The Art of Illustration – Dore And Scale

AN important matter to consider in a composition is the relative scale of the figures to their surroundings, so that there is no conflict of interest between them. If it is desired to represent facial character and expression it will be necessary to take a fairly close view of the figures, which will then naturally be made to dominate their surroundings ; but if they are so placed that the emphasis of the composition falls so evenly that a doubt might be felt as to where lay the primary interest of the designer, it will be well to suppress them still further, that they may appear sub-ordinate at least to their surroundings, and depending for their dramatic effect largely upon silhouette. Interest should never be half-heartedly distributed.

Dore’s illustrations to Balzac’s ” Coates Drolatiques ” are remarkable in this particular. He appears to have had a natural eye for scale, and bases many of his happiest effects upon it. On a full-page block of 3 3/8 base and 5 high, he can so manage scale as to give a sense of perfectly stupendous height and massiveness to buildings, mountains, etc. He piles Pelion on Ossa with the utmost ease (see for example p. 119, p. 123, and elsewhere).

In the ” Table des Dessins ” there is a wonderful series of thirty little drawings to the titles of the different stories. It is almost miraculous the amount of dramatic effect he has obtained, for he will give a dancing crowd in fantastic silhouette, a procession of beggars in a spacious landscape, an ambuscade of cross-bowmen with their victim, and over a score of other fancies appealing directly to the eye without the eye having to seek them out in a space frequently no more than 3 by 1, and sometimes less.

One drawing is amusing as it contains a curious little problem in addition to the subject of it. It is 3 wide, by high ; but it represents three sides of the quadrangle of a monastery, with a tearing carmagnole of monks on the centre. There are innumerable windows drawn in ; but whether he got tired of putting them in himself and desired to leave it to the engraver to carry on after he had indicated about three-quarters of them and just wrote ” etc.” to direct him ; whether the engraver was too stupid to take the hint or was witty enough to think he would ” show up ” the artist’s indolence, is uncertain ; but he has been at pains to engrave the ” etc.” instead of filling in the windows, which would have been the easier task. This ” etc.” is in reverse, which rather points to its having been bona-fide an instruction to the engraver, and that the engraver took it simply as in the day’s work.

Though nearly all the drawings in this volume are engraved on wood, and very sympathetically interpreted, considerable artistic ability beyond mere accuracy being frequently called for, there are one or two examples where an apparently autographic process has been used by Dore.

At page 91 will be found ” L’Advocat Feron,” which is probably printed from a stereotype or electrotype from a drawing scratched through a ground of sufficient body upon a metal plate to yield relief to the cast taken from it. It is signed G. Dore, in both of the bottom corners, as though the artist had worked twice upon the plate, and one signature may have been obscured ; and in the middle, between the two signatures, is ” Procede Piaud.” From the fineness of a great number of the lines there is little doubt that it is printed from a metal block. It shares many of the characteristics of a pen drawing and of an etching combined, which would arise from the use of an etching needle, varied with a chisel-edged instrument ; the spaces of solid black having the appearance of being scraped with a penknife. There are traces of the block printing up here and there between the lines, this pointing to its being shallow in the intricate parts. There is no indication of this in the more open spaces ; but it would be easy for a wood-engraver to run over the block and deepen these places where printing up was most likely to happen. If this conjecture as to the method used is correct, the process was one similar to one tested by the writer about 1890, which was intended for rapid reproduction by means of stereotyping alone without the aid of photography. The plate was coated heavily with a white, chalky preparation of considerable thickness, through which the artist scratched, blowing away the ploughed out chalk, which interfered with his view of the work done. The difficulties presented to the artist by this method lost what time was saved in reproduction, so that the advantages were outweighed by the disadvantages, and it was not used. The history of the Piaud process may have been similar. Dore was an impatient technician, and in spite of the interest of this particular result, he probably found the method irksome, preferring that trouble should be taken by the wood-engraver, so long as he himself was spared.

In the later process it was not only a question of eliminating the costly labour of the wood-engraver and giving a more autographic result, but of hampering the artist in his means of expression, to save the time of the photographer, which was worth less , and as the work had to be done the exact size of the proposed print, elaborate detail, easy enough on a larger scale than the reproduction, was rendered difficult or impossible where no reduction could take place.

So late as 1860 some excitement seems to have been caused by a mechanical means of enlarging and reducing drawings by producing them in lithographic ink on a sheet of vulcanized rubber, which was then either stretched or relaxed to the required scale. It was thought that this would be of great use, not only for artistic purposes, but for the production cif ordnance maps, Bibles, and so on, once drawn or set up. Surprisingly accurate results were obtained by the ” Electro-Printing-Block Company,” presumably formed to work the patent, which, of course, must shortly have been displaced by photographic methods. In Once a Week for August 25th, 186o, in an article headed ” The India-Rubber Artist,” we read : ” We may have the earliest folio copies of Shakespeare’s plays reproduced with exactness in more available sizes through the medium of a few sheets of India-rubber. It seems only the other day since this extraordinary substance performed the solitary duty of rubbing out pencil marks ; now it bids fair to revolutionize one branch of the Fine Arts, and to add very largely to the sum of enjoyment among the refined and educated classes of society. When the first savage tapped the India-rubber tree how little did he dream,” etc.

The enthusiast for this process did not foresee the overwhelming arrival of photographic methods that have swept this one away. But he had a prophetic sense of the uses of rubber, which is having far-reaching effects on printing at the present time, in the offset Press, quite apart from its other commercial uses.

An important, but frequently overlooked, fact in scale is that a sense of grandeur or of towering height of a building, a mountain, or a Titan, will not be achieved either by using a large sheet of paper, nor by an accumulation of gigantic parts to build up the enormous whole. The sense of impressive size is as readily produced on. a half sheet of notepaper as on a ten or twenty foot canvas, since in both cases it is arrived at by proportion. A baby drawn on the half-sheet will look no less essentially a baby if enlarged to backcloth may be painted to represent nothing larger than a cottage interior, yet through the window may be seen the Alps. How is this ?

Let us suppose that we have to represent a giant in a space 2 in. high by 2 in. base. He is described as of enormous height, with a tremendous head , his great muscles bulging, his great footprints annihilating cities, his hands swinging an uprooted tree for a club, till we are appalled at the accumulation.

If all these details are drawn as large as possible, with every toe as big as a street, what shall we get as a result ?

A dwarf—a clumsily built baby, ” The smallest Giant on record.” We shall have equal length and breadth, and so miss the impression of height.

Great size is conveyed rather by the minimizing of detail, the keeping of it small, in order to subtract as little as possible from the mass.