The strange art of Blake can be adequately understood only through studying his drawings and water-colors in relation to his poetic dramas. It is not a purely pictorial art, but one relying heavily on literary, religious and other associated values. His pictures depend almost wholly on line drawing for their effects; color is often omitted, and is at best a thin, decorative wash between sharp lines. In spite of these limitations, and largely because of the unique, weird fascination of the dream-world they represent, Blake’s pictures have attained a rank in art far higher than those of his contemporaries, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney, whose facile use of paint expresses only trivial imaginings. He is deeply indebted to Michelangelo, not only for his rhythmic designs of muscular bodies, but for their power to express the majestic grandeur of the Old Testament and of Dante’s mystical visions. On this basis he develops qualities of line that are all his own. One is a power of suggestive illustration: the ability to convey with a few terse lines the essentials of some tremendous epic vision.
In Satan Smiting Job, every detail cooperates to suggest the swooping of fiery wings, the emptying of the vials of wrath, the writhing of Job’s torment, and the drooping figure of hopeless pity at his feet. A lurid sunset, with alternate scalloped rings of light and dark, mauve, blue and rose above dull yellow earth, adds a background suitably fantastic and explosive. The rhythms of line are full of contrast: sometimes dramatically sweeping; sometimes tense, suppressed and cramped; sometimes rippling and twisting in long flowing streams, as in Job’s hair and beard, and in the flaming liquid pouring down. Natural proportions are freely altered, in the building up of some bizarre design of contorted, huddled, or flying, wind-swept bodies. Thus his scanty technical resources are used with such hypnotic power to stimulate the imagination, that one almost forgets the slightness of what is actually offered to the eye.