Picture Composition – Color, Harmony, Tone

IN viewing a picture exhibition the average man, woman and child would be attracted by different aspects of it ; the man by the tone of the pictures, the woman by their color, the child almost wholly by the form or subject. The distinction is of course epigrammatic, but there is a basis for it in the daily associations of each of the three, the man with the conventional appointments of his dress and his business equipment, the woman with her gowns, her house decorations and flowers, the child with the world of imagination and fancy in which he dwells,

The distinction has much to do with the method and the degree of one’s aesthetic development. That a picture must have a subject is the first pons asinorum to be crossed, the child usually preferring to remain-on the farther side. The delight in color belongs to the lighter, freer or more barbaric part of the race. Tone best fits the sobriety of man.

The distinction is the difference in preference for an oak leaf as it turns to bronze, and a maple as it exchanges its greens for yellow and scarlet.

In the latter case two primaries are evolved from a secondary color and in the other a tertiary from a secondary. In the case of the oak bronze there is more harmony, for the three primaries are present.

In the case of the yellow and red, there is contrast and effect, but less harmony, since but two primaries appear.

As the walls are studied that sort of color art is found to be most conspicuously prominent which is in the minority and probably one’s unsophisticated choice, from the point of view of color, would be that which has the distinction of rarity, as the red haired woman is at a premium in the South Sea isles. If, however, the tonal and the coloresque art were in even interchange, the former would have much of its strength robbed, to the degree of the excessive color of its neighbors. If, however, the pictures of tone and of color, instead of being hung together were placed apart, it would be found that the former expressed the greater unity and presented a front of composure and dignity and that the varied color combinations would as likely quarrel among themselves as with their former neighbors.

That a just distinction may be had between tonal and coloresque and impressionist art, the purpose of each must be stated. The ” tonist ” aims primarily at unified color, to secure which he elects a tone to be followed, which shall dominate and modify every color of his subject. This is accomplished by either painting into a thin glaze of color, administered to the whole canvas so that every brushful partakes of some of it ; or by modifying the painting subsequently by transparent glazes of the same tone.

The conscientious impressionist, on the contrary, produces harmony by juxtapositions of pure color. Harmony results when the three primary colors are present either as red, yellow and blue or as a combination of a secondary and primary : green with red, orange with blue or purple with yellow.

The impressionist goes farther, knowing that the complementary of a color will tend to neutralize it, supplying as it does the lacking element to unity, he creates a vivid scheme of color on this basis. In representing therefore a gray rock he knows that if red be introduced, a little blue and yellow will kill it, and the three colors together at a distance will produce gray. Instead, therefore, of mixing upon his palette three primaries to produce the tertiary gray, he so places them on the canvas that at the proper distance (though this consideration is of small concern to him) the spectator will mix them—which he often does. The advantage of this method of color presentation lies in the degree of purity which the pigment retains. Its disadvantage appears in its frequent distortion of fact and aspect of nature, sacrificed to a scientific method of representation. An estimate of impressionism is wholly contained in the reply to the question, ” Do you like impressions ? Yes, when they are good ; ” and in the right hands they are.

They are good only when the real intention of impressionism has been expressed, when the synthesis of color has actually produced light and air, and an impression of nature is quickened. But the voice from the canvas more frequently cries ” nature be hanged—but this is impressionism.”

The little people of impressionism finding it possible to represent more light than even nature shows in very many of her aspects, delight in exhibiting the disparity existing between nature and, forsooth, impressionism. Thus we see attempts to “knock out ” with these scientific brass knuckles all those who refuse to fight with them. The rumpus grows out of the different attitudes in which nature is approached.

The one, drawn by her beauty, kneels to her, touching her resplendent garments ; the other grasps her with the mailed hand, bedecking her with a mantle of his own. The knights wooing the same mistress are therefore sworn rivals.

For effect, no one can deny that produced by the savage in war paint and feathers is more startling than the man wearing the conventional garb of civilization, or that the stars and stripes have greater attraction than the modified tones of a gobelin tapestry or a Persian rug. We put the flag outside the building but the daily course of our lives is more easily spent with the tapestry and rug.

An ” impression ” among tonal pictures appears as foolish as a tonal picture among impressions and the sane conclusion is that the attempt to combine them should not be made.

The clear singing tones of the upper register are better rendered under this formula than by any other, but the feeling of solidity and the tonal depth of nature are qualities which it compromises. Impressionism expresses frankly by the use of smaller methods what the tonists attain by larger and freer ones. The individual must decide whether he prefers to tell the time as he watches the movement of the works or will take this for granted if he gets the result.

For charm in color no one will deny that in the works of old masters this is found in greater degree than in painting of more recent production, and the reason is, not because the pigments of the fourteenth century are better than ours, but it is to be found in the alterative and refining influences of time and varnish, which have crowned them with the glorious aureole of the centuries.

Guided by this fact the modern school of tonists seeks to shorten the period between the date of production and this final desirable quality, by setting in motion these factors at once. They therefore paint with varnish as a medium, multi-plying the processes of glazing with pure color so that under a number of surfaces of varnish the same chemical action may be precipitated which in the earlier art came about with but few exceptions as a happening through the simple necessary acts- of preservation. The consequence of this adoption of kindred processes is that the tonal pictures and the old masters join hands naturally and can stand side by side in the gallery of the collector.

This, though a wholly practical reason for the growing popularity of tonal art is one of the powerful considerations for the trend from that sort which is liable to create discord. The simplest illustration of harmony, and unity and tone may be had in nature herself, for though these qualities have their scientific exposition, the divisions of the color scale are not so easily comprehended by many people as the chart which may be conceived in extended landscape. The sky, inasmuch as it spreads itself over the earth and reflects its light upon it, dictates the tone of the scene. The surface of the lake reveals this fact beyond dispute, for the water takes on any tone which the sky may have. The sky’s power of reflection is no less potent in the landscape.

Reflection is observable in that degree in which the surface, reflected upon, is rough or smooth. The absorbent surface allows the light to fall in and disappear and under this condition we see the true or local color. Note, for ex-ample, the effect of light on velvet or the hide of a cow in winter. When the hair points toward the light the mass is rich and dark, but when it turns away in any direction its polished surface reflects light, which like the lake becomes a mirror to it.

Light falling upon a meadow will influence it by its own color only in those places where the grass is turned at an angle from its rays.

From these few observations it becomes obvious that unity of tone is a simple matter when understood by the painter and that unity, being a most important part of his color scheme, may be increased by additions of objects bearing the desirable color which nature fails to supply in any particular subject. Thus if the day be one in which a warm mellow haze pervades the air, those tones of the sky repeated upon the backs of cattle, a roadway, clothing, or what not, may effect a more positive tonality than the lesser items would give which also reflect it. Herein then is the principle of Tonality : That all parts of the picture should be bound together by the dominating color or colors of the picture.

With the indoor subject the consideration is equally strong. Let the scheme be one as coloresque as the Venetian school took delight in, vivid primaries in close juxtaposition (see small reproduction in Fundamental forms—The Cross, page 17). The central figure, that of St. Peter is clothed in dark blue with a yellow mantle. The Virgin’s dress is deep red, her mantle a blue, lighter than that of Peter’s robe. Through the pillars is seen the blue sky of still lighter degree. Thus the sky enters the picture by graded approaches and focalizes upon the central figure. In like manner do the light yellow clouds repeat their color in the side of the building, in the yellow spot in the flag and the mantle of the central figure. The red of the Virgin’s robe and the yellow mantle together form a combination of a yellow red in the flag, the blue and red of the central figures become purple and garnet in the surplices of the kneeling churchmen and doges. The repetition of a given color in different parts of the figure is pushed still further in the blue gray hair of the kneeling figures, the red brown tunics of the monks and the yellow bands upon the draperies.

In the picture by Henry Ranger (page 120) (the crossing of horizontals effected without a line), a canvas in which the color is particularly reserved and gray, the tone is created by precisely the same means. The cool gray and warm white clouds are reflected into the water and concentrated with greater force in the pool in the foreground, the greens and drabs of the bushes being strikingly modified by both of the tones noted in the sky. In landscape a cumulative force may be given the progress of the sky tones by the use of figures, the blue or gray of the sky being brought down in stronger degree upon the clothing of the peasant, his cart or farm utensils. Just here inharmony easily insinuates itself through the introduction of elements having no antiphonal connection.

Fancy a single spot of red without its echo. Our sense of tonal harmony is unconsciously active when between two figures observed too far away for sight of their faces we quickly make our conclusions concerning their social station, if one be arrayed in a hat trimmed with purple and green, a garnet waist and a buff skirt, while the other, though dressed in strong colors ex-presses the principles of coloration herewith defined. The purple and green hat may belong to her suit if their colors be repeated by modification, in it ; or the garnet and buff become the foundation for unity if developed throughout the rest of the costume.

The purchaser of a picture may be sure of the tone of his new acquisition if he will hang it for a day or two upside down. This is one of the simplest tests applied by artists, and many things are revealed thereby. Form is lost and the only other thing remains—color.

Harmony being dependent only on the interrelations of colors, their degree or intensity are immaterial.

On this basis it is a matter of choice whether our preference be for the coloresque or the more sober art.

It must however be borne in mind that the danger lies in the direction of color. In harmony is more frequently found here than in the picture of sober tone.

Precisely the same palette is used to produce an autumnal scene on a blue day, when the colors are vivid and the outline on objects is hard and the form pronounced, as on an overcast day with leaden clouds and much of the life and color gone from the yellow and scarlet foliage.

The reason why chances for harmony in the first are less than in the second is that the synthetic union of the colors is not as obvious or as simple as in the latter, in which to produce the gray sky, red and yellow have been added to the blue, and the sky tones are more apparently added to the bright hues by being mixed into dull colors upon the palette. The circle of harmony is therefore more easily apparent to our observation.

It is for this reason that tonality is more easily understood when applied to the green and copper bronze of the oak tree against a cool gray sky than the red and yellow hillside and the blue sky.