Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter vi

Of the Fundamental Essentials of Design: Line, Form, Space — Principles of Structural and Ornamental Line in Organic Forms — Form and Mass in Foliage — Roofs — The Mediæval City — Organic and Accidental Beauty — Composition: Formal and Informal — Power of Linear Expression — Relation of Masses and Lines — Principles of Harmonious Composition.

We may take it, then, from the principles and examples I have endeavoured to put before you in the previous chapters, that there are three fundamental elements or essentials of Design — Line, Form, Space.

Fundamental Essentials of Design

Line we need, not only for our ground-plan and framework, but also to define or express our forms. Form we need to give substance and mass, interest and variety; and it is obvious that Space is required to contain all these elements, while Space asserts its influence, as we have seen, upon both Line and Form in combination upon it, whether object or surface, by the shape of its boundary, the extension of its plane, and the angle and position of its plane in regard to the eye, as well as from the point of view of material and use.

Questions of the character of line and form, and their combination and disposition in or over spaces, are questions of composition. They demand the most careful solution, whatever our subject and purpose may be, from the simplest linear border up to the most elaborate figure design. But although the three essentials to composition must be always present, it is always possible to rely more upon the qualities of one of them for our main motive and interest, keeping the other two subsidiary. We might centralize the chief interest of our composition upon Line, for instance, and make harmonious relation or combination of lines our principal object (as in line-design and ornament), or we might rather dwell upon the contours, masses, and contrasts and relationships of Form: as in pictorial design, figure compositions of all kinds, and modelling and sculpture: or, again, we might choose that the peculiar character given by the control of certain inclosing spaces should determine the interest of our design, as the due filling of particular panels and geometric shapes; or seek the interest of aerial perspective in the pictorial and atmospheric expression of space.

Taking combinations of Line first, and bearing in mind what has been said regarding its capacities for expression, whether of emotion, direction of force, movement, rest, as well as of facts of structure and surface, let us see if we can trace the principle of harmonious composition, of which these things may be considered as parts.

Line in Organic Forms

Look at any of the systems of line in the organic structures of nature: the radiating ribs of the scallop shell, or the spiral of many other varieties; the set of the feathers upon the expanded wing of a bird; the radiation of the sun's rays; the flowing line of the wave movement; the lines of structure in flowers and leaves; the scales of a fish; the scales of a pine-cone or an artichoke. We feel that any of these combinations of lines are harmonious and beautiful, and we know that they are essential to the character and structure. They are organic lines, in short. They mean life and growth. In principle they are radiating and recurring lines; in each form they repeat each other in varying degrees of direction and declension of curve. No two lines are alike, yet there is no contradiction and no unnecessary line, and variety is combined with unity. Each affords a perfect instance of harmonious composition of line, and gives us definite principles upon which to work (see illustration, p. 140).

Principles Of Structural And Ornamental Line In Natural Forms.

These systems of line in organic nature have been adopted and adapted by art, and are found throughout the historical forms of ornament which, as we have good reason to believe, were often derived from mechanical structures, illustrating the same principles; which, again, the logic of geometry enforces in drawing on plane surfaces.

All organic structures teach us the same lesson of relation and recurrence of line. The bones of all vertebrate animals, from fish to man, illustrate the constant repetition in different degrees of the same character and direction of line. The vertebral column itself is an instance, and the recurring spring of the ribs from it, like the branches from the stem of a tree, further expressed in the ramification of the jointed bones of the limbs and extremities. The principle may be followed out in the structure of the muscles in their radiating fibres, which the delicate contours and flowing lines of the surface of the body only combine in a greater degree of subtlety (see illustration, p. 142).

Radiating, Recurring And Counterbalancing Lines In The Structure Of The Skeleton And The Muscles.

Look at the anatomy of any tree, as it is disclosed to us in its wintry leaflessness, a beautiful composition of line rather than of form (see illustration, p. 143).

General Principles Of Line And Form In The Branching And Foliage Masses Of Trees.

Here we see organic life and structure expressed in the vigorous spring of inter-dependent and corresponding curves, from the rigid sinuous column of the main stem springing from the ground, presently divided into the main forks of the branches, which again subdivide and subdivide into smaller forks, so that the tree may sustain and spread its life in the air and the sun, both supporting and continuing its existence by this wonderful economic system of co-operative, subdivided, and graduated helpfulness.

The massive green pavilion of summer, which this delicate vaulting of branch-work sustains, gives us another, more sumptuous, but perhaps not a greater beauty in the combination or substitution of form and mass for line composition.

Form and Mass in Foliage

We might express, in an abstract way, the principle of the line-structure of the ramifying tree by super-imposing vertically fork upon fork in gradually diminishing scale, either curvilinear or rectangular; and the principle of the mass-structure in the formation of the foliage might be expressed by a series of overlapping curves, suggestive of scales or cloud masses: to both of which indeed they correspond in principle, illustrating the scale principle in detail and the cloud principle in the mass; thus repeating the same general law of natural roofing, or covering, in different materials (see illustration, p. 145).

Principles Of Structure In Foliage Masses.

In a mass of foliage each leaf falls partly over the one below it, as by the system of their growth and suspension upon the stem they are of course bound to do, whether symmetric or alternate in their arrangement, the gaps caused by decay or accident being generally filled by new shoots. Each shoot, eager to expand its leaves in the light, ever spreading, forms mass after mass of the beautiful green panoply — the coat armour of the forest, arboreal man's first form of domestic architecture.

Albert Dürer: Detail from 'The Prodigal Son.'

The principle of structure here is just the same as the overlapping principle of the tiles and slates upon our ordinary house-roofs; but each leafy tile is different, being alive, and in the mass infinitely varied and beautiful in form and colour, instead of being mechanical and uniform, as we try to make our artificial roofs.

German Roofs

Very pretty and varied effects are produced in the old roofs of southern Germany by the use of different coloured glazed tiles — red, green, and yellow — arranged in simple patterns. One of the old towers at Lindau has such a roof, and the colour effect is very rich and striking.

But I must not be led into a disquisition upon roofs further than in so far as they illustrate the subject of composition of line and form, and from the painter's point of view they frequently do in a very delightful and instructive way.

Albert Dürer: St. Anthony.

What, for instance, can be more varied and charming than the compositions we constantly meet with in the rich backgrounds of Albert Dürer? Those steep barn roofs, and those quaint German towns inclosed in walls with protecting towers — nests of steep tiled gables of every imaginable degree — which give so much character and interest to his designs, as in the background of his copper-plates "The Prodigal Son" and "St. Anthony" here given. Their prototypes still exist here and there in Germany, in such towns as Rothenburg, practically unchanged since the sixteenth century, and give one an excellent idea of what such houses were like. A visit there is like a leap back into the Middle Ages. Every street is a varied and interesting composition. No two houses are alike. They were built by the citizens to really pass their lives in. The town is strongly placed upon the crest of a hill, with a river at its foot, and well fortified and protected by massive encircling walls and towers and deep gates, which give it so strong and picturesque a character, while the timber and tile-roofed gallery for the warders still exists along the inside of the walls. Such cities arose by the strength of the social bond among men — the necessity for mutual help in the maintenance of a higher standard of life, and mutual protection against the ravages of sinister powers.

The Mediæval City

Strong externally, internally they were made as home-like and full of the varied delight of the eyes, as if the people had reasoned, "Since we must live close together in a small place, let us make it as delightful and romantic as we can." We know that the idea of Paradise and the New Jerusalem to the imagination of the Middle Ages was always the fair walled garden and the fenced city. The painters embodied the idea of security and protection from the savage and destructive forces of nature and man — a sanctuary of peace, a garden of delight.

Roof-lines: Rothenburg.

We have in modern times turned rather from the city as a complete and beautiful thing, to the individual home, and to the interior of that, and, in the modern competitive search for the necessary straws and sticks to make our individualist-domestic composition of comfort and artistic completeness, bowers are too often built upon the ruins of others, or are fair by reason of surrounding degradation. The common collective comfort and delight of the eyes is too often ignored, so that it comes about that, if our modern cities possess any elements of beauty or picturesqueness, it is rather owing to accidents and to the transfiguring effects of atmosphere than to the beauty or variety of architectural form and colour. We have to seek inspiration among the fragments of the dead past in monuments and art schools.

Organic and Accidental Beauty

The modern development of the municipality and extension of its functions may, indeed, do something, as it has done, and is doing, something to protect public health and further public education; but we have yet to wait for the full results, and everything must finally depend upon the public spirit and disinterestedness of the citizens, and in matters of art upon a very decided but somewhat rare and peculiar sympathy and taste, as well as enthusiasm.

The absence of beauty of line, form, and proportion from the external aspects of daily life in towns has probably a greater effect than we are apt to realize in deadening the imagination, and it certainly seems to produce a certain insensibility to beauty of line and composition, since the perception must necessarily be blunted by being inured to the commonplace and sordid. The instinct for harmony of line and form becomes weakened, and can only be slowly revived by long and careful study in art, instead of finding its constant and most vital stimulus in every street.

For all that, however, an eye trained to observe and select may, even in the dullest and dingiest street, find artistic suggestions, if not in the buildings, then in the life. And where there is life, movement, humanity, there is sure to be character and interest. Groups of children playing will give us plenty of suggestions for figure composition. Workpeople going to and from their work, the common works going on in the street, the waggons and horses, the shoal of faces, the ceaseless stream of life — all these things, whether we are able to reproduce them as direct illustrations of the life of our time, or are moved only to select from them vivid suggestions to give force to ideal conceptions, should all be noted — photographed, as it were, instantaneously upon the sensitive plate of the mind's vision. We can only learn the laws of movement by observing movement — the swing and poise of the figure, the relation of the lines of limbs and drapery to the direction of force and centre of gravity, so important in composition. We must constantly supplement our school and studio work by these direct impressions of vivid life and movement, and neglect no opportunity or despise no source or suggestion.

There are still in England to be found such old-world corners as the quaint street of Canterbury (p. 153), which forms an excellent study in the composition of angular and vertical lines.

St. Margaret St Canterbury Aug: 27 1894

Formal Composition

We may perceive that there are at least two kinds of composition, which may be distinguished as:

  1. Formal.
  2. Informal.

I. Under the head of Formal may be classed all those systems of structural line with which I started, and which are found either as leading motives or fundamental plans and bases throughout ornamental design. Yet even these may be used in composition of figures and other forms where the object is more or less formal and decorative, as governing plans or controlling lines.

The radiating ribs of a fan, for instance, might be utilized as the natural boundaries and inclosing lines of a series of vertical figures following the radiating lines. A strictly logical design of the kind would be a series of figures with uplifted arms, forming radiating lines from the shoulders, somewhat in the position of Blake's well-known and beautiful composition of the Morning Stars in the Book of Job, already illustrated.

Using the overlapping vertical scale plan we should get relative positions for a formal composition of three figures, although they need not necessarily be formal in detail. A typical design of three associated ideas treated emblematically would be the most natural use of such an arrangement — as Faith, Hope, and Charity; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; Science, Art, and Industry; or the three goddesses Heré, Pallas, and Aphrodite, as choice and purpose might decide. A semicircular scale plan would not only repeat in a safe and sound manner, but would afford suggestive shapes in which to throw designs of figures, and could be effectively utilized either for a wall or ceiling repeat.

The inclosure formed by two spiral lines gives a graceful ornamental shape for a half-reclining figure; while a series of floating or flying figures linking their hands would be appropriately governed by similar spiral lines, uniting them with the meandering wave line (see illustration, p. 155).

Formal Composition: Figure Designs Controlled By Geometric Boundaries.

Upon a series of semicircles or ellipses, alternating horizontally, might be arranged a little frieze of children with skipping ropes, or Amorini with pendent garlands; the up-and-down movement in the former case being conveyed by a variation, each alternate semicircle being struck upwards. This would restore the emphatic wave or spiral line, which always conveys the sense of rhythmic movement in a design.

Such a line, vertically employed, will give again a good plan for a series of seated figures, say emblematic of the Hours, where similarity of attitude and type would be appropriate, while the emblems and accessories might be varied. A severer treatment would be suggested by making the controlling line angular (see illustration, p. 156).

Formal Composition: Figure Designs Controlled By Geometric Boundaries.

Such are a few illustrations of what I have termed formal composition, in which the geometric and structural plans of pure ornament or ornamental line maybe utilized to combine, control, or even suggest figure designs.

Informal Composition

II. While formal compositions, though naturally falling into classes and types, may be varied to a very great extent, when we come to informal compositions the variations are unlimited, and a vista of extraordinary and apparently endless choice, invention, and selection opens out before the designer, co-extensive with the variety of nature herself.

In seeking harmonious and expressive composition in the pictorial direction the guides are much less definite and secure. Individual feeling and instinct, which must have an important influence in all kinds of designing, are in this direction paramount. Yet even here, if we look beneath the apparent freedom and informality, we find certain laws at work which seem to differ only in degree from the more definite and constructive control of line which we have been considering. In the first place, there are our direct impressions from nature; and, secondly, our conscious aims and efforts to express an idea in our minds. We have the same restricted and definite forms of language and materials in each case — line, form, space, brushes, pencil, colour, paper, canvas, or clay. We are taken by some particular scene: the composition of line and form at a particular spot attracts us more than another. We do not stop as a rule to ask why, since it usually takes all our time and our best skill to get into shape what we are seeking — and carry away with us an artistic record of the place. We have seen that in the case of certain natural structures, shells, leaves, flowers, the fundamental structural lines are so beautiful that they not only form ornament in themselves, but furnish the basis for whole types and families of ornament. When we look at a landscape, putting aside for the moment all the surface charms of colour and effect, and concentrating our attention upon its lines of structures, we shall find that it owes a great part of its beauty to the harmonious relation of its leading lines, or to certain pleasant contrasts, or a certain impressiveness of form and mass, and at the same time we shall perceive that this linear expression is inseparable from the sentiment or emotion suggested by that particular scene.

A gentle southern landscape — undulating downs, and wandering sheep-walks; the soft rounded masses of the sheep upon smooth cropped turf — all these are so many notes or words in the language of line and form which go to express the idea of pastoral life. They are inextricably bound up with inseparable associations conveyed by such lines and forms. The undulating lines of resting or dancing figures would only give point, true emphasis, and variety, and a note of contrast in the forms would serve to bring out the general sentiment more strongly.

Substitute rugged rocks, swollen torrents, wind-tossed trees and stormy skies, and all is changed. Such things cannot be expressed without much more emphatic lines and masses, and the use of opposing angles and energetic curves of movement which would be destructive of the sentiment of peace, in other cases. Yet even then to convey the expression of energy and rapid movement, concerted groups of lines are none the less necessary (see illustration, p. 159).

Informal Composition: Expression Of (1) Storm And (2) Calm In Landscape.

Such comparisons indicate not only that there is a necessary association of ideas with certain lines and forms, but also that certain relations and associations of line of a similar character are necessary to produce a harmonious composition, and one which conveys a definite and pervading sentiment or emotion, just as we saw that the controlling lines of structural curves, spirals, and angles require to be in relation, and to be re-echoed by the character of the design they inclose or which is built upon them.

The same law holds true in figure composition. The sense of repose and restfulness necessary to sitting or reclining groups depends upon the gentle declivities of the curves and their gradual descent to the horizontal.

Informal Composition: Expression Of Repose And Action.

Draw a figure sitting rigid, tense, and alert, and you destroy the sense of repose at once, and you are obliged also to resort to angles, still more emphatic where strong action is to be expressed; while to express continual or progressive movement, a choice of associated lines of action in different stages of progress leading up to the crescendo of the final one (as in a group of mowers) would be necessary (see illustrations, p. 161). We cannot, then, in any composition have too definite a conception. We must, at any sacrifice of detail, bring out the main expression and meaning. Every group of figures must be in the strictest relation to each other and to the central interest or expression of the design. You cannot, for instance, in a procession of figures, make your faces turn all sorts of ways without stopping the onward movement which is essential to the idea of a procession. This would not preclude variety, but the general tendency must be in one direction. Every line in a composition must lead up to the central idea, and be subordinated or contributory to it (see illustration, Nos. 1 and 2, p. 163).

(1) and (2) Movement in a Procession

The same with masses: you cannot put a number of forms together without some sort of relation, either of general character and contour or some uniting line. We may learn this principle from nature also. Look at a heap of broken stones and débris, which in detail may contain all sorts of varieties of form, as we find them tumbled down a steep place, as the rocky bed of a mountain stream, a heap of boulders upon a hillside, or the débris from a quarry or mine; in each case the law of gravity and the persistence of force working together arrange the diverse forms in masses controlled by the lines, which express the direction and degree of descent, and the pressure of force. The same thing may be seen on any hilly ground after heavy rain; the scattered pebbles are arranged in related groups, combined and composed by the flow of miniature streams, which channel the face of the ground and form hollows for their reception (see Nos. 3 and 4, p. 163). The force of the tides and currents upon the sea-shore illustrates the same principle and affords us magnificent lessons in composition, not only in the delicate lines taken by the sculptured sand, but in the harmonious grouping of masses of shingle and shells, weeds and drift, arranged by the movement of the waves.

(3) Lines Left by a Watercourse, (4) Lines Governing Fallen Débris from a Quarry.

Principles of Harmonious Composition

So that we may see that the principles of harmonious composition are not the outcome of merely capricious fancy or pedantic rule, but are illustrated throughout the visible world by the laws and forces of the material universe. It is for the artist to observe and apply them in his own work of re-creation.

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