Picture Composition – Relief

The popular notion concerning pictures is that they should stand out; but as has been aptly said, ” they should stand in ” ; so stand as to keep their places within the frame and to keep the component parts in control. A single object straining itself into prominence through the great relief it exhibits, is just as objectionable as the one voice in a chorus heard above the rest.

It is a law of light that all objects of the same plane receive identically the same illuminations. If then, one seems favored, it must be by suppression of the rest. Now and then this is necessary, but that it occurs by this means and not by unnatural forcing must be evident.

It is not necessary for the artist to lift his sitter off the canvas by a forced light on the figure and an intense shadow separating him from the wall behind.

Correggio knew so well to conserve breadth just here. Instead of this cheap and easy relief, he almost invariably chose to offset the dark side with a darker tone in the background, allowing the figure’s shadow to melt inperceptibly into the back space. Breadth and softness was of course the result.

Occasionally however a distinct attempt at relief may be witnessed in the work of good painters. Some of Valesquez’ standing portraits are expressive of the painter’s joy in making them ” stand out.” In all these pictures however there are no other objects, no items added to the background from which the figure is separated. The subject simply stands in air. In other words it is an entity and not a composition.

The process technically for the subduing of relief is flattening the shadows, thus rendering the marked roundness of objects less pronounced. The envelopment of air which all painting should express,—the detachment of one object from another,—goes as far toward the production of relief as is necessary.