Picture Composition – Groups

IN the statuesque group the outline is important because this is seen against the background of wall, or sky, and frequently in silhouette. Any fault in its contour as a mass is therefore emphasized. This consideration applies pictorially to groups which are complete in themselves and have no incorporation with backgrounds, such for instance as the photographic group of a number of people. Here personality is the first requirement, but harmony of arrangement and picturesqueness may be united thereto. The two best shapes are the oval and the pyramid. In either of these outlines there is opportunity for a focal centre, always important. In forming such an arrangement the focus should be the first consideration, item by item being added. As the group approaches the outline it must be governed according to the form desired. A more artistic combination of figures will be found to be a separation into a large and a small group, the principal figure placed in either. If in the former, the figures of the smaller group must be sacrificed to this figure, either in pose or lighting. If the principal figure is in the smaller group or entirely separate, this isolation will prove sufficient for the distinction.

Where greater liberties may be taken and the intention is for a purely artistic composition, the curvilinear S shape will be found a good line to build upon. When this is too apparent a single oppositional figure will destroy its formality.

The possibilities of the single figure as a reserve, kept to be placed at the last moment where something is necessary, are worth noting. If the group be too formal in outline, lateral arrangement, or expression, the reserve may be played as a foil to create a diversion.

In all successful groups the principle of sacrifice must play havoc. Here the artist should expect to pay for his art scruples. Rembrandt was the first painter sacrificed to these instincts. When the order to paint the “Municipal Guard” came to him he saw in it an opportunity toward the pictorial. Knowing what this entailed he persevered, despite the mutterings of his sitters, the majority of whom were ill pleased with their respective positions. When finally the canvas was finished, full of mystery and suggestiveness and those subtle qualities, such as before had never been seen in Dutch art, those for whom it had been executed expressed their opinion by giving an order for the same to a rival. His picture is a collection of separate individuals, each having an equal importance. Here was the sudden ending of Rembrandt’s career as a painter of portraits, only one canvas of an important group being painted thereafter—the ” Syndics.” A certain reason in this popular criticism cannot be denied. The composition is unnecessarily scattered and the placements arbitrary, though through the radial lines of pikes and flag pole the scattered parts are drawn together. The composition partakes of the confusion of the scene depicted, yet in its measure of parts one can doubt not that the comparative values of his sitters have been considered.

The democracy of man in his freedom and equality is the despair of the artist who knows that the harmony of the universe is conditional on kingship and principalities and powers, and the scale of things from the lowest to the highest.

Says Mr. Ruskin : ” The great object of composition being always to secure unity—that is, to make many things one whole—the first mode in which this can be effected is by determining that one feature shall be more important than all the rest and that others shall group with it in sub-ordinate position.”

Principality may be secured either by attraction of light as in a white dress or by placing the figure as the focus of leading lines as are sup-plied by the architecture of a building, or such lines as are happily created by surrounding figures which proceed toward the principal one, or by including such a figure in the most important line. Again the figure for such a position may be the only one in a group which exhibits unconcern or absolute repose, the others by expression or action acknowledging such sovereignty.

The summer time out-of-door group which is so frequently interesting only to “friends,” in many cases affords opportunities for pictures at-tractive to all. The average photographer is concerned only with his people ; the background is brought to mind when he sees the print. Although little or no interest may be found in the background it should be appropriate, and should play a reserve part, serving the chiaroscuro and therefore the illumination of the subject and creating an opportunity for the exit which always gives depth and an extended interest. A mass of foliage with little penetration by the sky except in one or two places and at the side, not the centre, may always be found safe. If the attraction is too great the group suffers. Appreciating the importance of his setting for groups the photographer must select these with three points in view ; simplicity, uninterest and exit in background ; simplicity, uninterest and leading line or balancing mass or spot (if required) in foreground. When looking for backgrounds he may feel quite sure he has one if it is the sort of thing he would never dream of photographing on its own account. Besides being too interesting, most backgrounds are inappropriate and distracting. The frequent commendations and prizes accorded to good subjects having these faults and therefore devoid of unity tell how little even photographic judges and editors think on the appropriate and essential ensemble in composition.

With the background in unobjectionable evidence the photographer should rapidly address his posers a little lecture on compositional requirements and at the end ask for volunteers for the sacrificial parts, at the same time reminding them that the back or side view is not only characteristic of the person but often very interesting. He should maintain that a unity be evident in the group ; of intent, of line, and of gradation. The first is subjective and must be felt by the posers. The other two qualifications are for the artist’s consideration. At such a time his acquaintance with examples of pictorial art will come to his aid. He must be quick to recognize the possibilities of his material which may be hurriedly swept into one of the forms which have justified confidence.

When a continuity of movement has been secured, a revisionary glance must be given to determine if the whole is balanced ; background, foreground and focus, one playing into the other as the lines of a dance, leading, merging, dissolving, recurring.

Mindful of the distractions of such occasions, the wise man has done his thinking beforehand, has counted his figures, has noted the tones of clothing and has resolved on his focal light. With this much he has a start and can begin to build at once. His problem is that of the maker of a bouquet adding flower to flower around the centre.

To make a rough sketch from the models them-selves posed and thought over, with the opportunity for erasures of revisions before leading them out of doors, often proves economy of time.

It is a custom of continental painters to compose extensive groups and photograph them for study in arrangement. The author has seen numerous compositions in photography in which artists have posed as characters of well-known paintings.

Much can be learned of good grouping from the stage, especially the French stage. The best managers start with the picturesque in mind and are on the alert to produce well arranged pictures. The plays of Victorien Sardou and the classic dramas of the state theatre are studies in the art of group arrangements.

It will be noticed in most groups that there is an active and a passive element, that many figures in their reserve are required to play second to a few. The active principle is represented by these to whom a single idea is delivered for expression.

In ” The Return of the Hunting Party” the group of hounds, huntsman and deer is such an element of reserve, contrasting its repose with the bustle and activity of the visitors. It is a diversion also for the long line stretching across the picture. This is the more evident through the repetition of it in the line of the second-story and roof and below in the line of game which unnecessarily extends the group of hounds. A relief for the insistent line of the figures could have been supplied by lighter drapery back of the table. This then would have created a cross tone connecting the hounds in a curve with the upper centre panel. It is a picture in five horizontal strips, and is introduced for the warning it contains in its treatment of a group which is in itself a line. The well-known ” Spanish Marriage ” by Fortuny also shows the reserve group, but the contrast is more positive both in repose and color. The main and more distant group is well centralized and there is a clever diminuendo expressed in its characters.

In “The Reapers” (page 128) this idea has apt illustration. The figure in the foreground is in contrast with the remaining three, both as an oppositional line and in his action, the three being in repose. The single figure, though active, does not attract as much as the child who receives importance from the attention of the two figures. Her position, opposed to the two, turns the interest back into the group. In all the compositions by this master one is impressed by the grace and force of the arrangement. A small portfolio of his charcoal reproductions or a few photographs of his pictures should be a part of the print collection of every artist. No better designer of small groups ever lived.

With the amount of good art now coming from the camera it is strange that no groups of note have been produced. In the field of pure portraiture the attempt may as well be abandoned. The photographer can at best but mitigate conditions. The picture group can only apply when sacrifice and subordination are possible.

A study of famous groups will settle this and other points mentioned beyond question. In the religious group, where the idea of adoration was paramount, the principal figure was usually, though not always, given place in the upper part of the picture toward which by gestures, leading lines or directed vision our attention is drawn at once. Note the figures which sacrifice to this effect in the “Transfiguration,” “The Immaculate Conception,” ” The Sistine Madonna,” ” The Virgin Enthroned,” ” The Adoration of the Magi,” and in fact all of the world famous compositions of the old religious art.

In one of the most famous of modern groups ” The Cossacks Reply to the Sultan of Turkey,” by the greatest of Russian painters Elias Repine, the force given to the hilarious frenzy of the group by the occasional figure in repose is easily apparent (page 105).

The answer to a summons for surrender is being penned upon a rude table around which press close the barbaric leaders of the forces gathered in the distance. Some are lolling wine casks, others indifferently gaze at the fingers of the clerk as he carefully pens the document, others smoke silently, one is looking out of the picture as though unconcerned. Yet life and movement are instinct in every part, for though the action is consigned to but a few,—these form a series of small climaxes through the entire circumference of the group and we feel in another moment that the passive expressions will in their turn be exchanged for the mad ribaldry of laughter which has seized their brethren. The group is a triumph for several æsthetic realities produced and heightened by contrast and subordination.

The principality of repose is well illustrated in the group of ” The Chant ” (page 175) where the inaction of the woman dominates through its contrast with the effort expressed by the other members of the group.

There are three types of group composition ; first, where the subject’s interest is centred upon an object or idea within the picture as in ” The Cabaret ” or Rembrandt’s “Doctors ” surrounding a dissecting table ; second, where the attraction lies outside the picture as in the ” Syndics ” or the “Night Watch,” and third, where absolute repose is expressed and the sentiment of reverie has dominated the group, as in ” The Madonna of the Chair,” and the ordinary family photograph.

The spiritual or sentimental quality of the theme should have first consideration and dictate the form of arrangement. A unity between the idea and its form of expression constitutes the desideratum of refinement in composition.