The Art of Camouflage

In the course of trying to make a parking lot inconspicuous, we recently discovered that military camouflage has its origins in art.

The notion of armies attempting to blend in with their surroundings dates back only about 100 years, to the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to that, troops proudly wore their colors into battle and fought on open fields. (In retrospect, British redcoats seem like they would have been easy targets.)  But that all changed during World War I when aerial technology made it possible to arm planes not only with weapons, but also with photographic and infrared cameras that could detect where enemy armaments and soldiers were stationed.

Painted ceiling in Santa Maria del Corlo church, Lonato, Italy.  Photo by Manfred Heyde

These developments coincided with non-figurative artistic movements like surrealism, cubism, and pointillism, all of which toyed with the beholder’s visual perception. Trompe-L’oeil, which makes paintings look three-dimensional, literally translates to “deceive the eye.” So when military leaders worldwide recognized the benefit of hiding in plain sight, they sought the assistance of the artistic community in camouflaging their armies and navies.

Abbott Thayer, an American painter, introduced to warfare two concepts used by animals to camouflage themselves from predators. The first was countershading, which explains why so many animals have lighter-colored underbellies. As seen from above, the darker colors blend into the ground, and as seen from below, the lighter shades disappear into the sky. Disruptive coloration, meanwhile, describes the way irregular patterns and colors like a zebra’s stripes or a cow’s piebald coat obscure a subject’s outline.

Dazzle camouflage’s intersecting geometric patterns, shapes and stripes make it much harder for enemy guns to estimate its position and speed

British painter Norman Wilkinson built on these theories with a technique called “dazzle camouflage” to protect merchant ships during the Great War. Dazzle camouflage’s intersecting geometric patterns, shapes and stripes (above) don’t conceal a ship, but they make it much harder for enemy guns to estimate its position and speed. Years before he became famous for American Gothic, Grant Wood was a camouflage painter for the U.S. army; Cubist painter Jacques Villon served as a camoufleur for France.

As technology improved, so too did artistic methods of deception. During World War II, Australian photographer Max Dupain experimented with ways to obscure the viewer’s ability to distinguish foreground from background. He translated his photographic style of light and shadow to develop canopies that would shade the ground plane and “optically disintegrate” the objects (in this case airplanes) housed below it. Similarly, Hungarian Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy experimented with kinetic sculpture, using pattern, shadows, and movement to obscure objects on the ground. His efforts led to the urban scaled netting implemented across airfields in World War II.

In England, surrealist painter Roland Penrose literally wrote the book on the subject of camouflage. His Home Guard Manual of Camouflage provided detailed explanations on how to use texture and color to deceive aerial photographs. He was also instrumental in extending the idea of camouflage to individual soldiers; up until this point, most camouflage was used to disguise arms and equipment. Britain’s widely used PenCott camouflage clothing pattern takes its name from a mashup of Penrose and zoologist Hugh Bamford Cott.

Realizing what an important role the design community has played in the history of camouflage has been invigorating. The artistry and the experimentation in the development of camouflage technique has given our design team new perspective on how to effectively hide something as largely scaled as a parking lot. And technology has given us even greater tools of deception, allowing us not only to obscure, but to conceal both elegantly and artfully.


Cover photo: Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM) Combat 95 used in clothing and equipment for the British Armed Forces. Credit: by Cpl Adrian Harlen RLC