Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter x

Of the Expression and Relief of Line and Form by Colour— Effect of same Colour upon different Grounds — Radiation of Colour — White Outline to clear Colours — Quality of Tints relieved upon other Tints — Complementaries — Harmony — The Colour Sense — Colour Proportions — Importance of Pure Tints — Tones and Planes — The Tone of Time — Pattern and Picture — A Pattern not necessarily a Picture, but a Picture in principle a Pattern — Chiaroscuro — Examples of Pattern-work and Picture-work — Picture-patterns and Pattern-pictures.

Perhaps the most striking means of the expression of relief of line and form, certainly the most attractive, is by colour. By colour we obtain the most complete and beautiful means of expression in art.

Relief of Line and Form by Colour

Our earliest ideas of form are probably derived through the different colours of objects around us, by which they are thrown into relief upon the background, or against other objects; and, as I mentioned in the first chapter, we reach outline by observing the edges of different masses relieved as dark or light upon light or dark grounds, so now, in my last, we come again to the consideration of the definition of line and form by colour, and their relief and expression upon different planes or fields of colour.


There is first the colour of the object itself — the local colour — and then the colour of the ground upon which it is relieved, both of which in their action and reaction upon each other will greatly affect the value of the local colour and the degree of relief of the form upon it.

One of the best and simplest ways to ascertain the real value of a colour and its effect upon different grounds or fields is to take a flower — say a red poppy, and place it against a white paper ground, blocking in the local colour as relieved upon white, as near as may be to its full strength, with a brush, and defining the form as we go along. Then try the same flower upon grounds of different tints — green, blue, yellow — and it will be at once perceived what a different value and expression the same form in the same colour has upon different tinted grounds. A scarlet poppy would appear clearest and darkest upon white; it would show a tendency upon a blue ground to blend or blur at its edges, and also on yellow and green to a less extent.

Sketch to Show Effect of the Same Colour and Form upon Different Coloured Grounds.

It is this tendency to lose the edges of forms owing to the radiation of colours, and to mingle with the colour of the background, which makes a strong outline so constantly a necessity in decorative work. One may use a black on a white, a brown, or a gold outline (as in cloisonné), the nature of the outline being generally determined by the nature of the work. In stained glass the outline must be black, and this black is of the greatest value in enhancing by opposition the brilliance of the colours of the glass it incloses, stopping out the light around it as it does in solid lead when placed in the window.

(1) Principle of the Effect of the Blending or Blurring of Colours at Their Edges; (2) Use of Black and White Outline to Clear the Edges of Coloured Forms upon Different Coloured Grounds.


Clearing Coloured Forms

A white outline produced by a resist or a mordant in a printed textile, where the colours used are full and rich, often has a good effect, lightening the effect while giving point and definition to certain leading forms. Instances of the use of white outlines may be found in Eastern carpets, where the main colours, being dark blue and yellows on rich red, are relieved in parts by a dull white outline. Also in Persian carpets of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the scrollwork in red is often relieved by an ivory white outline on blue.

It is always a good practice in blocking in flowers, either from nature or as parts of a design, to leave a white outline at the junctions — that is to say, where one petal overlaps another, or where there is a joint in the stem, or a fold in the leaf — and to show the ribbings, markings, and divisions of flower and leaf.

By judiciously changing the quality of our tints it is possible to make different colours in a pattern tell clearly. To relieve red upon blue, for instance, one would use an orange red upon greenish blue, or scarlet upon a gray blue — the general principle being apparently a kind of compensating balance between colours, so that in taking from one you give to another.

A full red and blue used together, as we have seen, would show a tendency to purple, unless separated by outlines; so that if the blue was full and rich, the red would have to approach brown or russet; or if the red was a full one — a crimson red — the blue would have to approach green.


This may be because of the necessary complements in colours, which we see in nature, and which prepossess the eye, and make it demand these modifications to satisfy the sense of harmony.

When daylight struggles with candle- or lamp-light, one may notice that upon the white cloth of a dinner-table the light is blue and the shadows yellow or orange — the orange deepening as with the fading daylight the blue grows deeper, until the colour of the light and the shadow change places. The same principle may be noticed in firelight, but the redder the flame the greener will be the shadows.

Harmony in colour may be said to consist — apart from the general acknowledgment of the law of complementaries, in giving quality to the raw pigments by gradation, by a certain admixture or infusion of other colours.

To begin with the negatives — white and black — white may be creamy or silvery; black may be of a greenish or a bluish or brownish tone; then the primaries — red, blue, yellow, or red, green, violet — red may range from crimson to orange and russet; yellow may approach green or gold; green may be first cousin to blue; blue may be turquoise on the one hand, and touch purple upon the other; and so on through infinite variations of half tints and tones.

No doubt it is an easier matter to harmonize half tints than full bright colours, which may account for the prevalence of the former in decorative work. Nature's pattern-book, too, is full of half tones and mixed tints.

The Colour Sense

We may not all see colour precisely in the same way, and the same colour may appear to be of a different tint to different eyes; and it seems certain that climate and surroundings affect the colour sense: light and colour will stimulate the delight in colour; while, where grayness and dullness characterize the surroundings of life, the colour sense will grow weak, or, if it is manifested at all, it will show a tendency to grayness and heaviness of tint.

The art of the different peoples of the world illustrates this, and, as we may see by turning from east to west, or from north to south, or even from winter to summer, in the main the love of colour follows the sun, like the rainbow.

We can all do something to cultivate our sense of colour, however, and there is no better way than studying the harmonies and varieties of nature. Even the town-dweller is not altogether deprived of the sight of the sky, which constantly unfolds the most beautiful compositions both of form and colour.

As to the choice of colours in decorative design, so far as that is not narrowed by the particular conditions of the work, we must be guided by much the same considerations as would serve us in designing generally, and must, of course, think of appropriateness to position and purpose. Much depends, too, upon proportions of colour, and a beautiful and harmonious effect may be produced in a room by keeping the colour in a particular key, or even delicately varying the designs and tints of one or two colours. The same might be said in arranging a scheme of colouring for any particular piece of design — say, a painted panel or a textile pattern; although such things must ultimately be governed by their relation to other parts in any general scheme — circumstances necessitate their being often designed apart. Still, if the colour of a pattern has been carefully thought out, or rather harmoniously felt, as a real organic thing, it is sure to fit into its place when its time comes.

In arranging our design of colour we can have no better guide, as to proportions and quality, than nature, and should do well, as a matter of practice, to take a flower, or the plumage of a bird, or the colours of a landscape, and adapt them to some particular pattern or scheme of decoration, following the relative degrees of tint and their quantities as nearly as possible. To do this successfully requires some invention and taste; but successful, or unsuccessful, one could hardly fail to learn something positive and valuable about colour, if the attempt was conscientiously made; and fresher motives and sweeter colour would be more likely to result from such study.

Importance of Pure Tints

I think it is a very important thing in all decorative work to keep one's colours pure in quality, and to avoid muddy or heavy tints. Brown is an especially difficult colour to use, because of its generally heavy effect as a pigment, and the difficulty of harmonizing it with other colours except as an outline; and even here it makes all the difference whether it is a cool or a hot shade. A hot brown is most destructive of harmony in colours. It is safe, as a rule, to make it lean to green, or bronze, or gold.

As a general rule it is well to work either in a range of cool tints — a cool key of colour, or the reverse — a warm and rich one. Few cool harmonies can be better than ultramarine and turquoise on greenish white, of which the Persians and Indians are so fond in tile-work. They are delightful to the eye, while peculiarly adapted to the work, owing their quality to the oxide of copper, which the firing brings out so well.

Blues and greens and grays, relieved with white and yellow and orange: or, reds and yellows, relieved with white and opposed by blacks, generally answer: or a range of reds together, or range of blues, or of yellows, with black and white for contrast and accent. Blue and white, too, can be modified in quality; black may be greenish in tone, or brownish, bluish, or purplish according to the harmony aimed at. White may be pure or ivory-toned, cream-coloured or influenced by other colours, and should vary in degree according to the strength of the harmony. This brings us to the question of tone.

Tones and Planes

Now the ornamentist, the designer of patterns, relies for his effect upon the use of certain planes and oppositions of tints to relieve and express his design, to emphasize its main motive, to bring out or to subdue its lines and forms. He knows that cool flat tints — blues, greens, grays — will make forms and surfaces retire, and he makes use of them for flat and reposeful effects, such as wall and ceiling surfaces, adopting the natural principle of colour in landscape and sky.

He uses richer and more varied colour in textile hangings and carpets, furniture, and accessories — reds, yellows, greens, crimson, russets, orange, gold — which answer to the brighter flowers and parterres of our gardens, as things to be near the eye and touch, and to occur as lesser quantities in a scheme of interior colour design.

In the colour design of patterns, harmonious and rich effects can be produced by the use of pure colour alone, no doubt, if carefully proportioned, and separated by outline; though harmony is more difficult to attain in pure colours used in their full strength; and for their due effect, and to avoid harshness, such a treatment really requires out-door light or special conditions of lighting, or the strong light of eastern or southern countries, to soften the effect.

And since we have to adapt our designs to their probable surroundings, we usually consciously select certain tones or shades of a colour, rather than use it absolutely pure or in its full strength. The beautiful tone which time gives to all colour-work is difficult to rival, but no conscious imitation of it is tolerable.

But so long as our aim is strictly to make a colour scheme of any kind in relation to itself, or in harmony with its conditions, we are on a safe and sound path. It is this relativity which is the important thing in all decorative art, and which, more distinctly than any other quality, distinguishes it from pictorial art; although pictorial art is under the necessity of the same law in regard to itself; and in its highest forms, as in mural work, is certainly subject to relativity in its widest sense.

Pattern and Picture

At first sight it might appear as if there were an essential fundamental natural difference between a pattern and a picture, but when we come to consider it, it appears to be rather a distinction than a difference.

A pattern may be an arrangement of lines, forms, and a harmony of planes and tones of colour.

But these words would describe in general terms a picture also.

Certain recurrences of line and form; certain re-echoing notes of the same, or allied colour, are necessary to both pattern and picture. The abstract ingredients appear to be the same in both cases.

A picture indeed may be considered as a pattern of another sort, and the real difference is that whereas a pattern is not necessarily a picture, a picture is bound to be a pattern — a pattern having its quantities, its balance of masses, its connecting lines, its various planes, its key of colour, its play of contrasts, its harmony of tones.

Technically, a picture may be considered as an informal pattern, mainly of tone and values; while a pattern may be considered as a formal pattern, mainly of planes of colour.

The ancient art of the East was all frankly pattern-work, whatever the subject pictured. Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Moorish and Arabian art, in all their varieties, show the dominating sense of pattern, and the invention of the instinctive decorators in the use of colour.

The Japanese, also, are instinctive decorators, though in a less formal and more impressionistic way, and with much more naturalistic feeling. Their pictures printed from colour blocks, as well as their "kakimonos," painted on silk, are frankly pattern-pictures, the pattern motive being quite as strong or stronger than the graphic or representative motive.

Mediæval and early Renaissance painting in Europe was frankly more or less formal and of the nature of ornament, and even in its freest and fullest development, in the works of the great masters of the sixteenth century of Venice and Florence, a certain decorative or architectural feeling was never forgotten.

Painting was still in close association with architecture, and was the chief adornment of churches and palaces; thus it preserved a peculiar distinction and dignity of style. The Dutch school did more perhaps to break these old decorative and architectural traditions than any other, with their domestic and purely naturalistic motives, their pursuit of realism, atmospheric effect, and chiaroscuro — that fascinating goal of painting.


Yet there were some of the seventeenth-century masters, and of the best, such as De Hooghe and Ver Meer of Delft, who showed themselves very much alive to decorative effect, which their power of chiaroscuro — the power of painting things in their proper atmosphere, as lost in transparent depths of shadow, or found in luminous mystery — only seemed to enhance.

As a wonderful instance of ornamental and dignified design carried into every detail with most careful draughtsmanship, and yet beautiful in chiaroscuro and grave colour, there is no finer example than J. Van Eyck's portrait-picture of "Jan Arnolfini and his Wife" in our National Gallery. Such pictures as these would tell as rich and precious gems upon the wall, and would form the centres to which the surrounding colour patterns and decoration would lead up, as in the picture the little mirror reflecting the figures shines upon the wall, a picture within a picture.

J. van Eyck: “;Portrait of Jan Arnolfini and His Wife.”; (National Gallery.)

It is instructive from any point of view to study the quantities and relations of colour, and their tones and values, in such works.

Ver Meer of Delft

Take Ver Meer's "Lady at a Spinet" in our National Gallery.

Ver Meer of Delft: “;Lady at a Spinet.”; (National Gallery.)

We have a plain white wall, exquisite in tone, upon which the crisp gold of the small picture inclosing a brownish landscape with a blue and white sky, and the broad black frame of the picture of Cupid tell strongly, yet fall into plane behind the figure in white satin — quite a different quality of white, and warmer and brighter than the wall. The bodice is a steely blue silk, which is repeated in the velvet seat of the chair; while the blue and white landscape upon the open lid of the spinet repeats the blue and white landscape on the wall, and the blue and white motive is subtly re-echoed in a subdued key in the little tiles lining the base of the wall. The floor is a chequer of black and white (mottled) marble, which gives a fine relief to the dress and repeats the emphatic black of the picture frame; the stand of the spinet is also black striated marble. Quiet daylight falls through the greenish white of the leaded panes. The pink-brown woodwork of the spinet and chair prevent the colour scheme from being cold. The flesh is very pale and ivory-like in tone, but the dress is enlivened by little crisp scarlet and gold touches in the narrow laces which tie the sleeves.

The little picture is a gem of painting and truth of tone, and at the same time might well suggest a charming scheme of colour to an ornamentist.

Van Eyck

Examine the Van Eyck in the same way, and we shall find a very rich but quiet scheme of colour in a lower key, highly decorative, yet presented with extraordinary realistic force, united with extreme refinement and exquisite chiaroscuro, and truth of tone and value, as a portrait-picture, and piece of interior lighting.

It is like taking an actual peep into the inner life of a Flemish burgher of the fifteenth century.

One seems to breathe the still air of the quiet room, the gray daylight falling through the leaded casements, one of which stands open, and shows a narrow strip of luminous sky and suggestion of a garden with scarlet blossoms in green leaves.

The man is clad in a long mantle of claret-brown velvet edged with fur, over black tunic and hose. He wears a quaint black hat upon his head, which almost foreshadows the tall hat of the modern citizen. The pale strange face looks paler and stranger beneath it, but is in character with the long thin hands. The figure gives one the impression of legal precision and dryness, and a touch of clerical formality. The wife is of a buxom and characteristic Flemish type, in a grass-green robe edged with white fur, over peacock blue; a crisp silvery white head-dress; a dark red leather belt with silver stitching. Her figure is relieved upon the subdued red of the bed hangings, continued in the cover of the settle and the red clogs. The wall of the room, much lost in transparent shade, is of a greenish gray tone, and in the centre, between the figures, a circular convex mirror sparkles on the wall reflecting the backs of the figures. Thin lines delicately repeat the red in the mirror frame, which has a black and red inner moulding. A string of amber beads hangs on the wall, and repeats the shimmer of the bright brass candelabra which hangs aloft, and which is drawn carefully enough for a craftsman to reproduce.


Both designer and painter may find abundant suggestion in this picture, which, with Ver Meer's "Lady at the Spinet," I should describe as pattern-pictures— that is to say, while they are thoroughly painter's pictures, and give all the peculiar qualities of oil-painting in the rendering of tone and values, they yet show in their colour scheme the decorative quality, and might be translated into patterns of the same proportions and keys of colours.

As examples of what might be termed picture-patterns we might recur to the wall paintings, as I have said, of ancient Egypt and early art generally, for their simplest forms; but to take a much later instance, and from the art of Florence in the fifteenth century, look at Botticelli's charming little picture of "The Nativity," in the National Gallery. It has all the intentional, or perhaps instinctive, ornamental aim of Italian art, and its colour scheme shows a most dainty and delicate invention in the strictest relation to the subject and sentiment, and is arranged with the utmost subtlety and the nicest art.


The ring of angels above, for instance, is partly relieved upon a gilded ground — to represent the dome of heaven. They bear olive branches, and the colour of their robes alternates in the following order: rose, olive (shot with gold), and white.

The rose-coloured angels have olive and white wings; the white angels, rose and olive wings; and the olive angels, white and rose wings.

This part of the picture by itself forms a most beautiful pattern motive, while it expresses the idea of peace and goodwill.

Then on the brown and gold thatch of the stable occur three more angels in white, rose, and green, respectively. Against a pale sky rise rich olive-green trees, forming the background.

Botticelli: “;The Nativity”; (National Gallery).

The Virgin strikes the brightest ray of colour in red under-robe and sky-blue mantle. There is a gray white ass and a pale brown cow behind her.

St. Joseph is in steel gray with a golden orange mantle over.

The brightest white occurs in the drapery upon which the infant Christ lies.

An angel with a group of men appears, kneeling on the left relieved against white rocks; their colours are — the angel's wings — peacock blue and green, and a pale rose robe. The next figure is in scarlet; the next yellow; and the third man wears pale rose over rich grass-green.

Of the shepherds on the right the first one is in russet and white, the next steely gray, and the angel is in white with rose and pale green wings.

The ground is generally warm white and brown, with dark olive-coloured grass and foliage, so that the pattern of the picture is mainly a ground of olive, gold, and white, relieved by spots of rose, white, blue, yellow, and rose-red and scarlet — the colour in the groups of angels embracing men in front being the deepest in tone.

The first angel in this group (on the left) wears green shot with gold, with shot green and gold wings, the human being in dark olive and rich crimson red.

Next is a white angel with pale rose wings; the man in gray with a red mantle over.

Last is an angel in rose, with rose and red wings, the man being in scarlet with gray mantle over. All the men hold olive branches, and the group emphatically illustrates the idea of "on earth peace and goodwill towards men," thus ending on the keynote both of colour and idea given in the ring of angels above.

Thus it is not only a lovely picture, but an exquisite pattern.


Another instance of a picture-pattern extremely strong and brilliant in its realization of the full force and value of bright colour opposed by the strongest black and white, may be found in Holbein's splendid "Ambassadors," also in our National Collection.

Holbein: “;The Ambassadors”; (National Gallery).


The circular picture of the Madonna and Child, with St. John and an angel, by Botticelli, is also another beautiful instance of pictorial pattern, and of design well adapted and adequately filling its space, while full of delicate draughtsmanship, poetic sentiment, and extremely ornate in its colour.

Botticelli: “;Madonna and Child”; (National Gallery).

Carlo Crivelli

Still more strictly ornamental in character and aim is Carlo Crivelli's "Annunciation." Amazingly rich in invention, and beautifully designed detail, and magnificently decorative in its colour scheme of brick reds and whites, and pale pinks and steel grays, and yellows, varied with scarlet and black, green, blue and gold, in the costumes and draperies, sparkling with jewels, and brightened with rays and patterns of gold.

Carlo Crivelli: “;The Annunciation”; (National Gallery).


Hardly less ornamental in its more conscious grace and Renaissance feeling is Perugino's triptych of the Virgin adoring, with St. Michael on one wing and St. Raphael and Tobias on the other. It is a splendid deep-toned harmony of blues, and warm flesh tones and golden hair, varied by opals, rose red, bronze, green, white, and purple and orange.

Perugino: “;The Virgin in Adoration, with St. Michael and St. Raphael and Tobias”; (National Gallery).


Titian's "Bacchus and Ariadne" is, perhaps, more what I have described as a pattern-picture, and is of a much later type. The full flush of colour and pagan joy of the Renaissance is here paramount, expressed with the masterly freedom of drawing and magnificent colour sense of the great Venetian master. Yet, looking through the life, the movement, the swing and vitality of the figures, and the power and poetry by which the story is conveyed, we shall find a fine ornate design, sustaining an extremely rich and sumptuous pattern of colour. We have a spread of deep-toned blue sky barred with silvery white and gray clouds, great masses of brown and green foliage swaying against it, above a band of deep blue sea, and a field of rich golden brown earth. Warm flesh tones, deep and pale, break upon this with a gorgeous pattern of flying rose, blue, scarlet, orange, and white draperies, varied with the spotted coats of the leopards, the black of the dog, and the copper vessel and warm white of tumbled drapery.

Titian: “;Bacchus and Ariadne”; (National Gallery).

Keats might have had this picture in his mind when he wrote the song in "Endymion":

"And as I sat, over the light blue hills

There came a noise of revellers: the rills

Into the wide stream came of purple hue.

'Twas Bacchus and his crew!

"The earnest trumpet speaks, and silver thrills

From kissing cymbals made a merry din —

'Twas Bacchus and his kin!

"Like to a moving vintage down they came,

Crowned with green leaves, and faces all on flame;

All madly dancing through the pleasant valley,

To scare thee, Melancholy!"

The "Sacred and Profane Love" of the same painter, in the Borghese Gallery at Rome, is an even more splendid example of colour and tone, and is probably the finest of all Titian's works.

Paul Veronese

In Paul Veronese we find a cooler key of colour generally, with a fondness for compositions of figures with classical architecture, the rich patterned robes and varied heads contrasting pleasantly with the severe verticals and smooth surfaces of the marble columns — a sumptuous and dignified kind of picture-pattern, and fully adapted to the decoration of Venetian churches and palaces of the Renaissance.

F. Madox Brown

Madox Brown's "Christ washing St. Peter's Feet," now in the Tate Gallery, is a modern picture-pattern, and an extremely fine one.

These are but a few instances out of many, and the subject of colour and pattern, like the expression of line and form, of which it is a part, is so large and its sides so multitudinous that to deal with the subject fully and illustrate it adequately would need, not ten chapters, but ten hundred, and could only be compassed by the history of art itself.

Madox Brown: “;Christ Washing St. Peter's Feet”; (Tate Gallery).


If anything I have said on the subject, or have been able to show by way of illustration, has served in any way to clear away obscurities, or to lighten the labours of students, or to suggest fresh ideas to the minds of any of my readers in the theory, history, or practice of art, I shall feel that my work has not been in vain, and, at all events, I can only say that I have endeavoured to give here the results of my own thoughts and experience in art.

Some may look upon art as a means of livelihood only, a handmaid of commerce, or as a branch of knowledge, to be acquired only so far as to enable one to impart it to others; others may regard it as a polite amusement; others, again, as an absorbing pursuit and passion, demanding the closest devotion: but from whatever point of view we may regard it, do not let us forget that the pursuit of beauty in art offers the best of educations for the faculties, that its interest continually increases, and its pleasures and successes are the most refined and satisfying.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52