the language of pattern

We humans like to create. From the Ardagh Chalice to hand-knitted dog jumpers, we fill the world with the things we make.

When it comes to material objects, I’ve always been fascinated with how they are decorated. What is the purpose of ornament? A plain sword will cut just as well as an engraved one. Yet we use surface pattern on practically everything we produce: wood is carved; metals engraved; fabric embroidered; textiles woven; paper printed… pattern and embellishments are everywhere.

Why? Is it purely to enhance the visual aesthetic of our objects?

I first became interested in pattern thirty years ago. Early efforts at bringing pattern into my illustrations were clumsy. Too much pattern, not enough contrast (and frankly poor draughtsmanship). Later attempts were a little more successful.

early attempt and using pattern in illustration, c1988
A later attempt, 1989

Last year I revisited surface pattern through a course advertised on Facebook. It was delivered in Spanish which for some reason I adored. I speak no Spanish but liked the sound of the words. The creative efforts of Google Translate in the sub-titles added to the fun. What I really loved though, was how the instructor broke down the process of pattern creation

She suggested taking a number of motifs around a theme. I was working on the Regency Guide to Marriage at the time, so used embroidery patterns from that period. These patterns were printed in women’s magazines and could be traced onto fabric for ladies to affix to their embroidery rings and while away the daylight hours.

patterns for corners of handkerchiefs from Ackermann’s Repository of Arts
Regency inspired patterns I created last year

I included some of these patterns in my latest book but used them in the background. For my next publication, I want to bring surface decoration to centre stage. At the moment I’m exploring how this has been achieved by illuminated manuscripts and two contemporary artists I admire, Marian Bantjes and Coralie Bickford-Smith

Book of Hours (Use of Utrecht) c1460-146
Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels 
Please Say Yes by Marian Bantjes
from The Song of the Tree by Coralie Bickford-Smith

To return to my original question: wondering about the purpose of decoration… I think it is all about enhancement ….. But it is more nuanced than mere visual appeal. Humans are incredibly adept at reading signals. When faced with an unadorned object and a highly embellished version of the same thing, most of us would rate the ornamented object as being more prized. The more labour and care lavished on an object increases the cost of production. The more expensive an object the higher the status of the owner.

But it’s even more than that. Every mark is placed on an object for a reason. Some to signal ownership or belonging, as in the case of monograms and heraldry. Some to help narration (as in book illustration) and some to imbue with protective powers or spiritual worship. There is a language to mark making. Every mark tells a story.

And we like stories.

Stories help us makes sense of things. We ‘read’ a story quite differently from the way we learn a fact. In my work I try to make facts accessible by using lessons from the science of narratology. Revisiting pattern making is my next step. I’ve recently started a new course with my favourite Spanish guides. This one is with Catalina Estrada Uribe. The blurb for the course promises participants will

explore creation of your own graphic language that you can use to start illustrating prints with soul.

I’m adoring exploring this part of my work. I’ve consciously loved pattern for thirty years. Now I’m learning to speak its language.

oh feliz dia

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