Picture Composition – Envelopment And Color Perspective

ALLIED to values is the idea of envelopment : of a kindred notion to this is aerial perspective. On these two depends the proper presentation of a figure in air.

If at any place on the contour of a figure the background seems to stick, the detachment from its surroundings, which every figure should have, is wanting.

The reason for it is to be found in a false value which has deprived it of rotundity of envelopment.

The solid object which resists the attempt to put one’s hand around it or to stretch beyond into the background, lacks this quality. A fine distinction must be here drawn between simple envelopment and relief, which is a more positive and less important quality.

However flatly and in mass figures may be conceived, the impression of aerial envelopment must be unmistakable. Here a nice adjustment of values or relative tones will accomplish it.

Naturally, the greater space between the spectator and an object, the more air will be present. To the painter the color of air is the color of the sky. This then will be mixed with the local color of the object, giving it atmosphere.

Envelopment is unmistakably represented by the out of door Dutch painters, for in the low countries atmosphere is seen in its density, and at very short range. Holland is therefore an ideal sketching ground for the painter and the best in the world for the student, since the ideas of values and envelopment are ever present. In this saturated air the minute particles of moisture which, in the case of rain or fog can affect the obliteration of objects, partially accomplishes it at all times, with the result that objects seem to swim in atmosphere.

In such a landscape perspective of value and color is easily observed, making positive the separation of objects. The painter, under these conditions, is independent of linear perspective to give depth to his work, which being one of the cheap devices of painting he avoids as much as possible.

It is because aerial perspective is paintable and the other sort is not that artists shun the clear altitudes of Colorado where all the year one can see for eighty miles and, on the Atlantic border, wait the summer through for the fuller atmosphere which the fall will bring, that by its tender envelopment the vividness and detail which is characteristic of the American landscape may give place to what is serviceable to the purposes of painting.

It is because of misunderstanding on this point that we of the Western Hemisphere may wrongly challenge foreign landscape, judging it upon the natural aspect of our own country. The untravelled American or he who has been there without seeing things, is not aware that distinctly different conditions prevail in Europe than with us, especially above latitude 40°.

Advantage in the paintability of subject there-fore lies distinctly with the European artist, and it may be because he has to labor against these odds that the American landscapist has forged to the front and is now leading his European brethren. It must, however, be acknowledged that he acquired what he knows concerning landscape from the art and nature of Europe —from Impressionism with its important legacy of color, which has been acknowledged in varying degree by all our painters, and from the “school of 1830,” on which is based the tonal movement of the present.

Other than perspective of values, no importance should be attached to that which, with the inartistic mind, is regarded so important a quality. The art instruction which the common school of the past generation offered was based on perspective, its problems, susceptible of never ending circumventions, being spread in an interminable maze before the student. Great respect for this ” lion in the path ” was a natural result and “at least a two years’ study ” of these problems was thought necessary before practical work in art could commence. (See Appendix.)

Mr. Ruskin’s fling at the perspective labyrinth would have been more authoritative than it proved, had he not too often lessened our faith by the cry of wolf when it proved a false alarm.

There is a single truth which, though simple, was never known to Oriental art, namely ; that in every picture there must be a real or understood horizon—the level of the painter’s eye,—that all lines above this will descend and all lines below will rise to it as they recede.

But upon aerial perspective depends the question of detail in the receding object and this to the painter is of first importance. To temper a local color so that it shall settle itself to a nicety at any distance, in the perspective scheme, and to express the exact degree of shadow which a given color shall have under a given light and at a given distance are problems which absorb four-fifths of the painter’s attention.

If the features of a man a hundred yards away be painted with the same fidelity as though he stood but ten yards distant the aerial balance is disturbed, the man being brought nearer than his place on the perspective plan allows.

At a mile’s range a tree to the painter is not an object expressing a combination of leaves and branches, but a solid colored mass having its light and shade and perhaps perforated by the sky. It is with natural aspect and not natural fact that the painter deals.

Pre-Raphaelite art practised this phase of honesty, which, in our own day was revived in England. In this later coterie of pre-Raphaelite brethren was but one painter, the others, men of varying artistic perceptions and impulses. To the painter it in time became evident that he was out of place in this company and the commontary of his withdrawal proved more forcible than any to be made by an outsider.

When, therefore, judgment be applied to a work of painting it must be with a knowledge of natural aspect in mind, not necessarily related, even vaguely, to the scene under consideration, but such as has come by the absorption of nature’s moods, whereby, with the cause given, the effect may be known as a familiar sequence. The public too should be sufficiently knowing to catch the code signals of each artist whereby these natural facts are symbolled.

Herein has now been set forth, as concisely as possible, the few considerations which are ever present to the painter. The connoisseur who would judge of his work, either subjectively or technically, must follow in his footprints and be careful to follow closely. He must appreciate the differences in the creeds of workers in color and not apply the formulas of impressionism to works in tone. He must not emphasize the importance of drawing in the work which clearly speaks of color and by its technique ignores all else; nor expect the miracle of luscious, translucent color in a work demanding the minute drawing of detail. He can, however, be sure that the criteria of judgment which under all circumstances will apply are :

Balanced and unified composition, both of line and mass.

Harmony of color, expressed by the correlation of all colors throughout the picture.

Tone, or the unification of all colors upon the basis of a given hue.

Values, or the relation of the shades of an object to each other and the degree of relation between one object and another.

Envelopment, or the sense of air with which objects are surrounded.

With these five ideas in mind the critic of Philistia may enter the gallery, constituting himself a jury of one, assured he is armed with every consideration which influenced the artist in his work and the art committee in its acceptance thereof.

Judgment however does not end here. These constitute the tables of the law, and law finds its true interpretation only in the spirit of the living principle.