Picture Composition – Principality By Emphasis, Sacrifice, And Contrast

Under the discussion of Balance it was shown that a small measure often became the equivalent of a larger measure by reason of its particular placement. The sacrifice of many measures to one, also is often the wisest disposition of forces. Upon the stage, spectacular arrangement is constructed almost entirely on this principle. The greater the number of figures supporting, or sacrificing to the central figure, the greater its importance. The sun setting over fields or through the woods though covering but a very limited measure of the picture is what we see and remember, the remaining space serving this by subordination. Note how masters of landscape reach after such a point either by banking up abruptly about it as in the wood interior, or by vast gradations toward it. The muzzle of the cannon is the only place where the fire and smoke are seen, but how much weight is necessitated back of this for the recoil, and how much space must be reckoned on for the projectile of the gun. A terrific explosion takes place; but we do not realize its power until it is noted that sound reverberated and the earth trembled for miles around. For its full realization the report of the quiet miles is important. The lack of this support in the light and shade scheme, whereby the principal object is made to occupy too much space is one of the commonest of faults in photography and illustration.

One familiar with woodland scenery knows well how often a subject is lost and found as the sun changes in its course. At one moment a striking composition is present, the highest light giving kingly distinction to one of the monarchs of the forest. Passing on to return in a few minutes one looks in vain for the subject. He is sure of the particular spot, but the king stands sullen in the shadow, robbed of his golden mantle which is now divided to bedeck two or three striplings in the background. For the painter the only recourse is to make a pencil note of the original scheme of light and shade and hold resolutely to it. The photographer must patiently wait for it.

Says Reynolds :

“Every man that can paint at all can execute individual parts ; but to keep these parts in due subordination as relative to a whole, requires a comprehensive view of art that more strongly implies genius than perhaps any quality whatever.”

No more forcible examples of this truth may be had than the art of Claude Lorraine. Claude whose nature painting Ruskin berates but whose composition is strong, had two distinct arrangements, both based on the principle of Principality. In the first he created sides for the centre which were darkened so that the light of the centre might gain by contrast. It is the formal Raphaelesque idea ; the other and much better one shows a division of the picture into thirds. The first division is given to the largest mass but usually not the most important. This, if trees or a building, is shadow covered, reserving the more distant mass, which is the most attractive, to gain by the sacrifice of the foreground mass.

The first of these forms was evidently most esteemed by Claude, for his greatest works are thus conceived : ” Cleopatra Landing at Tarsus,” “The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba,” see page 161. ” The Flight into Egypt,” ” St. Paul leaving Ostia,” “The Seaport with the Large Tower ” and others. In all of these the light proceeds toward us through an avenue which the sides create. Under this effect we receive the light as it comes to us. In the other form the vision is carried into the picture by a series of mass attractions the balance being less apparent. “The Landscape of the Dresden Gallery,” ” The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca,” ” The Finding of Moses,” ” Egeria and Her Nymphs,” and ” Driving Cattle to the Meadows,” together with many etchings, are based on the second form. In all these about one third of the picture is put into shadow, a great right angle being constructed of the vertical mass and the shadow which it casts, generally across the entire foreground.

In ” The Travel of the Soul” by Howard Pyle, reproduced from the Century _Magazine, is remarkably expressed the fullness of quality resulting from these few principles. The force of the light is increased first by juxtaposition with the deepest dark merging so gradually into the darkness behind as to become the end or culmination of the great gradation of the back-ground. As in many works by the older masters the source of light is conceived within the picture, so by its issuance from the inward of the wing, the valuable principle of radiation has resulted, the light passing upward through the wan face behind to the crescent moon and below through the sleeve and long fold of the dress to the ground. On the side it follows the arm disappearing through the fingers into the shadow.

Beyond this circuit lies the great encasement of another gradation darkening toward the sides and corners. This has been interrupted by the tree masses and sky of the upper side, as the idea of radiation was changed on the left by the oppositional line of branch forms. In the other pictures of this remarkable series may be found three distinct type forms of composition.

Together they set forth the structure of the circle or ellipse, the letter S or line of beauty, the triangle, and the cross. The one before us discloses a triangle or letter IT, on which the figures compose, within a triangle formed of the rock fracture and path.

It must be remembered that the effort of the artist is to secure light in the degree which his subject demands. There are many degrees of light and they must not be confounded. The light of a lantern is not sufficient illumination for an effect under gas and a window on the north side won’t do to call sunlight into a room upon a posed figure. The fault of many pictures is that the proprieties just here are violated. Some of the lowest toned interiors of Israels are satisfactory when judged from the standpoint of light, while out of door attempts in high key fail to suggest the fact of a sun in nature. The fault is that the exact degree of illumination which the subject demands is not present.

There may be a greater feeling of light in a figure sitting in the shadow than in the same figure next to a window.

To the painter, light and air are but degrees of the same idea. If the figure seated in the shadow is well enveloped and relieved by the exact temper of reflected lights, it takes its place in his scheme of brilliant lighting as much as any other part.

The purpose of shadow is first to produce light, second to secure concentration, third to dismiss space not required and incidentally to suggest air and relief by the gradation which every shadow must have.

The idea of Notan, or the Light and Dark combination of Japanese art, differs from this in its intent, which is merely to set forth an agreeable interchange of light, dark and medium toned spaces. To the decorative intentions of the oriental artist natural fact is of small concern and the fact of shade produced by light is dismissed as are many other notions which are non-conformable to his purpose. The great value of this concept, however, should be recognized, and in formulating a scheme of light and shade for any picture its light and dark masses may be so arranged as to suggest much of the beauty which its flat translation by Notan would yield. The practice of laying out the flat light and dark scheme of every picture which is to be finished in full relief is therefore most helpful, and directly in line with Sir Joshua’s habit with the old masters.

It is not sufficient that pictures have lights and darks. The balance here is quite as important as line and measure. The proportion of light to dark depends on the importance required by certain parts of the picture. Effectiveness is given to that end of the scale which is reserved in small quantity. The white spot attracts in the ” Dead Warrior,” 1 the dark spot in the “Lion of the Desert.” A comparison of the “Night Watch” and the ” Landscape” 4 by Inness will show that both are constructed on a medium tone on which strong relief is secured by contrasts of light and dark. Isolated spots occur through each contributing an energy opposed to the subtle gradations of the large spaces. The rich depths of the background and the frequent opposition of shadow with light in the landscape are very typical of Inness’ art and we know that the ” Night Watch ” contains the best thought and richest conclusions of the greatest master of light and shade.

The type forms in light and shade are less pronounced than those of linear construction, though through all compositions of effect, certain well defined schemes of chiaroscuro are traceable. As soon as any one is selected it rests with the artist to vary its conventional structure and make it original.

Lack of a well-defined scheme of light and dark however, is ruinous to any pictorial or decorative undertaking.

The accompanying wood interiors are introduced in proof that light and shade rather than form is the pictorial element of greatest value. In both pictures the principles of chiaroscuro are strongly expressed, and we look closely before discovering that the first one is the second placed on end.

Analysis of pictures into light, dark, and half-tone develops the following forms.