Dazzle painting

Dazzle painting on the Gloire

“Dazzle painting,” devised in Britain during WWI, was based on the theory that complex optical patterns would confuse enemy naval rangefinders by disguising a ship’s speed and direction. It employed a number of visual tricks including the painting of false bow waves on rear portions of the ship rather than the prow. There’s a fascinating explanation of how it was meant to work here. Interestingly, the concept was invented by an artist, a marine painter named Norman Wilkinson. When devising dazzle painting Wilkinson adapted some of the abstract, graphic style of constructivism and cubism even though he himself was a much more traditional painter (click below). Women artists from London’s Royal Academy of Arts dazzle-painted small scale models for optical studio testing before the design for each warship was finalized. It would be impossible to make this kind of stuff up, though perhaps it’s not surprising that historically it’s been standard practice for artists and designers to devise wartime camouflage. In the end the military effectiveness of dazzle painting was uncertain, but it did have the effect of being very good for ship’s morale, and it produced some surreal and beautiful ships. More photos in my Flickr set. See also the Tate Modern article on its camouflage exhibition, and more historical information here.

Dazzle painting, the Mahomet, WWI

dazzle painting, British navy

dazzle painting, British navy, WWI

Norman Wilkinson with dazzle painted ship model, in front of own painting

Norman Wilkinson

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “Dazzle painting”

  1. John Hopper Says:

    I’ve always loved these camouflage ships from the First World War. They seem very reminiscent of elements of Constructivism and it is typical of the British to use revolutionary ideas such as Constructivism for purely practical purposes.

    I always thought that they were probably not that effective, but they were a great new look for the British navy and another chapter in our strange and sometimes surreal history.

  2. Eva Says:

    Their defending effect was probably — though these ships could be sighted even better — that any lover of art would have had inhibitions to destroy them.

  3. krista Says:

    So i guess this theory explains zebras.

  4. LB Says:

    Yes. They wear the bow waves on their rear ends, and then they run like crazy.

Leave a Reply