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October 26, 2008

Yet More on Camouflage

I've spent several hours over the last few days learning more about camouflage. I really enjoy this. You may wonder why I'm so interested in camouflage (this is my fourth post on the subject). It's because I believe that an artist must always be aware of camouflage principles and techniques, and know why they are needed and be ready to use them. Besides, I'm fascinated by the subject of perception and camouflage has everything to do with perception.

What I've been thinking about as I've read articles and watched videos over the last week or so has led me to write this post so I can have it all down and easily available to refer to.  I'm including two new videos on camouflage I've just discovered.

Surely humans have used camouflage techniques throughout human history, and even earlier (many if not all animals/fish/birds/etc. use camouflage to hide from predators and/or prey though they are not aware of it; it is "built-in") and yet not until late in the 19th century was camouflage as we think of it today used by armies (some armies by necessity may have gone without uniforms but probably only small groups and individuals (such as snipers) intentionally used some kind of camouflage regularly). In fact, quite to the contrary, large groups of fighting men often wore attention-getting colorful outfits and were purposely very visible to the enemy (though this is a kind of camouflage, too - called "Aposematism" - See below).

Camouflage became necessary as technology started to produce changes in the weapons and techniques of warfare that required men to hide themselves. It became particularly important in World War I when armies started using airplanes. This is when artists were asked to help design camouflage (there is more on all this in other posts - Take a look in the list of Topics on the right side of this page for "camouflage" and if you click on that it will bring up a web page with all of the camouflage posts on it, including this one).

Camouflaged Marine Sniper, in Ghillie Suit
Source: Wikipedia

Artists - and Camouflage Artists

I believe that camouflage designers are artists, and certainly they have been around throughout human history (or human history would have been very short-lived). Nevertheless, artists (painters, set designers, architects, etc.) were consulted when it came to really ramping up the camouflage for new challenges when World War I came along. These artists were probably called in because although no doubt there were already people in the military who had some good ideas about camouflage, artists of did this kind of thing all day every day when planning and producing their artwork.

Principles of camouflage - or, What you should be thinking about and working with in order to accomplish the aims of camouflage.

According to this article on Camouflage and Concealment for snipers, "Target Indicators" (what others call "principles of camouflage") include:

- Tactile (Touch)

- Olfactory (Smell)

- Auditory (Hear)

- Visual: Siting [fitting in with surroundings]

- Visual: Shape

- Visual: Shadow

- Visual: Silhouette

- Visual: Surface [includes "shine" and texture]

- Visual: Spacing

- Visual: Color

- Visual: Movement

Note how the visual tools of military camouflage listed above are just about the same as what are usually considered the "elements of art."

Elements of Art

- Line [which can be used to imply "movement"]

- Shape [which would be the same as "silhouette"]

- Form

- Value

- Texture

- Color

- Space [using perspective to indicate three-dimensional space]

In fact, both lists would work for artists, though artists might not necessarily want to "hide" something; the idea is to change someone's perception of that "something" whether it is to hide it or make it more obvious or something else.  The elements of art (or "principles of camouflage") are the things you have to work with in order to get the effects you want.

Why artists need to know about camouflage principles and methods

The ideas behind camouflage design seem like common sense, but still sometimes we need to be reminded of them in order to make conscious what we may already have "known" but weren't really making full use of in our artwork. That is, it seems to me that although we may have more or less "instinctive" common sense knowledge of what needs camouflaging and what must be done in order for it to be perceived in certain ways, or to not be seen at all, this knowledge can lie dormant (and therefore useless) within us for different reasons, for instance if we've been taught to do or see or present things in certain ways and we assume that these are the "only" ways to do/see/present things and so our minds close to other possibilities. Another reason might be that some of us don't see any need to change the way things are seen (we don't see the problem and therefore don't feel any need to do anything about it).

Some other ways camouflage is useful (besides in war and painting pictures)

Hunters, of course, use camouflage techniques.  Makeup is camouflage -- There is even makeup that is called "camouflage makeup" or "camouflage cosmetics" for "heavy duty" hiding of bruises and scars, etc. caused by medical procedures, but ordinary makeup is camouflage, too, and is often advertised as such. Here's an article on Camouflage Cosmetics.

We can use camouflage techniques in decorating our homes (for instance, "How to make your rooms look bigger," or "How to ensure that visitors will take a certain path through your house and not go off into private areas").  And many people have camouflage ideas in mind when they dress and groom themselves.

Covering up what you don't want people to notice is probably something we have all tried to do, in many situations. Distracting attention from things we don't want others to notice with a decoy or something that provides a more compelling focal point is another camouflage technique.

Camouflage can be, and often is, used in the preparation of food. Camouflage, in fact, seems to be almost a synonym of "preparation" when it has to do with preparing something to be experienced in such a way that the intended "target" ("observer" you might say, but that implies that all camouflage has to do with sight and it doesn't) perceives it as much as possible in the way that the artist wants it to be perceived.

Something else we probably all know about is blending in. If we don't want to be noticed, we try to look, act, talk the same as the people around us, or blend in with the background. We could be in plain sight but unseen for example if we are wearing the same clothing style/colors as a crowd of people and appear to be doing whatever those people are doing. We become part of a pattern in that case and do not stand out.

The opposite of hiding things is making them very visible, of course, and this is another kind of camouflage. There is a name for it: Aposematism.

Here is a Wikipedia article on Aposematism. Aposematism is a warning to would-be predators that this thing they're observing would be a terrible thing to catch and eat -- probably because it would taste terrible, or kill them (or both). "The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous colours, sounds, odours or other perceivable characters. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, who both avoid potential harm." (Quote is from the Wikipedia article Aposematism, link just above.)

I am guessing that this is the reason behind soldiers of the past wearing bright, colorful clothing. They wanted to show they were so strong and powerful that they had no fear at all. I suppose this at least in some cases scared the enemy who thought they must have good reason for being so confident.

How artists use camouflage

Although most of them probably don't think of it in that way, artists think about camouflage problems and possible solutions all the time as they decide how to compose their pictures, if not consciously then unconsciously.

I don't mean to say that artists use camouflage techniques just try to make things look "better" than they really are (though they may want to do that), as a person attempts to do when they put on makeup. Artists use these techniques to make their artwork say what they want it to say, and to not say what they don't want it to say.

Just for a simple example, sometimes there has to be something included in a picture (say it's something really big, or even the entire background) because the situation requires it -- you just can't leave it out -- but the artist doesn't want that "something" to really be noticed because it would detract from the main idea of the picture -- So how can they have this usually very noticeable object in the picture without it calling too much attention to itself? This is a job for camouflage, right?

Or what if you want to have several people (or trees, or anything) in a picture but you want people to focus mainly on just one or two of them. You have to figure out how to emphasize the people you want people to look at (Aposematism!) and de-emphasize the others. You can do both with camouflage techniques.

You may want something or someone to look very obviously like it/he/she does not fit in, not as a distraction from the subject but as the subject itself. You may want it to look like it doesn't belong there, the opposite of what you'd want if you were trying to hide it. You may try to make the viewer either sympathetic or unsympathetic toward it but it still doesn't belong where it is (that may be exactly what you're trying to get across).

Or possibly you could take something or someone who doesn't fit in in some ways but does in others, to evoke a feeling of appreciation of diversity perhaps.

Those are just a few examples I just thought of. There is much, much more you can do with the ideas and methods of camouflage in mind.

Insofar as artists are aware of camouflage principles and techniques they can control how people see their pictures. Artists who are not doing this might want to learn about camouflage. The more they learn about it and how it's used in nature and by humans (in the military, for hunting, and for many other purposes, some mentioned above), the more imprinted it becomes in the brain and available for guidance.


Nicholas Rankin on the history of camouflage

Nicholas Rankin, author of Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-45, discusses the development of camouflage.


Nicholas Rankin on British deception in WW2

Nicholas Rankin on the techniques used by the British during the Second World War to hoax Hitler


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