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A Dazzling Homage to Camouflage

Monday, July 28, 2014

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Hiding in plain sight has always been a crafty ruse, but if you want to completely confuse the enemy, you need to razzle-dazzle him.

That was the battle-tested theory behind the Dazzle Ship, a bracingly brazen camouflage concept used by the British Admiralty and U.S. Navy in World Wars I and II.

Now, the bold deception is back in technicolor, with a newly painted Dazzle Ship at the Albert Dock in Liverpool, England.

Technology Publishing Co.

The pilot ship Edmund Gardner, at Albert Dock in Liverpool, received Dazzle Ship treatment this summer in a new commemorative coating project designed to honor the disruptive marine camouflage technique used in World Wars I and II.

A century after the beginning of World War I, the pilot ship Edmund Gardner has been repainted in classic Dazzle Ship style by Venezuelan artist Carolos Cruz-Diez with screamingly bright multi-colored stripes.

The pilot cutter once ensured the safe passage of shipping into and out of Liverpool. Today, it is owned and conserved by the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

The new painting project, completed this summer, was co-commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions and Tate Liverpool, in partnership with the museum. Tours of the ship are available.

Dreaming Up Dazzle

Credit for the Dazzle Ship technique is usually given to British maritime painter Norman Wilkinson, who was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1917 when he suggested the idea.

JohnGrahamKerr NormanWilkinson
Wikimedia Commons

Credit for the Dazzle Ship's "disruptive camouflage" is shared by Scottish naturalist John Graham Kerr (left) and British maritime painter Norman Wilkinson.

Others credit Scottish naturalist John Graham Kerr, who reportedly suggested to then-First Sea Lord Winston Churchill in September 1914 that "disruptive coloration" could be used to camouflage various vessels, according to a 2009 Forbes report.

Standing Out

In any case, while marine camouflage has taken many other forms over history, with varying success—black, white and light gray (to blend into the horizon), false bows, Flotta polygons, sea blue (to conceal from aircraft)—the Dazzle approach literally, deliberately stands out.

Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. embraced Dazzle Ship designs. Top: A sample design for merchant marine vessels. Bottom: The USS Charles S. Sperry in 1944.

By painting ships in bright colors and a wild variety of patterns—zigzags, zebra stripes, animal prints or chaotic designs—and countershading the guns into the background, navies could obscure the ship's lines and even distort visual estimates of its distance and course. The goal was more to confuse than conceal.

(Even Pablo Picasso was supposedly bedazzled by the idea. The Public Domain Review reports that the painter's Cubist technique was inspired by his view of a Dazzle-camouflaged cannon rumbling through the streets of Paris.)

The Power of Confusion

The Allied Navies gave the technique a try after they were unable to develop an effective way to disguise ships in all kinds of weather, The Public Domain Review reports.

HMS Belfast
Wikimedia Commons

Edward Wadsworth's 1919 Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool honors the camouflage that confused, rather than concealed.

Both the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy both used Dazzle Ships in World War I and, to a lesser extent, in World War II.

Other navies also experimented with the concept, inspired by Kerr's insights to Churchill:

"It is essential to break up the regularity of outline and this can be easily effected by strongly contrasting shades ... a giraffe or zebra or jaguar looks extraordinarily conspicuous in a museum but in nature, especially when moving, is wonderfully difficult to pick up."


Tagged categories: Color; Design; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Marine; Marine Coatings; Shipyards

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