Art Theory – Variation Of Forms

The importance of variety, amounting even to contrast, in artistical efforts, so far as regards its generally pleasing effect upon the mind, independent of its power in contributing to the production of beauty, has already been alluded to while considering the principles of delineation. Variation of forms is, however, that which comes chiefly into consideration in artistical composition, although varieties of other kinds have also to be regarded. What variety is to delineation or design, variation of forms is to composition. Here, as in the other cases, the principle, although the same in itself, differs in the mode of its application. Variety relates only to the parts of one figure, variation to all the several figures and groups of figures in the composition.

In the due regulation of variety, nature is the surest, and the only infallible guide. By her we shall be taught not to be too sparing nor too lavish in the observance of this principle, which on the one hand leads to insipidity, on the other to distortion, while nature pursues the just medium between the two points.

The most perfect example of the variation of forms, and of colours also, is, moreover, afforded by nature, whether in the landscape scenes that she presents, or in the different shapes of animals and vegetables, which vary one from another in every possible way, but ever harmoniously, tastefully, and I may say artistically.

Thus, in accordance alike with the practice which we see pursued in nature, and the principles which have been laid down for our guide in art, a due degree of variation must be effected among the different figures and groups in a composition, so that not only they themselves be varied, but the variation itself should be also varied.

It is indeed worthy of observation that variety may be as formal, and regular, and constrained, as the want of it ; like the variety of a marching regiment, or of a row of pillars.

In nature, however, variation is effected in the most perfect manner, and exists even with regard to those figures and objects which appear to be most uniform and regular in their arrangement, such as a flock of sheep, or a grove of trees, where each separate object when dispersed over a landscape, will be diversified in every possible mode as regards the composition of the whole group. Indeed, not only variety but contrast, as seen in nature, is constantly exhibited, and gives to it effect and vigour, in precisely the same way that it does to compositions in art. Thus age not only varies from, but contrasts with youth; the storm with the calm; darkness with light.

On the other hand, equal care should be taken not to make this variation either too excessive as regards its limits, or too formal as regards its manner. This indeed may result, as already observed, in the production of a variety which is itself unvaried, creating the very monotony, and in the most aggravated form, which it was intended to prevent, and presenting an effect at once highly displeasing, and thoroughly inartistical.

Forcible examples of this style are nevertheless afforded by some early works in painting and sculpture. But the most striking are those which the mode of laying out gardens in the middle of the last century presents to us. Connected with this subject, is the practice equally opposed to the true principles of art, of varying the composition by the introduction of figures or subjects which have in their nature no real relation to it.

To a certain extent, variety of light and shade, and of colour, as well as of form, demands attention in artistical composition as much as in design. And as the aspect of objects, both architectural and natural, is considerably altered by the relative position in which and from which we view them, which changes their apparent form ; so is it also as regards the variety of light and shade which at different times falls upon them, and which changes their visual or apparent character in a very essential manner, corresponding with such mutations. Indeed, with regard to architectural and also sculptural composition, a due attention to the proper regulation and proportionate distribution of light and shade, is even more essential than in composition in painting, inasmuch as variation of colour is, but to a very limited extent, available in the two former. In compositions in gardening and costume, it is also to be observed; and as regards the due apportionment of light and serious, of lively and grave passages, a principle closely analogous to it may be laid down with respect to compositions in poetry, eloquence, and music.

The introduction of Christian and pagan representations into the same composition, is a decided breach of taste in many great works of art; as, for instance, that of Charon in Michael Angelo’s ‘Last Judgment.’ Such a conjunction is in every way inharmonious and unnatural. Beings of characters and qualities so different could never be supposed to come in contact, or even to exist together; and a jarring of ideas is produced by the incoherency of the representation. The very nature and principle of taste require that the various constituents of the same composition should be apt and suitable, and combine harmoniously together.

Although repetition should be avoided, yet reiteration often gives effect and vigour to a composition; and this, whether in the grouping of figures or the structure of sentences.