Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Designs and Working Drawings

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The drawings which most deeply interest the workman are working drawings — just the last to be appreciated by the public, because they are the last to be understood. The most admired of show drawings are to us craftsmen comparatively without interest. We recognise the "competition" drawing at once; we see how it was made in order to secure the commission, not with a view to its effect in execution (which is the true and only end of a design), and we do not wonder at the failure of competitions in general. For the man who cares least, if even he knows at all, how a design will appear in execution is the most likely to perpetrate a prettiness which may gain the favour of the inexpert, with whom the selection is likely to rest.

The general public, and all in fact who are technically ignorant on the subject, need to be warned that the most attractive and what are called "taking " drawings are just those which are least likely to be designs — still less bonâ fide working drawings. The real workman has not the time, even if he had the inclination, to "finish up" his drawings to the point that is generally considered pleasing; the inventive spirit has not the patience. We have each of us the failings complementary to our faculties, and vice versâ; and you will usually find — certainly it is my experience — that the makers of very elaborately finished drawings seldom do anything but what we have often seen before; and that men of any individuality, actual designers that is to say, have a way of considering a drawing finished as soon as ever it expresses what they mean.

You may take it, then, as a general rule that highly finished and elaborate drawings are got up for show, "finished for exhibition" as they say (in compliance with the supposed requirements of an exhibition rather than with a view to practical purposes), and that drawings completed only so far as is necessary, precise in their details, disfigured by notes in writing, sections, and so on, are at least genuine workaday designs.

If you ask what a design should be like — well, like a design. It is altogether a different thing from a picture; it is almost the reverse of it. Practically no man has, as I said, the leisure, even if he had the ability, to make an effective finished picture of a thing yet to be carried out — perhaps not to be carried out. This last is a most serious consideration for him, and may have a sad effect upon his work. The artist who could afford thus to give himself away gratis would certainly not do so; the man who might be willing to do it could not; for if he has "got no work to do" — that is at least presumptive evidence that he is not precisely a master of his craft.

The design that looks like a picture is likely to be at best a reminiscence of something done before; and the more often it has been done the more likely it is to be pictorially successful — and by so much the less is it, strictly speaking, a design.

This applies especially to designs on a small scale, such as are usually submitted to catch the rare commission. To imitate in a full-sized cartoon the texture of material, the casualty of reflected light, and other such accidents of effect, is sheer nonsense, and no practical workman would think of such a thing. A painter put to the uncongenial task of decorative design might be excused for attempting to make his productions pass muster by workmanship excellent in itself, although not in the least to the point: one does what one can, or what one must; and if a man has a faculty he needs must show it. Only, the perfection of painting will not, for all that, make design.

In the first small sketch-design, everything need not of course be expressed; but it should be indicated — for the purpose is simply to explain the scheme proposed: so much of pictorial representation as may be necessary to that is desirable, and no more. It should be in the nature of a diagram, specific enough to illustrate the idea and how it is to be worked out. It ought by strict rights to commit one definitely to a certain method of execution, as a written specification would; and may often with advantage be helped out by written notes, which explain more definitely than any pictorial rendering just how this is to be wrought, that cast, the other chased, and so on, as the case may be.

Whatever the method of expression the artist may adopt, he should be perfectly clear in his own mind how his design is to be worked out; and he ought to make it clear also to any one with sufficient technical knowledge to understand a drawing.

In the first sketch for a window, for example, he need not show every lead and every piece of glass; but there should be no possible mistake as to how it is to be glazed, or which is "painted" glass and which is "mosaic." To omit the necessary bars in a sketch for glass seems to me a weak concession to the prejudice of the public. One may have to concede such points sometimes; but the concession is due less to necessity than to the — what shall we call it? — not perhaps exactly the cowardice, but at all events the timidity, of the artist.

In a full-sized working drawing or cartoon everything material to the design should be expressed, and that as definitely as possible. In a cartoon for glass (to take again the same example) every lead-line should be shown, as well as the saddle bars; to omit them is about as excusable as it would be to leave out the sections from a design for cabinet work. It is contended sometimes that such details are not necessary, that the artist can bear all that in mind. Doubtless he can, more or less; but I am inclined to believe more strongly in the less. At any rate he will much more certainly have them in view whilst he keeps them visibly before his eyes. One thing that deters him is the fear of offending the client, who will not believe, when he sees leads and bars in a drawing, how little they are likely to assert themselves in the glass.

Very much the same thing applies to designs and working drawings generally. A thorough craftsman never suggests a form or colour without realising in his own mind how he will be able to get such form or colour in the actual work; and in his working drawing he explains that fully, making allowance even for some not impossible dulness of apprehension on the part of the executant. Thus, if a pattern is to be woven he indicates the cards to be employed, he arranges what parts are "single," what "double," as the weavers call it, what changes in the shuttle are proposed, and by the crossing of which threads certain intermediate tints are to be obtained.

Or again, if the design is for wallpaper printing, he arranges not only for the blocks, but the order in which they shall be printed; and provides for possible printing in "flock," or for the printing of one transparent colour over another, so as to get more colours than there are blocks used, and so on.

In either case, too, he shows quite plainly the limits of each colour, not so much seeking the softness of effect which is his ultimate aim, as the precision which will enable the block or card cutter to see at a glance what he means, — even at the risk of a certain hardness in his drawing; for the drawing is in itself of no account; it is only the means to an end; and his end is the stuff, the paper, or whatever it may be, in execution.

A workman intent on his design will sacrifice his drawing to it — harden it, as I said, for the sake of emphasis, annotate it, patch it, cut it up into pieces to prove it, if need be do anything to make his meaning clear to the workman who comes after him. It is as a rule only the dilettante who is dainty about preserving his drawings.

To an artist very much in repute there may be some temptation to be careful of his designs, and to elaborate them (himself, or by the hands of his assistants), because, so finished, they have a commercial value as drawings — but this is at best pot-boiling; and the only men who are subject to this temptation are just those who might be proof against it. Men of such rank that even their working drawings are in demand have no very urgent need to work for the pot; and the working drawings of men to whom pounds and shillings must needs be a real consideration are not sought after.

In the case of very smart and highly finished drawings by comparatively unknown designers — of ninety-nine out of a hundred, that is to say, or nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand perhaps — elaboration implies either that, having little to say, a man fills up his time in saying it at unnecessary length, or that he is working for exhibition.

And why not work for exhibition? it may be asked. There is a simple answer to that: The exhibition pitch is in much too high a key, and in the long run it will ruin the faculty of the workman who adopts it.

It is only fair to admit that an exhibition of fragmentary and unfinished drawings, soiled, tattered, and torn, as they almost invariably come from the workshop or factory, would make a very poor show — which may be an argument against exhibiting them at all. Certainly it is a reason for mending, cleaning, and mounting them, and putting them in some sort of frame (for what is not worth the pains of making presentable is not worth showing), but that is a very different thing from working designs up to picture pitch.

When all is said, designs, if exhibited, appeal primarily to designers. We all want to see each other’s work, and especially each other’s way of working; but it should not be altogether uninteresting to the intelligent amateur to see what working drawings are, and to compare them with the kind of specious competition drawings by which he is so apt to be misled.