Glossary of Camouflage Terms

Camouflage developed along two parallel historical lines – one with an artistic tradition and another that had the sciences as its basis. Both these schools of thought used their own descriptive terminology, often using different words to say the same thing. With the advent of the digital age, a whole new slew of acronyms, phrases and jargon has been added to the camoufleur’s dictionary. This short glossary explains some of the more common ones, but is by no means a complete and exhaustive treatment of the subject.

Background Matching

See Figure-Ground Blending

Boundary Disruption

Breaking the apparent edge of a form, so that a continuous whole is not easily discerned. Methods to achieve this may include abrupt textural or tonal changes at or near the edge, or illusory duplicate edges within the form.

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Coincident Disruption

A high difference strategy that consists of a combination of blending with dazzle. Blending colours are used that contrast strongly with one-another, and are placed randomly in non-regular shapes. The edges of a figure thus patterned will blend with some areas of the background (see Gestalt law of continuity), while contrasting with others, inhibiting the unit-forming mechanism of perception.


Hiding or obscuring something from view, or rendering it inconspicuous – the opposite of advertisement.

Concealment of the Eye

The eye is a very distinctive feature of vertebrates. Its regular round shape and concentric patterning make it stand out, in most cases, like a target. A bulls-eye, in fact. Concealing this sensitive, hard to protect organ is an important survival strategy. Some animals use dark bands or stripes that pass through the central eye region, carrying an observer’s gaze beyond the eye itself. Others hide the eye’s black pupil amongst a plethora of similar sized dark spots across the head or body. Yet another method is used by some fish – a large misdirecting eyespot near the tail, while the real eye is small and inconspicuous, often combining this stratagem with the striped or spotted camouflage described above.

Contour Obliteration

Hugh Cott’s term for Boundary Disruption

Cott, Hugh B.

Dr. Hugh Bamford Cott (1900 – 1987), was a British zoologist, an authority on both natural and military camouflage, and a scientific illustrator and photographer. As a military camouflage expert during both World Wars, he likened the functions of military camouflage with those of protective coloration in nature. He emphasized three main categories: concealment, disguise, and advertisement. Within those categories, he studied, described and presented examples of such diverse effects as (among others) obliterative shading, disruption, differential blending, high contrast, coincident disruption, concealment of the eye, contour obliteration, shadow elimination, and mimicry.

See also Wikipedia entry


Countershading, also known as Thayer’s Law, is a type of camouflage colouration in which the upper surfaces of an animal’s body are more darkly pigmented than the lower areas, giving the animal’s body a more uniform darkness and lack of depth relief because the underside of the body is shadowed. Alternatively, in many marine animals (including various species of fish, but also most toothed whales, penguins and cephalopods) this form of camouflage may work through background matching; when seen from the top, the darker dorsal area of the animal blends into the darkness of the water below, when seen from below, the lighter ventral area blends into the sunlight from the surface. Light-producing organs found in some deepwater fish provide another form of countershading. The light-producing organs often occur in bands along the fish’s undersides and are directed downward. This unique arrangement, coupled with the utter darkness of the ocean at deep depths, may provide camouflage by obliterating the fish’s silhouette when a predator views it from below.


Avoiding detection through the use of concealment. Biological organisms have evolved strategies such as cryptic colouration; appropriate habitat choice; procryptic behaviour; mimetic or stealthy movement; even sound and scent masking.

Cryptic Colouration

Rendering an object (figure) less visible by more or less matching its surface with that of the environment (ground). Many predators and prey use cryptic camouflage, from the smallest insects and sea-creatures to the biggest mammals and reptiles. Where the combination of colour, shading, texture, pattern, and even the shape and movement of such animals makes them resemble something else, like a leaf, or a twig, or something unpalatable or even dangerous, then this is called mimetic camouflage. Where there is no intention to look like something specific, but the surface of the subject figure is instead strikingly similar to, and therefore blends with, its background environment, this is referred to as coincident camouflage, because through optical illusion it will “unite what are actually discontinuous surfaces” – the figure and ground.

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Also known as Razzle Dazzle, Dazzle painting was a camouflage scheme used on ships, mainly during World War I. Credited to artist Norman Wilkinson, it consisted of a complex disruptive pattern of geometric shapes in contrasting colours, interrupting and intersecting each other. At first glance it seems like an unlikely form of camouflage, drawing attention to the ship rather than hiding it, but this technique was developed after the Allied Navy’s failure to develop effective means of disguising ships in all weather conditions. Dazzle therefore had a very specific purpose which was not to conceal the ship but to make it difficult for the enemy to estimate the target ship’s speed and heading. In doing so the idea was to disrupt the performance of the visual rangefinders used for naval artillery at the time. In other words, its purpose was confusion, rather than concealment. Colours used were generally black, white, grey, blue, green and aquamarine, and so a degree of crypsis through background matching would have occurred under the right conditions. See also coincident disruption.

Differential Blending

A form of cryptic camouflage in which some colour patches on an individual stand out from the background, while other patches blend in. If a disruptive pattern is employed, coincident disruption will be achieved.


See Mimicry


Fracturing the subject figure’s outline by using varied patterns of spots and/or stripes, irregular angles and contrasting tones (which exploit the edge detection algorithms that the brain uses in visual processing), making the shape, size and orientation of the subject difficult to determine, and creating ‘false edges’ across the surface of the figure, rather than at its periphery. Flatfish, for example, are marked in such a way that their skin patterns do not reveal their contour when they rest on the ocean bottom. Hugh Cott described it as seeming “to break up what is really a continuous surface”. Pure disruption is exhibited in nature by the Zebra, for example, and was the reasoning behind wartime Dazzle paint schemes for ships. More commonly, creatures may use disruption alongside crypsis – the tiger and leopard, for instance. The term for this is coincident disruption.


The attempt by a computer program to approximate a colour from a mixture of other colors when the required colour is not available. For example, dithering occurs when a colour is specified in a graphic design application that is not amongst those in the current colour palette. The program will then attempt to replace the requested colour with an approximation composed of two or more other colours it can produce. The result may or may not be acceptable to the graphic designer. It may also appear somewhat grainy since it’s composed of different pixel intensities, rather than a single intensity over the coloured space.

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Embedded Figure

In Gestalt cognitive psychology, shapes that are encrypted by coincident disruption are known as embedded figures.

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Figure-Ground Blending

Figure-Ground Blending (background matching) is probably the most common type of concealment. The animal (figure) and its surroundings (ground) are so close in colour that they appear as one. Fish eggs, for example, often have very little pigmentation and appear transparent against the blue of the open sea. Polar bears appear to merge into the ice and snow of the Arctic, and grasshoppers blend perfectly with green grasses and shrubs.

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General Resemblance

Another way of saying cryptic colouration. Hugh Cott describes it thus: “When an animal, in consequence of its colouring, produces the same effect as its environment, but the conditions do not require any special adaptation of shape and outline. General resemblance is especially common among the animals inhabiting some uniformly coloured expanse of the earth’s surface, such as an ocean or a desert. In the former, animals of all shapes are frequently protected by their transparent blue colour; on the latter, equally diverse forms are defended by their sandy appearance. The effect of a uniform appearance may be produced by a combination of tints in startling contrast”. Examples include leopards, guinea fowl, etc. See also special resemblance

Gestalt Psychology

An early Twentieth Century movement in experimental cognitive psychology, a branch of which concentrated on visual perception. The Gestalt approach emphasises that we perceive objects as well-organized, simple patterns rather than separate component parts. This principle is known as the law of prägnanz (German for conciseness). We see things as a whole, rather than as individual bits. The focal point of Gestalt theory is the idea of “grouping,” or how our minds make sense of what our eyes see by applying certain assumptive short-cuts. Several principles have been classified (the so-called “gestalt laws”), which include:

  • Law of Closure — The mind may experience elements it does not perceive through sensation, in order to complete a regular figure (i.e., to increase regularity).
  • Law of Similarity — The mind groups similar elements into collective entities or totalities. This similarity might depend on relationships of form, color, size, or brightness.
  • Law of Proximity — Spatial or temporal proximity of elements may induce the mind to perceive a collective or totality.
  • Law of Symmetry — Symmetrical images are perceived collectively, even in spite of distance.
  • Law of Continuity — The mind continues visual, auditory, and kinetic patterns.
  • Law of Common Fate — Elements with the same moving direction are perceived as a collective or unit.

See also Wikipedia entry

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High Contrast

See Maximum Disruptive Contrast

High Difference

Another term for High Contrast or Maximum Disruptive Contrast

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Maximum Disruptive Contrast

Adjacent pattern elements that are highly contrasting in tone, causing the illusion of false edges within the body of a figure, and making the object difficult for an observer to perceive as a whole.

Mimetic Resemblance

The resemblance of an organism to a plant or inanimate object in its environment, for concealment. Not to be confused with Mimicry


The resemblance of one organism to another, in order to deceive predators or prey. In Batesian mimicry, a comparatively harmless organism mimics a dangerous species. In Müllerian mimicry, all species in a group look similar as a warning to predators that they are harmful. In aggressive mimicry, a predatory species imitates a benign species so that it can approach its prey without alarming it, or a parasitic species mimics its host. See Mimetic Resemblance


A form of deception in which the attention of the viewer is focused on one thing, in order to distract attention from another. One form of deception in nature is automimicry (where one, often non-critical, part of the body resembles another vulnerable part). In fish and insects such a device might foil a predator’s strike to the head by causing it to attack an eyespot on the tail or wings.

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Obliterative Shading

See Countershading

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Penrose, Sir Roland

Sir Roland Algernon Penrose (1900 – 1984) was an English artist, historian and poet. He was a major promoter and collector of modern art and an associate of the Surrealists in the United Kingdom. After the outbreak of World War II he taught Military Camouflage at the Home Guard training centre at Osterley Park and wrote the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage. This led to Penrose being commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Engineering Corps and working as Senior Lecturer at the Eastern Command Camouflage School in Norwich. He was an early staff member of the Camouflage Development and Training Centre located at Farnham Castle in Surrey.

See also Wikipedia entry:

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Shadow Elimination

The use of ground or screening devices to conceal shadows of men or objects. Banked up earth or sloping fabric awnings were devices used during wartime to hide the distinctive shadows created by the sides of buildings and static vehicles. In nature, some land animals (for example: hares or some lizards) will flatten themselves against a surface when exposed. This masks the shaded underside of the creature, covers surface shadow directly underneath it and creates a continuity (see Gestalt law of continuity) between the surface and the flanks of the animal.

Special Resemblance

Hugh Cott coined this term to refer to mimetic camouflage and behaviour. “Special resemblance is far commoner than general resemblance, and is the form which is usually met with on the diversified surface of the earth, on the shores, and in shallow water, as well as on the floating masses of algae on the surface of the ocean, such as the Sargasso Sea. In these environments the cryptic colouring of animals is usually aided by special modifications of shape, and by the instinct which leads them to assume particular attitudes. Complete stillness and the assumption of a certain attitude play an essential part in general resemblance on land; but in special resemblance the attitude is often highly specialised, and perhaps more important than any other element is the complex method by which concealment is effected. In special resemblance the combination of colouring, shape and attitude is such as to produce a more or less exact resemblance to some one of the objects in the environment, such as a leaf or twig, a patch of lichen, or flake of bark. In all cases the resemblance is to some object which is of no interest to the enemy or prey respectively. The animal is not hidden from view by becoming indistinguishable from its background, as in the cases of general resemblance, but it is mistaken for some well-known object”.

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Thayer, Abbott H.

Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849 – 1921) is sometimes referred to as the “father of camouflage.” This is not entirely unreasonable, because, while he did not invent camouflage, he was undoubtedly one of the first to conduct extensive research on and to write about certain aspects of protective colouration in nature. In particular, beginning in 1892, he wrote about the function of countershading in nature, by which forms appear less round and less solid through inverted shading, by which he accounted for the white undersides of animals. This finding is widely accepted today, and is sometimes now called Thayer’s Law. He first became involved in military camouflage in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, when he and his friend, American artist George de Forest Brush, proposed the use of protective colouration on American ships, using countershading. While the war did not last long enough for anything to come of this, the two artists did obtain a patent for their idea in 1902, titled “Process of Treating the Outsides of Ships, etc., for Making Them Less Visible” (U.S. Patent No. 715,013), in which their method is described as having been modeled on the colouration of a seagull. Thayer and Brush’s experiments in camouflage continued into World War I, both collaboratively and separately. Early in that war, for example, Brush developed a transparent airplane, while Thayer continued his interest in disruptive or high-difference camouflage, which was not unlike what British ship camouflage designer Norman Wilkinson would call dazzle camouflage (a term that may have been inspired by Thayer’s writings, which referred to disruptive patterns in nature as “razzle dazzle”.)

Thayer’s Law

The observation, first noted by Abbot H Thayer, that three-dimensional forms appear less round and less solid through inverted shading (countershading), by which he accounted for the paler undersides of animals.

© Copyright Hyde Definition 2007-8. All rights reserved.


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