The High Points of Form

Continuing with Graham Collier's Form, Space & Vision, published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, in 1963; here’s a lesson in
FORM V:  planes and curved surfaces; forces and surface tension

The surface aspect of form is not perceived at any one single point of focus, but the eye skates over varying directional surfaces, to be bounded in landscape only by a horizon.  And in architecture that sometimes appears to have no bounds at all, wall and ceiling surfaces move out and then return to their source in an apparently self-perpetuating system.

So now we move from the object in isolation to the motion of the continuous surface of the sea, of the land, and of architecture…the surface of form.

This aspect of form is concerned with planes and curved surfaces, with the external aspects f form, with the constant movement of surface as the shape is revealed. 

Landscape…can be gentle and curvaceous or sharp and angular—gentle folds or crevice like angles—the rolling countryside or the precipitous mountain… Therefore…two general statements about surface movement:  that it is (1) a series of multi-directional planes producing though their juxtaposition an angular surface quality where plane meets plane; and (2) and undulation of curved surfaces producing a folded surface quality.

The planes, angles, and valleys of the paper are only a smaller version of the surface characteristics of mountain terrain….  All surface formations are made up of planes in juxtaposition or curved surfaces in series, either separately or together, and that it is only in scale that differences occur.  No other formations of surface exist….  The surface of form is merely an indication of operating forces.

If one allows one’s eye merely to play over the planes and curves, without at the same time sensing the forces that have worked within the form or pressed upon it, then he loses the complete significance of plane and curve as the surface manifestation of force or tension to which the mass is subject….  The stronger the force applied, the more apparent is the tension over the surface of the curve.  (Surface tension is the result of forces in opposition, the molecular forces of the substance versus the mechanical forces exerted on it.)  Surface tension is thus greater over any curved surface than over any plane surface, and the more pronounced the curve, the more surface tension is induced.  From this it will be seen that when eventually a curve becomes an angle (as it does with the aluminum sheet if great force continues to be exerted at the sides), then the surface tension over the angle is very considerable.  Hence, skin stretched tight over projecting bones has considerable surface tension as it changes direction.  This is why skeletal form surfaces are more dramatic than gently curving bulbous-form surfaces.  The surface tension is both seen and felt by the viewer.

The experiment:  Select two pieces of paper, each one about 2’ square, one a crisp, strong paper and the other a soft, absorbent paper.  Using both hands, deliberately crumple up each piece separately, not so strongly that you reduce it to a small and formless ball, but with just enough strength to produce a complex of planes, angles and folds.  With this accomplished, you now have some personal experience of force being responsible for surface organization.  At the same time, you will notice a difference between the crumbled papers.  The strong paper will have formed sharply defined planes and clean angles; the soft paper will be altogether more “blurred,” less angular, and with a suggestion of curved surfaces rather than planes.  This difference is due to the varying resistance that the paper offers the pressure…. The stronger and more rigid the material, the sharper will be its angles and the more distinct its planes when forces operate to shape the form.

The first drawing of each piece of paper is to be entirely a line drawing…as an attempt to describe the surface formation of the angles and planes of the crisp, strong paper form, followed by the folds and curved surfaces of the soft paper form.  The second drawing of each piece of paper is to dispense with line altogether.  Close your eyes halfway, and see the form as an organization of surface areas (planes or curves) but do not look for their edges.  Now, using shading or tone, build up the form bit by bit, by “blocking in with tone each plane area or curved area over the whole shape—rather like building up piece by piece with bricks.  Any lines or edges that are formed will occur automatically where the tone shading stops or changes intensity.  The dark or light quality of the tone should be taken directly from the objects.  Where the planes or curves appear lighter or darker, adjust your tone shading to a similar intensity.  If a pen is being used, then tone is best indicated by lines, heavy or light, closely concentrated or widely spread across the face of the plane or curve.

The carefully crumbled piece of paper is no simple form; and…deciding where to start is a difficult decision.  As the eye searches the surface, moving from plane to plane and angle to angle, the mind is also working along with the eye, trying to relate the surface to forces in the form pushing out and forces from outside the form pushing in; for in crumpling the paper, a thumb might have pushed in, while a finger pushed out.

1.  Surface planes and curves tend to be organized two, three or more to a group, and planes or curves in the same group all tend to emanate from a single point.  The arrangement can be seen by following the angle lines through a group source…it is the point of force operating internally or externally on the form….cloth over a vertical pole:  all the folds will originate from the point of suspension or pushing-up force.  So a plane with its angles does not exist alone on a multi-directional surface.  It is organized with other planes, angles and curved surfaces about a point of force.  If this is not understood in a drawing, then this special relationship between the surface of the form and the forces that have operated to shape it will not be conveyed, and the drawing will not convince. 

2.  The material of the form will tend to move either vertically or laterally until it meets an opposing directional movement occasioned by a second and different force.  To take the example of the cloth over the vertical pole once more, the folds of this material hang vertically throughout the whole length of the material, and no horizontal folds run contrary to them.  But as soon as the cloth is supported at a second point—say halfway down, by placing an arm beneath it—then a horizontal movement develops which interrupt the sweep of the vertical.  Thus a connection between points of force is to be found in the opposing horizontal and vertical movements of the planes or curves.  The vertical movement has the upper hand, since the force of gravity constantly pulls the material in a downward direction.

cherries in a bowl (30cm/30cm oil on canvas)
cherries in a bowl (30cm/30cm oil on canvas)

The scheme of vertical plane, opposed and met by horizontal plane, can be seen in the crumpled paper or on the mountainside.  In architecture, the same principle is observed where the horizontal ceiling meets the vertical wall.  As long as the forces are roughly equal in strength and capable of being contained by the material (the paper did not disintegrate under the forces exerted upon it), then equilibrium results.  The crumpled paper represents an organization of planes and curved surfaces in vertical and lateral opposition, yet in a state of stability rather than disintegration.

Using pen or pencil, line or tone, make a drawing of a strange and fantastic rock surface.  It can be cliff or freestanding rock; it can be composed of planes or curved surfaces; it can be stratified horizontally, vertically, or in both directions.

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