Rhythm and Rules

Regarding Design

Without a doubt, one of my favorite quotations in an old sign manual is the following, from Fritz Schriber’s Complete Carriage and Wagon Painter, circa 1891: “Scrolling is an art acquired by but a few. In all the great city of New York, those who can design and paint a Roman scroll for wagons and cars may be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

I’ve often thought that the only thing missing from that bit of sage wisdom might be, “So give up, Buster!” After the author sets you up for certain failure (only five coach painters out of an industry which employed at least a thousand?) he goes on to assure you that such rarified skills are “natural and inborn” but if you still want to try, he won’t stop you.

I’m probably hard on the old fellow; he does go on to demonstrate some nifty scroll work stunts and even cuts loose with a treasured secret or two -- from the look of his excellent decorations I think Mr. Schriber must’ve been one of the anointed “handful”!

Any sign artist interested in the traditional craft must learn to do a credible job of Roman scrollwork and other decorative effects. Whether you call them ornaments, arabesques or scrolls (one of the absolute finest lettering and scroll artists I ever met -- one Harold “Newt” Newton -- simply referred to them as spaghetti), the pleasure you can get from laying down a decent bit of scroll work makes it worth learning how. The principles involved are as rudimentary as basic letter construction, and the modifications that follow are where your personality and design preferences will show.

Before we look at some examples, I should stress that this column won’t delve into the fine distinctions and nomenclature associated with an academic investigation of ornament; we’ll take that path another time. For now, suffice it to say that most of these are Rococco- and Victorian-influenced designs: the workhorse tools in a journeyman signpainter’s repertoire.

It’s important that your scroll should accomplish its mission. That is: what is the purpose of the design? Will it be used as a corner ornament? Is it a space-filler to balance or accent lettering? Is it a dominant part of the overall layout?

Once you’ve identified the use of the scroll, sketch in its boundaries. Now you know where you want it; it only remains for you to draw it.

Most scrolls begin with a graceful “S” curve, poetically called the line of beauty in some old texts. This controlling shape is usually scratched out (lightly!) with charcoal if you’re working on paper, or with a grease pencil, if you’re working directly on the sign panel. Seasoned pros and ace pinstripers will begin painting with only this basic indicator line, but the rest of us are advised to develop the design a bit further.

Now the fun begins. Decide what kind of scroll you want. Perhaps you prefer a delicate, fineline vine motif, or a bold series of swashes with varying line weights. Do you want a mannered, classical look or a loose, spontaneous effect? Which ever you choose, observe some common features found in most of these designs, regardless of their style:

a) There is constant rhythm and fluid movement.
b) Each shape within the design is pleasing.
c) The scroll creates interestingly shaped spaces within itself.
d) There are rarely hot spots; plenty of openness keeps heavy areas from getting too dark.
e) Important: thick lines almost always bisect with thin ones.
f) Three lines almost never begin at precisely the same point (see “d”).
g) There is usually good contradiction: shapes turn in opposite directions.
h) Most of the shapes within the scroll are built around the circle or the ellipse; the most interesting designs contain both.

Look closely. Do you see these principles at work? Can you find others? Start by freehand drawing a few of these. Avoid tracing. You’ll get the swing that’s essential to a good scroll if you create your own.

The resource materials available on scrolls are almost limitless. For this column I drew from antique plates in my own collection, but you’ll find many good books in reprint at your art store or library. Give it a try!