The presence of a ship could be determined by various methods. However indistinct its shape, the smoke from its smokestacks was readily seen (which prompted the adoption of smokeless fuel), and the sounds of its engines could also be heard (from miles away) by underwater listening devices.
Unlike land-based camouflage, it was asserted, the best protection for a ship was not to make it hard to see, but to make it hard to hit.
And the most reliable way to accomplish that, according to Norman Wilkinson (the artist commonly credited with originating the use of “dazzle-painting”), was “…to paint a ship not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading.”
Based on research by
Roy R. Behrens, as published in FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002); CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research of Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009); and SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (2012)
The historic role of artists, designers and architects in
the development of ship camouflage during World War I
CAMOUFLAGE ARTISTS (called camoufleurs) make it an arduous challenge to see a shape against a background (called blending or background matching), or to distinguish one kind of thing from another (called mimicry). Less familiar but potentially far more effective is high difference camouflage or figure disruption in which a single thing appears to be a discontinuous hodgepodge (or mishmash) of unrelated components.
Blending, mimicry, and disruption—as well as disruption and blending combined, called coincident disruption—are found in abundance in the natural world. Such tactics have also been widely employed throughout human history.
The term dazzle-painting was adopted by the British in 1917, in reference to an innovative use of disruption patterns. It was intended initially for naval camouflage, and specifically as a way to protect merchant ships from highly effective torpedo attacks by German submarines (called U-boats). Its goal was not to blend a ship with its background, since viewing conditions at sea are notoriously variable, and there is no simplistic, reliable match between ships and their ocean surroundings.
Harold Van Schmidt Cover illustration, Sunset: The Pacific Monthly, December 1918. In dazzle camouflage, disruptive shapes and colors were applied to the surfaces of merchant ships, for the purpose of making it harder for a submarine gunner to determine their distance, speed and direction. The goal was confusion, not concealment.