Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures
by Henry Rankin Poore
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

[Light and Shade—Geo. Inness]

Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures

A Handbook for Students and Lovers of Art By H. R. Poore

New York and London G. P. Putnam's Sons


It is with sincere pleasure that I dedicate this book to my first teacher, Peter Moran, as an acknowledgment to the interest he inspired in this important subject


This book has been prepared because, although the student has been abundantly supplied with aids to decorative art, there is little within his reach concerning pictorial composition.

I have added thereto hints on the critical judgment of pictures with the hope of simplifying to the many the means of knowing pictures, prompted by the recollection of the topsyturviness of this question as it confronted my own mind a score of years ago. I was then apt to strain at a Corot hoping to discover in the employment of some unusual color or method the secret of its worth, and to think of the old masters as a different order of beings from the rest of mankind.

Let me trust that, to a degree at least, these pages may prove iconoclastic, shattering the images created of superstitious reverence and allowing, in their stead, the result in art from whatever source to be substituted as something quite as worthy of this same homage.

The author acknowledges the courtesies of the publishers of Scribners, The Century and Munsey's magazines, D. Appleton, Manzi, Joyant & Co., and of the artists giving consent to the use of their pictures for this book. Acknowledgment is also made to F. A. Beardsley, H. K. Freeman and L. Lord, for sketches contributed thereto.

Henry Rankin Poore Orange, N. J., Feb. 1, 1903.


The revision which the text of this book has undergone has clarified certain parts of it and simplified the original argument by a complete sequence of page references and an index. The appendix reduces the contents to a working formula with the purpose of rendering practical the suggestions of the text.

In its present form it seeks to meet the requirements of the student who desires to proceed from the principles of formal and decorative composition into the range of pictorial construction.

H. R. P.


After twelve years Pictorial Composition continues with a steady demand. Through the English house it has become "a standard" in the British Isles and finds a market in India and Australia.

At the request of a few artists of Holland it has been translated and will shortly be issued in Dutch.




Light and Shade—Geo. Inness Fundamental Forms of Construction Why Art Without Composition is Crippled: The Madonna of the Veil—Raphael; The Last Judgement—Michael Angelo; Birth of the Virgin Mary—Durer; The Annunciation—Botticelli; In Central Park; The Inn—Teniers Three Ideas in Pictorial Balance Pines in Winter (Unbalance); The Connoisseurs—Fortuny (Balance of the Steelyards) Portrait of Sara Bernhardt—Clairin (Balance Across the Natrual Axis) Lady with Muff—Photo A. Hewitt (Steelyard in Perspective) Lion in the Desert—Gerome (Balance of Isolated Measures); Salute to the Wounded—Detaille (Balance of Equal Measures) Indian and Horse—Photo A.C. Bode (Oppposition of Light and Dark Measures); The Cabaret—L. L'hermitte (Opposition Plus Transition) Along the Shore—Photo by George Butler (Transitional line); Pathless—Photo by A. Horsely Hinton (Transitional Line) Hillside (Graded Light Upon Surfaces; Cloud Shadows); River Fog (Light Graded by Atmospheric Density); The Chant (Gradation through Values of Separated Objects) The View-Metre Three Pictures Found with the View-Metre View Taken with a Wide Angle Lens Photography Nearing the Pictorial The Path of the Surf—Photo (Triangles Occuring in the leading line); The Shepherdess—Millet (Composition Exhibiting a Double Exit) Circular Observation—The Principle; The Slaying of the Unpropitious Messengers (Triangular Composition—Circular Observation) Huntsman and Hounds (Triangle with Circular Attraction); Portrait of Van der Geest—Van Dyck (A sphere within a Circle) Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne—Tintoretto (Circle and Radius); Endymion—Watts (The Circle—Vertical Plane) The Fight Over the Body of Patroclus—Weirls; 1807—Meissonier; Ville d'Avray—Corot; The Circle in Perspective The Hermit—Gerard Dow (Rectangle in Circle); The Forge of Vulcan—Boucher (Circular Observation by Suppression of Sides and Corners) Orpheus and Eurydice—Corot (Figures outside the natural line of the picture's composition); The Holy Family—Andrea del Sarto (The circle overbalanced) The Herder—Jaque Alone—Jacques Israels (Constructive Synthesis upon the Vertical); The Dance—Carpeaux (The Cross Within the Circle) Sketches from Landscapes by Henry Ranger; Parity of Horizonatals and Verticals; Crossings of Horizontals by Spot Diversion Sketch from the Book of Truth—Claude Lorrain (Rectangle Unbalanced); The Beautiful Gate—Raphael (Verticals Destroying Pictorial Unity) Mother and Child—Orchardson (Horizontals opposed or Covered); Stream in Winter—W. E. Schofield (Verticals and Horizontals vs. Diagonal) Hogarth's Line of Beauty Aesthetics of Line; The Altar; Roman Invasion—F. Lamayer (Vertical line in action; dignified, measured, ponderous); The Flock—P. Moran (The horizontal, typifying quietude, repose, calm, solemnity); The curved line: variety, movement; Man with Stone—V. Spitzer (Transitional Line, Cohesion); The Dance—Rubens (The ellipse: line of continuity and unity); Swallows—From the Strand (The diagonal: line of action; speed) Aesthetics of Line, Continued, Where Line is the motive and Decoration is the Impulse; Winter Landscape—After Photograph (Line of grace, variety, facile sequence); Line Versus Space (The same impulse with angular energy, The line more attractive than the plane); Reconciliation—Glackens (Composition governed by the decorative exterior line); December—After Photograph (Radial lines with strong focalization) Unity and its Lack; The Lovers—Gussow; The Poulterers—Wallander Return of Royal Hunting Party—Isabey; The Night Watch—Rembrandt Departure for the Chase—Cuyp (Background Compromising Original Structure); Repose of the Reapers—L. L'hermite (The Curvilinear Line) The Decorative and Pictorial Group; Allegory of Spring—Botticelli (Separated concepts expressing separate ideas); Dutch Fisher Folk—F. V. S. (Separated concepts of one idea); The Cossack's Reply—Repin (Unity through a cumulative idea) Fundamental Forms of Chiaroscuro; Whistler's Portrait of his Mother; Moorland—E. Yon; Charcoal Study—Millet; The Arbor—Ferrier Fundamental Forms of Chiaroscuro, Continued; Landscape—Geo. Inness; The Kitchen—Whistler; St. Angela—Robt. Reid; An Annam Tiger—Surrand; The Shrine—Orchardson; Monastic Life—F. V. DuMond A Reversible Effect of Light and Shade (The Same Subject Vertically and Horizontally Presented) Spots and Masses; Note-book sketches from Rubens, Velasquez, Claude Lorrain and Murillo Death of Caesar—Gerome; The Travel of the Soul—After Howard Pyle Bishop Potter Decorative Evolving the Pictorial; The North River—Prendergast; An Intrusion—Bull; Landscape Arrangement—Guerin Stable Interior—A. Mauve (A simple picture containing all the principles of composition); Her Last Moorings—From a Photograph Alice—W.M. Chase (Verticals Diverted); Lady Archibald Campbell—Whistler (Verticals Obliterated); The Crucifixion—Amie Morot (Verticals Opposed)


"The painter is a compound of a poet and a man of science."


"It is working within limits that the artist reveals himself."



This volume is addressed to three classes of readers; to the layman, to the amateur photographer, and to the professional artist. To the latter it speaks more in the temper of the studio discussion than in the spirit didactic. But, emboldened by the friendliness the profession always exhibits toward any serious word in art, the writer is moved to believe that the matters herein discussed may be found worthy of the artist's attention—perhaps of his question. For that reason the tone here and there is argumentative.

The question of balance has never been reduced to a theory or stated as a set of principles which could be sustained by anything more than example, which, as a working basis must require reconstruction with every change of subject. Other forms of construction have been sifted down in a search for the governing principle,—a substitution for the "rule and example."

To the student and the amateur, therefore, it must be said this is not a "how-to-do" book. The number of these is legion, especially in painting, known to all students, wherein the matter is didactic and usually set forth with little or no argument. Such volumes are published because of the great demand and are demanded because the student, in his haste, will not stop for principles, and think it out. He will have a rule for each case; and when his direct question has been answered with a principle, he still inquires, "Well, what shall I do here?"

Why preach the golden rule of harmony as an abstraction, when inharmony is the concrete sin to be destroyed. We reach the former by elimination. Whatever commandments this book contains, therefore, are the shalt nots.

As the problems to the maker of pictures by photography are the same as those of the painter and the especial ambition of the former's art is to be painter-like, separations have been thought unnecessary in the address of the text. It is the best wish of the author that photography, following painting in her essential principles as she does, may prove herself a well met companion along art's highway,—seekers together, at arm's length, and in defined limits, of the same goal.

The mention of artists' names has been limited, and a liberal allusion to many works avoided because to multiply them is both confusing and unnecessary.

To the art lover this book may be found of interest as containing the reasons in picture composition, and through them an aid to critical judgment. We adapt our education from quaint and curious sources. It is the apt correlation of the arts which accounts for the acknowledgment by an English story writer that she got her style from Ruskin's "Principles of Drawing"; and of a landscape painter that to sculpture he owed his discernment of the forest secrets, by daily observing the long lines of statues in the corridor of the Royal Academy; or by the composer of pictures to the composer of music; or by the preacher that suggestions to discourse had come to him through the pictorial processes of the painter.


The poet-philosopher Emerson declared that he studied geology that he might better write poetry.

For a moment the two elements of the proposition stand aghast and defiant; but only for a moment. The poet, who from the top looks down upon the whole horizon of things can never use the tone of authority if his gaze be a surface one. He must know things in their depth in order that the glance may be sufficient.

The poet leaves his geology and botany, his grammar and rhetoric on the shelf when he makes his word picture. After he has expressed his thought however he may have occasion to call on the books of science, the grammar and rhetoric and these may very seriously interfere with the spontaneous product. So do the sentries posted on the boundary of the painter's art protect it from the liberties taken in the name of originality.

"The progressive element in our art," says the author of "The Law of Progress in Art," "is the scientific element. . . . Artists will not be any more famous for being scientific, but they are compelled to become scientific because they have embraced a profession which includes science. What I desire to enforce is the great truth that within the art of painting there exists, flourishes and advances a noble and glorious science which is essential and progressive."

"Any one who can learn to write can learn to draw;" and every one who can learn to draw should learn to compose pictures. That all do not is in evidence in the work of the many accomplished draughtsmen who have delineated their ideas on canvas and paper from the time of the earliest masters to the present day, wherein the ability to produce the details of form is manifest in all parts of the work, but in the combination of those parts the first intention of their presence has lost force.

Composition is the science of combination, and the art of the world has progressed as do the processes of the kindergarten. Artists first received form; then color; the materials, then the synthesis of the two. Notable examples of the world's great compositions may be pointed to in the work of the Renaissance painters, and such examples will be cited; but the major portion of the art by which these exceptions were surrounded offers the same proportion of good to bad as the inverse ratio would to-day.

Without turning to serious argument at this point, a superficial one, which will appeal to most art tourists, whether professional or lay, is found in the relief experienced in passing from the galleries of the old to those of the new art in Europe, in that one finds repose and experiences a relief of mental tension, discovering with the latter the balance of line, of mass and of color, and that general simplicity so necessary to harmony, which suggests that the weakness of the older art lay in the last of the three essentials of painting; form, color and composition. The low-toned harmonies of time-mellowed color we would be loath to exchange for aught else, except for that element of disturbance so vague and so difficult of definition, namely, lack of composition.

[Fundamental Forms of Construction]

In the single case of portrait composition of two figures (more difficult than of one, three or more) it is worthy of note how far beyond the older are the later masters; or in the case of the grouping of landscape elements, or in the arrangement of figures or animals in landscape, how a finer sense in such arrangement has come to art. Masterful composition of many figures however has never been surpassed in certain examples of Michael Angelo, Rubens, Corregio and the great Venetians, yet while we laud the successes of these men we should not forget their lapses nor the errors in composition of their contemporaries.

Those readers who have been brought up in the creed and catechism of the old masters, and swallowed them whole, with no questions, I beg will lay aside traditional prejudice, and regarding every work with reference to neither name nor date, challenge it only with the countersign "good composition." This will require an unsentimental view, which need not and should not be an unsympathetic one, but which would bare the subject of that which overzealous devotion has bestowed upon it, a compound accumulation of centuries.

The most serious work yet written on composition, Burnet's "Light and Shade," was penned at a time when the influence of old masters held undisputed sway. The thought of that day in syllogism would run as follows: The work of the Old Masters in its composition is beyond reproach. Botticelli, Raphael, Paul Potter, Wouvermans, Cuyp, Domenichino, Duerer, Teniers et al., are Old Masters. Therefore, we accept their works as models of good composition, to be followed for all ages. And under such a creed a work valuable from many points of view has been crippled by its free use of models, which in some cases compromise the arguments of the author, and in others, if used by artists of the present day, would only serve to administer a rebuke to their simple trust, in that practical manner known to juries, hanging committees and publishers.

[Why Art Without Composition is Crippled: The Madonna of the Veil—Raphael; The Last Judgement—Michael Angelo; Birth of the Virgin Mary—Durer; The Annunciation—Botticelli; In Central Park; The Inn—Teniers]

The slight advance made in the field of painting during the past three centuries has come through this channel, and strange would it seem if the striving of this long period should show no improvement in any direction.

Composition is the mortar of the wall, as drawing and color are its rocks of defence. Without it the stones are of little value, and are but separate integrals having no unity. If the reader agrees with this, then he agrees to throw out of the category of the picture all pictorial representations which show no composition. This classification eliminates most of the illustrations of scientific work; such illustrations as aim only at facts of incident, space or topography, photographic reproductions of groups wherein each individual is shown to be quite as important as every other, and which, therefore, become a collection of separate pictures, and such illustrations as are frequently met with in the daily papers, where opportunities for picture-making have been diverted to show where the victim fell, and where the murderer escaped, or where the man drowned—usually designated by a star. These are not pictures, but perspective maps to locate events. Besides these, in the field of painting, are to be found now and then products of an artist's skill which, though interesting in technique and color, give little pleasure to a well-balanced mind, destitute as they are of the simple principles which govern the universe of matter. Take from nature the principles of balance, and you deprive it of harmony; take from it harmony and you have chaos.

A picture may have as its component parts a man, a horse, a tree, a fence, a road and a mountain; but these thrown together upon canvas do not make a picture; and not, indeed, until they have been arranged or composed.

The argument, therefore, is that without composition, there can be no picture; that the composition of pictorial units into a whole is the picture.

Simple as its principles are, it is amazing, one might almost say amusing, to note how easily they eluded many artists of the earlier periods, whose work technically is valuable, and how the new school of Impressionism or Naturalism has assumed their non-importance. That all Impressionists do not agree with the following is evidenced by the good that comes to us with their mark,—"Opposed to the miserable law of composition, symmetry, balance, arrangement of parts, filling of space, as though Nature herself does not do that ten thousand times better in her own pretty way." The assertion that composition is a part of Nature's law, that it is done by her and well done we are glad to hear in the same breath of invective that seeks to annihilate it. When, under this curse we take from our picture one by one the elements on which it is builded, the result we would be able to present without offence to the author of "Naturalistic Painting," Mr. Francis Bate.

"The artist," says Mr. Whistler, "is born to pick, and choose, and group with science these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes and forms his chords until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony. To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken, as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano. That Nature is always right is an assertion artistically, as untrue as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right to such an extent, even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong; that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all."

Between the life class, with its model standing in academic pose and the pictured scene in which the model becomes a factor in the expression of an idea, there is a great gulf fixed. The precept of the ateliers is paint the figure; if you can do that, you can paint anything.

Influenced by this half truth many a student, with years of patient life school training behind him, has sought to enter the picture-making stage with a single step. He then discovers that what he had learned to do cleverly by means of routine practice, was in reality the easiest thing to do in the manufacture of a picture, and that sterner difficulties awaited him in his settlement of the figure into its surroundings—background and foreground.(1)

Many portrait painters assert that it is the setting of the subject which gives them the most trouble. The portraitist deals with but a single figure, yet this, in combination with its scanty support, provokes this well-known comment.

The lay community cannot understand this. It seems illogical. It can only be comprehended by him who paints.

The figure is tangible and represents the known. The background is a space opened into the unknown, a place for the expressions of fancy. It is the tone quality accompanying the song, the subject's reliance for balance and contrast. An inquiry into the statement that the accessories of the subject demand a higher degree of artistic skill than the painting of the subject itself, and that on these accessories depend the carrying power of the subject, leads directly to the principles of composition.

"It must of necessity be," says Sir Joshua Reynolds, "that even works of genius, like every other effect, as they must have their cause, must also have their rules; it cannot be by chance that excellencies are produced with any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the nature of chance; but the rules by which men of extraordinary parts, and such as are called men of genius, work, are either such as they discover by their own peculiar observations, or of such a nice texture as not easily to admit being expressed in words, especially as artists are not very frequently skillful in that mode of communicating ideas. Unsubstantial, however, as these rules may seem, and difficult as it may be to convey them in writing, they are still seen and felt in the mind of the artist; and he works from them with as much certainty as if they were embodied upon paper. It is true these refined principles cannot always be made palpable, as the more gross rules of art; yet it does not follow but that the mind may be put in such a train that it still perceives by a kind of scientific sense that propriety which words, particularly words of impractical writers, such as we are, can but very feebly suggest."

Science has to do wholly with truth, Art with both truth and beauty; but in arranging a precedence she puts beauty first.

Our regard for the science of composition is acknowledged when, after having enjoyed the painter's work from the art side alone, the science of its structure begins to appear. Instead of the concealment of art by art it is the suppression of the science end of art that takes our cunning.

"The picture which looks most like nature to the uninitiated," says a clever writer, "will probably show the most attention to the rules of the artist."

Ten years ago the writer took part in an after-dinner discussion at the American Art Association of Paris over the expression "the rules of composition." A number of artists joined in the debate, all giving their opinion without premeditation. Some maintained that the principles of composition were nothing more than aesthetic taste and judgment, applied by a painter of experience.

Others, with less beggary of the question, affirmed that the principles were negative rather than positive. They warned the artist rather than instructed him; and, if rules were to follow principles, they were rules concerning what should not be done. The epitome of the debate was that composition was like salt, in the definition of the small boy, who declared that salt is what makes things taste bad when you don't put any on.

[Three Ideas in Pictorial Balance]

The Classic Scales—equal weights on even arms, the controlling idea of decorative composition.

A later notion of balance—the Steelyard, a small weight on the long arm of the fulcrum, admitting great range in the placement of balancing measures.

The Scales or Steelyard in perspective, developing the notion of balance through the depth of a picture discoverable over a fulcrum or neutral space.


Of all pictorial principles none compares in importance with Unity or Balance.

"Why all this intense striving, this struggle to a finish," said George Inness, as, at the end of a long day, he flung himself exhausted upon his lounge, "but an effort to obtain unity, unity."

The observer of an artist at work will notice that he usually stands at his easel and views his picture at varied distances, that he looks at it over his shoulder, that he reverses it in a mirror, that he turns it upside down at times, that he develops it with dots or spots of color here and there, points of accent carefully placed and oft-times changed.

What is the meaning of this thoughtful weighing of parts in the slowly-growing mosaic, but that he labors under the restraint of a law which he feels compelled to obey and the breaking of which would cause anguish to his esthetic sense. The law under which his striving proceeds is the fundamental one of balance, and the critical artist obeys it whether he be the maker of vignettes for a newspaper, or the painter who declares for color only, or the man who tries hard to produce naivete by discarding composition. The test to which the sensitive eye subjects every picture from whatsoever creed or camp it comes is balance or equipoise, judgment being rendered without thought of the law. After the picture has been left as finished, why does an artist often feel impelled to create an accent on this side or weaken an obtrusive one on the other side of his canvas if not working under a law of balance?

Let any picture be taken which has lived long enough before the public to be considered good by every one; or take a dozen or more such and add others by artists who declare against composition and yet have produced good pictures; subject all these to the following simple test: Find the actual centre of the picture and pass a vertical and horizontal line through it. The vertical division is the more important, as the natural balance is on the lateral sides of a central support. It will be found that the actual centre of the canvas is also the actual pivot or centre of the picture, and around such a point the various components group themselves, pulling and hauling and warring in their claim for attention, the satisfactory picture showing as much design of balance on one side of the centre as the other, and the picture complete in balance displaying this equipoise above and below the horizontal line.

Now, in order that what seems at first glance an exclusive statement may be understood, the reader should realize that every item of a picture has a certain positive power, as though each object were a magnet of given potency. Each has attraction for the eye, therefore each, while obtaining attention for itself, establishes proportional detraction for every other part. On the principle of the steelyard, the farther from the centre and more isolated an object is, the greater its weight or attraction. Therefore, in the balance of a picture it will be found that a very important object placed but a short distance from the centre may be balanced by a very small object on the other side of the centre and further removed from it. The whole of the pictorial interest may be on one side of a picture and the other side be practically useless as far as picturesqueness or story-telling opportunity is concerned, but which finds its reason for existing in the balance, and that alone.

In the emptiness of the opposing half such a picture, when completely in balance, will have some bit of detail or accent which the eye in its circular, symmetrical inspection will catch, unconsciously, and weave into its calculation of balance; or if not an object or accent or line of attraction, then some technical quality, or spiritual quality, such, for example, as a strong feeling of gloom, or depth for penetration, light or dark, a place in fact, for the eye to dwell upon as an important part in connection with the subject proper, and recognized as such.

But, the querist demands, if all the subject is on one side of the centre and the other side depends for its existence on a balancing space or accent only, why not cut it off? Do so. Then you will have the entire subject in one-half the space to be sure, but its harmony or balance will depend on the equipoise when pivoted in the new centre.


Let the reader make the test upon the "Connoisseurs" and cut away everything on the right beyond a line through the farther support of the mantel. This will place the statue in the exact centre. In this shape the picture composes well. In re-adding this space however the centre is shifted leaving the statue and two figures hanging to one side but close to the pivot and demanding more balance in this added side. Now the space alone, with very little in it, has weight enough, and just here the over-scientific enthusiast might err; but the artist in this case from two other considerations has here placed a figure. It opposes its vertical to the horizontal of the table, and catches and turns the line of the shadow on the wall into the line of the rug. An extended search in pictorial art gives warrant for a rule, upon this principle, namely: where the subject is on one side of the centre it must exist close to the centre, or, in that degree in which it departs from the centre, show positive anchorage to the other side.

[Pines in Winter (Unbalance); The Connoisseurs—Fortuny (Balance of the Steelyards)]

It is not maintained that every good picture can show this complete balance; but the claim is made that the striving on the part of its designer has been in the direction of this balance, and that, had it been secured, the picture would have been that much better. Let this simple test be applied by elimination of overweighted parts or addition of items where needed, on this principle, and it will be found that the composition will always improve. As a necessary caution it should be observed that the small balancing weight of the steelyard should not become a point causing divided interest.

It is easy to recognize a good composition; to tell why it is good may be difficult; to tell how it could be made better is what the art worker desires to know. Let the student when in doubt weight out his picture in the balances mindful that the principle of the steelyards covers the items in the depth as well as across the breadth of the picture.


Every picture is a collection of units or items.

Every unit has a given value.

The value of a unit depends on its attraction; its attraction varies as to its placement.

An isolated unit near the edge has frequently more attraction than at the centre.

Every part of the picture space has some attraction.

Space having no detail may possess attraction by gradation and by association.

A unit of attraction in an otherwise empty space has more weight through isolation than the same when placed with other units.

A black unit on white or a white on black has more attraction than the same on gray.

The value of a black or white unit is proportioned to the size of space contrasting with it.

A unit in the foreground may have less weight than a like one in the distance.

Two or more associated units may be reckoned as one and their united centre is the point on which they balance with others.

There is balance of Line,(2) of Mass,(3) of Light and Dark,(4) of Measure,(5) which is secured upon a scale of attraction which each possesses. Many pictures exhibit these in combination.

The "Lion of the Desert," by Gerome shows three isolated spots and one line of attraction. The trend of vision on leaving the lion is to the extreme right and thence back along the pathway of the dark distance into the picture to the group of trees. Across this is an oppositional balance from the bushes of the foreground to the mountains of the extreme distance. The only line in the composition, better seen in the painting than in the reproduction, counts much in the balance over the centre. The placement of the important item or subject, has little to do with the balance scheme of a picture. This is the starting point, and balance is a consideration beyond this.

In every composition the eye should cross the central division at least once. This initiates equipoise, for in the survey of a picture the eye naturally shifts from the centre of interest, which may be on one side, to the other side of the canvas. If there be something there to receive it, the balance it seeks is gratified. If it finds nothing, the artist must create something, with the conclusion that some element of the picture was lacking.

In the snow-scene the eye is attracted from the pine-trees to the houses on the left and rests there, no attraction having been created to move it to the other half of the picture.

What is known as divided interest in a picture is nothing more than the doubt established by a false arrangement of balance, too great an attraction being used where less weight was needed. The artist must be the judge of the degree of satisfaction he allows this feeling, but no one can ignore it and obtain unity.

The question of degree must have a caution placed before it; for in an attempt to create a balance on the opposite side of the vertical the tendency is to use too heavy a weight. The whole of the subject is sometimes made to take its place well on one side and another item would seem redundant. Two points will be noticed in all of such cases: that the opposing half may either be cut off without damage, or greatly elongated, and in both forms the picture seems to survive.(6) The fact becomes an argument for the theory of balance across a medial upright line; in the first instance by shifting the line itself into the centre of the subject, and in the second by securing more weight of space with which to balance the subject.

[Portrait of Sara Bernhardt—Clairin (Balance Across the Natrual Axis)]

The portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, an excellent composition from many points of view, finds its most apparent balance on either side of the sinuous line of light through the centre exhibiting the axis, which many pictures show in varying degrees. The opposing corners are well balanced, the plant over against the dog, with a trifle too much importance left to the dog. Place the finger in observation over the head and forelegs of the dog, taking this much off and the whole composition gains, not only because the diagonal corners then balance, but because the heads of both woman and dog are too important for the same side of the picture.

It would be perfectly possible in the more complete composition to have both heads as they are, but this would demand more weight on the other side; or a shifting of the whole picture very slightly toward the left side.

In the painting this is not felt, as the head of the dog is so treated that it attracts but little, though the object be in the close foreground.

This picture also balances on the horizontal and vertical lines.

Here we have the dog and fan balancing the body and plant. The balance across the diagonal of the figure, by the opposition of the dog with the plant is very complete. Joined with the hanging lamp above, this sinuous line effects a letter S or without the dog and leaf Hogarth's line of beauty.

In the matter also of the weakening of the necessary foundation lines which support the figure (the sofa), and cut the picture in two, this curving figure, the pillow and the large leaf do excellent service.

When one fills a vase with flowers he aims at both unity and balance, and if, in either color combination, or in massing and accent, it lacks this, the result is disturbing. Let the vase become a bowl and let the bowl be placed on its edge and made to resemble a frame, entirely surrounding the bouquet; his effort remains the same. To be effective in a frame, balance and unity are just as necessary. The eye finds repose and delight in the perfect equipoise of elements, brought into combination and bound together by the girdle of the frame.

A picture should be able to hang from its exact centre. Imperfect composition inflicts upon the beholder the duty of accommodating his head to the false angle of the picture. Pictures that stand the test of time do not demand astigmatic glasses. We view them balanced, and they repeat the countersign—"balanced."

After settling upon this as the great consideration in the subject of composition and reducing the principle to the above law, I confess I had not the full courage of my conviction for a six month, for now and then a picture would appear that at first glance seemed like an unruly colt, to refuse to be harnessed to the theory and was in danger of kicking it to pieces. After a number of such apparent exceptions and the ease with which they submitted to the test of absolute balance from the centre, on the scheme of the steelyards, I am now entirely convinced that what writers have termed the "very vague subject of composition," "the perplexing question of arrangement of parts," etc., yields to this simplest law, and which, in its directness and clearness, affords the simplest of working rules. Those whose artistic freedom bids defiance to the slavery of rule, as applied to an artistic product, and who try to produce something that shall break all rules, in the hope of being original, spend the greater part of the time in but covering the surface so that the principle may not be too easily seen, and the rest of the time in balancing the unbalanced.

As the balance of the figure dominates all other considerations in the statue or painting of the human form, so does the equipoise of the picture, or its balance of parts, become the chief consideration in its composition. The figure balances its weight over the point of support, as the flying Mercury on his toes, the picture upon a fulcrum on which large and small masses hang with the same delicate adjustment. In Fortuny's "Connoisseurs," the two men looking at a picture close to the left of the centre form the subject. The dark mass behind them stops off further penetration in this direction, but the eye is drawn away into the light on the right and seeks the man carrying a portfolio. At his distance, together with the lighted objects he easily balances the important group on the other side of the centre. Indeed, with the attractiveness of the clock, vase, plaque, mantel and chest, his face would have added a grain too much, and this the artist happily avoided by covering it with the portfolio.

[Lady with Muff—Photo A. Hewitt (Steelyard in Perspective)]

In the portrait study of "Lady with Muff," one first receives the impression that the figure has been carelessly placed and, indeed, it would go for a one-sided and thoughtless arrangement but for the little item, almost lost in shadow, on the left side. This bit of detail enables the eye to penetrate the heavy shadow, and is a good example of the value of the small weight on the long arm of the steelyard, which balances its opposing heavy weight.

This picture is trimmed a little too much on the top to balance across the horizontal line, and, indeed, this balance is the least important, and, in some cases, not desirable; but the line of light following down from the face and across the muff and into the lap not only assists this balance, but carries the eye into the left half, and for that reason is very valuable in the lateral balance, which is all important to the upright subject.

One other consideration regarding this picture, in the matter of balance, contains a principle: The line of the figure curves in toward the flower and pot which become the radius of the whole inner contour. This creates an elliptical line of observation, which being the arc on this radius receives a pull toward its centre. There is a modicum of balance in the mere weight of this empty space, but when given force by its isolation, plus the concession to its centripetal significance, the small item does great service in settling the equilibrium of the picture. The lines are precisely those of the Rubens recently added to the Metropolitan Museum, wherein the figures of Mary, her mother, Christ and John form the arc and the bending form of the monk its oppositional balance.

In proof of the fact that the half balance, or that on either side of the vertical is sufficient in many subjects, see such portraits in which the head alone is attractive, the rest being suppressed in detail and light, for the sake of this attraction.

It is rarely that figure art deals with balance over the horizontal central line in conjunction with balance over the vertical.

One may recall photographs of figures in which the positions on the field of the plate are very much to one side of the centre, but which have the qualifying element in leading line or balance by an isolated measure that brings them within the requirements of unity. The "Brother and Sister" (7) by Miss Kasebier—the boy in sailor cap crowding up to the face and form of his younger sister,—owes much to the long, strongly-relieved line of the boy's side and leg which draws the weight to the opposite side of the picture. In imagination we may see the leg below the knee and know how far on the opposite side of the central vertical his point of support really is. The movement in both figures originates from this side of the picture as the lines of the drapery show. Deprive such a composition of its balancing line and instead of a picture we would have but two figures on one side of a plate.

The significance of the horizontal balance is best understood in landscape, with its extended perspective. Here the idea becomes reminiscent of our childhood's "teeter." Conceiving a long space from foreground to distance, occupied with varied degrees of interest, it is apparent how easily one end may become too heavy for the other. The tempering of such a chain of items until the equipoise is attained must be coordinate with the effort toward the lateral balance.


In the "Salute to the Wounded,"by Detaille, complete and formal balance on both the vertical and horizontal line is shown. The chief of staff is on one side of centre, balanced by the officer on the other, and the remaining members of staff balance the German infantry. Although the heads of prisoners are all above the horizontal line, three-fourths of the body comes below—a just equivalent—and, in the case of the horsemen, the legs and bodies of the horses draw down the balance toward the bottom of the canvas, specially aided by the two cuirassiers in the left corner. In addition to this, note the value of the placement of the gray horse and rider at left, as a means of interrupting the necessary and objectionable line of feet across the canvas and leading the eye into the picture and toward the focus, both by the curve to the left, including the black horse, and also by the direct jump across the picture, through the white horse and toward the real subject—i.e., the prisoners.

[Lion in the Desert—Gerome (Balance of Isolated Measures); Salute to the Wounded—Detaille (Balance of Equal Measures)]

Much has been written by way of suggestion in composition dealing with this picture or that to illustrate a thought which might have been simplified over the single idea of balance which contains the whole secret and which if once understood in all of its phases of possible change will establish procedure with a surety indeed gratifying to him who halts questioning the next step, or not knowing positively that the one he has taken is correct.

These criticisms vaguely named "confusion," "stiffness," "scattered quantity," etc., all lead in to the root, unbalance, and are to be corrected there.

Balance is of importance according to the number of units to be composed. Much greater license may be taken in settling a single figure into its picture-space than when the composition involves many. In fact the mind pays little heed to the consideration of balance until a complication of many units forces the necessity upon it. The painter who esteems lightly the subject of composition is usually found to be the painter of simple subjects—portraits and non-discursive themes, but though these may survive in antagonism to such principles their authors are demanding more from the technical quality of their work than is its mission to supply.

The first two main lines, if they touch or cross, start a composition. After that it is necessary to work upon the picture as it hangs in the balances.

The inutility of considering composition in outline or in solid mass of tone as a safe first analysis of finished work is evident when we discover that not until we have brought the picture to the last stage of detail finish do we fully encompass balance. The conception which looks acceptable to one's general idea in outline may finish all askew; or the scheme of Light and Dark in one or two flat tones minus the balance of gradation will prove false as many times as faithful, as it draws toward completion. It is because of this that artists when composing roughly in the presence of nature seldom if ever produce note-book sketches which lack the unity of gradation. It is the custom of some artists to paint important pictures from such data which, put down hot when the impression is compulsory, contain more of the essence of the subject than the faithful "study" done at leisure.


The possibilities of balanced arrangement being so extensive, susceptible in fact of the most eccentric and fantastic composition, it follows: that its adaptability to all forms of presentation disarms argument against it. In almost every case, when the work of an accomplished painter fails to convince, through that completeness which of all qualities stands first, when, after the last word has been said by him, when, nature, in short, has been satisfied and the work still continues in its feeble state of insurrection, which many artists will confess it frequently requires years to quell, it is sure proof that way back in the early construction of such a picture some element of unbalance had been allowed.


In varying degrees pictures express what may be termed a natural axis, on which their components arrange themselves in balanced composition. This axis is the visible or imaginary line which the eye accepts connecting the two most prominent measures or such a line which first arrests the attention. If there be but one figure, group or measure, and there be an opening or point of attraction through the background diverting the vision from such to it, then this line of direction becomes the axis. The axis does not merely connect two points within the picture, but pierces it, and the near end of the shaft has much to do with this balance.

Balance across the centre effects the unity of the picture in its limitations with its frame. Balance on the axis expresses the natural balance of the subject as we feel it in nature when it touches us personally and would connect our spirit with its own.

We discern the former more readily where the subject confronts us with little depth of background. We get into the movement of the latter when the reach is far in, and we feel the subject revolving on its pivot and stretching one arm toward us while the other penetrates the visible or the unknown distance.

Balance constructed over this line will bring the worker to as unified a result as the use of the steelyard on the central vertical line.

In this method there is less restraint and when the axis is well marked it is best to take it. Not every subject develops it however. It is easily felt in Clairin's portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, the "Lady with Muff," "The Path of the Surf," and in the line of the horse, Indian, and sunset. When the axis is found, its force should be modified by opposed lines or measures, on one or both sides. In these four examples good composition has been effected in proportion as such balance is indicated; in the first by dog and palm, in the second by flower-pot, in the third by the light on the stubble and cloud in left hand corner, and in the last by the rocks and open sea.

A further search among the accompanying illustrations would reveal it in the sweeping line of cuirassiers, 1807 balanced by the group about Napoleon, the line of the hulk and the light of the sky in "Her Last Moorings," the central curved line in "The Body of Patroclus" the diagonal line through the arm of Ariadne into the forearm of Bacchus.


Raphael is a covenient point at which to commence a study of composition. His style was influenced by three considerations: warning by the pitfalls of composition into which his predecessors had fallen; confidence that the absolutely formal balance was safe; and lack of experience to know that anything else was as good. To these may be added the environment for which most of his works were produced. His was an architectural plan of arrangement, and this well suited both the dignity of his subject and the chaste conceptions of a well poised mind.

Raphael, therefore, stands as the chief exponent of informal composition. His plan was to place the figure of greatest importance in the centre. This should have its support in balancing figures on either side; an attempt then often observable was to weaken this set formality by other objects wherein, though measure responded to measure, there was a slight change in kind or degree, the whole arrangement resembling that of an army in battle array; with its centre, flanks and skirmishers. The balance of equal measures—seen in his "Sistine Madonna," is conspicuous in most ecclesiastical pictures of that period, notably the "Last Supper of Leonardo" in which two groups of three persons each are posed on either side of the pivotal figure.

This has become the standard arrangement for all classical balanced composition in pictorial decoration. The doubling of objects on either side of a central figure not only gives to it importance, but contributes to the composition that quietude, symmetry and solemnity so compatible with religious feeling or decorative requirement. The objection to this plan of balance is that it divides the picture into equal parts, neither one having precedence, and the subdivisions may be continued indefinitely. For this reason it has no place in genre art. Its antiphonal responses belong to the temple. A more objectionable form of balance on the centre is that in which the centre is of small importance. This cuts the picture into halves without reason. The "Dutch Peasants on the Shore," "Low Tide," and "The Poulterers," and David's "Rape of the Sabine Women," are examples.

These pictures present three degrees of formal balance. In the first a lack of sequence impairs the picture's unity. In the second, though the objects are contiguous there is no subjective union, and in David's composition the formality of the decorative structure is inapplicable to the theme.

The circular group of Dagnan-Bouveret's "Pardon in Brittany," where the peasants are squatted on the left in the foreground is a daring bit of balance, finding its justification in the movement of interest toward the right in the background.

In all forms, save the classic decoration it should be the artist's effort to conceal the balance over the centre.


In avoiding the equal divisions of the picture plane a practical plan of construction is based upon the strong points as opposed to the weak ones. It assumes that the weak point is the centre, and that in all types of composition where formality is not desired the centre is to be avoided. Any points equidistant from any two sides are also weak points. The inequalities in distance should bear a mathematical ratio to each other as one and two-thirds, two and three-fifths. These points will be strongest and best adapted for the placement of objects which are distant from the boundary lines and the corners, in degrees most varied.

If we take a canvas of ordinary proportion, namely, one whose length is equal to the hypothenuse on the square of its breadth, as 28x36 or 18x24 and divide it into unequal divisions as three, five or seven, we will produce points on which good composition will result.

The reason for this is that the remaining two-thirds becomes a unit as has the one-third. If the larger is given the precedence it carries the interest; if not it must be sacrificed to the smaller division. On this principle it may be seen that a figure could occupy a position in the centre if it tied itself in a positive way to that division which carried the remainder of the interest thus becoming unobjectionable as an element dividing the picture into equal parts.

The formula is always productive of excellent results. (See Howard's "Sketcher's Manual.")

This proportional division of the picture one may find in the best of Claude Lorraine's landscapes, with him a favorite method of construction. It suggests the pillars and span for a suspension trestle. When, as is invariably seen in Claude's works the nearest one is in shadow, the vision is projected from this through the space intervening to the distant and more attractive one. A feeling of great depth is inseparable from this arrangement.


A series of oppositional lines has more variety and is therefore more picturesque than the tangent its equivalent. The simplest definition of picturesqueness is variety in unity. The lines of the long road in perspective offer easy conduct for the eye, but it finds a greater interest in threading its way over a track lost, then found, lost and found again. In time we as surely arrive from a to z by one route as by the other, but in one the journey has had the greater interest.

Imagine a hillside and sky offered as a picture. The hillside is without detail, the sky a blank. The first item introduced attracts the eye, the second and third are joined with the first. If they parallel the line of the hillside they do nothing toward the development of the picture but rather harm by introducing an element of monotony. If, however, they are so placed in sky and land as to accomplish opposition to this line they help to send the eye on its travels.

No better example of this principle can be cited than Mr. Alfred Steiglitz's pictorial photograph of two Dutch women on the shore. The lines of ropes through the foreground connect with others in the middle distance leading tangentially to the house beyond.

To one who fences or has used the broad sword a feeling for oppositional line should come as second nature. A long sweeping stroke must be parried or opposed frankly; the riposte must also be parried. A bout is a picturesque composition of two men and two minds in which unity of the whole and of the parts is preserved by the balance of opposed measures. The analogy is appropriate. The artist stands off brush in hand and fights his subject to a finish, the force of one stroke neutralizing and parrying another. This is as true of linear as color composition, where the scheme is one producing harmony by opposition of colors.

[] [Indian and Horse—Photo A.C. Bode (Oppposition of Light and Dark Measures); The Cabaret—L. L'hermitte (Opposition Plus Transition)]

In the photograph of the Indian and horse we have a subject full of fine quality. The demonstration occurs in the sky at just the right place to serve as a balance for the heavy measures of the foreground and the interest is drawn back into the picture and to the upper left hand corner by the two cloud forms, over which is sharply thrown a barricade of cloud which turns the vision back into the picture. The simplicity of the three broad tones is appropriate to the sentiment of vastness which the picture contains. The figure seated in revery before this expanse supplies the mental element to the subject, the antithesis of which is the interest of the horse, earthward. Each one has his way, and in the choice by each is the definition of man and brute, a separation which the pose of each figure indicates through physical disunion. The space between them widens upon the horizon line. To establish the necessary pictorial connection or at least a hint of it suggests three devices. A lariat in a curving line might be slightly indicated through the grass: the foreground might be cut so as to limit the range toward us; or a broken line may be constructed diagonally from the horse's left foot by a few accents in the light of the stubble. In the first, the union is effected by transition of line; in the last by opposition of the spot of the figure to the line of the horse's shoulder and leg extended by a line through the grass.

With the coalition of these two figures there would no longer be felt a procession of three items in a straight perspective line: the horse, the man, and the distant river. Instead it would be the horse and owner over against the notion of prairie, river, and sky.


Spots or accents are in the majority of cases equivalent to a line. The eye follows the line more easily, but the spot is a potent force of attraction and we take the artist's hint in his use of it, often finding that its subtlety is worth more than the line's strength. In the case of a simple hillside back-stopped by a dense mass of trees, a flat and an upright plane are presented, but until the vision is carried into and beyond the line of juncture the opposition of mere planes accomplishes little, the only thing thus established being a strong effect of light and shade and not until the eye is coaxed into the sky so that there be established a union between the pathway or other object on the hill and the distance, will balance by transition be effected.

This is one of the subtlest and most necessary principles in landscape composition. The illustration herewith is of the simplest nature but the principle may be expanded indefinitely as it has to do both with lateral and perspective balance.

In the "Death of Caesar," the perspective line of the statues and the opposite curve in the floor are continued through the opposing mass of columns and wall to the court beyond, a positive control of the distance by the foreground, being thus secured.


More effective than opposition, as the cross bar is more effective for strength than the bar supported on only one side, is Transition, or the same item carried across, or delivered to another item which shall cross a line or space.

In the group of peasants in the Cabaret note the use of lines of opposition and transition, in the single figures and when taken in twos. The laborer (with shovel) in his upper and lower extremities exhibits a large cross which becomes larger when we add the table on which his extended arm rests and the figure standing behind him. The ascent of this vertical is stopped by the line of the mantel and then continued by the plate and picture. So in minor parts of this group one may think out the rugged energy of its composition, nor anywhere discover a single curved or flowing line. Nor does it require an experienced eye to note the pyramidal structure of the various parts. In the action of the heads and bodies of the two central figures is another strong example of oppositional arrangement. The heavily braced table is typical of the whole.

[Along the Shore—Photo by George Butler (Transitional line); Pathless—Photo by A. Horsely Hinton (Transitional Line)]

In landscape the transitional line from land into sky is often impossible and objectionable. The sentiment of the subject may deny any attempt at this union. Here the principle only, should be hinted at. In the case of a sunset sky where the clouds float as parallel bars above the horizon and thus show the character of a quiet and windless closing of day, a transitional line such as a tree, mast or spire may be unavailable. Oppositional spots or lines attracting the vision into the land and thus diverting it from the horizontals are the only recourse. In the shore view the sun's rays create a series of lines which admirably unite with the curve of the wagon tracks. The union of sky and land is thus effected and meanwhile the subject proper has its ruggedness associated with the graceful compass of these elements.

In fact transitional line is so powerful that unless it contains a part of the subject it should seldom be used.

In the "Annunciation" by Botticelli the introduction of a long perspective line beyond the figures, continuing the lines of the foreground, railroads the vision right through the subject, carrying it out of the picture. If the attention is pinned perforce on the subject, one feels the interruption and annoyance of this unnecessary landscape. The whole Italian school of the Renaissance weakened the force of its portraits and figure pictures by these elaborate settings which they seemed helpless to govern. In Velasquez we frequently find the simplification of background which saves the entire interest for the subject; but even he in his "Spinners" and to a lesser degree in some other compositions, makes the same error. In the greatest of Rembrandt's portrait groups, "The Syndics," his problem involved the placement of six figures. Four are seated at the far side of a table looking toward us, the fifth, on the near side, rises and looks toward us. His head, higher than those of the row of four, breaks this line of formality; but the depth and perspective of the picture is not secured until the figure standing in the background is added. This produces from the foreground figure, through one of the seated figures, the transitional line which pulls the composition forward and backward and makes a circular composition of what was commenced upon a line sweeping across the entire canvas.

The hillside entitled "Pathless," by Horsley Hinton is a subject easily passed in nature as ordinary, which has been however unified and made available through the understanding of this principle. So much of an artist is its author that I can see him down on his knees cutting out the mass of blackberry stems so that the two or three required in the foreground should strike as lines across the demi-dark of the lower middle space. The line of the hill had cut this off from the foreground and these attractive lines are as cords tying it on. From the light rock in the lower centre the eye zigzags up to the line of hillside, cutting the picture from one side to the other. Fortunately nature had supplied a remedy here in the trees which divert this line. But this is insisted on in the parallelism of the distant mountains. The artist, however, has the last word. He has created a powerful diversion in the sky, bringing down strong lines of light and a sense of illumination over the hill and into the foreground. The subject, unpromising in its original lines, has thus been redeemed. This sort of work is in advance of the public, but should find its reward with the elect.


Gradation will be mentioned in another connection but as a force in balance it must be noticed here. It matters not whither the tone grades, from light to dark or the reverse, the eye will be drawn to it very powerfully because it suggests motion. Gradation is the perspective of shade; and perspective we recognize as one of the dynamic forces in art. When the vision is delivered over to a space which contains no detail and nought but gradation, the original impulse of the line is continued.

[Hillside (Graded Light Upon Surfaces; Cloud Shadows); River Fog (Light Graded by Atmospheric Density); The Chant (Gradation through Values of Separated Objects)]

Gradation, as an agent of light, exhibits its loveliest effect and becomes one of the most interesting and useful elements of picture construction.

As a force in balance it may frequently replace detail when added items are unnecessary. In "Her Last Moorings" the heavy timbers, black and positive in the right foreground, attract the eye and divide the interest. The diversion from the hulk to the sky is easy and direct and forms the natural axis. A substitution for the foreground item is a simple gradation, balancing a like gradation in the sky.

The measure of light and dark when mixed is tonically the same as the gray of the gradation—but its attraction is weakened.


These qualities are not synonymous but so nearly so that they are mentioned together. In discussing the principle of the steelyard it was stated that a small item could balance a very large one whose position in point of balance was closer to the fulcrum, but to this point must be added the increase of weight and importance which isolation gives. These considerations need not be mystifying.

In the charge to Peter, "Feed my sheep," Raphael has produced something quite at variance with his ordinary plan of construction. Christ occupies one side of the canvas, the disciples following along the foreplane toward him.

Here is an isolated figure the equivalent of a group.

The sleeping senator of Gerome's picture effects a like purpose among the empty benches and pillars. The main group is placed near the centre, the small item at the extreme edge. Even Caesar in the foreground—covered by drapery and in half shadow—is less potent as an item of balance, than this separate figure.


Finally the notion that the picture is a representation of depth as well as length and height develops the idea of balance in the chain of items from foreground to distance. A pivotal space then will be found, a neutral ground in the farther stretch from which may be created so much attraction as to upend the foreground, or in the nether reach toward us there may be such attraction as to leave the distance without its weight in the convention of parts. The group with insufficient attraction back of it topples toward us, to be sustained within the harmonious circuit of the picture only by such items of attraction behind it as will recover a balance which their absence gave proof of. This is a more subtle but none the less potent influence than the vertical and lateral balance and may best be apprehended negatively. The "aggressiveness" of many foreground items which are in themselves essential as form and correct in value is caused by the lack of their balancing complements in the back planes of the picture.

Balance is not of necessity dependent upon objects of attraction. Its essence lies in the movement from one part of the picture to another, which the arrangement compels, and this may often be stimulated by the intention or suggestion of motion in a given direction.


The artist gets his picture from two sources. He either goes forth and finds it, or creates it. If he creates it the work is deliberate, and the artist assumes responsibility. If he goes to nature, he and nature form a partnership, she supplying the material and he the experience. In editing the material thus supplied, the artist discovers how great is the disparity between art and nature, and what a disproof nature herself is to the common notion that art is mirrored nature, and that any part of her drawn or painted will make a picture.

The first stage of the art collector is that in which his admiration dwells on imitation such as the still-life painter gives him, but soon his art sense craves an expression with thought in it, the imitation, brow-beaten into its proper place and the creative instinct of the artist visible. In other words, he seeks the constructive sense of the man who paints the picture. "The work of art is an appeal to another mind, and it cannot draw out more than that mind contains. But to enjoy is, as it were, to create; to understand is a form of equality."(8) With the horse before the cart and the artist holding the reins, he gets a fresh start, and is in a fair way to comprehend Richard Wagner's assertion that you cannot have art without the man. In the same manner does the student usually develop. With the book of nature before him he is eager to sit down anywhere and read, attracted by each separate item of the vast pattern, but he finds he has opened nature's dictionary and that to make poetry or even good prose he must put the separate words and phrases together.

After the first roll of films has been printed and brooded over, the kodac person is apt to ask in a tone of injured and deceived innocence, "Well, what does make a picture?"

He with others has supposed it possible to go to nature and, taking nothing with him, bring something back. Though one does not set out with the rules of composition, he must at least present himself before nature with fixed notions of the few requirements which all pictures demand. Having looked at a counterfeit of her within four sides of a frame and learned to know why a limited section of her satisfied him by its completeness he approaches her out of doors with greater prospects of success than though he had not settled this point. Good art, of the gallery, is the best guide to a trip afield. Having seen what elements and what arrangements have proved available in the hands of other men, the student will not go astray if he seek like forms in nature. Armed with defininite convictions he will see, through her bewildering meshes the faithful lines he needs. The star gazer with a quest for the constellations of the Pleiades or the Great Bear, must close his eyes to many irrelevant stars which do not fit the figure. Originality does not require the avoidance of principles used by others. Pictorial forms are world's property. Originality only demands "the causing to pass into our own work a personal view of the world and of life."(9) Personality in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is a graft. The forms of artistic expression have been preempted long ago. The men who had the first chances secured the truest forms of it and in a running glance through a miscellaneous collection of prints one's attention is invariably arrested by the force of the pictures by the older masters; so dominating is the first impression that we concede the case upon the basis of effect before discovering the many obstacles and omissions counting against their greater efficiency. But the essence is of the living sort. With this conceded and the fact that nature's appeal is always strongest when made through association with man it is for us to cultivate these associations.

"Study nature attentively," says Reynolds, "but always with the masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals, with whom you are to contend."

A wise teacher has said the quickest road to originality is through the absorption of other men's ideas.

Before going forth therefore with a canvas or plate holder, it behooves us first to know what art is. Certainly the most logical step from the study of constructive form is through the practical technique of work which we would emulate. To copy interpretations of outdoor nature by others is commendable either at the experimental period, when looking for a technique, or as an appreciation.

Besides this mental preparation, the next best equipment for finding pictures is a Claude Lorraine glass, because, being a convex mirror, it shows a reduced image of nature in a frame. The frame is important not only because it designates the limitations of a picture, but because it cuts it free from the abstracting details which surround it. If one has not such a glass, a series of small pasteboard frames will answer. The margin should be wide enough to allow the eye to rest without disturbance upon the open space. Two rectangular pieces that may be pushed together from top or side is probably the most complete device. The proportion of the frame is therefore adaptable to the subject and the picture may be cut off top, bottom or sides as, demanded.

[The View-Metre] [Three Pictures Found with the View-Metre]

Many artists reduce all subjects to two or three sizes, which they habitually paint. The view-meter may in such cases be further simplified by using a stiff cardboard with such proportions cut out. By having them all on a single board a subject may be more rapidly tested than by the device of the collapsible sides. A light board, the thickness of a cigar-box cover, 4x5 inches, and easily carried in the pocket, will enable one to land his subject in his canvas exactly as he wants it, and avoid the grievance of reconstruction later. By leaving a broad margin about the openings, one obtains the impression of a picture in its mat or frame, and may judge of it in nature as he will after regard it when completed and on exhibition.

[View Taken with a Wide Angle Lens]

The accompanying photograph was produced by a revolving camera encompassing an area of 120 degrees. As a composition it is not bad, but unfortunate here and there. It has a well-defined centre, and the two sides balance well, the left clogging the vision and thus giving way to the right, which allows the eye to pass out of the picture on this side beyond the fountain and across the stretch of sunlight. At a glance, however, one may see three complete pictures, and with the aid of the view-meter a number of other combinations may be developed. Its construction is that of Hobbema's "Alley near Middelharnes," in the National Gallery, London, of so pronounced formality that a number of such construction in a gallery, would prove monotonous.

Beginning on the left, we may apply the view-meter first to exclude the unnecessary branch forms and sky space on the top; second, to cut away the tree on the right, which, in that it parallels the line of the margin, is objectionable, and is rendered unnecessary as a side for the picture by the two trees beyond in the middle plane; and, third, to limit the extent of the picture on the bottom, tending as it does to force the spectator back and away from the subject proper. The interest is divided between the white building and rustic bridge and the pivot of this composition adjusts itself in line with the centre tree. In the next picture the first tree on left of avenue is cut away for the same reason as in the previous arrangement, and although one of a line of trees in perspective, the trunk as an item is unserviceable, as its branches start above the point where the top line occurs, and can therefore render no assistance in destroying an absolute vertical as has been done in the left tree by the bifurcation, and the first on the right by the encroaching masses of leaves. The eye follows the receding lines of roadway beneath the canopy and is led out of the picture by the light above the hill. The last arrangement is more formal than either of the others but gives us the good old form of composition frequently adopted by Turner, Rousseau, Dupre, and others, namely of designing an encasement for the subject proper, through which to view it. For that reason after the arch overhead has been secured all else above is cut away as useless. The print has been cut a little on the right, as by this means the foreground tree is placed nearer that side and also because the extra space allowed too free an escapement of the eye through this portal, the natural focus of course being the fountain where the eye should rest at once. It has been cut on the bottom so as to exclude the line where the road and the grass meet—an especially bad line, paralleling the bottom of the picture and line of shadow upon the grass. This shadow is valuable as completing the encasement of the subject on the bottom and in starting the eye well into the picture toward its subject.

Our natural vision always seeks the light. Shadows are the carum cushions from which the sight recoils in its quest for this. Letting the eye into the picture over a foreground of subdued interest, or better still, of no interest is one of the most time-honored articles of the picture-maker's creed. If the reader will compare the first and last of these three compositions he will see how in this respect the first loses and the last gains. The element of the shaded foreground in the first was cut out in preserving a better placement for the subject proper, which lay beyond.

[Photography Nearing the Pictorial]

The photographer comes upon a group of cows. "Trees, cattle, light and shade—a picture surely!" Fearful of disturbing the cows he exposes at a distance, then stalks them, trying again with a different point of sight and, having joined them and waited for their confidence, makes the third attempt. On developing, the first one reveals the string-like line of road cutting the picture from end to end, the cattle as isolated spots, the tree dividing the sky space into almost equal parts. In the second, the lower branch of tree blocks the sky and on the other side there is a natural window, opening an exit into the distance. This is desirable but unfortunately the bending roadway on the right accomplishes the same purpose and so two exits are offered, always objectionable. With this out, the value of the rock and foreground cow is also better appreciated as leading spots taking us to the natural focus, the white cow lying close to the tree. The rock in left corner having no influence in a leading line should be suppressed. The cattle now swing into the picture from both sides and one of them opposes the horizontal of her back to the vertical of the tree, thus easing the force of its descent.

In the last there is much more concentration. The road does not parallel the bottom and though passing out of the picture the vision is brought back again along the distant line of trees. The objection to this arrangement lies in the equal division of the subject by the tree-trunk. The white cow focalizes the vision but the sky and the more graceful branches soon capture it. The cow in the right foreground is only valuable as an oppositional measure to the line of cows stretching across the picture which it helps to divert, otherwise she carries too much attraction to the side.

The best arrangement for the subject would have been the tree one-third from the left side, the white cow touching its line, one or two of those lying on the ground working toward the foreground in a zigzag, little or no diversion from the distance on the left of tree. The swing of the picture would then have been from the foreground to the focus, the white cow and tree, thence to the group under the tree and out through the sky. This would have divided the picture-plane into thirds instead of halves, bringing it into the form elsewhere recommended as being the arrangement of Claude's best pictures.




One reason that many pictures are passed in exhibitions is that the visitor lacks an invitation to enter. Others frankly greet one a long way off, obliging the wanderer searching for compelling interest to acknowledge their cordiality, aware of a gesture of welcome in something which he may later pause to analyse and at length apprehend.

It may appear in the freedom of an empty foreground, which, like a stage unadorned, merely supports the action upon it; or, if this foreground be adorned then happily by items of slight interest leading to the subject; or it may insist with such an emphatic demand for attention that the common places of receding perspective have been employed.

One spot or circumference there should be toward which through the suppression of other parts the eye is led at once. When there, even though the vision has passed far into the canvas, one is at the focal point only, the true goal of the pictorial intention. Any element which proves too attractive along this avenue of entrance is confusing to the sight and weakening to the impression.

One item after another, in sequence, the visitor should then be led to, and, having made the circuit and paid his respects to the company in the order of importance with that special care which prevails at a Chinese court function, the visitor should be shown the exit. Getting out of a picture is almost as important as getting into it, but of this later.

If the artist, in the composition of his picture, cannot so arrange a reception for his guests, he is not a successful host.

This disposal of the subject matter into which principality enters so acutely is more patent in the elaborate figure subject than in any other, with the distinction between an assemblage of, and a crowd of figures, made plain.

The writer once called, in company with a friend of the painter, upon the late Edmond Yon, the French landscapist. We found him in his atelier, and saw his completed picture, about to be sent to the Salon. He shortly took us into an adjacent room, where hung his studies, and thence through his house into the garden, showed us his view of the city, commented on the few fruit trees, the flowers, as we made the circuit of the little plot, and, at the porte, we found the servant with our hats. It was a perfectly logically sequence. We had come to the end; and how complete!

"He always does it so," said the friend. We had seen the man, his picture, his studies, his house, caught the inspiration of his view, had made the circuit of the things which daily surrounded him, and what more—nothing; except the hats. Bon jour!

The new picture, like any new acquaintance, we are tempted to sound at once, in a single glance, judging of the great and apparent planes of character, seeking the essential affinity. If we pass favorably, our enjoyment begins leisurely. The picture we are to live with must possess qualities that will bear close scrutiny, even to analysis. If we are won, there is a satisfaction in knowing why.

It must be remembered that the actual picture space in nature is that of a funnel, its size varying according to the extent of distance represented. The angle of sixty degrees which the eye commands may widen into miles. The matter of equipoise or unity therefore applies to most extended areas and no part of this extent may escape from the calculation.

The objection of formal balance over the centre is that it produces a straddle, as, in hopscotch one lands with both feet on either side of a dividing line. In all pictures of deep perspective the best mode of entrance is to triangulate in, with a series of zigzags, made easy through the habit of the eye to follow lines, especially long and receding ones. It is the long lines we seize upon in pinning the action of a figure, and the long lines which stretch toward us are those which help most to get us into a picture.

The law here is that of perspective recession, and, it being the easiest of comprehension and the most effective in result, is used extensively by the scene-painter for his drop-curtain and by the landscapist, whose subject proper lies often in the middle distance—toward which he would make the eye travel.

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse