Camouflage: The Art of the "Liar", by T.W.P.

Friday, Aug 21, 2009

Human Perception - from an artist’s point of view.

Have you ever sat down and watched a movie? Sure you have. But did you ever stop to realize that everything you were watching was a lie? Most likely not, even though you do understand that intellectually.

Most movies cash in on the concept of “suspension of disbelief” which means “you know that what you are watching is not real or true, but you are willing to pretend, accept that it is real or true, for sake of entertainment.” It is an implied contract between you, and the makers of that movie. The producers of that movie have an obligation to you - and that obligation is to make it “look” so real, make is so convincing - that you are able to believe it when you see it.

A “Special Effect” that you noticed and commented on, saying “Wow that was a great effect, it really looked real” is actually a badly executed effect. If you recognized it as an effect, it was not a successful effect – because you recognized it – it drew attention to itself.

A real special effects artist covers his tracks so well, that you believe that what you saw was real, and do not question it or recognize it as an effect – you accept it at face value – and that is what camouflage is really all about – tricking your opponent into accepting what he sees at face value, and not even thinking to question it.

For the past 28 years, I have been employed as a professional sculptor/artist in the entertainment industry. What that means is that for those years, I have been paid to lie to you. That statement is not meant to give offense. It is meant to draw your attention to a point that I think could save your life.

Camouflage is, quite simply the skill of lying. Think about it. You goal, your desire is to create an illusion, a deception, a trick of the eye with such skill that your enemy does not see you, or realize that either “you” or “it” is actually there at all. Your enemy thinks it is just a rock, a bush, and clump of dirt, - he has no idea that there is something there at all. He is at ease, relaxed; he feels safe and does not see any booty to snap up for himself, or any enemy to threaten him, because he sees nothing but the environment around him.

That is your goal – right? So, to achieve that goal, you need to become a great liar!

You have all seen paintings, photographs, “art” of many kinds. But the things you see are not what your mind tells you they are. Thus, your mind plays tricks on you, it “interprets” or “translates” the images it receives by way of your eye, into concepts; and then you react or respond to those perceived concepts.

But the concepts your mind’s eye creates by way of its interpretation of visual stimuli, may not be accurate with respect to the objective environment, as any one of a million playfully entertaining optical illusions can clearly demonstrate. Your mind can be easily tricked into believing something that is not real or true.

In general, there are very few straight lines or repeated patterns in nature. Exceptions to the rule do exist, in such things as sedimentary strata that is uninterrupted by geological events beyond its original “manufacture”, or the magnificent rhythm of sea shells, and a few other things; but as a rule, regularity and repetition, rhythm and pattern, is rather hard to find out in the bush.

However, in contrast to the “randomness of nature” the human mind, tends to seek out regularity and pattern, rhythm and harmony. (Bear in mind that the eye does not “see” anything. It is merely an organic structure designed to collect and receive light from the outside world, and transfer the image to the mind for interpretation. It is the human brain that actually “sees” what is going on out there, by way of interpreting the information given to it by the eye.)

Our modern definition of beauty to a very large degree stems from this perception of “visual harmony” and we seek out balance and summitry as a means to define beauty in others. In other words, the left and right eye are “balanced” with respect to each other. The nose is centered on the face, and if a sentient line or center line were drawn through the middle of it, both half’s of the nose would be in balance. In the male, if this balance and cemetery is hard and “chiseled” he is considered handsome or good looking. In the female, if this harmony of features or balance is soft and delicate, she is considered beautiful.

There are occasions when a “crooked smile” can be considered quite attractive – but the very reason it is considered attractive, is because we recognize that it is “crocked” as compared and contrasted to our traditional interpretation of beauty, which seeks out that straight, balanced harmony radiating from a center line, and it becomes that consciously recognized exception to the rule that we find attractive.

Because we tend to seek out rhythm and balance, we automatically create a repetition or pattern in our physical actions. But then this very pattern, this rhythm is precisely what our eye seeks out and recognizes.

So, to truly disappear into your environment…

Rule # 1 = never repeat your pattern or your placement of color or item. Become deliberately random. Consciously pay attention to your natural tendency to become rhythmic and repetitious, and willfully violate that natural tendency by placing things at deliberately irregular intervals.

Test yourself on this. Take a sea sponge and dip it in paint, and then casually dabble that paint loaded sponge on a wall or plywood board. Then step back and look at your work. Odds are, you will see a rhythm, an equally spaced, even and regular pattern of sponge pats on the wall. In fact, you could almost put a tape measure to each sponge splotch, and they would all be within a ¼ of one another.

This is exactly what you want to take note of – and avoid when seeking to camouflage yourself or your stash! If you see a pattern, so will your enemy. Remember – rhythm and regularity = presence of man – weather your opponent consciously recognizes this fact, or not, he will “perceive it” and gravitate towards this regularity.

“Composition” is something you will hear artists speak about frequently. This refers to the placement of colors and images within the frame of the work. (And the negative space – the “empty” space around objects, between objects, within objects – is also an element of the art work – and something you need to pay attention to).

This concept of composition is a format artists use to guide the viewers eye along a specific path to enhance interest and visual pleasure. (the eye can be directed along a specific and predetermined path – guided by the skillful artist to “look here, not there” - hint, hint).

But again, with physical objects, (in the case of a painting, for example, a pile of rocks) even numbers of elements represent regularity and pattern, and regularity and pattern means man, not nature.

Rule #2 = odd numbers work better than even numbers. Place colors or elements in groups of 3, 5, 7, et cetera.

Starbucks, like every retail food outlet, offers three sizes of drink cup. They don’t call it small, medium and large, they rename it so it sounds fancy and costs more - Tall, Vente, and Grande, but it is still small, medium and large drink cup size no matter how you slice things up.

But if you stop to think about it, a small one, a large one, and one that is exactly in the middle of those two - - is regular, predictable, rhythmic and repetitious. It is contrived. It is according to the rules of pattern and harmony.

What that means is – to camouflage yourself and your stash, you need to be aware of this, and violate that thinking. In composition, (placement of items and colors within your framework) arrangements that are odd numbered work better. Arrangements like large, large, small - or small, small, medium. Remember – odd numbers (3,5,7), and odd arrangements (L,L,s).

Rule #3 = selection of object sizes and placement relationships with one another, should be as random and irregular as the arrangement of item groups within your overall framework.

You have all seen Leonardo De Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper” But I invite you to revisit that work with a new understanding. Notice, as you view it, that each of the Apostles are in groups of three, (odd number) and that each group is slightly separated from the other groups. Notice also that the eyes of all Apostles (save Judas) are facing towards Christ. Notice also that the building in which they sit, is rendered in what is called a single point perspective, with a single vanishing point – all things converge on that vanishing point, and Christ is at the center of it. In other words, everything in that picture, from foreground to background to the stitching on the tablecloth - commands, forces, directs our eye to our Lord, Jesus Christ. You have no choice but to look upon Him. Da Vinci skillfully directed you to look where he wanted you to look, and you naturally obey.

Bearing this in mind, you can also misdirect your adversary by employing branches, sticks, or a carefully placed “line” of items, all pointing where you want him to look. See what you want him to see. You can actually direct his path, even make him literally walk right where you want him to walk, by placing well crafted “arrows” that point along your chosen path (providing you do do not make it obvious - - another rule of art is that often - less is more, so don’t forget the first three rules).

Rule #4 = item arrangements can direct the eye along a predetermined path. Knowing this, gives you the power to control that path and direct your adversaries attention to a point you chose.

As a sculptor, on occasion I will accidentally chip off a chunk of material that results in what we call “the happy accident.” It usually happens because I am working quickly. While this break in material was not designed, expected or intended, nevertheless it often yields fantastic results, and is incorporated into the work, if at all possible.

However, being human, we tend to seek order and harmony – we desire to have control – and we also tend to work that way. We tend to work meticulously and deliberately, with care and consideration towards our goal. But again, this is not how nature works. Haphazard and disorganized is natural – and the best way to achieve this “look” is not to be too careful, too controlled or to focused on what you are doing.

Rule #5 = Deliberately work with haste and speed (until you master the first 3 rules) to allow for the haphazard ‘happy accident’ that more accurately reflects a natural environment. Force yourself to do it fast until you get good at it, then you will do it fast because you are good at it.

Those professionals who make their craft look easy are those who have done it so many times, that they don’t have to stop and think about it anymore.

This deliberate under pressure, with speed technique is the first step in teaching a student to be a sculptor – because his natural tendency is to start detailing from one end to the other, rather than establish the overall “anatomy” first. Most people see only the surface, the final detail and finish, and neglect to recognize the more important underlying structure – bones, muscle, balance, etc.

The foundation upon which your details are built - is more important than the details themselves. You “see” the frosting on the cake – the surface detail - sure, but don’t forget the frosting is on the cake.

Another trick of the trade is a bit more tactical, and goes hand in hand with rule #4. Diversion and distraction.

In my profession, we often employ a technique called “the purple flower.” Art directors, having already designed and blueprinted or sketched the look of the movie on paper are - technically speaking, no longer needed on the payroll. They design it, send it to me and I build it, according to design. Simple.

However, would you want to walk away from a $5,000 per week paycheck? So, what would you need to do in order to justify your continued employment? Make changes!

Well, we know they are going to make changes. So – we give them something to change. We deliberately introduce into the project, something wrong, something noticeably out of whack. Naturally, he will see this, and demand we “fix this immediately,” to which we promptly reply “yes sir!”

He has corrected our mistake, justified himself on the payroll, and is happy, and yet, he has not messed up all our work, because we directed and controlled his “change” by giving him something to change.

(Please don’t let the cat out of the bag by telling others about this – especially if you are under a chain of command. The C.O. cannot find out what you are doing or the game is up.)

In other words, your adversary is looking for something – anything that will tip him off as to your presence. Give him what he wants. But under your control, not his.

Rule #6 = Now that you know some of the rules, (and you do need to master them first. Foundation, remember?) learn when to throw the rules out and go right back to doing what you should not do.

Remember, the odds are, your adversary does not know the rules to art, or how to control human behavior through visual stimuli – so take advantage of his ignorance - - today’s marketing and advertising agencies do this to you every day of your life.

Camouflage patterns on military uniforms have, for decades been defensive in nature. Their goal was (obviously) to break up the human form or silhouette, using colors found in nature and irregular patters. Their intent was to make the wearer “fade away” – “disappear into the surrounding foliage” or simply put - “hide.”

Today’s digital camouflage pattern is quite the opposite. It is a deliberately ‘in your face’ offensive pattern (psychologically speaking). If you look closely, it is composed of colored squares – which as we all know are shapes that are exactly equal on all four sides – i.e. regular, mathematical, and thus, easily discernable in a non-mathematical natural setting (or so one would think).

However, this new pattern is designed around the manner in which human perception functions and operates. The designers understand how the human eye perceives color, shape and line, and how the human mind translates the visual stimuli brought to it through the eye to formulate perceptions and concepts. Thus, digital camouflage assaults your brain’s natural perceptive methodology – which makes it more effective than the traditionally defensive camo pattern. (The colors are more subtle too – prone to emulate the tones on a bright sunlit day).

What happens is that your mind blends, interprets, or translates those “tiny little squares” into fuzzy random, totally innocuous natural shapes. There is no “edge” to separate “this” shape from “that” shape and thus identify it as a printed pattern – so it all blends together into something else. Next time you see the digital pattern, try squinting your eyes as you look at it, and you will see how it effects you. You fill in the blanks. You “participate” (albeit, without your conscious knowledge) in the camouflage of the digital patterns now worn by our military.

Thus, as exemplified by Edgar Allen Poe, and Sherlock Holmes – on occasion, the best possible disguise is right in front of your eyes. Naked. Exposed. Right there – which is the last place anyone would think to look. A cop, searching for an escaped convict, probably would not think to search the police station’s basement.

Remember, your opponent is expecting you to try and hide it.

Rule #7 = Sometimes, right out in the open, in plain sight is the best possible place to “hide” it, simply because they are expecting you to hide it – looking for where you hid it, and not expecting, or looking for the obvious. (This tactic can also serve well as “bait for the trap”).

There are a number of additional ‘rules of art’ but the best teacher is observation and practice. Wonder around in nature and really stop and “look” at it.

Most beginners, if I instructed them to sculpt a rock, would create something that more closely resembles a potato than a rock. This is not because they are incompetent (per se) – so much as because they “think” they know what a rock looks like, and as a result, have never actually stopped and looked at a rock. They assume they know what they know they don’t know – to their determent.

So, go out and really look at your environment – study it. Take notes as to what you see – and why it is the way it is.

Take a few minutes to read a book or two on art and learn what defines it, what categorizes “good” from “bad” art. It will help, not to mention expanding your horizons and affording you a new found “level of cultural enlightenment and appreciation.”

Note: Considering what I just said, I have to add that the Accredited Fine Arts Academia today - is a socialist/elitist, self glorifying pompous joke. I know many people with degrees in art – but I have never met one on the job site. “Those who can – do. Those who cannot - go back to school and teach.”

Be that as it may – learning something about art is not going to hurt you. In fact, it may grant you a little more insight as to how “you” function in your environment.

In the meantime, don’t necessarily buy a bunch of expensive ghillie suits and nets and stuff at Cabela’s (however ‘cool’ they might be). More often than not, your best bet is to use whatever is there, within the environment you are trying to hide in. You want to blend into “it” – so use “it.”


So, say that you want to hide your truck or your pile of MREs in such a way that you can retrieve them quickly and easily, whatever. How do you go about it?

For first time ‘artists,’ hesitation, fear of a mistake, self consciousness and insecurity must be overcome. And anyone trying something new, for the very first time, is, naturally, going to be self conscious and hesitant--afraid of messing it up.

However, if you are afraid of making a mistake – you will. And, there is nothing that cannot be changed, amended, altered or adjusted to correct a ‘mistake.’ There is no such thing as a mistake (unless you are on a deadline and getting paid). Further, very often, those perceived mistakes actually further your goals –so allow for them.

However, to break through that barrier of self hesitation and insecurity – force yourself to work fast. Reflect on your goals (camouflage) - – then reflect on the general rules of art - - then stop thinking and attack what you are doing with boldness and power, confidence and positive self-assurance. Throw yourself at it whole heartedly. Loosen up – relax. “Play” at it.

Then, when some progress has been made, pause and take a step back. Review. Ask yourself:

The answers to these questions will give you information, and it is the information you receive from your work that will dictate your next action. (It sounds a bit “Zen” but the only way I can describe this is to “let the work speak to you – and learn how to listen to it.”)

Then – attack it again, boldly, powerfully and quickly.

But, know when to stop fussing with it and put the tool down. Know when to say ‘when', and walk away – because it is all too easy to “overwork” something, and destroy the point to your efforts.

Very often, less work yields a more effective result – as we have pointed out, less “attention to detail” commands and requires the viewer to “participate” in the work – to fill in the blanks himself – and that is what will trick him into thinking it is simply a bush or a pile of rocks – so learn how to use your opponents own mind against him!

Proviso: If you are doing this in the safety and comfort of your back yard - to practice and learn the some of the skills – you may find you are having some fun. Do not let your spouse figure this out, or they will take it away from you and replace it with a “honey do” list. ‘God’s speed’ to one and all. - T.W.P.

JWR Adds: Keep in mind the classic military observation cues when you are designing camouflage:

Shape (avoid straight lines)
Shine (use flat tones)
Movement (nothing draws the human eye more quickly--after all, we are predators with binocular vision.)

Take a look at this series of photos of Swiss Army bunkers, and then this montage, and answer this: what did they do right, and what did they do wrong? Do you see the straight lines?

Now take a look at this series of photos. (If you can't mimic nature, then mimic man! Note that the "windows" are all just painted on the reinforced concrete.) Ach! Those same clever SwitzerDudes that invented the Swiss Army Knife. You have to admire them. OBTW, a stack of cordwood can hide a lot of things, including a bunker entrance.

My favorite hidden bunker door is in the second photo on this page. (It takes a while to spot the door hinges.)

For additional reading, I recommend these two books: The War Magician and False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage.

Copyright 2005-2012 James Wesley, Rawles - All Rights Reserved