Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter iii

Of the Choice and Use of Line — Degree and Emphasis — Influence of the Photograph — The Value of Emphasis — The Technical Influence — The Artistic Purpose — Influence of Material and Tools — Brush-work — Charcoal — Pencil — Pen.

Recognizing the great range and capacity of line as a means of expression, and also the range of choice it presents to the designer and draughtsman, the actual exercise of this choice of line, with a view to the most expressive and effective use in practice, becomes, of course, of the first consequence.

In this matter of choice we are helped by natural bias, by personal character and preferences, for which it would, as I have said, be difficult fully to account; but beyond this a kind of evolution goes on, arising out of actual practice, which controls and is controlled by it. Draw simply a succession of strokes with any point upon paper, and we find that we are gradually led to repeat a particular kind of stroke, a particular degree of line, partly perhaps because it seems to be produced with more ease, and partly because it appears to have the pleasantest effect.

Choice of Line

By a kind of "natural selection," therefore, influenced no doubt by many small secondary causes, such as the relation of the particular angle of the hand and pencil-point to the surface — the nature of the point itself and the nature of the surface — we finally arrive at a choice of line. This choice, again, will be liable to constant variation, owing to the nature of the object we are about to draw, or the kind of design we want to make.

Use of Line

The kind of line which seems appropriate to representing the delicate edges of a piece of low-relief sculpture, for instance, would require greater force and firmness if we wanted to draw an antique cast in the round, and in strong light and shade. The character of our line should be sympathetic with the character of our subject as far as possible, and sensitive to its differences of character and surface, since it is in this sensitiveness that the expressive power and peculiar virtue of line-drawing consists.

Lines Of Characterization.

A feather, a lily, a scallop shell, all show as an essential principle of their form and construction the radiating line; but what a different quality of line would be necessary to express the differences of each: for the soft, yet firm, smooth flowing curves of the feather fibres no line would be too delicate; and the lily would demand no less delicacy, and even greater precision and firmness of curve, while a slight waviness, or quiver, in the lines might express the silken or waxy surface of the petals; while a crustier, more rugged, though equally firm line would be wanted to follow the rigid furrows and serrated surface of the shell. The leaves of trees and plants of all kinds, which perhaps afford the best sort of practice in line-drawing at first, present in their varieties of structure, character, and surfaces continual opportunities for the exercise of artistic judgment in the choice and use of line.

The forms and surfaces of fruits, again, are excellent tests of line draughtsmanship, and their study is a good preparation for the more subtle and delicate contours of the human form — the greatest test of all. Here we see firmness of fundamental structure (in the bones) and surface curve (of sinew and muscle), with a mobile and constantly changing surface (of flesh and sensitive skin). To render such characteristics without tending to overdo either the firmness or the mobility, and so to become too rigid on the one hand, or too loose and indefinite on the other, requires extraordinary skill, knowledge, and practice in the use of line. I do not suppose the greatest master ever satisfied himself yet in this direction.

Pen Drawing of Fruit.

Degree and Emphasis

When we have settled upon our quality of line and its degree— thick or thin, bold or fine — we shall be met with the question of emphasis, for upon this the ultimate effect and expression of our drawing or design must largely depend. In the selection of any subject we should naturally be influenced by the attractiveness of particular parts, characters, or qualities it might possess, and we should direct our efforts towards bringing these out, as the things which impress us most. That is the difference between the mind and hand working together harmoniously and the sensitized plate in the photographic camera, which, uncontrolled in any way by human choice (and even under that control as it always is to some extent), mechanically registers the action of the light rays which define the impress of natural forms and scenes through the lens focussed upon the plate. So that, as we often see in a photograph, some unimportant or insignificant detail is reproduced with as much distinctness (or more) as are the leading figures or whatever form the interesting features or the motive of the subject. The picture suffers from want of emphasis, or from emphasis in the wrong place. It is, of course, here that the art of the photographer comes in; and, although he can by careful selection, arrangement, and the regulation of exposure, largely counteract the mechanical tendency, a photograph by its very nature can never take the place of a work of art — the first-hand expression, more or less abstract, of a human mind, or the creative inner vision recorded by a human hand.

Influence of the Photograph

Photography does wonders, and for certain qualities of light and shade, and form and effect without colour, no painting or drawing can approach it; but it has the value and interest of science rather than of art. It is invaluable to the student of natural fact, surface effect, and momentary action, and is often in its very failures most interesting and suggestive to artists — who indeed have not been slow to avail themselves of the help of photography in all sorts of ways. Indeed the wonder is, considering its services to art in all directions, how the world could ever have done without it.

But a photograph cannot do everything. It cannot make original designs, and it cannot draw in line. You can design in the solid, and make your groups in the studio or the open air; you can select your point of view, and the photograph will reproduce. You can make your drawing in line, and it will copy it; and we know its sphere of usefulness in this direction is enormous, since it can bring before our eyes the whole range of ancient art.

In short, photography is an excellent servant and friend, but a dangerous master. It may easily beguile us by its seductive reproductions of surface relief and lighting to think more of these qualities than any other, and to endeavour to put them in the wrong places — in places where we want colour planes rather than shadow planes, flatness and repose rather than relief, for instance, as mostly in surface decoration.

But one way of learning the value of emphasis is to draw from a photograph, and it will soon be discovered what a difference in expression is produced by dwelling a little more here, or a little less there.

The Value of Emphasis

In designing, the use of emphasis is very important; and it may be said that drawing or designing without emphasis is like reading without stops, while awkward emphasis is like putting your stops in the wrong place.

By a difference in emphasis the same design may be given quite a different effect and expression.

Effect of Different Emphasis in the Treatment of the Same Design.

Suppose, for instance, we were designing a vertical pattern of stem, leaves, and fruit in one colour. By throwing the emphasis upon the leaves, as in No. 1, we should gain one kind of effect or decorative expression. By throwing the emphasis upon the fruit, and leaving the leaves in outline, we should get quite a different effect out of the same elements, as in No. 2. While by leaving stem, leaves, and fruit all in outline, and throwing the emphasis upon the ground, we should get, again, a totally distinct kind of effect and expression.

Similar differences of effect and expression, owing to differences of emphasis, might be studied in the drawing and treatment of a head (as in a, b, and c). The possibilities of such variations of emphasis in drawing are practically unlimited and co-extensive with the variations of expression we see in nature herself. The pictorial artist is free to translate or represent them in his work, controlled solely by the conditions and purpose of his work.

Different Emphasis in the Treatment of a Head.

It is these conditions and purposes which really control both choice and treatment, and determine the emphasis, and therefore the expression of the work.

No kind of art can be said to be unconditioned, and the simplest and freest of all, the art of the point and the surface, which covers all the graphic art and flat designing, is still subject to certain technical influences, and it may be said that it is very much in so far as these technical influences or conditions are acknowledged and utilized that the work gains in artistic character.

The Technical Influence

The draughtsman in line who draws for surface printing, for the book or newspaper, should be able to stand the test of the peculiar conditions; and, so far from attempting to escape them, and seeking something more than they will bear, should welcome them as incentives to a distinct artistic treatment with a value and character of its own, which indeed all the best work has. It is, for instance, important in all design associated with type for surface printing, that there should be a certain harmonious relation between lettering or type and printer's ornament or picture.

Sketches to Illustrate Effect of Different Emphasis in the Treatment of the Same Elements in Landscape.

Example of Page Treatment to Show Ornamental Relation Between Text and Pictures.

I. Textile Motive: Suggestion for a Carpet Pattern.
II. An Abstract Treatment of The Same on Point Paper, as Detail of Brussels Carpet.

A firm and open quality of line, with bright black and white effects, not only has the most attractive decorative effect with type, but lends itself to the processes of reproduction for surface printing best, whether woodcut or one of the numerous forms of so-called automatic photo-engraving, as well as to the conditions of the printing press.

In all design-work which has to be subjected to processes of engraving and printing, clearness and definiteness of line is very necessary. Designs for textile printing of all kinds, for wall-papers, especially, require good firm drawing and definite colour planes. This does not, however, mean hardness of effect. A design should be clear and intelligible without being hard.

For weaving, again, definiteness in pattern designing is very necessary, since the design must be capable of being rendered upon the severe conditions of the point paper, by which it is only possible to produce curves by small successive angles (which sounds like a contradiction in terms). The size of these angles or points, of course, varies very much in the different kinds of textile with which pattern is incorporated, from the fine silk fabric, in which they are almost inappreciable, to carpets of all kinds, where they are emphatic; so that a certain squareness of mass becomes a desirable and characteristic feature in designs for these purposes, and, indeed, I think it should be more or less acknowledged in all textile design, in order to preserve its distinctive beauty and character.

The Artistic Purpose

Beauty and character.— In these lies the gist of all design. While the technical conditions, if fully understood, fairly met, and frankly acknowledged, are sure to give character to a design, for whatever purpose, beauty is not so easy to command. It is so delicate a quality, so complex in its elements, a question often of such nice balance and judgment — depending perhaps upon a hair's-breadth difference in the poise of a mass here, or the sweep of a curve there — that we cannot weave technical nets fine enough to catch so sensitive a butterfly. She is indeed a Psyche in art, both seeking and sought, to be finally won only by devotion and love.

This search for beauty — this Psyche of art — is the purely inspiring artistic purpose, as distinct from the technical and useful one, which should, perfectly reconciled and united with it, determine the form of our work.

In drawing or design we may seek particular qualities in line and form either of representation or of ornament. We may desire to dwell upon particular beauties either of object or subject. Say, in drawing from a cast or from natural form of any kind, we desire to dwell upon beauty of line or quality of surface. Well, since it is most difficult, if not impossible, to get everything at once, and nothing without some kind of sacrifice, we shall find that to give prominence to — to bring out — the particular quality in our subject (say beauty of line), it becomes necessary to subordinate other qualities to this. A drawing in pure outline of a figure may be a perfect thing in itself. The moment we begin to superadd shading, or lines expressive of relief of any kind, we introduce another element; we are aiming at another kind of truth or beauty; and unless we have also a distinctly ideal aim in this, we shall mar the simplicity of the outline without gaining any compensating advantage, or really adding to the truth or beauty of the drawing.

In designing, too, unless we can so contrive the essential characteristics of our pattern that they shall be adaptable to the method and material of its production, and make its reproduction quite practicable, it is sure to reappear more or less marred and incomplete. The thing is to discover what kind of character and beauty the method will allow of — whether beauty or quality of line, or surface, or colour, or material; and if to be reproduced in a particular method or material, the design should be thought out in the method or material for which it is destined, rather than as a drawing on paper, and worked out accordingly, using every opportunity to secure the particular kind of beauty naturally belonging to such work in its completed form.

Thus we should naturally think of planes of surface in modelled work, and the delicate play of light and shade, getting our equivalent for colour in the design and contrast of varied surfaces. In stained glass we should think of a pattern in lead lines inclosing one of translucent colour, each being interdependent and united to form a harmonious whole. In textile design we should be influenced by the thought of the difference of use, plan, and purpose of the finished material; as the difference between a rich vertical pattern in silk, velvet, or tapestry, to be broken by folds as in curtains or hangings, and a rich carpet pattern, to be spread upon the unbroken level surface of a floor. The idea of the wall and floor should here influence us as well as the actual technical necessities of the loom. It would be part of the artistic purpose affecting the imagination and artistic motive, and working with the strictly technical conditions.

The mind must project itself, and see with the inner eye the effect of the design as it would appear in actual use, as far as possible. Invention, knowledge, and experience will do the rest.


Keeping, however, to strictly pictorial or graphic conditions — to the art of the point and the surface — with which, as designers and draughtsmen, we are more immediately concerned, we cannot forget certain technical considerations strictly belonging to the varieties of point and of surface, and their relations one to another. The flexible point of the brush, for instance, dipped in ink, or colour, has its own peculiar capacity, its own range of treatment, one might say, its own forms.

The management admits of immense variation of use and touch, and its range of depicting and ornamental power are very great: from the simpler leaf forms, which seem to be almost a reflection or shadow of the moist pointed brush itself, to the elaborate graphic drawing in line or light and shade.

Brush Forms.

In forming the leaf shape one begins with a light pressure, if at the point, and proceeds to increase it for the middle and broader end. On the same principle of regulation of pressure any brush forms may be built up. It is essential for freedom in working with the brush not to starve or stint it in moisture or colour. For ornamental forms a full brush should be used: otherwise they are apt to look dragged and meagre. For a rich and flowing line also a full brush, however fine, is necessary. It is quite possible, however, to use it with a different aim, and to produce a sort of crumbling line when half dry, and also in colour-work for what is called dragging, by which tone, texture, or quality may be given to parts of a drawing. One should never lose sight, in using the brush as a drawing tool, of its distinctive quality and character, and impart it to all work done by its means.

Direct Brush Expression Of Animal Form.

The direct touch with the full brush — to cultivate this is of enormous advantage to all artists, whatever particular line of art they may follow, since it may be said to be of no less value in design than it is in painting pure and simple. We can all feel the charm of the broad brush washes and emphatic brush touches of a master of water-colour landscape such as De Wint. This is mastery of brush and colour in one direction — tone and effect. A Japanese drawing of a bird or a fish may show it equally in another — character and form. A bit of Oriental porcelain or Persian tile may show the same dexterous charm and full-brush feeling exercised in a strictly decorative direction.

Japanese Drawing Of A Bird. From “;The Hundred Birds Of Bari.”;

The empire of the brush, if we think of it in all its various forms and directions, is very large; and it commands, in skilled hands, both line and form, in all their varieties, and leaves its impress in all the departments of art, from the humble but dexterous craftsman who puts the line of gold or colour round the edges of our cups and saucers, to the highly skilled and specialized painter of easel pictures — say the academician who writes cheques with his paint-brush!

Charcoal and Pencil

Then we have the ordinary varieties of the firm point: charcoal, pencil, pen. Charcoal, being halfway between hard and soft — a sort of halfway house or bridge for one passing from the flexible brush to the firm and hard points of pencil and pen — is first favourite with painters when they take to drawing. Its softness and removability adapts it as a tool for preliminary and preparatory sketching in for all purposes, and both for designer and painter; but it lends itself to both line and tone drawing, or to a mixture of both. It is therefore a very good material for rapid studies (say from the life) and the seizing of any effect of light and shade rapidly, since the masses can be laid in readily, and greater richness and depth can be obtained in shorter time, perhaps, than by any other kind of pencil.

Charcoal is also very serviceable for large cartoon-work, since it is capable of both delicacy and force, and bears working up to any extent. A slight rubbing of the finger gives half tones when wanted, and is often serviceable in giving greater solidity and finish to the work.

Then there is the lead pencil — the point-of-all-work, as it might be called — more generally serviceable than any other, whether for rapid sketches and jottings in the note-book, or careful and detailed drawings, or sketching in for the smaller kinds of design-work. It is also, of course, used for drawings which are afterwards "inked in." I do not think, however, that pen-work done in this way is so free or characteristic as when done direct, or at any rate quite freely, upon a mere scaffolding of preliminary lines, used only to make the plans for the chief masses and forms.

Pencil drawing is capable of being carried to a greater pitch of delicacy and finish, and has a silvery quality all its own. It has not the force or range of charcoal, but in its own technical range it possesses many advantages. Its gray and soft line, however charming in itself, does not fit it for work where sharpness and precision of line and touch are required, as may be said to be the case with all work intended to be reproduced by some process of handicraft or manufacture, except some sorts of photo-engraving or lithography. We must therefore look to another implement to enable us to obtain these qualities, namely, the brush, the use and qualities of which I have already touched upon.

The Pen

There remains yet another point of the firm and decisive order, the pen, which enables us to get firmness and sharpness of line and precise definition, as well as considerable range of treatment and freedom of touch.

The pen seems to bear much the same relation to the brush as the lead pencil does to charcoal — not capable of such full and rich effects or such flowing freedom of line, but yet possessing its own beauty and characteristic kinds of expression. Its true province is in comparatively small scale work, and its natural association is with its sister-pen of literature in the domain of book-design and decoration, and black and white drawing for the press. Its varieties are endless, and the ingenuity of manufacturers continually places before us fresh choice of pen-points to work with; but though one occasionally meets with a good steel pen, I have found it too often fails one just when it is sufficiently worn to the right degree of flexibility. One returns to the quill, which can be cut to suit the particular requirements of one's work. For large bold drawing the reed-pen has advantages, and a pleasant rich quality of line.

But with whatever point we may work, the great object is to be perfectly at ease with it in drawing — to thoroughly master its use and capacities, so that in our search for that other command, of line and form, we may feel that we have in our hands a tool upon which we can rely, a trusty spear to bear down the many difficulties and discouragements that beset, like threatening dragons, the path of the art-student.

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