Picture Composition – Postulates

Every picture is a collection of units or items. Every unit has a given value.

The value of a unit depends on its attraction ; its attraction varies as to its placement.

A unit near the edge has more attraction than at the centre.

Every part of the picture space has some attraction.

Space having no detail may possess attraction by gradation and by suggestion.

A unit of attraction in an otherwise empty space has more weight through isolation than the same when placed with other units.

A black unit on white or a white on black has more attraction than the same on gray.

The value of a black or white unit is proportioned to the size of space contrasting with it.

A unit in the foreground has less weight than one in the distance.

Two or more associated units may be reckoned as one and their united centre is the point on which they balance with others.

There is balance of Line, of Mass, of Light and Dark, of Measure, which is secured upon a scale of attraction which each possesses. Many pictures exhibit these in combination.

The ” Lion of the Desert,” by Gerome shows three isolated spots and one line of attraction. The trend of vision on leaving the lion is to the extreme right and thence back along the path-way of the dark distance into the picture to the group of trees. Across this is an oppositional balance from the bushes of the foreground to the mountains of the extreme distance. The only line in the composition, better seen in the painting than in the reproduction, counts much in the balance over the centre. The placement of the important item or subject, has little to do with the balance scheme of a picture. This is the starting point, and balance is a consideration beyond this.

In every composition the eye should cross the central division at least once. This initiates equipoise, for in the survey of a picture the eye naturally shifts from the centre of interest, which may be on one side, to the other side of the canvas. If there be something there to receive it, the balance it seeks is gratified. If it finds nothing, the artist must create something, with the conclusion that some element of the picture was lacking.

In the snow-scene the eye is attracted from the pine-trees to the houses on the left and rests there, no attraction having been created to move it to the other half of the picture.

What is known as divided interest in a picture is nothing more than the doubt established by a false arrangement of balance, too great an attraction being used where less weight was needed. The artist must be the judge of the degree of satisfaction he allows this feeling, but no one can ignore it and obtain unity.

The question of degree must have a caution placed before it ; for in an attempt to create a balance on the opposite side of the vertical the tendency is to use too heavy a weight. The whole of the subject is sometimes made to take its place well on one side and another item would seem redundant. Two points will be noticed in all of such cases : that the opposing half may either be cut off without damage, or greatly elongated, and in both forms the picture seems to survive. The fact becomes an argument for the theory of balance across a medial upright line ; in the first instance by shifting the line itself into the centre of the subject, and in the second by securing more weight of space with which to balance the subject.

The portrait of Sarah Bernhardt,’ an excellent composition from many points of view, finds its most apparent balance on either side of the sinuous line of light through the centre exhibiting the axis, which many pictures show in varying degrees. The opposing corners are well balanced, the plant over against the dog, with a trifle too much importance left to the dog. Place the finger in observation over the head and forelegs of the dog, taking this much off and the whole composition gains, not only because the diagonal corners then balance, but because the heads of both woman and dog are too important for the same side of the picture.

It would be perfectly possible in the more complete composition to have both heads as they are, but this would demand more weight on the other side ; or a shifting of the whole picture very slightly toward the left side.

In the painting this is not felt, as the head of the dog is so treated that it attracts but little, though the object be in the close foreground.

This picture also balances on the horizontal and vertical lines.

Here we have the dog and fan balancing the body and plant. The balance across the diagonal of the figure, by the opposition of the dog with the plant is very complete. Joined with the hanging lamp above, this sinuous line effects a letter S or without the dog and leaf Hogarth’s line of beauty.

In the matter also of the weakening of the necessary foundation lines which support the figure (the sofa), and cut the picture in two, this curving figure, the pillow and the large leaf do excellent service.

When one fills a vase with flowers he aims at both unity and balance, and if, in either color combination, or in massing and accent, it lacks this, the result is disturbing. Let the vase be-come a bowl and let the bowl be placed on its edge and made to resemble a frame, entirely surrounding the bouquet ; his effort remains the same. To be effective in a frame, balance and unity are just as necessary. The eye finds repose and delight in the perfect equipoise of elements, brought into combination and bound together by the girdle of the frame.

A picture should be able to hang from its exact centre. Imperfect composition inflicts upon the beholder the duty of accommodating his head to the false angle of the picture. Pictures that stand the test of time do not demand astigmatic glasses. We view them balanced, and they re-peat the countersign—” balanced.”

After settling upon this as the great consideration in the subject of composition and reducing the principle to the above law, I confess I had not the full courage of my conviction for a six month, for now and then a picture would appear that at first glance seemed like an unruly colt, to refuse to be harnessed to the theory and was in danger of kicking it to pieces. After a number of such apparent exceptions and the ease with which they submitted to the test of absolute balance from the centre, on the scheme of the steel-yards, I am now entirely convinced that what writers have termed the ” very vague subject of composition,” ” the perplexing question of arrangement of parts,” etc., yields to this simplest law, and which, in its directness and clearness, affords the simplest of working rules. Those whose artistic freedom bids defiance to the slavery of rule, as applied to an artistic product, and who try to produce something that shall break all rules, in the hope of being original, spend the greater part of the time in but covering the surface so that the principle may not be too easily seen, and the rest of the time in balancing the unbalanced.

As the balance of the figure dominates all other considerations in the statue or painting of the human form, so does the equipoise of the picture, or its balance of parts, become the chief consideration in its composition. The figure balances its weight over the point of support, as the flying Mercury on his toes, the picture upon a fulcrum on which large and small masses hang with the same delicate adjustment. In Fortuny’s ” Connoisseurs,” 1 the two men looking at a picture close to the left of the centre form the subject. The dark mass behind them stops off further penetration in this direction, but the eye is drawn away into the light on the right and seeks the man carrying a portfolio. At his distance, together with the lighted objects he easily balances the important group on the other side of the centre. Indeed, with the attractiveness of the clock, vase, plaque, mantel and chest, his face would have added a grain too much, and this the artist happily avoided by covering it with the portfolio.

In the portrait study of ” Lady with Muff,” one first receives the impression that the figure has been carelessly placed and, indeed, it would go for a one-sided and thoughtless arrangement but for the little item, almost lost in shadow, on the left side. This bit of detail enables the eye to penetrate the heavy shadow, and is a good example of the value of the small weight on the long arm of the steelyard, which balances its opposing heavy weight.

This picture is trimmed a little too much on the top to balance across the horizontal line, and, in-deed, this balance is the least important, and, in some cases, not desirable ; but the line of light fol-lowing down from. the face and across the muff and into the lap not only assists this balance, but carries the eye into the left half, and for that reason is very valuable in the lateral balance, which is all important to the upright subject.

One other consideration regarding this picture, in the matter of balance, contains a principle : The line of the figure curves in toward the flower and pot which become the radius of the whole inner contour. This creates an elliptical line of observation, which being the arc on this radius receives a pull toward its centre. There is a modicum of balance in the mere weight of this empty space, but when given force by its isolation, plus the concession to its centripetal significance, the small item does great service in settling the equilibrium of the picture. The lines are precisely those of the Rubens recently added to the Metropolitan Museum, wherein the figures of Mary, her mother, Christ and John form the arc and the bending form of the monk its oppositional balance.

In proof of the fact that the half balance, or that on either side of the vertical is sufficient in many subjects, see such portraits in which the head alone is attractive, the rest being suppressed in detail and light, for the sake of this attraction.

It is rarely that figure art deals with balance over the horizontal central line in conjunction with balance over the vertical.

One may recall photographs of figures in which the positions on the field of the plate are very much to one side of the centre, but which have the qualifying element in leading line or balance by an isolated measure that brings them within the requirements of unity. The ” Brother and Sister ” by Miss Kasebier—the boy in sailor cap crowding up to the face and form of his younger sister,—owes much to the long, strongly-relieved line of the boy’s side and leg which draws the weight to the opposite side of the picture. In imagination we may see the leg below the knee and know how far on the opposite side of the central vertical his point of support really is. The movement in both figures originates from this side of the picture as the lines of the drapery show. Deprive such a composition of its balancing line and instead of a picture we would have but two figures on one side of a plate.

The significance of the horizontal balance is best understood in landscape, with its extended perspective. Here the idea becomes reminiscent of our childhood’s “teeter.” Conceiving a long space from foreground to distance, occupied with varied degrees of interest, it is apparent how easily one end may become too heavy for the other. The tempering of such a chain of items until the equipoise is attained must be coordinate with the effort toward the lateral balance.