calligraphic Method


This might be termed the calligraphic method of drawing; and in this method facility of hand might be further practised by attempting the definition of forms by continuous strokes, or building it up by as few strokes as possible. The simpler types of ornament consisting of meandering and flowing lines can all be produced in this way, i.e., by continuous line, as well as natural forms treated in a certain abstract or conventional way, which adapts them to decoration.

The Tentative Method


Another method is to sketch in lightly guide lines for main masses, building a sort of scaffolding of light lines to assist the eye in getting the correct outline in its place, using vertical centre lines for symmetrical forms to get the poise right. This is the method very generally in use, but I think it very desirable to practise direct drawing as well, to acquire certainty of eye and facility of hand; and one must not mind failure at first, as this kind of power and facility is so much a matter of practice.


The Japanese Direct Brush Method

The Japanese, who draw with the brush, have accustomed themselves to draw in a direct manner without any preliminary sketching, and the charm of their work is largely owing to that crisp freshness of touch only possible to their direct method. The great object is to establish a perfectly intimate correspondence between eye and hand, so that the latter will record what the former perceives.

Abundant specimens of the freedom and naturalism of the modern school of Japanese artists in this direct brush method may be found in the work of Bari, Hiroshigi, and Hokusai, and in the numerous prints and books of designs from their hands. To all draughtsmen and designers they are most valuable to study for their direct method and simple means of expression of form and fact. Accidental as they frequently seem in composition, the placing of the drawing upon the paper is carefully considered before starting, and this, of course, is always a very important point.

Yet another method of drawing, more especially in relation to the drawing of the human figure and animal forms, I may mention as a help to those who do not feel strong enough for the direct method. At the same time it must be borne in mind that we can accustom ourselves to any method; and the more dependent we become upon a single method, the less facility we shall have for working in any other. But for all that it is desirable to master one method — that is, to be able to draw in line freely in one way or another — and experience and practice alone will enable us to find the method most satisfactory.

The Oval and Rectangular Methods


The Rectangular Method

This other method is to block in the principal masses of the forms we desire to represent by means of a series of ovals, as shown in the illustration, and when we have got the masses in their proper relations, to proceed to draw in the careful outline of the figure, or whatever it may be, upon this substructure of guiding lines, correcting as we go along. It would be quite possible to work on the same principle, but upon a structure of more or less rectangular masses. The real use of the method is to assist the student to get a grasp of the relation of the masses of a figure and a sense of structure in drawing; whether square or oval blocking in is used may be a matter of choice. It may be said for the oval forms that they resemble the contours of the structure in human and animal forms.

If one had a tendency to round one's forms too much, it would be well to try the rectangular method to correct this, and vice versâ.

After a certain facility has been acquired in rendering form by means of line, we shall perceive further capacities of expression in its use, and begin to note how different characteristics of form and natural fact may be expressed by varying the quality of our outline.

If we are drawing a plant or a flower, for instance, we should endeavour to show by the quality of our line the difference between the fine springing curves in the structure of the lily, the solid seed-centre and stiff radiation of the petals of the daisy, and the delicate silky folds of the poppy.

Quality of Line

Lines of Characterization in the Form and Feature of Flowers: Lily and Poppy.

But, as leaves come before flowers, it would be best to begin with leaf forms and try to express the character of oak and beech, lime and chestnut leaves, for instance, by means of outline. Probably at first we shall feel dissatisfied with our outline as not being full enough: it may look meagre in quality and small in definition of form. This probably arises from not allowing enough space — from setting the outline too much within the boundary of the form. To correct this one cannot do better than block in the form of the object we are drawing (leaf, flower, or figure) with a full brush in black silhouette, placing the object against the light or white paper, so that its true boundary may be seen uninterfered with by surface markings or shadows, and, concentrating our attention upon the edge, follow it as carefully as possible with the solid black. Then, if we compare the result with our outline, it will help to show where it has failed; and the practice of thus blocking in with the brush in solid silhouette will tend to encourage a larger style of drawing, since good outline means good perception of mass; and as a general principle in drawing, it may be recommended to place one's outline outside the silhouette boundary of the form rather than within it; that is to say, when the figure or object is relieved in light against dark, as the line in that case defines the edge against the background. When the figure or object appears as dark upon a light ground, however, the outline should be within the silhouette, obviously, or its delicate boundary is lost.

Silhouette of Beech Leaves and Line Rendering of the Same.

Linear Expression of Movement

Another important attribute of line is its power of expressing or suggesting movement. By a law of inseparable association, undulating lines approaching the horizontal, or leading down to it, are connected with the sense of repose; whereas broken curves and rectangular lines always suggest action and unrest, or the resistance to force of some kind.

Lines of Movement

The recurrence of a series of lines in the same direction in a kind of crescendo or wave-like movement suggests continuous pressure of force in the same direction, as in this series of instantaneous actions of a man bowling, where the line drawn through or touching the highest points in each figure takes the line of the curve of a wave. The wave-line, indeed, may be said not only to suggest movement, but also to describe its direction and force. It is, in fact, the line of movement. The principle may be seen in a simpler way, as Hogarth points out in his "Analysis of Beauty," by observing the line described along a wall by the head of a man walking along the street. Or, as we may see sometimes near the coast, trees exposed to the constant pressure of the wind illustrate this recurrence of lines in the same direction governing their general shape; and as each tree is forced to spread in the direction away from the wind, the effect is that of their being always struggling against its pressure even in the calmest weather; and this is entirely due to our association of wind-movement with this peculiar linear expression.

Lines Expressive of Movement: Effect of Wind Upon Trees

Flowing water, again, is expressed by certain recurring wave-lines, which remind us of the ancient linear symbols of the zigzag and meander used from the earliest times to express water. In the streams that channel the sands of the sea-shore when the tide recedes we may see beautiful flowing lines, sometimes crossing like a network, and sometimes running into a series of shell-like waves; while the sands themselves are ribbed and channelled and modelled by the recurring movement of the waves, which leave upon them the impress and the expression of their motion (much as in a more delicate medium the air-currents impress the fields of cloud, and give them their characteristic forms).

Line Arrangement In Ribbed Sea Sand

Linear Expression of Textures

Textures and surfaces, too, fall within the range of linear expression. One would naturally use lines of totally different consistency and character to express rough or smooth surfaces: to express the difference of value, for instance, between the ivory-like smoothness of an egg and the scaly surface of a pine-cone, entirely different qualities of line are obviously wanted. The firm-set yet soft feathers of the plumage of a bird must be rendered by a very different touch from the shining scales of a fish. The hair and horns of animals, delicate human features, flowers, the sinuous lines of thin drapery, or the broad massive folds of heavy robes, all demand from the designer and draughtsman in line different kinds of suggestive expression, a translation or rendering of natural fact subordinate to the artistic purpose of his work, and in relation to the material and purpose for which he works.

Linear Expression of Emotion

Lines of Different Textures, Structures, and Surfaces.

Then, again, when we come to the expression of ideas — of thought and sentiment — we find in line an abstract but direct medium for their illustration; and this again, too, by means of that law of inseparable association which connects the idea of praise or aspiration and ascension, for instance, with long lines inclining towards the severe vertical, as when we draw a figure with upraised hands; while the feeling might be increased if led up to or re-echoed by other groups and objects in the composition, forming a kind of vertical crescendo on the same principle which we were considering in regard to the expression of lateral movement. Few things in design are finer or more elevated in feeling than William Blake's design of the Morning Stars singing together, in the series of the Book of Job, yet it is little more than a vertical arrangement of figures with uplifted and intercrossing arms. The linear plan gives the main impetus to the expressiveness of the design, and is the basis of the beauty, which culminates in the rapture of the fresh youthful faces.

Expression Of Emotion: Lines Of Exaltation And Rejoicing In Unison. The Morning Stars, After William Blake. (From The Book Of Job.)

Scale of Linear Expression

Bowed and bent lines tending downwards, on the other hand, convey the opposite ideas of dejection and despair. This is illustrated in these figures of Flaxman's, who was a great master of style in outline.

Lines Of Grief And Dejection. Flaxman: Designs To Homer.

Capacity of Line

We seem here to discover a kind of scale of linear expression — the two extremes at either end: the horizontal and the vertical, with every degree and modulation between them; the undulating curve giving way to the springing energetic spiral, the meandering, flowing line sinking to the horizontal: or the sharp opposition and thrust of rectangular, the nervous resistance of broken curves, the flame-like, triumphant, ascending verticals. Truly the designer may find a great range of expression within the dominion of pure line. Line is, indeed, as I have before termed it, a language, a most sensitive and vigorous speech of many dialects; which can adapt itself to all purposes, and is, indeed, indispensable to all the provinces of design in line. Line may be regarded simply as a means of record, a method of registering the facts of nature, of graphically portraying the characteristics of plants and animals, or the features of humanity: the smooth features of youth, the rugged lines of age. It is capable of this, and more also, since it can appeal to our emotions and evoke our passionate and poetic sympathies with both the life of humanity and wild nature, as in the hands of the great masters it lifts us to the heavens or bows us down to earth: we may stand on the sea-shore and see the movement of the falling waves, the fierce energy of the storm and its rolling armament of clouds, glittering with the sudden zigzag of the lightning; or we may sink into the profound calm of a summer day, when the mountains, defined only by their edges, wrapped in soft planes of mist, seem to recline upon the level meadows like Titans and dream of the golden age.


Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29