Picture Composition – Light And Shade

IN this familiar term in art the importance of the two elements is suggested in their order.

The effort of the painter is ever in the direction of light. This is his thought. Shade is a necessity to the expression of it.

Chiaroscuro, from the Italian, light obscure, in its derivation, gives a hint of the manufacture of a work of light and shade.

Light is gained by sacrifice. This is one of the first things a student grasps in the antique class. Given an empty outline he produces an effect of light by adding darks. So do we get light in the composition of simple elements, by sacrifice of some one or more, or a mass of them, to the demands of the lighter parts. ” Learn to think in shadows,” says Ruskin. Rembrandt’s art entire, is the best case in point. A low toned and much colored white may be made brilliant by dark opposition. The gain to the color scheme lies in its power to exhibit great light and at the same time suggest fullness of color.

As we have discussed line and mass composition as balanced over the central vertical line, so is the question of light and shade best comprehended, as forces balancing, over a broad middle tint. The medium tint is the most important, both for tone and color. This commands the distribution of measures in both directions; toward light and toward dark. Drawings in outline upon tinted paper take on a surprising finish with a few darks added for shadow and the high lights touched in with chalk or Chinese white. The method in opaque water color, employed by F. Hopkinson Smith and others, of working over a tinted paper such as the general tone of the subject suggests, has its warrant in the early art of the Venetian painters. If a blue day, a blue gray paper is used ; if a mellow day, a yellow paper.

In pictorial art the science of light and dark is not reducible to working formulæ as in decoration, where the measures of Notan are governed on the principle of interchange. Through decoration we may touch more closely the hidden principles of light and shade in pictures than without the aid of this science, and the artist of decorative knowledge will always prove able in “effect” in his pictorial work.

With that clear conception of the power of the light and the dark measure which is acquired in the practice of “spotting” and filling of spaces, especially upon a middle tint, the problem of bringing into prominence any item of the picture is simplified upon the decorative basis.

Pictorially the light measure is more attractive than the dark, but the dark in isolation is nearly as powerful.

With this simple notion in mind the artist proceeds upon his checker-board opposing force to force.

With him the work can never be as absorbing as to the decorator whose items are all of about the same value and of recurring kinds. The subject dictates to the painter who must play more adroitly to secure an effect of light and shade by the use of devices such as nature offers.

As a matter of brilliancy of light, with which painting is concerned, the effect is greater when a small measure of light is opposed to a large measure of dark than when much light is opposed to little dark. Comparison between Whistler’s ” Woman in White,” a white gown relieved against a white ground, the black of the picture being the woman’s hair, and any one of the manger scenes of the fifteenth century painters with their concentration of light will prove how much greater the sense of light is in the latter.

When much light and little dark produces great brilliancy it is usually by reason of a gradation in the light, giving it a cumulative power, as is seen in the sky or upon receding objects on a foggy day. A small dark added, intensifies the light, not only by contrast of measure, but in showing the high key of the light measures.

Accents of dark produce such snappiness as is commended by the publisher who esteems the brilliancy which a rapid interchange of lights and darks always yields, a sparkle, running through the whole and easily printed. The works of Mr. Wenzell as a single example of this quality, or of Mr. Henry Hutt, in lighter key, will be found to gain much of their force from a very few accents of dark. On the other hand when the work deals with a medium tone and darks, with few high lights, these gain such importance as to control the important items.

The value of the middle tint, when not used as the under tone of a picture is apparent as balancing and distributing the light and dark measures of objects. When, for instance, these three degrees of tone are used, if the black and white are brought together and the middle tone opposed a sense of harmony results. The black and white if mixed would become a middle tone. We feel the balance of measures without synthesis or inquiry. Many of the compositions of Tolmouche of two and three female figures are thus disposed, one figure having a gray dress and one a black dress and white waist, or a black figure and white are placed together and opposed to a figure in gray. In Munkacsy’s ” Milton Dictating to His Daughters,” the broad white collar of the poet contrasted with his black velvet suit, is well balanced and distributed by the medium tones of the three dresses.

An accent is forcible in proportion as its own unit of intensity is distributed over the space on which it is placed. Take for instance a picture in India ink of a misty morning wherein the whole landscape may be produced with a small drop of ink spread in light gradations upon ten by fourteen inches square. An object in the foreground one by two inches in which the same measure of black is used will of course possess powerful attraction. If, however, this measure be expanded the gain in bulk will be balanced by the loss in intensity. Less attraction for the object is given either by increasing the intensity of the surrounding tint or decreasing its extent. In the two pictures by Gérôme of lions, the one in the midst of the vast space of desert obtains its force from its dark isolated in a large area. In the other picture the emerald green eyes of the lion are the attraction of the picture, as points of light relieved by the great measures of dark of the lion, together with the gloom of the cave.

The message of impressionism is light, as the effort of the early painters was to secure light, the quest of all the philosophies. The impressionist calls upon every part of his work to speak of light, the middle tint, the high lights and the shadow all vibrating with it. From the decorative point of view alone, the picture, as a surface containing the greatest amount of beauty of which the subject is capable is more beautiful when varied by many tones, or by few, in strong contrast, than when this variety or contrast is wanting. Those decorative designs have the strongest appeal in which the balancing measures are all well defined. There are schemes of much dark and little light, or the reverse, or an even division, and in each case the balance of light and dark is sustained ; for when there is little dark its accenting power is enhanced and when little light is allowed, it, in the same manner, gains in attraction. But light and dark every work of art must have ; for to think of light without dark is impossible. When, therefore, the artist begins a picture his first thought is what is to be the scheme of light and shade ? The direction or source of the light helps a decision. The illumination of the subject is a study most easily proceeded with by induction, from particular cases to general conclusions.

The effectiveness of the first of the two reversible photographs 1 is as great as the last and the subject as picturesque though it be discovered that the first is the second placed on end. It is able to satisfy us not only because of the happy coincidence that the leaves upon the bridge represent bark texture and the subdued light upon its near end creates the rotundity of the trunk or that a distant tree serves as the horizontal margin of a pool, but because its light and shade is conceived upon the terms of balance expressing in either position one of the fundamental forms of light and shade and lineal construction, that of the rectangle in either light or dark together with an oppositional measure—the light through the distant trees.

With the history of art and the world’s gallery of painting spread out before us, we may take a continuous view of the whole field. Leaving out the painters of the experimental era let us begin with the great masters of effect.

Sir Joshua Reynolds tells us it was his habit in looking for the secrets of the masters of painting to make rough pencil notes of those pictures that attracted him by their power of effect as he passed from one gallery to another. He found almost all of them revealed a broad middle tone which was divided again into half dark and half light tones, and these, added to the accents of light and dark made five distinct tones. The Venetian painters attracted him most and, he says, speaking of Titian, Paul Veronese and Tintoret, ” they appeared to be the first painters who reduced to a system what was before practised without any fixed principle.” From these painters he declares Rubens extracted his scheme of composition which was soon understood and adopted by his countrymen, even to the minor painters of low life in the Dutch school.

” When I was in Venice,” he says, ” the method I took to avail myself of their principle was this : When I observed an extraordinary effect of light and shade in any picture I darkened every part of a page in my note-book in the same gradation of light and shade as the picture, leaving the white paper untouched to represent light and this without any attention to the subject or the drawing of the figures. A few trials of this kind will be sufficient to give the method of their con-duct in the management of their lights. After a few experiments I found the paper blotted nearly alike : their general practice appeared to be to allow not above a quarter of the picture for light, including in this portion both the principal and secondary lights ; another quarter to be as dark as possible and the remaining half kept in mezzo-tint or half shadow.”

” Rubens appears to have admitted rather more light than a quarter and Rembrandt much less, scarce an eighth ; by this conduct Rembrandt’s light is extremely brilliant, but it costs too much ; the rest of the picture is sacrificed to this one object. That light will certainly appear the brightest which is surrounded with the greatest quantity of shade, supposing equal skill in the artist.

” By this means you may likewise remark the various forms and shapes of those lights as well as the objects on which they are flung; whether a figure, or the sky, a white napkin, animals, or utensils, often introduced for this purpose only. It may be observed likewise, what a portion is strongly relieved and how much is united with its ground ; for it is necessary that some part (though a small one is sufficient) should be sharp and cutting against its ground whether it be light on dark, or dark on a light ground, in order to give firmness and distinctness to the work. If, on the other hand, it is relieved on every side, it will appear as if inlaid on its ground.

” Such a blotted paper held at a distance from the eye would strike the spectator as something excellent for the disposition of the light and shadow though he does not distinguish whether it is history, a portrait, a landscape, dead game, or anything else ; for the same principles extend to every branch of art. Whether I have given an exact account or made a just division of the quantity of light admitted into the works of those painters is of no very great consequence ; let every person examine and judge for himself : it will be sufficient if I have suggested a mode of examining pictures this way and one means at least of acquiring the principles on which they wrought.”

The accompanying page of sketches has been produced in the spirit of this recommendation.

Turning from examples of figure art, to out-door nature, it will be found that these principles apply with equal force to landscape composition. No better advice could be offered the beginner in landscape than to resolutely select and pro-duce three, four or five distinct and separate tones in every study. The incoherency of beginner’s work out of doors is largely due to its crumbling into a great number of petty planes, a fault resulting from observation of detail in-stead of the larger shapes. For this reason the choice of subjects having little or no detail should be insisted on : sky and land, a chance for organic line and a division of light and shade, such as may be found in an open, rolling country where the woodland is grouped for distant masses.