Drawing Meets Design: Line & Shape

Coles Phillips, Advertisement for Wamsutta Percale, a purveyor of sheets and pillow cases. Ladies Home Journal, May 1924. Note how the figure is formed by edges of the lavender pattern on the dark blue field. The woman’s dress has no line around it. Note also the striking shape of the drapery (also defined completely by edge, not line) which had to be observed. Mr. Phillips did not make that up.

Reposting an updated reflection on a subject dear to me, both as a maker and a teacher: What is the relationship between drawing and design? The Renaissance term disegno binds them together as a kind of thinking-through-drawing.

Our students are working with just such a drawing/design problem right now. The project sheet has informed them that the distribution of line, shape, tone and pattern are primary. But what does that mean? It means little, absent active engagement with tools and material. Making is the way forward. Shaping, cutting, and drawing are intimately related activities. The other day in class I used the word maquette, rather than sketch, to request provisional visual ideas. A thing, not necessarily a plan. In this process, diverse tools and media can be your friend. I have selected samples to capture a range of approaches.

Seymour Chwast, illustration in Pushpin #21, 1959.

The Seymour Chwast ink drawing from Pushpin #21 (above) integrates strong black shape and a husky brushed line to hold the page. But the angular rhythm of those legs makes the thing work, by preventing the white/black, white/black, white/black march of the costumes from becoming insistent. That and the visual syncopation of the last black shape; it works off the dotted half note of the second black figure. The image fuses description and form.

Ed Benedict, character sheet for Deputy Droopy, MGM Animation directed by Tex Avery, 1955

In some cases, well-used contour line and a strong sense of shape is enough to generate interest. Ed Benedict's character sheet is a study in drawing and design. Look at the geometry of the second figure from the left. Check out the pinwheel created by the forward edge of his hat, right jowl and chin. Ponder the elegance of the shape of his hat brim--like a response to Noguchi or Calder. Below, a series of shapes I isolated from that pencil in Illustrator.

Shape vocabulary, Deputy Droopy character designs.

Below, another piece of cartoon language with surprising design sense: the irrepressible Marty Mayrose.

Designer unknown, Marty Mayrose advertising character for Mayrose Meats, circa 1967

Marty is mostly line, but for the black pants-legs-feet-shoes. Note that the information for all that is compressed into one exquisitely elaborated positive shape that activates negative space all around it. And the second line color adds interest but also keeps things under control. Nice pattern, too.

Eulalie Banks, Chicken Little in the children's book of the same name, for Platt and Munk, 1932

Just in case you're thinking this is about "style", think again. Right, an ink drawing by Eulalie Banks reproduced with machine-shaded screentone passages. The line does 90 percent of the work. She creates interest through distinct passages offset by negative space: the birdcage; the windowpanes; the curtains; woodgrain on the table; the gathered cloth below the waistband on the apron; the dots in the hat; the banding on the bowl, the stonework along the right edge. Etcetera.

Jehan Volay, publisher, Playing Cards with Spanish Suits, 18th century (reproduced in the Dover book Antique Playing Cards, 1996)

Above, a case where line and pattern are used within a defined format to create positive and negative form. Within the rules of the depiction and the limits of the medium (woodcut), no opportunity is wasted. To wit: the profile of the horseshoes and metalwork on the hooves; the attenuated triangles on the right figure's stockings above the knee; the diagonal gesture of the scabbard that breaks the negative space between the same figure's legs. In general, look at all the negative spaces; that's where the money is, so to speak.

Toby Thane Neighbors, illustration for Faesthetic No. 13

A contemporary cousin of those playing cards, by Toby Thane Neighbors

Karel Spillar, Music, Poetry, Painting in Gerlach's Allegorien, 1898

Above, with details below, an allegorical panel by Karel Spillar in Gerlach's Allegories. (That'sMusic, Poetry, Painting). Most edifying. Here some lovely line has been reinforced by "coloring in" the negative space. Works just fine.

Please note two things: first, how about the active use of the figure to build composition, especially Tambourine Girl at left, and second, consider the role that non-figurative elements play in building form. The tree and the foliage are major structural pieces of the puzzle.

Gesture + props + setting elements + foliage = positive/negative composite.

Karel Spillar, detail from Music, Poetry, Painting.

Karel Spillar, detail from Music, Poetry, Painting.






































While we're thinking about black and white (which helps to isolate these questions) here's a purely tonal vocabulary that exploits negative space delightfully. There's no box as a container for the picture; the edge of the format is created optically.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett, illustration for My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 1948

And then there's the relationship between line and supplementary shape. This mother hen is mine, a spot illustration for a book project. I include it in this set because of the simple relationship between the black line and three sets of shapes: blue, white and black. The blue and white collaborate to create a set of supporting shapes that add interest and body to the image: the blue mass of the bird; the white breast and face detailing; the intimation of a white butt. That the blue is a low chroma, middle value is important; it balances the light and dark.

D.B. Dowd, Mother Hen, from In Pursuit of God's Kingdom, by the Rev. James F. Dowd [my uncle] 2011

Alex Steinweiss, album cover design for Respighi: The Pines of Rome, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, Columbia Records, 1946

Above, an Alex Steinweiss record album cover from 1946. Here's a case where the line/shape relationship takes a different turn.

The shapes are superimposed on networks of line: sometimes to complete a shape suggested by those lines (the pine trees) and sometimes to establish a contrasting form which is more or less indifferent to the linework.

The application of the shape and the color is seemingly casual in both cases. (But only seemingly. The disegno has a rakish touch.)

Steinweiss, detail, Respighi cover

And sometimes, there are scarcely any lines at all.

Below, color maquettes (that word again) or design comps (short for design comprehensives, which nobody ever says aloud) by the Swedish graphic designer Olle Eksell, for a children's book with a title that I can't read, either in Swedish or in the Japanese caption provided by the publisher (Pie Books, Tokyo). 1958.

How smart and confident!

Olle Eksell, children's book design comps, 1958

These are all edge. We group things together through association, especially the pieces of the prone boy leaning on his elbows in number 2.

Olle Eksell, children's book design comps, 1958

Below, see our second advertising character. She would be easy to dismiss. But not to the discerning formalist. Check out the subtle "lace" linear gesture above the Dutch Girl's right (rear) foot, and the way that it's echoed by the scalloped edge of her apron. Or the way that the calligraphic contour line that describes her shoes bows out in spots, leaving orange access to yellow.

Designer unknown, Dutch Girl advertising character, 1956

Next, two examples in which shape and edge are used to establish characters and forms, but within which line and supplementary shape articulate interior information: the brown wash illustration with the seated cow by Harry Beckhoff; and Till Eulenspiegel, by Jim Flora.

Harry Beckhoff, Calfs Ain't Housebroke, fiction illustration for Collier's June 12, 1941

Jim Flora, album cover design for Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss, The NBC Symphony Orchestra, RCA Victor, 1955.

Finally, pure silhouette with embellishments in negative line and shape. By Jessie Gillespie, who specialized thusly. Circa 1919. This couple is engaged in a negotiation: a solider returning from World War I is haggling with his wife about domestic arrangements now that he is back. An old story. She does not want to surrender the working independence she gained while he was away.

Jessie Gillespie, periodical illustration, circa 1919.