Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Lines in the road

Traditional roadlining technique

I have mentioned the lines we come across painted on our road surfaces a few times. In particular I have flagged up the role that George Musgrave had in developing our visual landscape. In 1947 Musgrave came up with the idea for yellow lines, he also advocated pedestrian refuges in the centre of wide, busy roads, railings at dangerous corners and school exits, one way traffic for towns with narrow streets, speed limits and no parking within 20 yards of pedestrian crossings. You could argue that Musgrave was behind the 'disegno' of our streets. 

Road lining techniques have a huge impact on our urban landscape

However the other people behind the lines on our street are the roadliners, skilled craftspeople that have spent years learning their trade and how to operate very specialised drawing tools. This film on the craft of roadlining is a beautiful reminder of how important eye / hand control is to any form of drawing. The traditional form of road lining drawing involved two people; one to drag* the hot box along the ground and the other to keep it topped up with white paint so that a smooth line can be maintained by keeping the hot box in constant movement. Every city has its roadliners and they are rarely celebrated as the skilled artisans they are. The Video linked in above by 'O Street' took a look at a day in the life of Thomas Lilley, a roadliner in Glasgow. The complex coming together of idea, (disegno) often in this case drafted in the offices of city planners and execution by skilled roadliners, is I would again argue a way of thinking about drawing as a coming together of things. A complex amalgam of physical processes, (including the chemistry of fast drying thick paint), inorganic materials, (the road, the machinery) and organic beings (the various people), as well as processes, (town planning, traffic movement), all have to be working in harmony in order to produce a meaningful set of marks. 
Like all drawing processes erasure is a very important aspect of the work, but in this case it is very hard to do, so a specialist burner is required. 

Burning off an old arrow

The material processes associated with the Earth / Sun interrelationship continue outside of the activities of humans as soon as the road markings are made. The reflectivity of the white paint markings creates a difference between the road surface’s solar heating below the paint and the unpainted surrounding areas. The associated differences in thermal expansion create strains between the areas with and without markings. Small flaws caused by differential strains eventually combine to form longitudinal cracks along the edges of markings, which allow water to enter, which as it freezes and expands opens the surface cracks further and these are then subject to everyday water erosion as it rains. The Earth in effect continues the drawing itself.

Road damage linked to painted road markings

In 2012 the artist Richard Long, used watering cans to paint his white lines along the road on Box Hill, obviously influenced by the long history of white line drawing on roads, he created a 328 foot long drawing for the start of an important bike race. 

Richard Long: Box Hill drawing

The Swiss town of Vercorin allows artists to use its public spaces, and the roads, houses etc. become sites that can be transformed; the simple line that we find on the road often being used in affecting these transformations.


As the line escapes its context as a sign it is perhaps useful to be reminded that when first encountered as a driver it is in the learning stage. The meanings that have been encoded into the directions for road users are meant to be easy to learn, and it might be interesting to think about how as an artist you could devise various keys for the symbolic use of lines that include emotional and cultural readings that go far beyond the everyday language of the Highway Code. 

From the Highway Code 

Line has always been central to drawing practice and it is in many ways the most conceptual of our drawing languages. It can express direction, and at the same time a boundary, it can be continuous or broken, it can be a trace of an activity, as in a skid mark or a simplification of complexity as in an outline. Ogham, the ancient British and Irish alphabet, consisted of twenty characters formed by lines made of parallel strokes on either side of or across a continuous line and straight and zig zag lines are entoptic forms created in our brains when we have no outside the body visual stimulus to interest us. By exploring how we as a species use line in its broadest sense, we can open doors to a further exploration as to how line is found and used in an even wider field of activities, gradually blurring the distinction between what we construct and what we find, between what we control and what we are embedded into. 


*The fact that you have to drag the hot box across the floor in order to draw a mark points to the old English etymology of the verb 'to draw': c. 1200, spelling alteration of Old English dragan "to drag, to draw, protract" (class VI strong verb; past tense drog, past participle dragen), from Proto-Germanic *dragan "to draw, pull" (source also of Old Norse draga "to draw," Old Saxon dragan, Old Frisian draga, Middle Dutch draghen, Old High German tragen, German tragen "to carry, bear"), from PIE root *dhragh- 
This definition suggests to me that the lines drawn by a plough as it cuts through a field were the sort of lines 'dragan' was initially used to describe. These would have been very hard to make lines, dragging the plow through dense, compacted and stony soil would have been a central factor of life in the thirteenth century. 

*Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is a linguistic reconstruction of a hypothetical common ancestor for Indo-Europe languages. PIE is estimated to have been spoken as a single language from 4500 BCE to 2500 BCE. Over time linguistic divergence has led to the evolution of their current descendants, such as; Spanish, English, Hindi, Urdu, Portuguese, Bengali, Punjabi, German, Persian, French, Italian, Marathi, Russian, Ukrainian, Kurdish, Yiddish etc. A poignant reminder of how we are all interconnected and of why the Tower of Babel is such a powerful image. The diagrammatic drawing below of how these languages are linked can itself be read as a metaphor.

Tree of Indo European languages

Link to a post on walking and drawing 
Link to a post on the dashed line