IN considering the different elements of Design, a little talk about the value and qualities of lines will clear up a good many difficulties for the beginner. Remember well this : a beautiful curve has variety in every inch of it ; that is to say, it changes its direction constantly. Look at Fig. 25, which at A shows a curve which is the segment of a circle. A true circle being drawn mechanically with a compass from a fixed centre, every portion of its line is regular and equal in value to every other portion. Such a curve in its mechanical perfection, therefore, is unsatisfactory to the designer's eye, and its unconscious, as well as conscious, adoption should be vigilantly guarded against. At B, on the contrary, we have a pleasing curve, very familiar to anyone who notes the poise of a flower-stem or the swing of a tree-branch. Look at it and compare it with A, and you will see what is meant by variety in a curve, at C, the outline of a full spring-bud, we have a still more varied line.
Nothing could be better as studies for simple and complex curves than careful copying of a single leaf from each of the different plants and trees which may be accessible to you. Note the difference between the exquisite crispness of outline in the beech-leaf and the delicate simplicity of the slim willow-leaf; or again, the rich variety of line in the serrated vine-leaf. There is another thing to remember about curves : every curved line is stronger at its base or attachment than at its apex ; the further from the base, the more delicate, and finally the more weak it grows. A curve, therefore, which is prolonged beyond a certain point loses its strength, its expression of poising and balance, and the indecision that results is extremely unpleasing. In Fig. 26 curve A is right ; continue it a little, and we get B, which reminds one of the woefully weak lines of a bad wall-paper. If a prolonged curve is wanted for some definite purpose, it should contain an actual repetition of direction as at C.
In planning out and starting a design, always work from a centre, both for the detail and in the composition itself. For instance, if you are bringing a rose into your work, fix in your eye a certain central point, and let the petals converge towards it; the same in drawing a leaf (such a complex leaf as at B, Fig. 27). Without some such definite order the petals of the flower, or the parts of the leaf, will lie at all sorts of odd angles, and you will be puzzled, and unable to tell exactly where and how they are wrong.
Designs differ considerably in form and method: some are worked entirely from a centre, while others are more flowing, and may have a central form, but not set or strongly marked. But in all ornamental design, whatever the construction, the details themselves must have this definite centre, which gives unity and coherence, be it masked or revealed. The law of radiation is, in fact, all-pervading in design. In the little branch (A), in the diagram, the stem itself, roughly speaking, constitutes the centre, whence the leafstalks radiate and fall outwards with just that amount of irregularity, or, more strictly speaking (for nothing is wholly irregular in design), that amount of variation that will be felt and made use of as the student grows more familiar with the designers art.
I think with these notes on the formation of design, the student should now have some inkling as to what to study among the examples of fine ornament in our museums, or from coloured plates of the same, which can be easily obtained. It will be easier now, I hope, to recognise the qualities, good or bad, of such work, and from study to practice should be but a short step.
In always recommending ancient rather than modern work for study, I do so with intent; for, in mediaeval ornament, whether in an illuminated manuscript or a figured stuff, or embroidered cloth, one is always sure that though the interest of detail and beauty of form may vary very much, the work is not lacking in the essential qualities of good design, and is thorough in its way, and executed with due knowledge of material and with due skill of hand. In modern decorative work the estrangement between designer and executant generally creates a want of unity and coherence in the work produced. On the one hand, the designer frequently has no full knowledge of the materials and tools employed, and his drawings, made independently of such things, lose force or delicacy in the execution ; while on the other hand, the craftsman loses the knowledge he formerly possessed of the value of lines and masses, as he is no longer, as a rule, called upon to think and create his work - a disastrous division of labour, with disastrous results,