Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter ii

The Language of Line — Dialects — Comparison of the Style of various Artists in Line — Scale of Degrees in Line — Picture Writing — Relation of Line to Form — Two Paths — The Graphic Purpose — Aspect — The Ornamental Purpose — Typical Treatment or Convention — Rhythm — Linear Plans in Pattern Designing — Wall-paper Design — Controlling Forms — Memory — Evolution in Design — Variety in Unity — Counterbalance — Linear Logic — Recurring Line and Form — Principle of Radiation — Range and Use of Line.

I spoke of Line as a Language, and gave some illustrations of its power and range of expression, showing that line is capable not only of recording natural fact and defining character, but also of conveying the idea of movement and force, of action and repose; and, further, of appealing to our emotions and thoughts by variations and changes in its direction, the degree of its emphasis, and other qualities.


Yet every designer and draughtsman uses line in a different way, and of a different quality, according to his preference, habit, training, or personality. The endless variations which result I should — to pursue the analogy of speech further — term dialects. We might collect abundant examples of these from the work of line-designers since the world began, or compare the methods of any of the popular illustrators of to-day to find constant variations and individual differences occurring even among those which might be said, under the influence of a prevailing mode, to be variations of one type.

Compare a Greek vase-painter's delicate brush line-drawing with the bold pen-line of Albert Dürer (to get a contrast in historic style). Compare (to take two masters of different schools, but of the same country) the line-treatment of Mantegna with the line-treatment of Raphael; or, to take another jump, compare the line-work of Blake and Flaxman; or, to take a modern instance, and to come to our own contemporary artists, compare a drawing by Burne-Jones and one by Phil May.

We might construct a sort of scale of the degrees and qualities of line.

There is, for instance, outline of every degree of boldness or fineness, from the strong black half-inch outline and upwards used in mosaic-work and stained-glass leading; the outline of the pattern designer for block-printing; the outline of the pen draughtsman for process-work or woodcut; and so on, down to the hair-line of the drypoint etcher.

Scale of Degrees in Line

There are the qualities of line in different degrees of firmness, roughness, raggedness, or smooth and flowing. There are the degrees of direction of line, curvilinear or angular. On the angular side all variations from the perpendicular and horizontal, or rectangle, within which we may find all these degrees, and on the curvilinear side, all the variations from spiral to circle: so that we might say that the rectangle was the cradle of all angular variations of line, while the semicircle was the cradle of all curvilinear variations. (See the diagrams on p. 26.)

Scale of Various Degrees of Linear Weight and Emphasis.

Every artist, sooner or later, by means of his selective adaptive sense, finds a method in the use of line to suit his own personality — to suit his own individual aim in artistic expression — and in course of time it becomes a characteristic manner, by which his work is instantly known, like a friend's handwriting.

Curvilinear And Rectangular Scales Of Direction.

Now what determines this choice, this personal selection, over and above necessities of method and material, it would be difficult to say, unless we had more minute knowledge of the natural history of a human being than we are likely to possess. We can only say that from practice are evolved certain methods or principles, consciously or unconsciously; and it is only these general methods or principles that can be explained and tested for the benefit of those essaying to follow the arduous and difficult path of art.

Relation of Line to Form

At the outset we see that we need a means of definition in drawing, just as a child needs a word to express a thing it wants. Line, at the point of the pencil, pen, or brush, places this possibility of definition within our reach; but before we can grasp it we need some knowledge, however rudimentary, of its inseparable companion, Form.

I recall two innocent and entertaining methods from the traditions of the nursery, which appeal at once in a curious way to both the oral and graphic senses, and unite story and picture in one. These are illustrated on p. 28. By such devices a child learns to associate line and form, unconsciously and step by step defining form in the use of, or pursuit of, line.

Modern Picture-writing According To Nursery Tradition

It would be very entertaining and agreeable if we could carry the principle further, and get a passable study from the antique, for instance, by a similar process. In line-drawing we may, however, always tell some story or fact, or character, phase, or idea.

The Graphic Purpose

But supposing we have mounted our steed Form, and taken our bridle Line in hand, and have started riding at large in the vast domain of nature, with the primary object of finding and hunting down truth at last; we soon perceive that there are so many truths, or rather that truth, even of natural fact, has so many sides, that it is difficult to make up our mind which one to pursue. Thought, however, will soon discover that in this pursuit of truth we strike a road that naturally divides itself, or branches out, into two main paths distinct in aim. These two paths in art have been called by many names; they occasionally cross each other, or overlap, and are sometimes blended, or even confused; but it will be useful for our present purpose to keep them very distinct. I will term them, for convenience:

  1. The Graphic Purpose. (Accidental form.)
  2. The Ornamental Purpose. (Typical form.)

Our use of line will largely depend upon which of these two it is our object to pursue. Now when we look at anything with intent to draw — say a leafy bough as it grows in the sunshine — we see great complexity of form and surface-lighting. The leaves, perhaps, take all manner of variations of the typical form, and are set at all sorts of angles. In making a rapid sketch with the object of getting the appearance of the bough, we naturally dwell upon these accidents and superficial facts. At the same time, with nothing but line to express them, we are compelled to use a kind of convention, though our aim be purely naturalistic, to get a faithful portrait of the bough.

We must make our line as descriptive as possible, defining the main forms boldly, and blocking in broadly the main masses of form and light and shade. We are now aiming at the general look of the thing. We are striving to grasp the facts of Aspect. We are concerned with the purely graphic purpose, to make a picture upon paper.

Olive Branch From Nature

We cannot, however, even under these simple conditions, altogether leave out of account considerations which, strictly speaking, must be termed "decorative." For instance, there is the question of placing the study well upon the paper, a very important point to start with; and then the question of beauty must arise, not only in the selection of our point of view, but in the choice of method, in the treatment of line we adopt; and it does not follow that the most apparently forcible way of getting bold projection by means of black shadows, at the cost of the more delicate characteristics of our subject, is the best. On the contrary, the finest draughtsmanship is always the most subtle and delicate, and one cannot get subtle and delicate draughtsmanship without faithful study and careful constant practice —knowledge of form, in short — and I am afraid there is no short cut to it.

The Ornamental Purpose

Olive Branch Simplified In Decorative Treatment

Now supposing we make our study of leaves, not as an end in itself, and for its simple pictorial values or qualities only, but with an ornamental or decorative purpose in view, intending to make use of its form and character in some more or less systematic design or pattern-work — adapted to special methods and materials — intended to decorate a wall-surface or a textile, for instance; we might certainly start with a general sketch of its appearance as before, but we should find that we should want to understand it in its detail; the law of its growth and construction; we should want to dwell upon its typical character and form, the controlling lines of its masses, rather than on its accidental aspects, because it would really be only with these that we could successfully deal in adapting anything in nature to the conditions and limitations of a design. To do this requires as much art as to make a clever graphic sketch, perhaps more; but it is certainly not so easily understood and appreciated, as a rule. Pattern-work is taken so much for granted, except by those technically interested, whereas a graphic sketch may bring the drama of nature, and of human character and incident, before our eyes. It does not require us to stop and think out the less obvious meaning, or trace the invention or grace of line, to appreciate the rhythmic, silent music which the more formalized and abstract decorative design may contain, quite apart from the forms it actually represents.

Study Of Horned Poppy
Adaptation Of The Horned Poppy In Design: Vertical Panel For Needlework.

Question and Answer in Line

Here we discover another function of line. For, directly we endeavour to construct a decorative design — that is, a design intended to adorn or to express an object or surface — we find that we must build it upon some sort of a plan, or geometric controlling network or scaffolding, so as to give it unity, rhythm, and coherence — especially so in the case of repeating designs. Even in an isolated panel or picture the necessity of this linear basis will be felt, since one cannot draw a line or define a form without demanding an answer — that is, a corresponding, re-echoing line or mass.

Curves 1.Q and 2.A

The curve (1. Q) is a proposition or question. It is answered or balanced by the corresponding curve (2. A), and forms the basis for a scroll design.

Curves 1 and 2

The five radiating lines (1) are obviously incomplete by themselves, but if we add another four, in reverse order, (2) we get a centred and symmetric motive of an anthemion character.

Wall-Paper Design

Take, however, a wall-paper. The problem is to construct a design pleasant to the eye in line, form, colour, and suggestion; which will be interesting in detail, and yet repeat upon a wall-surface without flaw, and without becoming wearisome. Moreover, one which will lend itself to being cut upon wood, if for block-printing, and which may be reproduced with a due regard to economy of means. The designer may have a square of twenty-one inches in which to make his design.

Diagram Showing The Use Of A Geometric Basis In Designing Repeating Pattern.

A useful way to begin with is to rule out a sheet of paper into squares, say on the scale of 1-½ inch to the foot, and upon this jot down your first ideas of linear arrangement and colour motive, and get the general effect, and test the plan of repeats. When you are satisfied with one, enlarge it to full size, correct and amplify it, and improve it in form and detail. Changes will probably be found necessary in drawing it upon the larger scale, sometimes additions, sometimes omissions. Now in sketching out the general plan, one builds, as before said, upon some basis or plan, however simple, since one cannot put a simple spot, sprig, or spray upon paper intending to repeat, without some system of connection to put them into relation.

Controlling Forms

In designing one's sprig, too, the best plan to secure good decorative effect is to see that its general form is inclosed or bounded by an agreeable linear shape, although itself not actually visible. Simple leaf and flower forms are generally the best to use for these controlling boundaries. Sprays designed on this principle may be relied upon for repeating pleasantly and safely when they are placed upon, and connected by, the controlling geometric plan. A good practical test of the truth and completeness of your square repeat is, when the design is done, or even in progress, to cut it into four equal parts (supposing it to be a twenty-one inch square). This will enable you to get the joints true, and also, by altering the position of the squares, to give you a very good idea of the effect of the repeat full size. (See the diagrams on p. 41.)

These things must be considered, of course, merely as practical aids to invention: not by any means as substitutes for it. One cannot give any recipe for designing, and no rules, principles, or methods can supply the place of imagination and fancy. "He who would bring back health from the Indies," says an old proverb, "must take it out with him."

At the same time the imagination can be enfeebled by starvation and neglect. It can be depressed by dull and sordid surroundings. It is apt to grow, like other living things, by what it feeds on, and is stronger for exercise and development.

Use Of Controlling Boundaries In Designing Sprays


Memory, too, is an important and serviceable thing in designing, and this, again, can be cultivated to an almost unlimited extent. I mean that selective kind of memory which, by constant and close observation, extracts and stores up the essential serviceable kind of facts for the designer: facts of form, of structure, of movement of figures, expressive lines, momentary or transitory effects of colour — all those rare and precious visual moments which will not wait, and which happen unexpectedly. They should be captured like rare butterflies and carefully stored in the mind's museum of suggestions, as well as, as far as is possible, pinned down in the hieroglyphics of the note-book.

Evolution in Design

As regards procedure in working out a design, one generally thinks of some leading feature, some central mass or form or curve — of a figure or a flower, say — and one thinks of its capacity in repeat; and, since one form or line should inevitably suggest or necessitate — as by a kind of logic — another, one adds other forms until the design is complete. For it must never be forgotten that design is a growth which has its own stages of evolution in the mind, answering to the evolution of the living forms of nature — first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.

Experience teaches us that the most harmonious arrangements of form and line are those in which the leading lines and forms through all sorts of variations, continually recur. We cannot place a number of sharply contrasting and contradictory forms together in design satisfactorily — at least we cannot do so without recourse to other elements to harmonize and to bring them into relation. For instance, we might get a great deal of ornamental variety by means of a number of heraldic devices upon shields, full in themselves of quaintness and contrasts, but brought into harmony by the boundary lines of the shields and the divisions; or, still further, by throwing them upon a background of leaves and stems, the meandering lines and recurring forms of which would answer as a kind of warp upon which to weave the heraldic spots into a connected and harmonious pattern.

Method Of Testing A Repeating Pattern.

Variety in Unity

But even in the ornamental treatment of diverse forms, as the mediæval heraldic designers were well aware, they can be brought into decorative harmony by following a similar principle to the one already laid down in regard to the designing of sprigs and sprays: that is to say, that in designing an animal or figure for heraldry or introduction into a pattern, one should arrange it so that it should fall within the boundary of some geometric or foliated form, square, circular, elliptical or otherwise, as might be desirable. To this, however, I hope to return in a future chapter.

Sketch To Show How A Pattern Of Diverse Elements May Be Harmonized By Unity Of Inclosing And Intermediary Lines.


We may here consider another important principle in designing with line and mass, that of counterbalance.

The Principle Of Counterbalance In Different Systems Of Design.

Take any defined space as a panel, tile, or border to be filled with design: you place your principal mass, and instantly feel that it must be balanced by a corresponding mass, or some equivalent. Its place will be determined by the principle upon which the design is built. If on a symmetrical arrangement, you find your centre (say of a panel), and you may either throw the chief weight and mass of the design upon the central feature (as a tree), and balance it by smaller forms or wings each side, or vice versâ; or, adopting a diagonal plan, you place your principal mass (say it is a tile) near the top left-hand corner (suppose it is a pomegranate), connecting it with a spiral diagonal line (the stem); the place of the counterbalancing mass (the second pomegranate) is obviously near the bottom right-hand corner of the square. You may then feel the necessity for additional smaller forms, and so add to it (the leaves), completing the design. (See preceding page.)

Linear Logic

On the same principle one may design upon various other plans. The exact choice of the distribution of the counterbalancing masses must always be a matter of personal feeling, judgment, and taste, controlled by the perception of certain logical necessities: as it seems to me that designing is a species of linear reasoning,1 and might almost be worked in its elementary stages on the principle of the syllogism, consisting of two propositions and a conclusion. A spiral curve is a harmonious line, says the designer: repeat it, reversed, and you prolong the harmony; repeat it again, with variations, and you complete the harmony. Or, harmonious effect is produced by recurring form and line. Here is a circular form; here is a meandering line: combine and repeat them, and you get a logical and harmonious border motive.

1 I recall here a saying of Sir E. Burne-Jones, that "a bad line can only be answered by a good line."

Border Units And Border Motive.

Recurring Line and Form

The everlastingly recurring egg and dart moulding and the volute are instances of the harmonious effect of very simple arrangements of recurring line and form. We also get illustrated in these another linear quality in design — that up-and-down movement which gives a pleasant rhythm to the simplest border, and is of especial consequence in all repeating border and frieze designs. The borders of early, ancient, and classical art might be said to be little besides rhythmical and logical arrangements of line. The same rhythmical principle is found in the designs of the classical frieze in all its varieties, culminating in the rhythmic movement of the great Pan-Athenaic procession in that master-frieze of the Parthenon, which, though full of infinite variety and delicate sculptured detail, is yet controlled by a strictly ornamental motive, and constructed upon the rhythmic recurrence of pure line.

Recurring Line And Form In Border Motives.

The Principle of Radiation

Another great linear principle in design is what is known as the radiating principle, which gives vitality and vigour alike to both arrangements of line and delineations of form. It is emphatically and abundantly illustrated in natural forms, from the scallop shell upon the sea-shore to the sun himself that radiates his light upon it. The palm-leaf in all its graceful varieties demonstrates its beauty, its constructive strength combined with extraordinary lightness, which becomes domesticated in that fragile sceptre of social influence and festivity, the fan, and which again spreads its silken, or gossamer, wing as a suggestive field for the designer. We find the principle springing to life again in the fountain jet, and symbolical of life as it has ever been; by means of the same principle applied to construction the Gothic architects raised their beautiful vaults, and emphasized the structural principle and the beauty of recurring line by moulding the edges of their ribs; while we have but to look at the structure of the human frame to find the same principle there also, in the fibres of the muscles, for instance, the radiation of the ribs, and of the fingers and toes.

Radiating Principle Of Line In Natural Form.

In truth, as I have said, if there can be said to be one principle more than another, the perception and expression of which gives to an artist's work in design peculiar vitality, it is this principle of radiating line. One may follow it through all stages and forms of drawing and design, and it is equally important in the design of the figure, in the structure of a flower, in the folds of drapery, and alike in the controlling lines of pictorial composition and decorative plan, whether the lines radiate from seen or from hidden centres, which in all kinds of informal design are perhaps the most important.

Radiating Lines Of The Pectoral Muscles & Ribs

Range and Use of Line

We see, therefore, that line possesses a constructive and controlling function, in addition to its power of graphic expression and decorative definition. It is the beginning and the end of art. By means of its help we guide our first tottering steps in the wide world of design; and, as we gain facility of hand and travel further afield, we discover that we have a key to unlock the wonders of art and nature, a method of conjuring up all forms at will: a sensitive language capable of recording and revealing impressions and beauties of form and structure hidden from the careless eye: a delicate instrument which may catch and perpetuate in imperishable notation unheard harmonies: a staff to lean upon through the journey of life: a candid friend who never deceives us: perchance a divining rod, which may ultimately reveal to us that Beauty and Truth are one — as they certainly are, or ought to be, in the world of art.

Radiating Line In Architectural Construction: Vaulting of Chapter House, Westminster.

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