Picture Composition – Gradation

Light being the happy and positive side of art presentation, any form or modification of it partakes of its quality. The gradation bespeaks its tenderness, and, much as we may admire light’s power, this, by its mere variety, is more attractive.

We well endure the shadow if in it can be noticed a movement toward the light. Technically, an ungraded shadow means mud. One in which reflection plays a part speaks of the life of light and in it we feel that promise. We know it to be on its travels, glancing and refracting from every object which it touches. The shadows which it cannot penetrate directly, receive its gracious influence in this way and always under a subtler law which governs its direct shining—by gradation.

Most good pictures are produced in the medium range and the ends of the scale are reserved for incisive duty. A series of gradations in which the grace and flow of line and tone are made to serve the forcible stroke which we see, presents a combination of subtlety and strength. Again the art of Inness affords illustration.

There are three forms of this quality: that in which light shows a gradual diminution of power, as seen upon a wall near a window, or in white smoke issuing from a funnel ; that in which the color or force of a group of objects weaken as they recede, as may be observed in fog; and that in which the arrangement secures, in disconnected objects a regular succession of graded measures. In each case the pictorial value of this element is apparent. The landscape painter may avail himself of it as the figure painter does of his screen, counting on the cloud shadow to temper and unite disjointed items of his picture. He makes use of it where leading lines are wanting or are undesirable, or to give an additional accent to light by such contrast or to introduce a note of dark by suppressing the tone of an isolated object. Gradation is the sweetening touch in art, ofttimes making unity of discordant and unartful elements. The vision will pierce the shadow to find the light beyond. It will dwell longest on the lightest point and believe this more brilliant than it is if opposed by an accent of dark which is the lowest note in a dark gradation.

Turner and Claude often brought the highest light and deepest dark together in close opposition through a series of big gradations of objects, the most light giving device known in painting. The introduction of a shadow through the foreground or middle distance, over which the vision travels to the light beyond, always gives great depth; another of the devices in landscape painting frequently met with in the work of Claude, Ruysdael, Nolpe, Vandevelde, Cuyp, Inness, Wyant, Ranger, and all painters of landscape who attain light by the use of a graded scale of contrasts. A cumulative gradation which suddenly stops has the same force in light and shade as a long line which suddenly changes into a short line of opposed direction. They are both equivalent to a pause in music, awakening an attention at such a point, and only to be employed where there is something important to follow.