The Art of Illustration – Composition And The Principle Of Groups

THE principles underlying the harmonious arrangement or grouping of lines are to be derived from nature. It is only necessary to observe how two or more people brought into any relation by a common interest, such as walking together, conversing, reading from the same hymn-book, or watching a balloon will immediately, no matter what their individual differences, form a harmonious group, focussed as they are upon their common interest. When this focus is withdrawn they will relapse from being components of a group ; they become scattered and individual again, irrelevancy of line takes place, and the unity of the group is broken up. It is not, therefore, rule of thumb, but a natural law not to be broken, that the focus of a group is the essential point to establish and the relation of individuals to it, for from this point harmony will radiate.

If figures are brought into a natural relation to this they will fall inevitably into a sympathetic arrangement, which is harmony. If the hub of a wheel is broken out the spokes will become individuals united in a common bond of misfortune and to that extent a group; but not the compacted parts of a whole ; if the fellies, too, are broken, the spokes change : they are no longer spokes, but unrelated sticks again.

Antagonism is in itself a relation, and will be conditioned by the rule just stated. In so far as the direction of interest is common to antagonists, to that extent they will form parts of a group. They may be united in hatred in such a manner that the line may be almost ndistinguishable from that of love. It will be the passionate angularity or rigidity of the line rather than in the main contour that hatred will distinguish itself from the more suave and genial curves of affection.

But antagonism of interest is immediately seen in antagonism or contradiction of line, and in a general stiffening of curvature.

Indifference of relation will arise from the dispersal of the foci, giving each individual his or her own pre-occupation regardless of those of others. No matter how tight packed a number of people may be, they are not a crowd, a group, or a unit until they have been welded together by some common focus. Mass or multitude alone does not make a crowd—they may still remain individuals. See any photograph of a football fifteen each intent on his own personality, though all in exactly the same pose and all looking alike. Yet they do not make a crowd. They are fifteen individuals each cut off from his neighbour. On this point there is a saying of Degas in presence of a picture of a multitude of people without cohesion of relationship, which is worth quoting : ” I see fifty people but no crowd one makes a crowd with five and not with fifty.”

An earnest congregation kneeling in silent prayer is not strictly a crowd : it is a gathering of separate persons in more or less the same attitude, but passionately individual ; a moment later, intent upon the preacher, they have become a crowd held by the same unit of interest, with all their many individualities submerged into one. In the theatre there may be one crowd in the stalls, a second in the pit, and a third in the gallery it is the aim of an actor to weld the entire house into a unit.

So with the artist : having observed the action of these laws, he will have less difficulty in achieving unity or harmony in his work, and a dispersal of interest will only appear when this is essential to the subject and under the artist’s control.

The harmony of figures in a composition will make itself, arising naturally from the situation, and will not be forced upon it. Here we have the underlying rule of true rhythm and balance in figure composition, and a multitude of rules of thumb for their attainment become, in the light of this, tinkering and superfluous.

Composition consists in the arrangement of essentials in harmonious and proportionate relation, so as to form one whole from the component parts.

In making a figure composition a matter of the first importance is that the pattern or silhouette made by the figure or figures shall be of interest in themselves, and well proportioned to and arranged in the space to be filled. No matter how realistic or how decorative the treatment to be adopted, certain principles will equally apply, such as rhythm of line or of interest, correct relation, balance, and subordination of parts.

The compositions of Degas, so founded on observation of life, and so startling when first seen, are yet entirely satisfactory from this point of view. The first essential for an artist is interest, and the intensity of his interest will generally determine the quality of the interest of his work for others. It is impossible for the bored person to be creatively interesting. A recital of unselected and unrelated facts in a story is as dull as a ditch, unless the mind of the reciter has in some way been stirred by them. Interest will then communicate itself through the recital to the listener. The main interest of facts is not in themselves alone, but in their relation to others. That a man should be six feet high causes no excitement, but that a man should be six feet high in a race of pigmies would be a marvel, not only to his own race but to a race of giants. A pig-tailed mandarin walking in Canton is simply one of a crowd ; but strolling impassively across the cricket pitch on one of our village greens he becomes a dramatic unit, though he is unalterably the same. Likeness may be as dramatic as contrast ; even the likeness of twins.

One of the most dramatic things ever observed by the writer was when, on a summer’s night, a man approached from an opposite direction who, while his figure was visible enough against the reflections of the pavement, had all the appearance of headlessness above the gleam of his collar, until under the lamp as he passed there was the glitter of eyes and the flash of teeth, his face at the moment of passing being the exact tone of the night background. It was only a nigger, to whom circumstances of lighting gave all the uncanny appearance of a headless man walking down Regent Street among the commonplace crowd. The cause of the drama is in each of these cases the same—the unexpected. The relation in which facts are placed to each other will be at least half their interest, so that their degree of likeness or contrast, their quality of rarity or commonness, strangeness or familiarity, is of the greatest importance. To search and find out the particular from the average, and the individual in the type as indicated in Kipling’s boast, ” I found nought common on Thy Earth,” is part of the Science of Art.


Having decided upon the elements necessary to be introduced into a composition ; for instance, a policeman, a cat, Queen Elizabeth, a geranium, Buckingham Palace, the moon and a bucket, it is necessary to consider the relation between them, and so to arrange these elements that their congruity or otherwise shall appeal to the eye with due emphasis on each fact in relation to its importance in the main scheme. A mere cataloguing of the elements without cohesion of interest so that they remain as Lot 1, 2, 3, etc., dumped haphazard upon the paper like relics of a broken home, is not composition—the elements remain disintegrate, no matter how wonderfully expressed as individuals.

Composition is the expression of their relation rather than of their separate identities—the sinking of these in their common lot. This relation has no line of its own by which it is expressed as an entity—it is the sum of the parts which contribute to it—anything in a given space which does not contribute to this unit subtracts from its value. It is of no use to endeavour to bring about unity if this is fundamentally absent by the introduction of minor links—the chain should be of equal strength throughout. A background, no matter how interesting as a unit, is an obtrusive nuisance unless it fulfils its function of being in the background. Queen Elizabeth and the geranium, no matter how exquisite, must take their place if needs be, subsidiary to the policeman and the cat.

Harmony of style and subject matter

It will be found necessary to adapt the technique of illustration to different styles of authorship. The severity of Albrecht Durer would little harmonize with the sparkling grace of the ” Dolly Dialogues.” Biblical or religious subjects are too frequently approached with a nerveless technique inanely decorative and characterfless, or reconstructive in a dull photographic method—or worst of all, with a falsetto note of sentimentality. Every style will eventually be judged by its sincerity, which may be mistaken in its conviction, but the passion of its maintenance will at least make it respectable. Too easy an acceptance of things taught, or of the fashion of the moment, without a study of the roots from which the fashion sprung, or of the basis of the teaching, may lead to the use of a ready-made or secondfhand formula that does not fit the personality of the artist, who will appear to be masquerading, until he has evolved a style of his own. At the same time, a style that is more or less elastic, so that it can be stretched in one direction or another without too much strain upon it, is a useful asset if it can be achieved.

A method founded primarily upon outline, to which may be added simplified modelling and shadow, but leaving out any elaborate attempt to render surface or minor shades or atmosphere is, I believe, the basis of the finest stylistic draughtsmanship. Complications may be introduced, but it is probable that a strict method of the kind, severe as its limitations are, will satisfy the mind trained in aesthetics more than the most complex.