Top: Original WW1 ship models painted to test dazzle camouflage schemes (© IWM). Bottom: Dazzle Section at work in Burlington House in 1917.
Norman Wilkinson 1878-1971
Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949
The dazzle concept was invented in 1916 by Norman Wilkinson, a British marine painter and naval commander who took inspiration from Cubist and Vorticist paintings in which ships were covered with bold stripes and complex patterns of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other. Instead of blending ships into the horizon, such painters rendered the vessels highly visible to adversaries, but made their size, direction, and armaments maddeningly inscrutable. The tactic was used by all major allied forces in World War I.
Norman Wilkinson explained in 1919 that dazzle was intended more to mislead the enemy as to the correct position to take up than actually to miss his shot when firing. Each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to the enemy.
Dazzle attracted the notice of artists, with Picasso notably claiming cubists had invented it. However it was the vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth, who supervised the camouflaging of over 2,000 ships during the First World War. The Vorticists were the English equivalent of the Italian Futurists, and Edward Wadsworth, a leading Vorticist artist, supervised much of this dazzle ship work.
Its very difficult to find colour images of the original WWI designs, but they typically used red, green, yellow, and purple, lavender and mauve greys, and black and white. In 2008, the Rhode Island School of Design announced the rediscovery in its collection of lithographic printed plans for the camouflage of US merchant ships during World War I. The graphics shown are from original WWI ship painting plans and show the intended colour schemes as well as the graphic shapes themselves: diagonals, zig-zags, and arcs, combined using sudden changes in the patterns at seemingly random points used to give impressions of different planes or facets on flat surfaces to break up physical lines and shapes.
We decided to make our own Vorticist designs on battleships!
We first printed some template designs and, with a craft knife, cut around the image.
We then plased tge template on top of A3 paper and stuck tape over the template until it was fully covered.