Picture Composition – The Composition Of One, Two, Three And More Units

STARTING with a single idea represented by a single unit the coexistent thought must be the frame or canvas circumference. Supplying this we may then think of the unit as a matter of proportion. When the amount of space allowed the unit has been decided, the space between its circumference and the dimensions of the canvas, or what may be called the surplus or contributing area is the only thing that remains to engage us. Let the unit be a standing figure, or a portrait, head and shoulders.

The unification of a unit, enclosed in four sides, with those sides can only be accomplished by either having the mass of the figure touch the sides of the canvas, or stretch toward them with that intent. According to the strength or number of such points of attachment will the unit be found to maintain a stable existence amid its surroundings. In the case of the single figure standing within the frame where no chance of contact occurs, the background should show an oppositional mass or line attaching at some point the vertical sides of the figure to the sides of the canvas. An equivalent of such a line is a gradation, often the shadow from the figure serving to effect this union. If the shadow unites the outline with the background in such a tone as to subdue or destroy this outline, the attachment becomes stronger and at the same time the positiveness of outline on the light side finds its contrast and balance in this area of mystery and envelopment.

A development by chiaroscuro is a necessity to the pictorial unity of the single figure.

In the portrait of Olga Nethersole (see “The Pose in Portraiture “), the photographer presents the section of a figure ; not a picture. The spaces in the background form no scheme with the figure and have not been used to relieve the lines of the skirt. The sacrifice in half-tone of the lower part would have given prominence to the upper and more important part. Owing to the interest and attraction of the triplicated folds of the dress the vision is carried all the way to the lower edge, where it is irritated by the sudden disappearance. The picture has no conclusion. It is simply cut off, and so ended.

It is the opinion of some artists that the portrait having for its purpose the presentation of a personality should contain nothing else. With the feeling that the background is something that should not be seen, more art is often expended in painting a space with nothing in it than in putting something there that may not be seen. In doing nothing with a background a space may be created that says a great deal that it should not.

There is nothing more difficult than the composition of two units especially when both are of equal prominence. The principle of Principality sets its face sternly against the attempt.

One must dominate, either in size, or attraction, either by sentiment or action.

Art can show distinguished examples of two figures of equal importance placed on the same canvas, but pictorially they lack the essential of complete art,—unity. The critical study of this problem by modern painters has secured in portraiture and genre much better solutions than can be found in the field of good painting up to the present. We may look almost in vain through old masterdom and through the examples of the golden age of portraiture in England, discovering but few successes of such combination in the works of Gainsborough, Reynolds and others.

The foreplacement of one figure over another does not always mean prominence for it. Light, as an element, is stronger than place. On this basis where honors are easy with the two subjects one may have precedence of place and one of lighting.

The difficulty in the arrangement of two is in their union. If, for instance, they are opposed in sentiment as markedly as two fencers there yet must be a union secured in the background. If placed in perspective, perspective settles most of the difficulty.

The accompanying pictures are examples at both ends of the scale. ” The Lovers,” in construction, shows what all pictures demand, the centripetal tendency. All the elements consist. As a picture it is complete ; another figure would spoil it for us and them. Not so the ” Poulterers ” ; persons could come and go in this picture without effecting it. It is but a section at best. One can imagine a long row of pickers, or we could cut it through the centre and have two good studies. There is no union. The other contains principality, transition of line, balance of light and shade, circular observation, opposition of color values and the principle of sacrifice.

In Mr. Orchardson’s ” Mother and Child”‘ the first place is given to the child in white ; the background carries the middle tint and the mother has been reserved in black. Greater sacrifice of one figure to another, the mother to the child, is seen in Miss Kasebier’s picture of a nude infant held between the knees of the mother whose face is so abased as to be unseen ; or in John Sargent’s portrait of a boy seated and gazing toward us into space while his mother in the half-shadow of the background reads aloud. The greatest contributing force to contrast is sacrifice. The subject is known to be important by what is conceded to it.

The portrait of two gentlemen by Eastman Johnson is one of the most successful attempts at bringing two figures of equal importance on to one canvas. They are in conversation, the one talking and active, the other listening and passive, and the necessary contrast is thus created.

In the combination of three units the objection of formal balance disappears. If one be opposed by two, the force gained by the one through isolation commensurates the two. In such arrange-ment the two may be united by overlapping so that though the sense and idea of two be present it is shown in one mass as a pictorial. unit. This general disposition, experience shows to be the best. Two other good forms are two separated units joined by other items and opposed to one, or the three joined either directly or by suggestion, the units balanced like a triangle by op-position. The Madonna and St. John with the Infant Christ is a sample of the first. (See page 204). In the ” Connoisseurs ” 1 by Fortuny we have the second form, and in the ” Huntsman and Hounds “2 the third. A most original and commendable arrangement of three figures by W. L. Hollinger appears in ” The Pose in Portraiture,” the members of a trio, violin, cello and piano. The pianist is designated by the suggestion of her action which is completed out of the picture. In her position however she accomplishes the balancing of two figures against one.