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0129 Rosa Vives Piqué, Looking at Patterns and Motifs

RIHA Journal 0129 | 25 September 2015

Looking at patterns and motifs

Rosa Vives Piqué

Universitat de Barcelona

Editing and peer review managed by:

Joana Cunha Leal, Instituto de História da Arte, FCSH, Universidade Nova de Lisboa


António Canau, Alexandra Curvelo


I take as my point of departure the various meanings of the Spanish word trama, observing and ordering these as they relate to different aspects of the art of printmaking. The phenomenon of trama is appreciable in the conception and activity of printmaking and also in the materials this art employs, which in turn leave their mark upon the visible and the tactile. Trama is also important in the graphic narrative and in iconography, and this article contributes to the literature with two, hitherto unpublished examples. The first example is a multifaceted icon which was created in the context of popular European printmaking but which came to exert an influence on fine art printmaking even in Picasso. The second example is a drawing which I have been able to attribute to Marià Fortuny, the most internationally renowned Catalan painter of the nineteenth century, and which I examine in the light of an association that may be made between the drawing and a print by Rembrandt.



  1. In Latin languages the word trama appeared for the first time in the year 1400, from the Latin trama, the weft to form cloth. It is defined as the thread or group of threads which run the width of the cloth, interlaced with the lengthwise yarns that form the warp. Etymologically it has the meaning "across", in Spanish a través, from the Latin trans which in turn derives from the Sanskrit tar. In the jargon of textile making, the threads of the weft and the warp are differentiated, the warp running the full length of the material, parallel to the edges. Weavers draw the weft yarns transversally through the previously laid out lines of the warp.

  2. Trama is also the word used for things which have a structure similar to that of threads of fabric: the distribution or links between the different parts of something, a group of interlaced filaments, the support structure of living tissue. The word is commonly used in architectural jargon and in urban planning, and one needs to look no further than the block pattern of Cerdà's plan for the Eixample district in Barcelona. Figuratively, as a metaphor of fabric, trama refers to a plot or intrigue, as in the expression se trama una conspiración – "a conspiracy is being woven". In the vocabulary of photo-mechanical reproduction, the word refers to the transparent screen with a very fine square grid, which is placed between the photosensitive plate and the photoengraving surface to obtain half-tones by separating the resulting image into dots of light. In present-day communication and computing technology, it refers to what in certain communication protocols is called a 'packet', the unit for sending data over a network, composed of a packet header, the actual data and the packet trailer – final de trama in Spanish. Particularly within the art of engraving, there is a wide range of meanings of the word trama, which not only appear frequently but also determine its specific language. Within both the process and the objective it can differentiate four groups of meanings: graphic, textural, narrative and iconographic. The latter two aspects will be developed below through specific study cases related to popular Catalan prints and etchings by two of the most eminent Catalan and Spanish artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marià Fortuny (Reus 1838-1874) and Pablo Picasso (Malaga 1881-Mougins 1973).1

Graphic patterns

  1. In all cases, the word trama suggests regularity and continuity. This continuity is always maintained in the whole, even when there are interruptions or physical breaks in an area. The trama may be ripped in the same way as a thread may be cut. Using thread as a metaphor, it can establish a 'fabric' based on lines. In engravings on metal plates, the layout of the dots forms a pattern within a pattern. A visual one, to create the image, and a physical one for the print, together they determine the actual perception of the print and what it represents. Even when there is an inferred outline, when there is an organised shape, the new pattern superimposes its prevalent order to complement the composition and is the organisational structure. But patterns which are free or broken, obtained by creative etching or abstract processes, also always form the necessary tissue for printmaking.

  2. In the most basic pattern for line drawing in traditional engraving, especially copperplate engraving, the single stroke, the line resulting from a succession of dots, is the element that triggers subdivisions. The mental object – the line – and the physical object – the stroke – partition the blank paper and introduce shading to create half-tones, values and volumes through incisions: inferred, ordered, full-length or in sections, grouped, regular, thick, thin, resembling mycelium filaments or simply dots and lines.

  3. When the art of engraving was at its moment of maximum splendour, it brought about the normalisation and classification of graphic patterns in a standardised theory of 'strokes'.2 When, in a black-and-white print, the appearance of one signifies the absence of the other, the pattern configures the whole gradient of visible and inseparable values simultaneously, light and dark. When the black is sunk into the engraved lines and is minimised, the white stands out and expands, and they become totally dependent on each other for their existence. The trama also structures the perceptive quality of the light resulting from the vibration of black and white, a rhythmic alternation, of presence and absence of light, of directional and expansive dynamic structure as in musical cadencies.

  4. It should also be noted, as Ingold points out in his recently published The Life of Lines, that when executing a pattern, the engraver's hand makes the same movement through the air, but in the opposite direction, as the burin on the copper. It is a physical movement that creates a double pattern, one as a gesture in space, the other becoming permanent and leaving the mark made by the tool.3 In contrast to the trace of a single line, the movement alludes to the idea of violence. As lines cross, the first ones are attacked by subsequent lines running over them, in the same way as a pattern tends to invade the area around it as it extends. With regard to the image of Rafael's Poetry, Hubert Damisch noted "L'opposition, le contraste entre deux régimes du trait en se réduisant pas à un simple trait stylistique; dans l'intervalle entre la planéarité du dispositif des hachures et la linéarité perdue du contour, la violence incisive se fait jour qui est celle non plus du stylet, mais du trait de plume".4 It is obvious that this aspect is more strongly emphasized with the effects of the burin and the drypoint needle on the paper.

  5. Since the first, most paradigmatic theoretical work of Abraham Bosse, Traicté des manières de graver en taille-douce sur l'airain (Paris, 1645) (Fig. 1) and its later additions and translations into different languages, the pattern has been a well-studied topic for teaching the use of engraver's burins, needles and etching tools, to obtain various effects. In contrast, studies of its rhetoric aspects are limited to passing references in texts on perception, most of which are based on the book by William Ivins Jr., Prints and Visual Communication. Written in the 1950s, it was published in Spanish in Barcelona, as Imagen impresa y conocimiento, over twenty years later (1975), by Gustavo Gili, with a prologue by Daniel Giralt-Miracle, an expert in graphic arts. This is an instructive text which today, at the beginning of the 21st century, is still relevant, with no other publication improving on its study of the meanings of traditional graphic patterns.

1 Abraham Bosse, Traicté des manières de graver en taille-douce..., fig. 5 (rep. from Gutenberg Reprint, Paris 1979)

  1. Ivins defined the graphic pattern as syntaxes, the standardisation of the line work similar to the rational network of geometry, a special system of linear structures. Beginning with the Renaissance, he describes it in the fine lines used by gold and silversmiths and in the wider lines produced by sketch artists and painters. He continues with the previously mentioned book by Abraham Bosse and the technique of Claude Mellan, based on using parallel and spiralling lines – the 'warp' – sometimes without any transversal lines, which puts him at the zenith of the profession.5 However, this also meant the onset of the decline of the burin, which finally came about at the end of the nineteenth century with the arrival of photography, reducing its use almost exclusively to engravings for stamps and bank notes. But, above all, Ivins emphasises the influence of the graphic pattern in the understanding, history and visual knowledge of the works of the collective imaginary before photography.6

Surface textures

  1. But what is usually forgotten, what I find no reference to, is the strands of thick ink from the copper plate physically transferred onto another type of trama, a material trama, the fibre of paper, and, of course, the luxurious silk in special prints. Just looking at a sheet of laid paper against the light is enough to grasp the intricate texture of differently-spaced vertical 'wire-marks' and horizontal chain-lines'. Obviously, it is the weft and warp of the wire mesh which determine the form of this sheet of paper, while in more modern wove paper it is the random arrangement of compressed fibres. In addition, the finishing on the sheet of paper has other surface textures, to give a tactile or optical effect and which can influence the printmaking results: grooves, granules, colour hues, satin finish, gloss, transparent and opaque effects, etc. The paper is not merely a support, but merges with the printed image and becomes the light of the print.

  2. This double texture, that of the paper and the strongly pronounced relief of the ink, both physically present, is eminently tactile. Running a hand over the print, with our eyes closed, we navigate over the black relief of straight lines, curves, squares, rhomboids, etc. We travel along flat, satin or cotton spaces, and moving out of the printed area, we can appraise the softness, the roughness, and the resistance of the paper, through a wide range of varying sensory perceptions.

From pattern to pixel

  1. However, the trama has progressed from this physical presence, on both copper and paper, to virtual reality, along a route from the ordered dot, engraved on metal by hand, to the mechanically treated film of photoengraving. Along with the massive expansion of the image, patterns have continually evolved and been perfected. Thanks to the invention of photomechanical processes in the US and Europe around the 1880s, the move was made from engraving to photoengraving. In the new technique, the image is modified using patterns of large numbers of dots which make it possible to reproduce half-tones together with text in high-speed printing processes. A whole range of techniques emerged progressively to enable refining of the patterns and to improve printing. This continued in techniques dedicated primarily to reproductions and the graphics industry, and eventually led to the lines on the television screen or the present-day pixels of the digital image. When printed on paper, the image must be converted into minute dots of black ink. Printing of the image now involves lines so fine that sometimes they are not noticeable. Since the invention of the laser in 1960, the 'picture element', has meant images are reduced to several million pixels per square inch, have only optical and no tactile textures, are suitable for flat reproductions, and can be stored in 'the cloud', having no physical existence.

  2. Without doubt, the pixel will make further progress, but I'm certain that it will never substitute the incision. The hand-drawn pattern of the artist will continue to leave its mark, an anachronistic mark, an empreinte, resulting from the interaction of philosophy, aesthetics, anthropology and archaeology because, in the end, it has been an innate action of man from the beginning of time.7 It has been so ever since our ancestors carved primitive signs in rock, long before Pliny the Elder claimed that the capturing of an image by light in Corinth was the origin of the art of painting. Similarly, it seemed that photography would cause the downfall of printmaking, but in reality, it has only affected the reproduction of the engraving.

Migration and merging of graphic patterns

  1. As previously mentioned, the word trama also refers to the graphic methods of photomechanical printing. The regular patterns of dots, the Ben-Day dots, which are particularly visible in the less-carefully made popular publications, and which are very obvious when the blocks of colour are positioned incorrectly, are dots which have fascinated many readers and also some artists. One of these is Roy Lichtenstein, who, from the 1960s, transformed them into a pop icon, an element which identified his style, into a pattern for his compositions – painting, graphic work and even sculpture, of which an example can be found in Barcelona. I refer to Barcelona Head (1992) on Passeig de Colom, which, on the surface (Fig. 2), reproduces the bright, magnificent red dots, resembling the local trencadís, the Gaudí style of broken ceramics.8