Artful Musings: Plaid

Endless in variety and visually striking, plaid as a decorative motif is found in many paintings. We see 17th century portraits of Scottish Lords donned in their clan's tartans and ladies in plaid scarves. Because plaid has endured as a motif for hundreds of years, it shows up in every art era and every culture in painting's history.

Merriam-Webster dictionary's definition of plaid:

1. a rectangular length of tartan worn over the left shoulder as part of the Scottish national costume;

2. a) a twilled woolen fabric with a tartan pattern, b) a fabric with a pattern of tartan or an imitation of tartan;

3. a pattern of unevenly spaced repeated stripes crossing at right angles.

Plaid Dress

Katie Wilson

It's interesting to note how different artists tackle the painting of plaid.

Plaid usually appears in clothing and garments, draping a figure. Correctly rendered plaid, when done beautifully, enhances the drape of the fabric and helps move the eye. Not easy, since all the lines and colors are intersecting and overlaying one another in shadow and in highlight. It can get complicated. But see how it can be beautifully simplified as in Plaid Dress by Katie Wilson.

In this modernist portrait of a female figure in a ruffled dress, the plaid is rendered flatly. Perspective is pretty much ignored. There's been no attempt to foreshorten the horizontal and vertical stripes making up the print. The wonderful result is this block of attractive plaid, boldly claiming a full third of the canvas.

Artist Unknown

This tablet-created figure with a smeared face illustrates how easily plaid can be represented in art.

It's plain to see how the pattern was created – with eighteen swipes of a finger across a touchscreen.

Simply stated plaid.

Lord Mungo Murray


John Michael Wright

This portrait of a noble Scotsman in hunter's dress is a dazzler. The exquisite tartan he wears breaks into the light and recedes into shadow. Lighting is dramatic. The plaid appears and disappears in folds and layers. The pattern and light are in such balance and the perspective, as the tartan drapes off his shoulder, is so believable. The weave of the wool is practically touchable.

From the plume in his hat to his silk garters, all of the textiles that Lord Mungo Murray wears are rich and luxurious. But it is the tartan that is most proudly worn.

More Remarkable Paintings Featuring Plaid

Portrait of Nina Hammett, 2015

Roger Fry

Why do I love looking at this portrait of Nina Hammett? Because of the plaid. And because of those pillows. And because of the beautiful upholstery on the chair. And because of her laced up boots.

But, mostly, because of the plaid.

Ben at Ten Years

Shelly Burke

Winner best painting at Uxbridge

Here we have the plaid flannel shirt, free and loose.

Boy in Plaid

Unknown Artist

Folk Art

This is a carefully rendered plaid. The treatment of the folds is quite naive and stylized, the perspective a bit flattened.

This little boy is charming in his striking plaid jumper.

Two Men in Plaid

Rick Timmons


An odd use of plaid in Rick Timmons surrealistic image.

Little Woman


Dianne Davis

This little woman intrigues me. A few years ago, I found the old photo from which I painted this portrait and I've kept it and could never throw it away.

By her dress, it's obvious she isn't rich. It is plain to the point of austere. She has taken care to look her very best for her studio portrait. Her hair has been set into banana curls. The modest plaid dress she chose to wear is most likely her best one. Its only adornments are a lace collar and very simple neckerchief.

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