Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter vii

Of the Relief of Form — Three Methods — Contrast — Light and Shade, and Modelling — The Use of Contrast and Planes in Pattern Designing — Decorative Relief — Simple Linear Contrast — Relief by Linear Shading — Different Emphasis in relieving Form by Shading Lines — Relief by means of Light and Shade alone without Outline — Photographic Projection — Relief by different Planes and Contrasts of Concave and Convex Surfaces in Architectural Mouldings — Modelled Relief — Decorative Use of Light and Shade, and different Planes in Modelling and Carving — Egyptian System of Relief Sculpture — Greek and Gothic Architectural Sculpture, influenced by Structural and Ornamental Feeling — Sculptural Tombs, Medals, Coins, Gems — Florentine Fifteenth-century Reliefs — Desideriodi Settignano.

We come now to the consideration of the various means and methods of expressing relief in line and form.

We may define a form in outline and give it different qualities of expression by altering the quality and consistency of our outline, and we may obtain very different kinds of decorative effect by the use of lines of various degrees of thickness or thinness; but if we want to give it force and colour, and to distinguish it from its background more emphatically, we must add to our outline.

Three Methods of Expressing Relief

There are three principal methods or systems of giving relief by adding to our outline.

One is the method of giving relief to form by contrasts of tone, colour, or tint.

Another by means of the expression of light and shade: and the third by means of modelling in relief.

Now, still keeping to expression by means of line, the three arms I have sketched (p. 167) illustrate: (1) the form in outline alone; (2) the contrast method; and (3) the light and shade method. The three pots underneath illustrate the same three stages in a simpler manner.

In number one we see the outline defining the form pure and simple: in number two the form is relieved by a half-tone formed of diagonal lines, forming a plane or background behind it. The arm is still further relieved by the dark drapery. Number three shows the relief carried further by lines expressive of the modelling of the arm and the rounding of the pot, and also by cast shadows from the forms.

The Relief of Form: (1) By Outline, (2) By Contrast, (3) By Light and Shade.

The system of expressing relief I have termed relief by contrast includes two kinds of contrast: there are the contrasts of line and form, and there are the contrasts of planes of tone or tint and local colour. We may consider that the contrast method covers generally all forms of pattern and certain kinds of pictorial design. The method of expressing relief by means of line covers generally all forms of design in black and white, graphic sketching, pen-drawing, and work with the point of all kinds.

Of the Use of Contrast and Planes

Taking the principle of contrast as applied to pattern design, we can, even within the limited range of black and white and half-tint (as expressed by lines), get a considerable amount of decorative effect. In the first place by bringing out our pattern, previously outlined, upon a black ground (as in Nos. 1 and 2, p. 169), increasing the richness of effect, and getting a second plane by treating the lower part in an open tint of line.

Simple contrasts of dark upon light or light upon dark are effective, and sufficient for many purposes, such as borders (as in Nos. 2 and 3, p. 169).

When a lighter kind of relief and effect is required, the recurring forms in a border are often sufficiently emphasized by a tint of open lines: movement and variety being given by making them follow the minor curves of the successive forms, as in this instance (No 4, p. 169) the movement of the water is suggested behind the fish.

The relation of the plain ground-work to the figure of the pattern is also an important point; indeed the plain parts of the pattern, or the interstices and intervals of the pattern, are as essential to the pattern as the figured parts.

In designs intended for various processes of manufacture, such as printed or woven textiles, wall-papers, etc., where blocks or rollers are used to repeat the pattern, the extent of plain in proportion to figured parts must be governed in some measure by the practicable size of the repeat: but within certain limits great variety of proportion is possible.

A simple but essentially decorative principle is to preserve a certain equality between the figured masses and the ground masses. The leaf patterns (Nos. 6 and 7, p. 169) consist simply of the repetition and reversal of a single element. An emphatic effect is obtained by bringing the leaves out black upon a white ground (as in No. 6), while a flatter and softer effect is the result of throwing them upon a plane of half-tint expressed by horizontal lines, with a similar effect of relief to that which would be given by the warp, if the pattern were woven.

For larger surfaces, greater repose and dignity in pattern may be obtained by a greater proportion of the repeat being occupied by the ground (as in No. 5, p. 169).

Relief of Form and Line in Pattern Design by Means of Contrast and the Use of Planes.

Indeed we may consider as a general principle that the larger the interspaces of the ground, plane, or field of the pattern, the lighter in tint they should be, or the necessary flatness is apt to be lost. Relief in pattern design may be said to be adding interest and richness without losing the flatness and repose of the design as a whole. When pattern and ground are fairly equally balanced in quantity the ground may be rich and dark, and darkest as the interstices, where the ground is shown, become less. The figure of a pattern relieved as light upon a dark plane, as a rule, requires to be fuller in form than dark-figuring upon a light ground.

Decorative Relief

In decorative work the use of contrast in the relief of parts of a design is often useful and effective, as, for instance, the dark shading or treatment in black or flat tone of the alternating under side of a turn-over leaf border.

The decorative value of this principle is recognized by heraldic designers in the treatment of the mantling of the helmet, which in earlier times is treated simply as a hanging or flying strip of drapery with a lining of a different colour, by which it is relieved as it hangs in simple spiral folds. This ornamental element became developed by the designers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries into elaborate scroll designs springing from the circlet of the helmet and surrounding the shield: but the principle of the turned-up lining remained, often variegated and enriched with heraldic patterns (see illustrations, pp. 172, 173).4

4 The increased importance given to the mantling in later times may have been due to the disappearance of the housings of the knight's horse and his surcoat, which originally displayed his arms and colours. The mantling of later times displayed the heraldic colours of the knight, when, being clad in plate armour, there was no other means of displaying them except on the shield. Decoratively, of course, the mantling is of great value to the heraldic designer, enabling him to form much more graceful compositions, to combine diverse and rigid elements with free and flowing lines and masses, and to fill panels with greater richness and effect, whether carved or painted, or both.

Decorative Relief: Counterchange, Treatment Of Mantling, Fourteenth And Sixteenth Centuries.
Decorative Relief: Treatment Of Mantling.

Use of Diapered Backgrounds

The principle, too, of counterchange in heraldry answers to our principle of relief by contrast, and though its chief charm lies in its ornamental range of form and colour combinations, it can be expressed in black and white, and it remains a universal principle throughout decorative art. The decorative effect and charm of the relief of large and bold forms upon rich and delicate diapers is also an important resource of the designer. The monumental art of the Middle Ages affords multitudes of examples of this principle in ornamental treatment. The miniaturist of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries constantly relieved his groups of figures upon a diapered ground. The architectural sculptor relieved the broad masses of flowing drapery and the bold projection of his effigies and recumbent figures by delicately chiselled diapers upon the surface of the wall behind them. This treatment may frequently be seen in the recessed tombs of the fourteenth century.

The incisor of memorial brasses, again, more especially in continental examples, shows a fondness for the same principle. The long vertical lines of drapery of ladies and ecclesiastics, the broad masses of the heraldic surcoat, or armour of the knights, the rich and heavy furred gowns of the burghers, are often relieved upon beautiful diapered or arabesque grounds, generally embodying some heraldic device, motto, or emblem of the person or family whose tomb it ornaments. Such decoration is strictly linear, yet within its own limits, and perhaps because of them, we find in this province of design extremely admirable work, no less for delineation of character and decorative treatment than for ornamental invention controlled by strict economy of line.

Relief Upon A Diapered Ground: Brass Of Martin De Visch, Bruges, 1452.

Relief of Form by Linear Shading

This brings us to the consideration of our second method of relief by means of line.

Take any simple allied elements to form a repeating pattern, say spiral shells, place them at certain rhythmic intervals, and we can unite and at the same time give them relief by filling in the ground by a series of waved lines to suggest the ribbed sand. Add a few dots to soften and vary the effect, and we get a pattern of a certain balance and consistency (No. 1, p. 177).

Relief in Pattern Design by Means of Simple Linear Contrasts (1)

With the more varied and complex floral form, but treated in a very abstract way, placing the daisies in a line, horizontally, and reversing the sprig for the alternate row, we have another motive, which is connected and steadied as well as relieved by the suggestion of grass blades in groups of three slightly radiated vertical strokes (No. 2, p. 177). A pattern of two elements, again, may be formed in a still more simple way by linear contrast, as in No. 3, where the pyramidal trees are formed by a continuous serpentine stroke of the pen terminating in a spiral stem. The diagonal arrangement of the trees produces a chequer, the intervals of which can be varied by the contrasting black masses of the birds.

Relief in Pattern Design by Means of Simple Linear Contrasts (2), (3)

In graphic drawing, lines to express forms in the relief of light and shade are often needed to give additional force even where no great degree of realism is desired. A tint formed by horizontal lines is sufficient to relieve a face from the background and give it solidity, while local colour may be given to the hair, and at the same time serve to relieve the leaves of a wreath encircling the head (see illustration, p. 178).

Relief by Adding Shading Lines to Outline.

The rich effect of clustered apples growing among their leaves could hardly be suggested without the use of lines expressive of light and shade, the interstices of the deepest shade running into solid black (p. 178). In adding lines in this kind of way to give relief or extra richness or force, the draughtsman is really designing a system of lines upon his outline basis, which may have quite as decorative a quality as the outline itself. At the same time nothing is more characteristic of the artist than the way in which such lines are used, and of course the choice of direction and arrangement of such lines will make all the difference in the effect of the drawing.

Diagonal Shading

Where the object is to express the figure in broad masses of light and shade, the use of a series of diagonal lines is an effective, and probably the most ready and rapid, method when working with the pen (see p. 179). This system of expressing the broad surfaces of shade was much used by the Italian masters of the Renaissance in their rapid pen sketches and studies of figures, and a certain breadth and style is given to their drawings owing in part to the simplicity of this linear treatment.

Relief of Form by Diagonal Shading.


No doubt the simpler the system of line adopted in giving relief to figures the better, if the particular expression aimed at is accomplished, and, as a general rule, we should endeavour to get the necessary force and depth without the use of cross-line, or many different directions of line in shading a figure: but, given any power of draughtsmanship, the individuality of the artist is bound to come in, and it is not likely, nor is it to be desired, that any two artists in line should give exactly the same account of natural fact, or reproduce the images in their minds in the same forms, any more than we should expect two writers to express their ideas in the same terms.

The kind and degree of emphasis upon different parts, the selection of moment or fact, would all naturally make considerable differences in the treatment. The three sketches of the skirt dancer are given as instances of the different effects and expression to be obtained in rendering the same subject (p. 181).

Different Method And Different Emphasis In Relieving Form By Shading Lines. (A, B, C)

In a the broad relief of the white dress against the tones of the floor and background, and the darker note of the hair, are the facts chiefly dwelt upon. In b the form of the figure is brought out in broad light and shade and cast shadow, and the dress relieved by radiating folds. In c quicker movement is given, the lines of the successive wave-shaped folds radiating spirally from the shoulders being the chief means of conveying this, while the head and arms are thrown into strong relief against a dark background, the cast shadow being of a lighter tone.

The direction of line used in relieving forms, and expressing modelling and details, must depend much upon individual taste and feeling as well as knowledge of form. The element of beauty of design also comes in, and the question between this and force or literalness — the difference between a study or direct transcript from nature, and a design with a purely ornamental aim, or a composition directed mainly to the expression of a particular idea or emotion.

Such considerations will ultimately determine the choice and use of line, the degree of relief and emphasis, for these and the direction of the line itself are the syllables and the words which will convey the purport of the work to the mind of the beholder.

Study of the masters of line — Dürer, Titian, Mantegna, Holbein — will inform us as to its capacities and limitations. The limitations, too, of method and material will be a powerful factor in the determination of style in the use of line and in the economy of its use.

The bold firm line suitable to the facsimile woodcut, the broad and simple treatment of line with solid black useful in the plank-cut line block to be used with colour blocks, the comparatively free and unconditioned pen-drawing for the surface-printed process block — all these will finally give a certain character to our work beyond our own idiosyncrasies in the use of the pen or the brush.

Albert Dürer's Principle in the Treatment of Drapery: From The Woodcut in the “;Life of the Virgin”; Series.

Useful things may be learned by the way, such as Albert Dürer's principle of giving substance to his figures and details, more especially seen in his treatment of drapery, when the lines run into solid black and express the deeper folds and give emphasis and solidity to the figure (p. 183). The reproductions here given of sketches of drapery by Filippino Lippi and Raphael also show the same principle.

Albert Dürer: Pen-Drawing.

A figure or object of any kind, seen in full light and shade, is relieved at any of its edges either as dark against light, or as light against dark, and we recognize it as a solid form in this way; the boundaries of natural light and shade defining it, and projecting it from the background upon the vision. There may be infinite modulations, of course, between the light part, the half-tones, and the darkest parts; but this broad principle governs all work representing light and shade.

Filippino Lippi: Study of Drapery.

It is, in fact, the principle of the relief of form represented upon a plane surface.

Raphael: Studies of Drapery.

Relief by Light and Shade Alone

If the draughtsman's object be to represent the appearance of a figure or any object in full natural light and shade with the pen or other point, he could do so without using outline at all, but by simply observing this principle and defining the boundaries of light on dark or half-tone in their proper masses and relations. The pen sketch of the man with the hoe (p. 188) is intended to illustrate this method.

Relief By Means Of Light And Shade Alone, In Pen-drawing Without Outline.

There is also the method of representing form in relief by means of working with white line only upon a dark ground, the modelling and planes of surface being entirely expressed in this way (as in a, p. 189). This may be termed drawing by means of light, and may be contrasted with the opposite method of working by means of black line only on a light ground, or drawing by means of shade (as in b, p. 189).

Relief of Form: (A) By White Line Only on Dark Ground, and (B) By Black Line Only on Light Ground.

Yet another method, and one in which the effect of relief can be obtained more readily and rapidly, perhaps, is by working on a half-toned paper, drawing in the form with pencil, chalk, or brush, blocking in the darker shadows and heightening the highest lights with touches of white. These white touches, however, should be strictly limited to the highest lights. This method is represented by the half-tone blocks used in this book, those which were taken from drawings made on brown paper and touched with white.

The Principle of the Photograph

The definition of form by means of light is strictly the principle of the photograph, which comprehends and illustrates its complementary of relief by means of shade, and I think it is due to the influence of the photograph that modern black-and-white artists have so often worked on these principles. The drawings of Frederick Walker and Charles Keene may be referred to as examples. I shall, however, hope to return to this branch of the subject later.

Relief in Architectural Mouldings

So far we have been considering the relief of form by means of line. We now come to what may be termed the relief of form by actual form and plane, or modelling in actual light and shade, as in architecture and sculptors' and carvers' work. Then relief is gained by the contrast of actually different planes, forms, surfaces, and textures. The simplest illustrations of the principles of modelled relief are to be found in architectural mouldings, by means of which buildings are relieved and enriched, and important structural or functional parts are emphasized, as in cornices and ribs of vaults, arches, and openings.

Place a concave moulding side by side with a convex one either horizontally or vertically, and a certain pleasant effect of contrasting light and shade is the result, reminding one of the recurring concave and convex of the rolling waves of the sea (a, p. 191).

A series of flat planes of different widths and at different levels also produces a pleasant kind of relief useful in a picture frame or the jamb of a door (b).

All architectural mouldings might be said to be modifications or combinations of the principles illustrated by these two.

Very different feeling may be expressed in mouldings, and if we compare the two types, the classical and the Gothic, the comparatively broad and simple effect of the former (c, d, e, f, g) contrasts with the richness and variety and the stronger effect of light and shade, produced by deep undercutting, in the latter (h, i, j, k).

Relief in Architectural Mouldings.

The Romans, however, produced rich and highly ornate effects in the use of these types of mouldings, as they reappeared in the Corinthian order, the ovolo cut into the egg and dart, with the Astralagus beneath, the Cyma recta above the brackets of the cornice casting a bold shadow, and both in the cornice and the hollow beneath the dentils enriched with carving, as seen in the splendid fragment of the Forum of Nerva.

Roman Treatment of Corinthian Order, Forum of Nerva, Rome.

When we pass to the more complex problems of figure modelling and sculpture, it is but carrying on and developing the same principle of the contrast of planes, of the relief of plane upon plane, of forms upon one plane, to forms upon forms in many planes. From the contrast of bead and hollow we come to consider the contrast between the rounded limb and the sinuous folds of drapery; from the rhythm of the acanthus scroll we turn to the less obvious but none the less existing rhythm of the sculptural frieze.

Line, we may say, controls the modeller's and sculptor's composition, but form and its treatment in light and shade give him his means of ornament. The delicate contours of faces and limbs contrasted with the spiral and radiating folds of drapery, or rich clusters of leaves and fruits, the forms of animals and the wings of birds — these are his decorative resources.

Egyptian Reliefs

The early stages of sculpture in relief may be seen in the monumental work of ancient Egypt.

Simple incised work appears to have been the first stage, and the forms afterwards slightly modelled or rounded at the edges into the hollow of the sunk outline.

Large figures and tables of hieroglyphic inscription were thus cut upon vast mural surfaces, and carried across the joints of the masonry, without disturbing the flatness and repose of the wall surface (p. 195). The Egyptians, indeed, seem to have treated their walls more as if they were books for record and statement, symbol and hieroglyphic.

Egyptian System of Sculptured Relief: Thebes.

Messrs. Perrot and Chipiez, in their "History of Ancient Art in Egypt," speak of three processes in the treatment of Egyptian reliefs (vol. ii., p. 284):

  1. That followed by the Greeks, in which the figures are left standing out from a smooth bed, sometimes slightly hollowed near the contours (see illustration, p. 196).
  2. Where the figures are modelled in relief in a sunk hollow, from an inch to one and a half inch deep.
  3. Where the surface of the figures and the bed or field of relief are kept on one level (see illustration, p. 196), the contours indicated by hollow lines cut into the stone; very little modelling, little more than silhouette, in which the outline is shown by a hollow instead of by the stroke of a pencil or brush.

One would be inclined to reverse the order of these three processes, on the supposition that No. 3 was the earliest process, and that it arose, as I have conjectured, from the practice of representing forms by incised lines only.

There is certainly a strong family likeness as to method between the Egyptian reliefs and the Assyrian, the Persian, and the archaic Greek; and there is a far greater difference in treatment between archaic Greek relief sculpture and the work of the Phidian period than between the archaic work of the three races named.

The strictly mural and decorative conditions which governed ancient sculpture no doubt gave to Greek sculpture in its perfection a certain dignity, simplicity, and restraint, and also accounted in a great measure for that rhythmic control of invisible structural and ornamental line which asserts itself in such works as the Pan-Athenaic frieze. It was strictly slab sculpture, and became part of the surface of the wall.

Greek Relief. Eleusis. Egyptian Relief. Denderah.

Gothic Sculpture

The structural and ornamental feeling also asserts itself strongly in Gothic sculpture, owing to its close association with architecture, as, when it was not an integral part of the structure, it was always an essential part of the expression of the building, and it was this which controlled its treatment decoratively, in its scale and its system and degree of relief.

In the porches of the Gallo-Roman churches of France of the twelfth century, the figures occupying the place of shafts became columnar in treatment, the sinuous formalized draperies wrapped around the elongated figures, or falling in vertical folds, as in the figures in the western door of Chartres Cathedral (p. 199). The lines of the design of the sculptured tympanum were strictly related to the space, and the degree and treatment of the relief clearly felt in regard to the architectural effect (p. 201).

Chartres Cathedral: Carving on the West Front.
Chartres Cathedral: Tympanum Of The Central Door Of The West Front.

Architectural Influence

In the sculptured tombs of the Middle Ages, with their recumbent figures and heraldic enrichments, again, we see this architectonic sense influencing the treatment of form and relief, as these monuments were strictly architectural decorations, often incorporating its forms and details, and often built into the structure of the church or cathedral itself, as in the case of the recessed and canopied tombs of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

As sculptures became detached from the building and wall, and appeared in full relief in the round, though still, as it were, carrying a reminiscence of their origin with them in the shape of the moulded pedestal, architectural control became less and less felt, statues in consequence being less and less related to their surroundings. The individual feeling of the sculptor or the traditions of his school and training alone influenced his treatment, until we get the incidental and dramatic or sentimental isolated figure or group of modern days.

Medals and Coins

It is noteworthy, however, that even in the smaller works of the modeller, carver, or sculptor of the Middle Ages or the early Renaissance, a sense of decorative fitness and structural sense is always present. We see it in the carved ornaments of seats and furniture, in the design and treatment of coins and seals and gems and medals. These latter from the time of the ancient Greeks afford beautiful examples of the decorative treatment of relief in strict relation to the object and purpose. The skill and taste of the Greeks seemed to have been largely inherited by the artists of the earlier Italian Renaissance, such as Pisano, whose famous medal of the Malatesta of Rimini affords a splendid instance not only of the treatment of the portrait and subject on the reverse perfectly adapted to its method and purpose, but also of the artistic use of lettering as a decorative feature (see p. 203).

Medals Of The Lords Of Mantua, Cesena, And Ferrara, By Vittore Pisano Of Verona (Middle Of The Fifteenth Century).

The treatment and relief of figures and heads upon the plane surfaces of metals and coins, the composition controlled by the circular form, have always been a fine test of both modelling and decorative skill and taste. Breadth is given by a flatness in the treatment of successive planes of low relief, which rise to their highest projection from the ground, in the case of a head in profile, about its centre. The delicate perception of the relation of the planes of surface is important, as well as the decorative effect to be obtained by arrangement of the light and shade masses and the contrast of textures, such as hair and the folds of drapery, to the smooth contours of faces and figures, and the rectangular forms of lettering.

In gems we see the use made of the concave ground, which gives an effective relief to the figure design in convex upon it. Bolder projection of prominent parts are here necessary in contrast to the retiring planes, the work being on so small a scale, and also in view of its seal-like character; for, of course, it is the method of producing form by incision, and modelling by cutting and hollowing out, that gives the peculiar character to gems and seals; and it is in forming human figures that the building up of the form by a series of ovals, spoken of in a previous chapter, becomes really of practical value: the method of hollowing the stone or metal in cutting the gem or making a die and the character of the tool leading naturally in that direction.

Desiderio di Settignano

Perhaps the most delicate and beautiful kind of sculptured or modelled relief is to be found in the work of the Florentine school of the fifteenth century, more especially that of Donatello and Desiderio di Settignano, who seem indeed to have caught the feeling and spirit of the best Greek period, with fresh inspiration and suggestion from nature and the life around them, as well as an added charm of grace and sweetness.

It is difficult to imagine that marble carving in low relief can be carried to greater perfection than it is in the well-known small relief by Desiderio di Settignano of the "Madonna and Child," now in the Italian Court of the South Kensington Museum. The delicate yet firmly chiselled faces and hands, the smooth surfaces of the flesh, and the folds of drapery, emerging from, or sinking into, the varied planes of the ground, for refinement of feeling and treatment seem almost akin to the art of the painter in the tenderness of their expression.

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