Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter iv

Of the Choice of Form — Elementary Forms — Space-filling — Grouping — Analogies of Form — Typical Forms of Ornament — Ornamental Units — Equivalents in Form — Quantities in Design — Contrast — Value of Variations of Similar or Allied Forms — Use of the Human Figure and Animal Forms in Ornamental Design.

We were considering the choice and use of Line in the last chapter: its expressive characters and various methods. We now come to the no less important question to the designer and draughtsman —The Choice of Form.

If Line may be said to be the bone and sinew of design, Form is the substance and the flesh, and both are obviously essential to its free life and development.

Elementary Forms

The cube and the sphere give us the fundamental elements, or primal types from which are derived the multifarious, ever varying, and complex forms, the products of the forces and conditions of nature, or the necessitous inventiveness of art, just as we may take the square and the circle to be the parents of linear and geometric design.

Elementary Forms: Pyramid, Sphere, Cube, Hexagon, Cone.

The cube and the sphere, the ellipse, the cone, and the pyramid, with other comparatively simple forms of solid geometry, present themselves to the student as elementary tests of draughtsmanship — of the power, that is, of representing solid bodies upon a plane surface. Such forms being more simple and regular than any natural forms, they are supposed to reduce the problem of drawing to its simplest conditions. They certainly afford very close tests of correctness of eye, making any fault in perspective or projection at once apparent.

Use Of Elementary Forms in Architecture.

To avoid, however, falling into mechanical ways, and to maintain the interest and give vitality to such studies, the relation of such forms to forms in nature and art should be borne in mind, and no opportunity missed of comparing them, or of seeking out their counterparts, corresponding principles, and variations, as well as their practical bearing, both functional and constructive; as in the case of the typical forms of flowers, buds, and seed-vessels, for instance, where the cone and the funnel, and the spherical, cylindrical, and tubular principles are constantly met with, as essential parts of the characters and organic necessities of the plant: the cone and the funnel mostly in buds and flower-petals for protection and inclosure of the pollen and seed germs, the tube for conducting the juices; the spherical form to resist moisture externally, or to hold it internally, or to avoid friction, and facilitate close storage, as in the case of seeds in pods. The seed-vessel of the poppy, for instance, has a curious little pent-house roof to shield the interstices (like windows in a tower) till the seed is ripe and the time comes for it to be shaken out of the shell or pod. A further practical reason for the prevalence of spherical form in seeds is that they may, when the outer covering or husk perishes, more readily roll out and fall into the interstices of the ground; or when, as in the case of various fruits, such as the apple and orange, the envelope itself is spherical and intended to carry their flat or pointed seeds to the ground, where it falls and rolls when ripe.


The cube and the various multiple forms may be found in crystals and basaltic rocks, as well as in organic nature, as, for instance, in the honeycomb of bees, where choice of form is a constructive necessity: the cube is in every sense of the word the corner-stone in architecture, and without squaring and plumbing no building could be constructed, while the cylindrical and conical principles of form are illustrated in towers and roofs, spires and pinnacles. In architectural ornament and carved decoration the cube and sphere again form the basis, both forming ornaments themselves by mere recurrence and repetition, and also forming constructional bases of ornament.

Apple Cut To Show Position Of Seeds.

Dog-Tooth Ornament

Dog-tooth Formed From Cube.

A very simple but effective form of carved ornament characteristic of early Gothic work is what is known as the dog-tooth. This is formed simply by cutting a cube of stone into a pyramid, depressing the sides, and cutting them into geometric leaves, leaving the sharp angles of the pyramid from the base to the apex standing out in bold relief. In ground-plan this is simply composed geometrically of a rectangle divided diagonally into four equal parts, and by striking four semicircles from the centres of the four sides of the rectangle. Here we get a form of ornament in the flat which appears to have been very widely used, and reappears in the early art of nearly all races so far as I am aware. We find it, for instance, in Assyrian carving and in early Greek decoration, in China and Japan, and in European mediæval work of all kinds. Its charm perhaps lies in its simplicity of construction yet rich ornamental effect, either as carved work or as a flat painted diaper. It might also be used as the geometric basis of an elaborate repeating wall-pattern over a large surface.

Cube and Sphere in Architectural Ornament: Brick Dental, Ball Flower Moulding, and Dog-tooth Moulding.

Filling of Spaces

When it comes to the choice of form, when we are face to face with a particular problem in design, ornament, or decoration (say, as most frequently happens, it is to fill a panel of a given shape and size), we are bound to consider form in relation to that particular panel, to the subject we propose to treat, and the method by which the design is to be produced, or the object and position for which it is intended. This generally narrows the range of possible choice. Firstly, there is the shape of the panel itself. A well-known exercise for the Teacher's Certificate under the Department of Science and Art is to give a drawing of a plant adapted to design in a square and a circle. Now in the abstract one would be inclined to select for a circular fitting different forms from those one might select for a square filling, since I always consider that the shape of the space must influence the character of the filling in line and form. Still, if the problem is to fill a square and a circle by the same forms, or an adaptation of them, we must rely more and more upon difference of treatment of these forms, and not try to squeeze round forms into rectangular space, or rectangular forms into circular space. In a rose, for instance, it would be possible to dwell on its angular side for the square, and on its curvilinear side for the circle. Anyway, we should seek in the first place a good and appropriate motive.

Filling of Square Space.

Supposing the design is for wood inlay, we should have to select forms that would not cause unnecessary difficulty in cutting, since every form in the design would have to be cut out in thin wood and inserted in the corresponding hollow cut in the panel or plank to receive it. Complex or complicated forms would therefore be ruled out, as being not only difficult or impossible to reproduce in the material, but ineffective.

Filling of Circular Space.

Inlay Design

A true feeling for the particular effect and decorative charm of inlaid work should lead us to limit ourselves to comparatively few and simple forms, treating those forms in an emphatic but abstract way, and making use of recurring line and form as far as possible. We might make an effective panel, say, for a casket, or a clock-case, or a floor, by strictly limiting ourselves to very few and simple forms — say, for instance, a stem, a leaf, a berry, or disc, and a bird form, or fruit and leaf forms. It would be possible to build up a design with such elements both pleasant in effect and well adapted to the work. An excellent plan would be to cut out all one's forms with knife or scissors in stiff paper, as a test of the practicability of an inlay design. This is actually done with the working drawing by the inlay cutter.

1. Units of Simple Inlay Pattern; 2. Motive for Inlaid Pattern Built of the Same Units; 3. Treatment of Form as Pattern Units for Inlaid Work; 4. Pattern Motive for Inlaid Work

I once designed an inlaid floor for the centre of a picture gallery. The scale was rather large, and the work was bold. One kept to large, bold, and simple forms — water-lilies and broad leaves, swans, scallop shells, and zigzag borders. Forms which can be readily produced by the brush would generally answer well for inlay, since they would have simple and sweeping boundaries and flat silhouette. And for inlay one is practically designing in black, white, or tinted silhouette. This makes it very good practice for all designers, both for the invention it tends to call out, owing to the limited resources and restriction as to forms, and also as giving facility and readiness in blocking in the masses of pattern.

The water-colour painter, too, would find that blocking in in flat local colour all his forms and the colours of his background was an excellent method of preparatory work, and afforded good practice in direct painting, since he could add his secondary shades and tints in the same manner until the work was brought to completion, while preserving that fresh effect of the undisturbed washes which is the great charm of water-colour.

Grouping of Allied Forms

In seeking forms to group together harmoniously — which is the whole object of composition — we shall find that much the same kind of principle holds good whether we are arranging a still-life group or designing a wall-paper or textile. It is only a difference of degree and scale. In the one case we are designing in the solid with the actual objects, before drawing or painting them as a harmonious pictorial composition; in the other we are arranging forms upon the flat with a view to harmonious composition with a strictly decorative purpose in view. In the first we are dealing with concrete form in the round; in the second, generally speaking, with abstract form in the flat.

Grouping of Allied Forms: Composition of Curves.

But in either case we want harmony. We cannot, therefore, throw together a number of forms unrelated to each in line, contour, or meaning. We seek in composing or designing not contradictions, but correspondences of form, with just an element of contrast to give flavour and point. In grouping pottery, for instance, we should not place big and little or squat and slender forms close together without connecting links of some kind. We want a series of good lines that help one another and lead up to one another in a kind of friendly co-operation. Broad smooth forms and rounded surfaces, again, require relief and a certain amount of contrast. We feel the need of crisp leaves or flowers, perhaps, with our pottery form. We may safely go far, however, on the principle of grouping similar or allied forms, giving our composition as a whole either a curvilinear or angular character in its general lines, masses, and forms, on the principle of like to like. This will entirely depend upon our choice of grouping of form; but the more by our selection we make our composition tend distinctly in the one direction or the other, the more character it will be likely to possess.

Grouping of Allied Forms: Composition of Angles.


Still-life Group Illustrative of Wood-Engraving.

In selecting forms for still-life grouping and painting, I think increased interest might be gained by arranging significant objects, accessories bearing upon particular pursuits, for instance, in natural relationship and surrounding. Groups suggesting certain handicrafts, for instance, such as the clear glass globe of the wood-engraver, the sand-bag, the block upon it, the tools, gravers lying around, the eye-glass, an old book of woodcuts, and so forth. Other groups suggestive of various arts and industries could be arranged — such motives as metal-work, pottery, literature, painting, music, embroidery, spring, summer, autumn, and winter, might all be suggestively illustrated by well-selected groups of still life. Even different historic periods might be emblematically suggested — I should like to see more done in this way.

Japanese Diagonal Pattern.

To return to design in the flat. If we start with a motive of circular masses, we cannot suddenly associate them with sharp angles — I mean in our leading forms. Of course we can make a network or trellis or diaper of the angles, to form a mat, ground, or a framework on which to place our broad masses, as we may see effectively done by the Chinese and Japanese.

Corresponding Forms

Treatment of Fruit and Leaf Forms: Corresponding Curvature

If the principal group of forms in our pattern, say, are fruit forms — apples, pomegranates, or oranges — we must re-echo or carry out the curves in a lesser degree in the connecting stems and leaves. Change the form of the fruit, say, to lemons, and a further variation of connecting or subsidiary curve in stems and leaves will naturally suggest itself, and at the same time in following such principles we shall be expressing in an abstract way more of the character of the tree or plant itself. In looking at the leaf of a tree one may often see a suggestion of the general character and contour of the tree itself, and we know the line:

"Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined."

In dealing with angular motives the same principle would be followed, but corresponding to the difference of motive. Let the form of your detail be reflected in the character of your mass.

I have spoken of the necessity in designing of seeking correspondences in form, and although, could we place every form in proper sequence and supply all the intermediary links to unite them harmoniously, forms of extreme diversity might thus be associated, given great extension of space (as in wall decoration, for instance), even then we should want these forms to correspond and recur. Yet, as a rule, having to deal in design with what are really parts rather than wholes, we can only endeavour by making the design of these parts simple and harmonious in line and form, and true to their special conditions, to render their association decoratively possible.

Correspondence in General Contour Between Leaf and Tree.
Some Analogies in Form.

Certain forms seem to lend themselves to design in ornament better than others, because they give the designer certain lines and masses which can be harmoniously repeated or combined with other allied forms or lines. Design from this point of view becomes a search for analogies of form.

Analogies of Form

I mentioned certain simple geometric forms common to nature and art. Early ornament consists in the repetition of such forms. The next step was to connect them by lines: and so form and line, through endless vicissitudes and complexities, became united, to live happily in the world of decorative motive ever after. But long after the primitive unadorned geometric forms themselves have ceased to be the chief forms in ornament, their controlling influence is asserted over the boundaries of the more complicated masses introduced.

Typical Forms of Ornament

The simple rectangle is disguised under the fret, the circle and spiral assert their sway over the boundaries of the palmette, or circle and semicircle unite to form the oval so frequently used both as a unit in Greek ornament and as a controlling boundary. These are typical border forms: for extension and repetition in fields of pattern we find the same geometric plans at work in combination and subdivision, forming at first the ornament itself, and afterwards furnishing the plan and controlling boundaries only. Even in later stages in the evolution of surface decoration, in what are called naturalistic floral patterns, amid apparent carelessness and freedom, by the exigencies of repetition the ghost of buried geometric connection reappears, and compels the most naturalistic roses on a wall-paper to acknowledge themselves artificial after all, as they nod to their counterparts from the masked angles of the inevitable diaper repeat.

Tree Of Typical Pattern Forms, Units, and Systems.

We find in the historical forms of decorative art constantly recurring types of form and line, such as the lotus of the Egyptians, the anthemia of the Greeks, the pineapple-like flower and palmette of the Persians, the peony of the Chinese. These forms, at first valued solely for their symbolical and heraldic significance, and continually demanded, became to the designer important elements or units in ornament. They gave him fine sweeping curves, radiating lines, and bold masses, without which a designer cannot live, any more than a poet without words. They were capable, too, of infinite variation in treatment, a variation which has been continued ever since, as by importation to different countries (the movement going on from east to west) the same forms were treated by designers of different races, and became mixed with other native elements, or consciously imitated as they are now by Manchester designers and manufacturers, to be sold again in textile form to their original owners, as it were, in the far East. Truly, a strange turn of the wheel.

Ornamental Units

The range of choice in ornamental units is, indeed, embarrassingly large for the modern designer, and a careful and tasteful selection becomes of more and more importance. It is not the number of forms you can combine, or because they are of Persian or Chinese origin, that your work will be artistic, but the judicious and inventive use made of the elements of your design. Ready-made units, such as the Oriental forms I have mentioned, are no doubt easier to combine, to make an effect with, because a certain amount of selection has already been done. In fact, with such forms as the Persian or Indian palmette, we are dealing with the results of centuries of ornamental evolution, and with emblems immemorially treasured by ancient races. It behoves us, if we are called upon to recombine them, to treat them with sympathy, refinement, and respect, and to let them deteriorate as little as possible, for the spirit of an important ornamental form is like a gathered flower — it soon withers and becomes limp.

Sketches to Show Use of Counterbalance, Quantity, and Equivalents in Designing.

Equivalents in Form

It is the spirit, after all, that is the important thing to preserve, in decorative design, however widely we may depart from the letter sometimes. This is a difficult quality to define, but I should say it chiefly consists in a nice attention to the character of form, the elastic spring of curves, an understanding of the construction and proportions, and grasp of the effect. In designing we constantly feel the need of repeating certain masses with variations or balancing them by equivalents, or the necessity of leading up to certain main forms by subsidiary forms, and to carry out their lines in other parts of the composition. In designing figures or emblems, for instance, within inclosed spaces, such as shields or cartouche shapes, forming leading elements in a design, it requires much invention and ornamental feeling so to arrange them that, while different in subject or meaning, and differently spaced, they shall yet properly counterbalance each other, and, though varied in detail, shall yet be equivalent in quantity. The same sort of feeling would govern the case of designing two masses of fruit and foliage, say, forming two halves of an oblong panel, which, though starting on the symmetric plan from the centre, are not intended to be alike in detail; or in a frieze composed of a series of formalized trees, where it was desired to have each different, say, to express the progression of the seasons, it would be the sense of the necessity of equivalents which would govern the decorative effect.

Quantities and Counterchange of Border and Field in Carpet Motives.

Quantities in Design

Sketch to Illustrate Value of Different Quantities in Persian Rugs.

Such considerations naturally lead us to the question of the use of quantities in design — the ornamental proportions of ornament, or the contrasting distribution of form and line. For the mere repetition of ornamental forms over surfaces and objects without reference to proportion or structure is not decoration. The perception of appropriate quantities in design is really the decorative gauge or measure of effect.

Sketch to Illustrate Value of Different Quantities in Persian Rugs.

In designing a bordered panel — or say a carpet — we might decide to throw the weight of pattern, colour, or emphasis upon either the field or border. Supposing the field had a dark ground upon which the arabesque or floral design was relieved, in the border it would be most effective to transpose this arrangement, making the ground light, and bringing out the border design dark upon it. Or, if the motive were reversed, giving a light ground to the centre, with the pattern dark, the border might be brought out on a dark field. Or, again, for a less emphatic treatment the quantities of the pattern itself might be almost infinitely varied, massive forms and close fillings contrasting with open borders and united with intermediary bands.

Sketch to Illustrate Value of Different Quantities in Persian Rugs.

These intermediary bands or subsidiary borders are very important in Eastern rugs and carpets, and their quantities very carefully considered. A Persian designer, for instance, would never leave a blank unbroken strip of colour to surround his field; his object is not to isolate the quantities of his pattern, but to distinguish and unite them: so he makes use of the subsidiary borders as additional quantities. A usual arrangement which always looks well is to have the border proper inclosed in two bands of about the same width and quantity in pattern — or they might be a repeat of each other — and to inclose the field or centre within another narrow subsidiary border. But the variations to be observed in any chance selection of Persian rugs or carpets are constant, and the amount of subtle variety and invention in these subsidiary borders is endless.

Very excellent examples of the treatment and distribution of quantities may also be studied in the older Indian printed cottons, such as maybe seen at South Kensington.


The consideration of quantities in form and design involves the question of contrast, which, indeed, can hardly be separated from it. There is the contrast of form and line, and the contrast of colour and plane. It is with the first kind we are dealing now.

Take the simplest linear border, such as the type common in Greek work. We should easily weary of the continual repetition of such a form alone and unassisted, but add a vertical with an alternative dark filling, and we get a certain richness and solidity which is a relief at once. Add another quantity, and we get the rich effect of the egg and tongue or egg and dart moulding.

A still simpler instance of the use of contrast, however, is the chequer, or the principle of equal alternation of dark and light masses; but this touches colour contrast rather than form.

Recurrence and Contrast in Border Motives.

The love of contrast makes the Chinese porcelain-painter break the blue borders of his plates with small cartouche-like forms inclosing the light ground, varied with a spray or device of some light kind; or the diagonal, closely-filled field of his woven silk by broad discs or cartouches of another plane of ornament. But the love of sharp or very violent contrasts, more especially of form, may easily lead one astray and be destructive of ornamental effect. Like all decorative considerations, the artistic use of contrast depends much upon the particular case and the conditions of the work, and one cannot lay down any unvarying rules. There are agreeable and disagreeable contrasts, and their choice and use must depend upon the individual artist.

Variation of Allied Forms

The most beautiful kinds of design rather seem to depend upon the harmonious variation in association of similar or allied forms than on sharp contrasts.

In compositions of figures the association of the delicate curves and angles of the human form, and the lines of drapery, with the emphatic verticals and horizontals, the semicircles and rectangles of architectural form, for instance, are always delightful in competent hands; as also compositions of figure and landscape, with its possibilities of undulating line corrected by the severe horizon, or sea-line, and contrasted with the vertical lines of trees, stems, and the rich forms of foliage masses.

For the same reasons both of correspondence and contrast, masses of type or lettering of good form are admirable as foils to figure designs, in which commemorative monuments of all kinds and book designs afford abundant opportunities to the designer.

Use Of Human Figure and Animal Forms

In surface or textile decoration of all kinds nothing gives so much relief and vitality as the judicious use of animal forms and the human figure, although they are not much favoured at present. The forms of birds and animals, if designed in relation to the rest of the pattern, will give a pleasant variety of form and line, and in their forms and lines we find just those elements both of correspondence and contrast, in their relation to geometric or to floral design, which are so valuable.

Use of Inclosing Boundaries in Designing Animal Forms in Decorative Pattern.

In order to combine such forms successfully, however, great care in designing is necessary; and a good sound principle to follow as a general guide is to make the boundaries of the bird or animal touch the limits of an imaginary inclosing form of some simple geometric or floral or leaf shape (see p. 104). This would at once control the form and render it available in a pattern as a decorative mass or unit. The particular shape of the controlling form must, of course, depend upon the general character of the design, whether free and flowing or square and restricted, the nature of the repeat, the ultimate position of the work, and so on. A study of Gothic heraldry and the early Sicilian silk patterns would be very instructive in this connection, since it is rather the heraldic ideal than that of the natural history book which is decoratively appropriate. At the same time it is quite possible to combine ornamental treatment with a great deal of natural truth in structure and character.

Decorative Spacing of Figures Within Geometric Boundaries.

Much the same principles apply to the treatment of the human figure as an element in ornament; they should be designed, whether singly or in groups, under the control of imaginary boundaries, and care must be taken that in line and mass they re-echo (or are re-echoed by) other lines which connect them with the rest of the design, if they occur as incidents in repeating wall-paper or hanging design, for instance. It is, however, quite possible to imagine a decorative effect produced by the use of figures alone (see p. 105), with something very subsidiary in the way of connecting links of linear or floral pattern, much as figures were used by the ancient Greek vase-painters, beautifully distributed as ornament over the concave or convex surfaces of the vases and vessels of the potter, the forms of which, as all good decoration should do, they helped to express as well as to adorn.

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