Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter viii

Of the Expression of Relief in Line-drawing — Graphic Aim and Ornamental Aim — Superficial Appearance and Constructive Reality — Accidents and Essentials — Representation and Suggestion of Natural Form in Design — The Outward Vision and the Inner Vision.

I have already said that when we add lines or tints of shadow, local colour or surface, to an outline drawing, we are seeking to express form in a more complete way than can be done in outline alone. These added lines or tints give what we call relief. That is their purpose and function, whether by that added relief we wish to produce an ornamental effect or simply to approach nearer to the full relief of nature, for of course the degrees of relief are many.

Relief in Line-Drawing

What may be called the natural principle of relief — that system of light and shade by which a figure or any solid object is perceived as such by the eye — consists in each part of the form being thrown into more or less contrast by appearing as dark on light upon its background, more especially at its edges. A figure wholly dark, say in black drapery, appearing against a light ground, might be supposed to be flat if no cast shadow was seen; the same with the reverse — a light figure upon a dark ground — except that in this latter case, unless the light was very level and flat, a certain concentration of light upon the highest parts, or indicating a modulation of shadow in interstices, might betray its solidity (see p. 206).

The Two Principles of Contrast in Black and White.

But if we place a figure so that the light falls from one side, we perceive that it at once stands out in bold relief in broad planes of light and shade, further emphasized by cast shadows (p. 207).

Treatment of the Same Figure in Light And Shade.

It would be possible to represent or to express a figure or object so lighted by means of laying in the modulations and planes of shadow only, or by means of adding the light only on a toned ground. In sketching in black and white, it is a good plan to accustom oneself to complete as one goes along, as far as may be, putting in outline and shadow together; but this needs a power of direct drawing and a correctness of eye only to be gained by continual practice. A slight preliminary basis of light lines to indicate the position and proportions, and yet not strong enough to need rubbing out, is also a good method for those who do not feel certain enough for the absolutely direct method of drawing.

Expression of Form by Light and Shade: (1) Light and Shade Without Outline; (2) Light and Shade Enforced by Outline.

Now in drawing, as I think I have pointed out before, no less than in all art, there are two main governing principles of working which may be distinguished.

  1. The graphic aim.
  2. The ornamental or decorative aim.


The Graphic Aim

The graphic aim — the endeavour to represent a form exactly as it appears — a power always valuable to acquire whatever may be our ultimate purpose, leaves the draughtsman great freedom in the choice and use of line, or other means of obtaining relief, local tint, and tone.

In line-work the broad relief of the flat tones of shadow may be expressed in lines approaching the straight, diagonally sloping from right to left, or from left to right, as seems most natural to the action of the hand.

The quality of our lines will depend upon the quality we are seeking to express. We shall be led to vary them in seeking to express other characteristics, such as textures and surfaces.

In drawing fur or feathers, for instance, we should naturally vary the quality and direction of line, using broken lines and dots for the former, and flowing smooth fine lines for the latter, while extra force and relief would be gained by throwing them up upon solid black grounds. Solid black, also, to represent local colour, or material such as velvet, is often valuable as a contrast in black and white line-drawing, giving a richness of effect not to be obtained in any other way (see No. 2, p. 213). Its value was appreciated by the early German and Italian book-illustrators, and in our own time has been used almost to excess by some of our younger designers, who have been largely influenced by Hokusai and other Japanese artists, who are always skilful in the use of solid blacks.

Linear Expression of Features, Feathers and Fur: Notes from Nature.

In line-drawing a very useful principle to observe, to give solidity to figures and objects, is to let one's lines — say of drapery or shadow — run into solid blacks in the deepest interstices of the forms, as when folds of drapery are wrapped about a figure, or in the deeper folds themselves (No. 1, p. 213).

Sketches to Illustrate (1) The Graphic And (2) The Decorative Treatment of Draped Figures.


The Ornamental Aim

I have spoken of the graphic and the ornamental aims as distinct, and so they may for practical purposes be regarded; although in some cases it is possible to combine a considerable amount of graphic force with decorative effect, and even in purely graphic art there should always be the controlling influence of the sense of composition which must be felt throughout all forms of art.

For the simplest ornamental function, however, very little graphic drawing is needed, over and above the very essential power of definition by pure outline, and feeling for silhouette; but a sense for the relief of masses upon a ground or field, and of the proportions and relations of lines and masses or distribution of quantities, is essential. Now an ornamental effect may be produced by the simple repetition of some form defined in outline arranged so as to fall into a rhythmic series of lines.

A series of birds upon a plan of this kind, for instance, would form a frieze on simple bordering in abstract line alone, and might be quite sufficient for some purposes. The same thing would be capable of more elaborate treatment and different effect by relieving the birds upon a darker ground, by defining the details of their forms more, or by alternating them in black or white, or by adopting the simple principle of counterchange (see p. 215).

Decorative Treatment of Birds.


Flowers or figures would be capable of the same simple and abstract treatment; and almost any form in nature, reduced to its simplest elements of recurring line and mass, and rhythmically disposed, would give us distinct decorative motives.

The Ornamental Aim

It is quite open to the designer to select his lines and forms straight from nature, and, bearing in mind the necessity for selection of the best ornamental elements, for a certain simplification, and the rhythmical treatment before mentioned, it is good to do so, as the work is more likely to have a certain freshness than if some of the well-known historic forms of ornament are used again. We may, however, learn much from the ornamental use of these forms, and use similar forms as the boundaries of the shape of our pattern units and masses.

It is good practice to take a typical shape such as the Persian radiating flower or pine-apple, and use it as the plan for quite a different structure in detail, taking some familiar English flower as our motive. The same with the Indian and Persian palmette type. It is also desirable, as before pointed out, to draw sprays within formal boundaries for ornamental use. By such methods we may not only learn to appreciate the ornamental value of such forms, but by such adaptation and re-combination produce new varieties of ornament (see p. 217).

Floral Designs Upon Typical Inclosing Shapes of Indian and Persian Ornament.

We may perceive how distinct are the two aims as between simple graphic drawing, or delineation, and what we call design, or conscious arrangements of line or form. While planes of relief, varied form and surface, values of light and shade, and accidental characteristics are rather the object with the graphic draughtsman, typical form and structure, and recurring line and mass, are sought for by the ornamentist. Both series of facts, or qualities, or characteristics, are in nature.


Judicious selection, however, is the test of artistic treatment; selection, that is, with a view to the aim and scope of the work. The truth of superficial appearance or accidental aspect is one sort of truth: the truth of the actual constructive characteristics — be they of figure, flower, or landscape — is another. Both belong to the thing we see — to the object we are drawing; but we shall dwell upon one truth or set of truths rather than the other, in accordance with our particular artistic aim, though, whatever this may be, and in whatever direction it may lead us, we shall find that selection of some sort will be necessary.

In making studies, however pure and simple, the object of which is to discover facts and to learn mastery of form, our aim should be to get as much truth as we can, truth of structure as well as of aspect. But these (as far as we can make them) exhaustive studies should be accompanied or followed by analytical studies made from different points of view and for different purposes.

Studies, for instance, made with a view to arrangements of line only — to get the characteristic and beautiful lines of a figure, a momentary attitude, the lines of a flower, or a landscape: studies with a view, solely, to the understanding of structure and form, or again, with the object of seizing the broad relations of light and shade, or tone and colour — all are necessary to a complete artistic education of the eye.


Accidents and Essentials

If we are drawn as students rather towards the picturesque and graphic side of art, we shall probably look for accidents of line and form more than what I should call the essentials, or typical line and form, which are the most valuable to the decorative designer.

In both directions some compact or compromise with nature is necessary in any really artistic re-presentation.

The painter and the sculptor often seek as complete representation as possible, and what may be called complete representation is within the range of their resources. Yet unless some individual choice or feeling impresses the work of either kind it is not a re-presentation, but becomes an imitation, and therefore inartistic.

The decorative designer and ornamentist seek to suggest rather than to re-present, though the decorator's suggestion of natural form, taking only enough to suit or express the particular ornamental purpose, must be considered also as a re-presentation. How much, or how little, he will take of actual nature must depend largely upon his resources, his object, and the limitations of his material — the conditions of his work in short; but his range may be as wide as from the flat silhouetted forms of stencils or simple inlays to the highly-wrought mural painting.

Design motive, individual conception and sentiment, apart from material, must, of course, always affect the question of the choice and degree of representation of nature. The painter will sometimes feel that he only wants to suggest forms, such as figures or buildings, half veiled in light and atmosphere, colours and forms in twilight, or half lost in luminous depths of shadow.

Dancing Figure with the Governing Lines of the Movement.


Lines of Floral Growth and Structure: Lily and Rose.

The Outward Vision and Inner Vision

The decorative designer will sometimes want to emphasize forms with the utmost force and realism at his command, as in some crisp bit of carving or emphatic pattern, to give point and relief in his scheme of quantities.

There is no hard-and-fast rule in art, only general principles, constantly varied in practice, from which all principles spring, and into which, if vital, they ought to be capable of being again resolved.

But a design once started upon some principle — some particular motive of line or form — then, in following this out, it will seem to develop almost a life or law of growth of its own, which as a matter of logical necessity will demand a particular treatment — a certain natural consistency or harmony — from its main features down to the smallest detail as a necessity of its existence.

We might further differentiate art as, on the one hand, the image of the outward vision, and, on the other, as the outcome or image of the inner vision.

The first kind would include all portraiture, by which I mean faithful portrayal or transcript whether of animate or inanimate nature; while the second would include all imaginative conceptions, decorative designs, and pattern inventions.

The outward vision obviously relies upon what the eye perceives in nature. Its virtue consists in the faithfulness and truth of its graphic record, in the penetrating force of observation of fact, and the representative power by which they are reproduced on paper or canvas, clay or marble.

1 and 2, Mountain And Crag Sculpture: Coast Lines, Gulf Of Nauplia.
Lines of Movement in Water: Shallow Stream Over Sand.


The image of the inner vision is also a record, but of a different order of fact. It may be often of unconscious impressions and memories which are retained and recur with all or more than the vividness of actuality — the tangible forms of external nature calling up answering, but not identical, images in the mind, like reflections in a mirror or in still water, which are similar but never the same as the objects they reflect.

But the inner vision is not bound by the appearances of the particular moment. It is the record of the sum of many moments, and retains the typical impress of multitudinous and successive impressions — like the composite photograph, where faces may be printed one over another until the result is a more typical image than any individual one taken separately.

The inner vision sees the results of time rather than the impressions of the moment. It sees space rather than landscape: race rather than men: spirits rather than mortals: types rather than individuals.

The inner vision hangs the mind's house with a mysterious tapestry of figurative thoughts, a rich and fantastic imagery, a world where the elements are personified, where every tree has its dryad, and where the wings of the winds actually brush the cheek.

The inner vision re-creates rather than represents, and its virtue consists in the vividness and beauty with which, in the language of line, form, and colour, these visions of the mind are recorded and presented to the outward eye.

There is often fusion here again between two different tendencies, habits of mind, or ways of regarding things. In all art the mind must work through the eye, whether its force appears in closeness of observation or in vivid imaginings. The very vividness of realization even of the most faithful portraiture is a testimony to mental powers.

The difference lies really in the focus of the mental force; and, in any case, the language of line and form we use will neither be forcible or convincing, neither faithful to natural fact nor true to the imagination, without close and constant study of external form and of its structure as well as its aspect.

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