Line and Form, by Walter Crane

Chapter ix

Of the Adaptation of Line and Form in Design, in various materials and methods — Mural Decoration — Fresco-work of the Italian Painters — Modern Mural Work — Mural Spacing and pattern Plans — Scale — The Skirting — The Dado — Field of the Wall — The Frieze — Panelling — Tapestry — Textile Design — Persian Carpets — Effect of Texture on Colour — Prints — Wall-paper — Stained Glass.

We have been considering hitherto the choice and use of line and form, and various methods of their representation in drawing, both from the point of view of the graphic draughtsman and that of the ornamental designer.

We now come to consider the subject solely from the latter standpoint (the point of view of ornamental design); and it will be useful to endeavour to trace the principles governing the selection of form and use of line as influenced by some of the different methods and conditions of craftsmanship, and as adapted to various decorative purposes.

Mural Decoration

The most important branch of decorative art may be said to be mural decoration, allied as it is with the fundamental constructive art of all — architecture, from which it obtains its determining conditions and natural limitations.

Its history in the past is one of splendour and dignity, and its record includes some of the finest art ever produced. The ancient Asiatic nations were well aware of its value not only as decoration but as a record.

Giotto: “;Chastity”; (Lower Church, Assisi).

The palace and temple and tomb-walls of ancient Egypt, Persia, and Assyria vividly illustrate the life and ideas of those peoples, while they conform to mural conditions. The painted council halls and churches of the Middle Ages fulfil the same purpose in a different spirit; but mural decoration in its richest, most imaginative and complete form was developed in Italy, from the time of Giotto, whose famous works at the Arena Chapel at Padua and Assisi are well known, to the time of Michael Angelo, who in the sublime ceiling of the Sistine Chapel seemed to touch the extreme limits of mural work, and in fact might be said to have almost defied them, painting mouldings in relief and in perspective to form the framework of pictures where figures on different scales are used. In the Sistine Chapel the series of earlier frescoes on the lower wall by Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi, Ghirlandajo, Pinturicchio, and other Florentine painters of the fifteenth century are really more strictly mural in feeling, and safer as guides in general treatment, than the work of the great master himself. They have much of the repose and richness as well as the quiet decorative effect of tapestry.

Fresco-Work of Italian Painters

The frescoes in the Palazzo Publico at Siena, Pinturicchio's work in the Piccolomini Chapel and the Appartimenti Borgia, the Campo Santo at Pisa and the Riccardi Chapel of Benozzo Gozzoli at Florence, may be mentioned as among the gems of mural painting.

Modern Mural Work

We have but little important mural painting in this country. Doubtless, from various traces discovered under Puritan whitewash, the walls of our mediæval churches were painted as frequently as in continental countries, but so completely did artistic tradition and religious sentiment change after the Reformation that the opportunities have been few and the encouragement less for mural painting. An attempt to revive fresco-painting was made in our Houses of Parliament, and various scenes from our national history have been rendered with varying degrees of merit; but they have chiefly demonstrated the need of continuous practice in such work on the part of our painters and the absence of a true decorative instinct.

Pinturicchio: Mural Painting (Piccolomini Chapel, Siena).

It is to the honour of Manchester that her Town Hall contains one of the most important and interesting pieces of mural painting by one of the most original of modern English artists — Ford Madox Brown — a work conceived in the true spirit of mural work, being a record of local history, as well as a decoration, while distinctly modern in sentiment and showing strong dramatic feeling, as well as historical knowledge.

The chapel on which Mr. F. J. Shields is engaged in London will probably be unique in its way as a complete piece of mural decoration by an English artist of singular individuality, sincerity, and power, as well as decorative ability.

But unfortunately opportunities for important mural decoration of this kind are very rare in England. The art is not popularized: we have no school of trained mural designers, and we have no public really interested. Our commercial system and system of house tenure are against it. Our only chance is in public buildings, which indeed have always been its best field. Yet we neglect, I think, a most important educational influence. The painted churches and public halls of the Middle Ages filled in a great measure the place of public libraries. A painted history, a portrait, a dramatic or romantic incident told in the vivid language of line, form, and colour, is stamped upon the memory never to be forgotten. It would be possible, I think, to impart a tolerably exact knowledge of the sequence of history, of the conditions of life at different epochs, of great men and their work, from a well-imagined series of mural paintings, without the aid of books; and in this direction, perhaps, our school walls would present an appropriate field.

Modern opportunities of mural decoration are chiefly domestic. The country mansion, or the modest home of the suburban citizen, affords the principal field in our time for the exercise of the taste or ingenuity of the wall-decorator. In this comparatively restricted field, taste is perhaps of more consequence than any other quality. A sense of appropriateness, a harmonizing faculty, a power of arrangement of simple materials — these are invaluable, for, more than any others, they go to the making of a livable interior.

Mural Spacing and Pattern Plans

On first thought it would almost seem as if the designer was less technically restricted in this direction of mural work than any other; yet he will soon feel that he cannot produce an artistic and thoughtful scheme without taking many things into consideration which really belong to the conditions or natural limitations of his work.

There is, firstly, the idea of the wall itself — part of the house-structure — a shelter and protection or boundary. It is no part of a designer's business to put anything upon the wall in the way of decoration which will induce anyone to forget that it is a wall — nothing to disturb the flatness and repose.

The four walls of a room inclose a space to dwell in, in comfort and security. The windows show us outward real life and nature. The walls should not compete with the windows. Nature must be translated into the terms of line and form and colour, and invention and fancy may be pleasantly suggestive in the harmonious metre and rhythm of pattern.

A wall surface extends horizontally and vertically, but the vertical extension seems to assert itself most to the eye.

Any arrangement of lines of the trellis or diaper order logically covers a wall surface, and may be appropriately used as a basis for a wall pattern, whether merely to mark the positions of a simple spray or formal sprig pattern, or as a ground-plan for a completely filled field of repeating ornament, whether painted, stencilled, or in the form of wall-paper or textile hanging.

In the simple geometric net of squares or diamonds or circles, however, there is nothing that emphatically marks adaptability to a vertical position. Such plans in themselves are equally appropriate to the floor in the form of paving and parquet. The ogee plan, however, and its variant, the vertical serpentine or spiral plan, at once suggest vertical extension, the former perhaps by its leaf-like points arranging themselves scale-wise, and the latter by its suggestion of ascending movement.

It is noteworthy that in the course of the historic evolution of mural decoration, designs based upon these systems constantly recur. They are part of the pattern-designer's vocabulary of line, and among the principal, though simplest, terms by which he is able to express vertical extension.

The question of scale in designing mural decoration of any sort is very important. This demands a certain power of realizing the effect of certain lines and masses if carried out, and the relation of one part to another as well as to the dimensions of the walls and the room itself. Here, as indeed throughout art, a reference to the human figure will give us our key, since after all decoration goes to form a background for humanity. With natural flowers and leaves it is always right to design for mural purposes on the same scale as nature.

Diagram Showing the Principal Fundamental Plans or Systems of Line Governing Mural Spacing and Decorative Distribution.



Scale in design should be also considered in relation to the general character of a building and its purpose, the use and lighting of a living room: its dimensions and proportions, and relation to other rooms. There is great range for individual taste and fancy.

The artist would naturally look to the capacity of the space which he had to decorate, and what it suggested to his mind. He might want to emphasize a long, low room by horizontal lines, or to accentuate a lofty one by verticals.

Diagram to Show (1) How the Apparent Depth of a Space Is Increased by the Use of Vertical Lines, and (2) How the Apparent Width Is Increased by the Use of Horizontal Lines.

By the judicious use of line and scale in design, the designer holds a certain power of transformation in his hands, not to speak of the transforming effect of colour of different keys and tones, the apparent contraction or expansion of surfaces by patterns of different character and scale.

It would obviously not do to regard any wall merely as so much expanse of surface available for sketching unrelated groups and figures upon, as they might be jotted down in a sketch-book, and to offer it as decoration. In an interior thus treated, we should lose all sense of repose, dignity, and proportion.

Use and custom, which fix and determine so many things in social life without written laws, have also prescribed certain divisions of the wall, which, in regard to the exigencies of life and habit and modern conditions generally, seem natural enough.


The Skirting

The lower parts of the walls of most modern dwellings being generally occupied by furniture placed against them, and liable to be soiled or injured, it would be out of place to put important and elaborate ornament or figure designs extending to the skirting. The wooden skirting, of about nine inches or a foot in depth, which is placed along the foot of the wall in our modern rooms, is the armour-plating to protect the plaster, which otherwise might be chipped and litter the floor. It is perhaps the last relic of the more substantial and extensive wood panelling and wainscotting which, up to the latter part of the last century, covered the lower walls of the more comfortable houses, and has been revived in our own day. The decorator may use panelling, or wainscotting, or a simple chair-rail above plain painting, wall-paper, dado, or stencilling, or a dado of matting, as methods of covering, and at the same time decorating, the lower walls of rooms.

The use of the dado of a darker colour and of wainscot is, no doubt, due to considerations of wear and tear, and so, like the origin of much ornamental art, may be traced to actual use and constructive necessity. When the wood-work of a room — the doors and window frames — is of the same colour and character as the dado, a certain agreeable unity is preserved, and it forms a useful plain framing to set off the patterned parts of the wall. This wainscot or dado framing with the wood-work should be as to colour arranged to suit the general scheme adopted. Where paint is used, white for the wood-work usually has the best effect.


Field of the Wall

The largest space of wall occurs above the chair-rail, or dado, and, according to modern habits and usage, portable property in the shape of framed pictures, etc., is usually placed here along the eye-line, so that any decoration on this — the main field of the wall — is regarded as subsidiary to what is placed upon it; but, of course, pictures can be used as the central points of a decorative scheme. On the upper part of a wall, below the plaster cornice, the mural designer has the chance of putting a frieze, and a frieze usually gives the effect of additional height to a room, besides enriching the wall.

Decorative Spacing of the Wall: Sketches (to 1/2-in. Scale) to Show Different Treatment and Proportions.

An effective treatment of a large room, and one which is more reposeful than cutting up the wall into these portions, as in dado, field, and frieze, is to carry up wood panelling to the frieze, and let this (the frieze) be the important decorative feature.

Supposing the room was twelve feet high, one could afford to have eight feet of panelling, and then a frieze of four feet deep. In this case one would look for an interesting painted frieze of figures — some legend or story to run along the four sides of the room, and in such a case it might be marked with considerable pictorial freedom.

More formal figure design or ornamental work in coloured plaster-work, stucco, and gesso could also be appropriately used in such a position, as also on the ceiling.

Now as regards choice of line and form in their relation to the decoration of such mural spaces. Taking the lower wall, dado, or panelling, one reason why panelling has so agreeable an effect is, I think, that the series of vertical and horizontal lines seem to express the proportions, while they emphasize the flatness and repose of the wall, and when used beneath a painted frieze they lead the eye upwards, forming a quiet framing of rectangular lines below to the ornate and varied design of the frieze. Where we are limited to decorating a wall by means of plain painting, stencils, or wall-paper, this idea of reposeful constructive lines and forms on the lower wall should still dominate upon the field. Subject to our repeating plan we may be freer both in line and form, using free scrolls, branch-work, fruit, and flower masses at pleasure, because the space is more extended, and we shall feel the necessity in a repeating pattern of spreading adequately over it; but such designs, however fine in detail, should be constructed upon a more or less geometric base or plan. We are, as regards the main field of the wall, still unavoidably, though not disadvantageously, influenced by the tradition of the textile hanging or arras tapestry, no doubt; and certainly there is no more rich and comfortable lining for living rooms than tapestry, or, at the same time, more reposeful and decoratively satisfying. But, of course, where we can afford arras tapestry (such as the superb work of William Morris and his weavers), we ought not to allow anything to compete with it upon the same wall. It is sufficient in itself.

Arras Tapestry: Diagrams to Show the Principle of Working and Surface Effect: (1) Vertical Position of Warp as Worked in the Loom and Relief Effect of the Wefts; (2) Enlarged Section of Warp as Hung (Horizontal); (3) Single Threads of Warp and Weft; (4) Warp and Weft as in the Loom (Vertical).


Of what splendour of colour and wealth of decorative and symbolical invention tapestry was capable in the past may be seen in magnificent Burgundian specimens of the fifteenth century, now in the South Kensington Museum.

Tapestry hangings of a repeating pattern and quiet colour could be used appropriately beneath painted upper walls, or a frieze, as no doubt frequently was the custom in great houses in the Middle Ages.

Appartimenti Borgia

In the Appartimenti Borgia in the Vatican, for instance, which consists of lofty vaulted rooms with frescoes by Pinturicchio upon the upper walls between the spans of the vaulting, and upon the vaulting itself, we may see, about eleven feet from the floor, along the moulding, the hooks left for the tapestry hangings, which completed the decoration of the room. The lower walls are now largely occupied by book-shelves; but books themselves may form a pleasant background, as one may often observe in libraries, especially when the bindings are rich and good in tone: and here, too, we get our verticals and horizontals again.

Pinturicchio: Fresco in the Appartimenti Borgia.

So long as the feeling for the repose and flatness of the wall surface is preserved, there are no special limitations in the choice of form. It becomes far more a matter of treatment of form and subject in perfectly appropriate mural design. There is one principle, however, which seems to hold good in the treatment of important figure subjects to occupy the main wall surfaces as panels: while pictorial realization of a kind may be carried quite far, it is desirable to avoid large masses of light sky, or to attempt much in the way of atmospheric effect. It is well to keep the horizon high, and, if sky is shown, to break it with architecture and trees.

Still more important is it to observe this in tapestry. It is very noticeable how tapestry design declined after the fifteenth century or early years of the sixteenth, when perspective and pictorial planes were introduced, and sky effects to emulate painting, and thus the peculiarly mural feeling was lost, with its peculiar beauty, richness, and repose.

Figure of Laura, from the Burgundian Tapestries: The Triumphs of Petrarch (South Kensington Museum).

In the translation into tapestry even of so tapestry-like a picture as that of Botticelli's "Primavera," it is noteworthy how Mr. Morris has felt the necessity of reducing the different planes, and the chiaroscuro of the painting, by more leafy and floral detail; making it, in short, more of a pattern than a picture.

The Frieze

A frieze is susceptible of a much more open, lighter, and freer treatment than a field. A frieze is one of the mural decorator's principal means of giving lightness and relief to his wall. In purely floral and ornamental design the field of close pattern, formal diaper, or sprigs at regular intervals may be appropriately relieved by bolder lines and masses, and a more open treatment in the frieze. The frieze, too, affords a means of contrast in line to the line system of the field of the wall, its horizontal expression usefully opposing the verticals or diagonals of the wall pattern below. The frieze may be regarded as a horizontal border, and in border designs the principle of transposition of the relation of pattern to ground is a useful one to bear in mind, as leading always to an effective result. I mean, supposing our field shows a pattern mainly of light upon dark, the frieze might be on the reverse plan, a dark pattern on a light ground.

And whereas, as I have said, one would exclude wide light spaces from our mural field, in the frieze one might effectively show a light sky ground throughout, and arrange a figure or floral design upon that.

The principle governing the treatment of main and lower wall spaces or fields, which teaches the designer to preserve the repose of the surface, may be said to rule also in all textile design, and textile design has, as we have seen in the form of tapestry, and hangings of all kinds, a very close association with mural decoration.

Textile Design

Any textile may be considered, from the designer's point of view, as presenting so much surface for pattern, whether that surface is hung upon a wall, or curtains a door or a window, or is spread in the form of carpets or rugs upon floors, or over the cushions of furniture, or adapts itself to the variety of curve surface and movement of the human form in dress materials and costume. Textile beauty is beauty of material and surface, and unless the pattern or design upon it or woven with it enhances that beauty of material and surface, and becomes a part of the expression of that material and surface, it is better without pattern.

Portion of Detail of the Holy Carpet of the Mosque of Ardebil: Persian, Sixteenth Century.

To place informal shaded flowers and leaves upon a carpet, for instance, where the warp is very emphatic, and the process of weaving necessitates a stepped or rectangularly broken outline, is to mistake appropriate decorative effect, capacity of material, and position in regard to the eye. We cannot get away, in a carpet, from the idea of a flat field starred with more or less formal flowers, and colour arrangements which owe their richness and beauty, not to the relief of shading, but to the heraldic principle of relieving one tint or colour upon another. The rich inlay of colour which a Persian or any Eastern carpet presents is owing to its being designed upon this principle; and in Persian work that peculiarly rich effect of colour, apart from fine material, is owing to the principle of the use of outlines of different colours defining and relieving the different forms in the pattern upon different grounds. The rectangular influence arising from the technical conditions of the work gives a definite textile character to the design which is very agreeable; besides, as a question of line and form, in a carpet or rug which is rectangular in shape and laid usually upon rectangular floors, the squareness of form harmonizes with the conditions and surroundings of the work in use. The Persian designer, indeed, appears to be so impressed with this feeling, that he uses a succession of borders around the central field of his carpet or rug, still further emphasizing the rectangularity; while he avoids the too rigid effect of a series of straight lines which the crossing of the threads of the weft at right angles to the warp might cause, by changing the widths of his subsidiary borders and breaking them with a constant variety of small patterns, and inserting narrow white lines between the black lines of the border.

Sketch to Illustrate Treatment of Borders in a Persian Rug.

Effect of Texture on Colour

In tapestry the effect of the emphatic warp worked vertically in the loom, but hung horizontally, has a very important influence upon the effect. If we took a piece of paper coloured with a flat even tint, and folded it in ridges, the quality of the tint would be at once changed, and so in tapestry the passing of the wool of the wefts, which form the pattern or picture, over the strong lines of the warp — which are broad enough to take the outlines of the cartoon upon them — produces that soft and varied play of colour — really colour in light and shade — which, over and above the actual dyes and artistic selection of tints, gives the peculiar charm and effect in tapestry.

This sheen and variety are more or less evident in all textiles, and a good textile pattern only adds to the variety and richness of the surface. The different thicknesses or planes of surface and the difference of their texture caused by the different wefts being brought to the surface of the cloth or silk (from the simplest contrast of line presented by the simplest arrangements of warp and weft, to the complexities of many-coloured silk stuffs and brocade) alone give a value to the surface pattern.

In cut velvet the same principle of contrast of surface is emphasized still further, the rich deep nap of the less raised parts contrasting pleasantly with the mat effect of the ground.

In designs for such material one should aim at boldly blocked-out patterns in silhouette — bold leaf and fruit forms say — designed on the principle of the stencil.


With prints the range is of course freer, the material itself suggesting something lighter and more temporary. It seems highly probable that printed cotton was originally a substitute for embroidered linen or more sumptuous materials. There are certainly instances of very similar patterns in Indian and Persian work in silk embroidery, and also in printed cotton. In some cases the print is partly embroidered, which seems to mark a transitional stage, and recalls the lingering use of illumination in the early days of the printing press, in another department of art.

Anything that will repeat as a pattern in what can be produced by line, dot, and tints of colour, and engraved upon wood-blocks or copper rollers, can be printed of course; and, as is generally the case with an art which has no very obvious technical limitations, it is liable to be caught by the imitative spirit, and cheap and rapid production and demand for novelties (so-called) generally end in loss of taste and deterioration of quality, especially in design. From the artistic point of view we can only correct this by bearing in mind similar considerations to those which hold good as general principles and guides in designing for textiles generally, having regard to the object, purpose, and position — to the ultimate use of the material, and differentiating our designs, as in the case of other textile design accordingly.

Thus in the matter of plan and direction of line and character of form we shall at once find natural distinctions and divisions, as our design is for hanging, or spreading horizontally, or wearing; and these different functions will also determine scale and choice and treatment of form and colour.

There is no doubt that with patterns printed more range may be allowed than with patterns to be woven, where line and form are both controlled by the necessities of being reproduced by so many points to the inch. At the same time the object of all design and pattern work being the greatest beauty compatible with the material and conditions, one should seek, not such effects as merely test the capacity or ingenuity of the machine, but rather such as appear to be most decoratively appropriate and effective.

There appears to be no mechanical reason why cotton should not be printed all over with landscapes and graphic sketches, and people clothe themselves with them as with Christmas numbers, or turn their couches, chairs, and curtains into scrap albums, but there is every reason on the score of taste why these things should not be done.

(1) Contrasting Surfaces of Warp and Weft in Woven Silk Hanging; (2) Stencil Principle.

With any textile, as I have said, we are as designers dealing with surface. It is surface ornament that is wanted also in printed cotton. Now good line and form and pure tints have the best effect, because they do not break the surface into holes, and give a ragged or tumbled appearance, which accidental bunches of darkly-shaded flowers in high relief undoubtedly do. If small rich detail and variety are wanted, we should seek it in the inventive spirit of the Persian and Indian, and break our solid colours with mordants or arabesques in colour of delicate subsidiary pattern instead of using coarse planes of light and shadow, or showing up ragged and unrelated forms upon violent grounds.

Indian Printed Cotton Cover: South Kensington Museum.

The true idea of a print pattern is of something gay and fanciful: bright and fresh in colour, and clear in line and form: a certain quaintness is allowable, and in purely floral designs there is room for a considerable degree of what might be called naturalism, so far as good line-drawing and understanding of flower form goes, emphasis of colour being sought by means of planes of colour, rather than by planes of shadow.

I had intended to touch upon other provinces of design, but I have taken up so much space with those I have been discussing already that I can only now briefly allude to these.


Of wall-paper, which may be regarded in the light of more or less of a substitute for mural painting, and also textile wall-hangings, much the same general principles and many of the same remarks apply as have been already used in regard to mural decoration. The designer has much freedom as to motive, and his ingenuity is only bounded by or concentrated in a square of twenty-one inches. If he has succeeded in making an agreeable pattern which will repeat not too obviously over an indefinite space, to form a not obtrusive background, and which can be printed and sold to the ordinary citizen, he is supposed to have satisfied the conditions.

But he may be induced to go further and attempt the design of a complete decoration as far as dado, field, frieze, and ceiling go; and this would involve all the thought necessary to the mural painter, narrowed down to the exigencies of mechanical repeat.

Allied to the wall is the window, and in glazing and the art of the glass-painter we have another very distinct and beautiful sphere of line design. In plain leading the same law of covering vertical surface holds good as to selection of plan and system of line: almost any simple geometric net is appropriate, if not too complex or small in form to hold glass or to permit lead to follow its lines. Leaded panels of roundels (or "bull's eyes") of plain glass have a good effect in casements where a sparkle of light rather than outward view is sought for.

Stained Glass

When we come to designing for stained glass we should still bear in mind the fundamental net of lead lines which forms the basis of our pattern, or glass picture, as it were: and the designer's object should be to make it good as an arrangement of line independently of the colour, while practical to the glazier.

(1) Stained Glass Treatment: Inclosure of Form and Colour by Lead Lines; (2) Sections.


Although lead is very pliable, too much must not be expected of it in the way of small depressions and angles: the boundary lines of the figures, which should be the boldest of all, should be kept as simple as possible, not only on this account, but because complex outlines cannot well be cut in glass. A head, for instance, is inclosed in sweeping line, and the profile defined within the lead line by means of painting. A hand would be defined on the same principle. Each different colour demands a different inclosure of lead, although in the choice of glass much variation of tint can be obtained, as in the case of pot metal running from thin to thick glass, which intensifies the colour, and many kinds of what is called flashed. Yet to the designer, from the point of view of line, glass design is a kind of translucent mosaic, in which the primal technical necessity of the leading which holds the glory of the coloured light together, really enhances its splendour, and in affording opportunities for decoration and expressive linear composition imparts to the whole work its particular character and beauty.

This after all is the principle to cling to in all designing, to adapt our designs to the particular distinctive character and beauty of the material for which they are destined, to endeavour to think them out in those materials, and not only on paper. Whatever the work may be — carving, inlays, modelling, mosaic, textiles — through the whole range of surface decoration, we should think out our designs, not only in relation to the limitations of their material, but also in their relation to each other, to their effect in actual use, and even to their possible use in association together, which, of course, is of paramount importance in designing a complete room or any comprehensive piece of decoration.

And when we leave plane surfaces and seek to invent appropriate, that is to say, expressive ornament allied to concave and convex surfaces, to the varied forms of pottery for instance, metal-work, and glass vessels, furniture, and accessories of all kinds, we shall find the same laws and principles hold good which should guide us in all design — to adapt design to the characteristics and conditions of the material, to its structural capacity, its use and purpose, as well as to use or invention in line, both as a controlling plan or base of ornament, as well as a means of the association and expression of form.

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