Getting Into the Picture
IN coming at a picture, the first question is, how to get into it.
One reason why so many pictures are passed by in exhibitions is that the public lacks an invitation to enter, while others, by contrast, greet you a long way off. One feels obliged to stop and acknowledge their cordiality. Some admit you to their confidence through the side door, and into others you have to climb over a barrier, or a lot of useless detail which, ofttimes conceals admirable quality.
The open door is a surer invitation than the diffident latch-string. Mystery, subtlety and evasive charm are all in place in a work of art, but should not stand on the threshold. 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 miles into the can-vas, one is at the starting-point only, from which to proceed in viewing the picture. 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 logic-ally 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 morenothing ; 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 hop-scotch 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 skate 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 distancetoward which he would make the eye travel.
When the opportunity of line is wanting an. arrangement of receding spots, or accents is an equivalent.
The same applies, though in less apparent force, to the portrait or foreground figure subject.
Where the subject lies directly in the fore-ground, the eye will find it at once, but the care of the artist should even then be exercised to avoid lines which, though they could not block, might at least irritate one’s direct vision of the subject.
Conceive if you can, for one could rarely find such an example in pictorial art, of the forespace corrugated with lines paralleling the bottom line of a frame. It would be as difficult for a bicyclist to propel his machine across a plowed field as for one to drive his eye over a fore-ground thus filled with distracting lines when the goal lay far beyond.
Mr. Schilling, in his well-known ” Spring Ploughing,” has treated this problem with great discernment. Instead of a multiplicity of lines crossing the foreplane, the barest suggestion suffices to designate plowed ground, the absence of detail allowing greater force to the distant groups.
In the Marine subject, especially with the sea running toward us, long lines are created across the foreground, but with respect to these, as may be noted in nature, there is a breaking and interlacing of lines in the wave form so that the succession of such accents may lead tangentially from the direction of the wave. A succession of horizontal lines is however the character of the marine subject. When the eye is stopped by these it has found the subject. Only through the sky or by confronting these forms at an angle can the force of the horizontals be broken. Successful marines with the camera’s lens pointed squarely at the sea have been produced, but the best of them make use of the modifying lines of the surf, or oppositional lines or gradations in the sky.
In a large canvas by Alexander Harrison, its subject a group of bathers on the shore, one single line, the farthest reach of the sea, proves an artist’s estimate of the leading line. On it the complete union of figures and ocean depended. Its presence there was simple nature, its strong enforcement the touch of art.
The eye’s willingness to follow long lines may however become dangerous in leading away from the subject and out of the picture. What student cannot show studies (done in his earliest period) of an interesting fence or stone wall, blocking up his foreground and leading the eye out of the picture ? It is possible to so cleverly treat a stone wall that it would serve us as an elevation from which to get a good jump into the picture. Here careful painting with the intent of putting the foreground out of focus, could perhaps land the eye well over the obstruetion, and if so, our consideration of the picture begins beyond this point. If the observer could take such a barrier as easily as a cross country steeple-chaser his fences and stone walls, there would be no objection, but when the artist forces his guest to climb !he is unreasonable. For two years a prominent American landscape painter had constantly on his easel a very powerful composition. The foreplane of trees, with branches which interlaced at the top, made, with the addition of a stone wall below, an encase-ment for the picture proper, which lay beyond. The lower line, i. e., the stone wall, was in constant process of change, obliterated by shadow or despoiled by natural dilapidation, sometimes vine-grown. In its several stages it showed always the most critical weighing of the part, and a consummate dodging of the difficulties.
When finally exhibited, however, the wall had given way to a simple shadow and a pool of water. The attempt to carry the eye over a cross-line in the foreground had been a long and conclusive one, and its final abandonment an ad-monition on this point. A barrier across the middle distance is almost as objectionable. In the subject of a river embankment the eye comes abruptly against its upper line, which is an accented one, and from this dives off into the fathomless space of the sky, no intermediate object giving a hint of anything existing between that and the horizon.
In order to use such a subject it would be necessary to oppose the horizontal of the. bank by an item that would overlap and extend above it, as a hay wagon with a figure on top of it or the sail of a boat, and if possible to continue this transitional feeling in the sky by such cloud forms as would carry the eye up. Attraction in the sky would create a depth for penetration which the embankment blocked.
The ” Path of the Surf 71 is a splendid leading line ending most beautifully in a curve.
Many readers will recall the notable picture by Mr. Picknell, now deceased, of a white road in Picardie. Here all the lines converged at the horizon. The perspective was so true as to become fascinating, a problem of very ordinary deception. More subtle is Turner’s ” Approach to Venice,” see Fundamental Forms,’ in which the lines are substituted by spotsthe gondolaswhich, in like manner, bear us to the subject. The graceful arch of the sky also presses us to-ward the subject.
One may readily use the placement of the spots and substitute cattle instead of gondolas and woods for the spired city ; or groups of figures, sheep, rocks, etc. The composition is fundamental, and will accommodate many subjects.