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February 26, 2009

Outline Style, 1890-1940

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Above is a detail from a Frank Brangwyn mural titled "Dancers" from around 1895. Brangwyn (1867-1956) was a prolific, largely self-taught artist whose popularity peaked in the early decades of the 20th century.

Book on Frank Brangwyn that can be ordered via Amazon's United Kingdom site.

Although he was productive in several media, Brangwyn is perhaps best remembered for his mural work, which was influential. One characteristic of his mural style was the use of outlines, a tactic to give the paintings more visual punch at the distances from which they were expected to be viewed. This is in contrast to traditional representational easel painting, where outlining is subdued if present or is absent altogether.

Outlines were also evident in contemporaneous posters. On the wall facing my desk are two posters by Alphonse Mucha that I bought at the Mucha Museum in Prague a few years ago and had framed. In both cases Mucha relied on outlining as well as color and modeling for depicting his subjects.

Below are more examples of outline style.


By Dean Cornwell
Cornwell (1892-1960) was one of the top illustrators in America during his career. He also painted a number of murals, including some in New York's Warwick hotel and the Los Angeles Public Library. (At the latter link, scroll down to find the Cornwell reference. Click on the thumbnails to see the full images. Note that the outlining is almost entirely in light-medium blue.) The illustration above is not from a mural, but shows the influence of Brangwyn, with whom Cornwell apprenticed and whose studio he rented while working on large murals.

Illustrations by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
Dan Sayre Groesbeck (1879-1950), another essentially self-taught artist, spent the first part of his career as a commercial artist and the last part providing film visualizations to Cecil B. DeMille. He also painted murals, in particular a set of murals for the ...

Santa Barbara County Courthouse
This section shows the building of the mission at Santa Barbara.

River Bend No. 4 - 1938
Fall Landscape - 1923

The above paintings are by Iowa artist Melvin Cone (1891-1965) and typify a popular painting style of the 1920s and 30s, characterized by outlining and toned-down colors.

I'm not sure who did this illustration. It looks like something Cornwell might have done, but the Properties info on the initial grab indicates Andrew Loomis (the treatment of the woman's face is suggestive of the latter). In any case, it's another instance of outlining (mostly in the foreground).

Outlining interests me. Puzzles me, too.

What puzzles me is the outline color selection logic used by artists practicing this style. It puzzles me because I can't quite come up with a consistent practice. At one extreme are the L.A. Public Library murals by Cornwell that featured blue outlines. Then there is the Brangwyn mural at the top of this posting, which is typical of what puzzles me.

Starting at the top (I'm looking at a large reproduction in the Brangwyn book linked above), there is only a faint blue line marking the cloud -- a line that's essentially the color of the sky. Most (but not all) of the horizontal tree branch has a strong, dark outline, though the color varies; it's black or dark blue over the sky and brown over the background trees and cloud (though this color change might be related to paint application rather than the color used for the lines). The unclothed parts of the dancers mostly have a bold, dark (blue or black) silhouette outline and interior outlines that are darker shades of the main skin tones. But the costume silhouette outlines are subdued, being mostly a reddish brown. And so forth. No doubt Brangwyn varied his outlines to create emphasis as well as decorative effects.

Based on the pictures above and others I've looked at, the outlining logic seems to be emphasizing the subject or foreground objects using darker colors and thicker lines and de-emphasizing the rest by use of no lines, thinner lines and/or subdued line color or else line value close to that of the color field being enclosed.

Does this make sense? Can anyone out there offer (or locate) a more authoritative explanation of what's going on in these murals and illustrations?



posted by Donald at February 26, 2009


Its a different way of doing a painting than what you are taught in a painting class. Andrew Loomis called it "colored drawings"--an outline painted in, like a coloring book. Brangwyn, Leyendecker, Herb Paus, Michaelangelo--its a different way of doing a picture.

The reason that its done in murals is because murals are so large, that fine painting and smooshed-together colors are hard to see from far away. This technique clearly defines people and other objects, and provides a way to group them together for pictoral effect.

Of course, almost nobody does this anymore. Its one of the many ways to paint that has been lost with the invention of photography and modern crap-art. But its a good technique nonetheless.

As far as a consistent system of outlining colors and such, good luck finding it. Its all creative, make it up as you go along. Part of the perks of knowing your stuff.

PS, Dean Cornwell studied with Brangwyn.

Posted by: BTM on February 26, 2009 7:28 PM

Christopher Alexander devoted a page or two of The Timeless Way of Building to the use of outlining in oriental rugs. He claimed the most desirable patterns use fine lines of dark color to separate adjacent areas of medium or light colors. Or something. I forget why he thought it was so significant, but I always think of it when I look at Cezanne's outlines. Which I happen to think is gorgeous.

Posted by: Fredösphere on February 26, 2009 8:00 PM

A significant collection of Brangwyn's work is in the gallery of an obscure town on the edge of the Australian Outback.

You might enjoy this article:

Posted by: Alan on February 27, 2009 6:46 AM

BTM -- Regarding the Cornwell-Brangwyn relationship, I've seen it (apprentice/student) expressed both ways. The catalog for the exhibition of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration at the Dahesh Museum (amog others) has it as "apprenticed" so I deferred to their scholarship in the absence of anything more tangible. (Books about Cornwell are out of print or very pricey or both, so I don't have any in my personal library to refer to regarding that detail.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 27, 2009 1:33 PM

I don't know why the painters you name used the black-line technique, but I can tell you a little about its origins in 19th-century European painting. Many painters, esp. in France, were deeply impressed with the Japanese prints that turned up in Europe in the later 19th C. (after the Meiji restoration, I imagine) as wrapping-paper on imported Japanese goods.

These Japanese prints, based on ink drawings, did not use the heavily shadowed (usu. cross-hatched) techniques of European drawing, as Japanese painters were not concerned with expressing volume/weight, nor using shadow to indicate perspective.

Their work introduced the concept of decorative flatness to European painters, who were fascinated by the way that the Japanese managed to convey a sense of objects' relationship in space without use of any of the European methods of doing so. In trying to make use of Japanese methods of spatial arrangement, they also took up the outlines used in Japanese prints.

Of course the techique had been developed among the Japanese for use with pen-and-ink work with colour-washes, not for oil painting. I imagine, though, that the Europeans adopted it because, once they had begun to imitate Japanese flatness, abandoning their own traditional modelling with light and shadow, they were worried that the contours of some objects in a painting would be rendered invisible if they were too close in tone. No doubt they adopted the thin/thick lines you mention to indicate distance and space.

The technique is somewhat misleadingly referred to as cloisonnisme (from the critic Dujardin), because it mimicked the effect of the outlines used in glasswork, in which wires were used to separate one area of colour from another.

In the end Gauguin, one of the first to use the technique, gave it up, perhaps because he began to use non-naturalistic colour and so didn't have to worry about colours too close in tone cancelling each other out. I expect other painters, especially those working in illustration, adopted it because it was fashionable, highly decorative and effective.

This, at least, was what I was taught in my art history classes years ago. Perhaps there are other explanations for the outlining phenomenon now.

Posted by: aliasclio on February 27, 2009 3:26 PM


Michaelangelo used the outlining technique on the Sistine Chapel ceiling--well before the japanese influence.

Its used for delineating figures that are seen at a distance by the viewer, as in large murals.

Posted by: BTM on February 28, 2009 4:18 PM

Yes, BTM, but my answer wasn't intended to cover the whole of European art history. I only wanted to point out that the better-known painters who revived this technique in the late 19th century were influenced by Japanese prints. They were not mural or ceiling painters and were not attempting to delineate their figures to make them more visible. I don't doubt that this was Michelangelo's purpose in doing so.

Meanwhile, it looks to me as if several of the painters in this group were illustrators at some point in their careers, and the illustrative quality of Japanese prints might well have impressed/influenced them, along with their techniques.

The influence of Japanese prints on both fine and commercial art in the later 19th and early 20th century is well-known; I am not making a controversial point.

Posted by: aliasclio on February 28, 2009 10:28 PM

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