Cennini prescribed thirteen years as a prober period of apprenticeship for a painter. The pupil commenced at the tender age of ten. He studied elementary drawing upon tablets for a year. There followed six years in the master's workshop grinding colours, boiling pastes, kneading plaster, then becoming skilful in the preparation of panels, enriching them, polishing them, putting on gold and graining them well. After this, six more years to study colours, and gilding with mordants, to treat draperies with gold, and to practice working upon walls'. All this time he was drawing incessantly never laying aside his drawing either on festivals or working days". Times have changed. Cennini wrote his treatise in the fifteenth century, incidentally, while in prison for debt and eighty years old. Now the student is relieved from a great deal of drudgery in the preparation of his materials, but he is not saved from the necessity of drawing incessantly. Sound draghtsmanship still prevails as the most vital element in the practice of art, and only unabated industry will serve to acquire skill therein and to maintain it. Michaelangelo frequently went to bed fully clothed, too tired to undress; Rubens rose at four in the morning to work; Constable forgot his meals; Cox often completed two sketches before breakfast; Sargent painted a head every day, also before breakfast, for practice; every successful painter has worked hard. He cannot rest after having gained a certain degree of facility in drawing, and expect to retain it. He must advance or fall behind. Without practice he will forget; his eye will fail him; and his hand will deny its master.
Drawing is the representation of form; the graphic expression of a visual experience.
The science of perspective is derivative, and bears the same relation to drawing as grammar does to language. Its laws' wrote Ruskin, are too few and too gross to be applied to any subtle form'. Its usefulness therefore is restricted to the education of the youthful eye.
Aerial perspective has nothing to do with line, but concerns tones and colours, by the delicate manipulation of which an artist can suggest infinite distance.
The student of landscape often hopes to hide bad drawing in the immense variety of form in nature. He has discovered that no mountain has the same contour as another, no two leaves are ever shaped alike, that the windings of every stream are unique, the foliations of cloud never duplicated, but he cannot deviate, ever so slightly, from his model until he is skilful enough to avoid making mistakes, and experienced enough in natural laws to be confident as to the probability of any changes that he makes.
Practice in drawing need not be confined to landscape. There is no reason in the child's complaint that there's nothing to draw, unless it be that he sees nothing of sufficient interest to fire his enthusiasm for drawing. I draw all kinds of things when I cannot get out - interiors, flowers, portraits, besides street scenes from my windows. The study of the human figure is sound preliminary practice for landscape painters, even if it is true that the best drawing-masters are the woods and the hills. It is all a matter of developing the powers of observation, for the hand will record whatever the eye and mind perceive.
Composition is the type in the arts of mankind of the Providential government of the world
The whole of art lies in the human body.
The fact that the majority of modern painters devote themselves to landscape may seem anomalous to those who have heard that all the accepted standards of grace and good proportion reside in the human figure, with whose beauty, perfection, and grandeur no other form may vie. The waist line divides the body into two parts, of which the lower is three-fifths longer than the upper. The collar divides the one into similarly proportioned parts, and the knee the other. The same perfect proportions occur in the arm, the torso and the head, and in all other forms and figures besides the human form that we consider beautiful, and have been called the Golden Mean.
The old philosophers named the world Cosmos, which means orderly beauty, believing that its creation was governed by that principle, which Professor Zeising stated, seventy years ago, to be the Golden Mean. It is a fact that artists, architects, furniture-makers, bookbinders - all craftsmen, make use of this most satisfying proportion, either instinctively or by rule, and that the Golden Mean suggests to the mind stability and potential force besides beauty.
A landscape painting in which composition is ignored is like a line taken from a poem at random: it lacks context, and may or may not make sense. However comprehensive it may be it represents only a fragment of what might have been seen at the spot where it was painted. It is little better than a photograph, in which it was impossible to select or reject.
Any suggestion of incompleteness or unrelation must be obliterated. Though only the part of a whole, a picture must appear to be complete in itself. There must be a judicious arrangement of all the parts. Considered conversely, the artist's task is to fill his panel with a design that conforms to its shape and is beautiful in itself. Turner often sacrificed topographical accuracy for the sake of balance or rhythm, and would move mountains or towns, destroy and rebuild houses when it suited him. Ruskin derived from his water-colours a complete set of rules for composition, although he confessed that, after thirty year's endeavour, he finally surrendered the hope of trying to analyse them completely, and, he added, all similar hope of ever analysing true inventive or creative work.
Millais was obsessed with the idea of literal truth to nature, even when he had definitely abandoned the tenets of Pre-Raphaelitism. He used to say that he did not wish to make a design out of nature. His Fringe of the Moor' was described by a contemporary critic as an instance of motiveless veracity. except for the natural history class. He did arrange his facts but not freely, and he did not idealize them. He was content with literal truth and a minimum of change to mitigate its severity, but he recognised one broad principle, and he often spoke of it as Artistic Inequality. He meant there should be no obviously equal, or nearly equal divisions in a picture. The most beautiful relations, as I have already stated , are these of the Golden Mean. Jay Hanbridge has developed the idea in his books on Dynamic Symmetry.
A sample illustration of proper spacing is a well-done wood interior, in which the tree-trunks are dominant lines and extend to the top of the panel. One solitary stem, dividing the panel into equal parts, or two, making thirds, are untruthful, as well as distressing, for such arrangements suggest commercial planting, avenues laid out with the help of a foot-rule, rather than the restful disorder of natural growth.
Considered without reference to the Greek rule, proportions, curves, and angles, are most interesting when their origin is the least apparent. Thus simple halves, thirds, or tenths do not compare dynamically with the recondite ratio of the division I have suggested; and are of a circle, that is, a curve derived from one centre, has not the grace of a curve derived from many, much as the parabola; a horizontal or vertical line lacks energy, compared with one that deviates from either. The difference between these graphic expressions is the difference between movement and repose.
The paintings of Cayley Robinson have always had a wide appeal. I have admired them since boyhood. They express the essence of repose, and their structure is along the lines already stated. I once saw a painting by a reputable artist called Wind on the Trees'. The leaves and the smaller branches were extended horizontally, I surmised, by the force of the wind, but they presented the appearance of being suspended by some other means, by invisible ropes attached to the top of the frame, or iron bars hidden amidst the foliage. No wind blew. The effect was one of absolute immobility because all the main lines in the picture were static lines, which Cayley Robinson used with such distinction. Had the tree-trunks deviated ever so slightly from the vertical; had the horizontal branches been less palpably level, the dynamic force of the wind would have been truly expressed.
A third line of repose is the diagonal of the panel or its parallels. The word line must be read in its Euclidean sense. It is not a line like a pencil line, but a direction, with no physical form, suggested, it may be the contour of a cloud, of a shadow, or a mass of foliage, or an edge whose continuity is established by all of these.
Lines are often difficult to manage. Theoretically they should not lead the eye out of the picture. Turner's compositions were based frequently on the law of radiation, that is, his interior lines radiate from one point, or, conversely, lead the eye thereto. This point is the focal point, the centre of interest, which exists in every good painting. One is enough. I have an etching by Appian that has at least two focal points. With a pair of scissors I could convert it into lovely landscapes, perhaps three. Its technique is wonderful, but as a composition it is execrable. The point of interest need not be exactly in the middle of the panel, but obviously it must not be in a corner, or at an edge. Equally obvious is the necessity of having something worthy of attention at this point. A mass of lines radiating from nothing in particular result in bathos.
Whistler said he usually began a painting with the object of interest, and worked around it. Girtin's landscapes show this practice clearly. I have in mind his Lincoln', in which half of the composition consists of trees brusquely suggested in the foreground. The cathedral, the motive, is visible above them, and is most carefully finished.
In wild landscape it is easy to paint a picture that is only a pattern without a focal point. The beholder's eye wanders uneasily over it, never coming to rest.
It is not to be assumed that every painting must have a network of lines radiating from a centre ike a railway system. The juncture of a vertical and a horizontal line, if they are dominant is a point of supreme interest. Thus the foot of a tree or a tower, or a mast, is the logical position for a figure or anything else to which it is desired to direct attention.
Balance is arrived at more easily, perhaps, than less important phases or arrangement, often by simple addition or subtraction. It does not need a trained eye to determine whether a picture is too heavy on one side, or top heavy or otherwise defective in balance. The pyramid is a very common type of composition, and is very nearly fool-proof in this connection.
It is perhaps unnecessary to point out that equality of area does not necessarily constitute true balance in masses. There is intrinsic interest to consider. A single human figure, for example, may tip the scale against a spreading chestnut tree. The repetition of similar lines, shapes, or colours will help in the attainment and of rhythm, but exact duplication must be avoided. The word echo possibly might be more expressive than repetition. The orderly recession of similar forms, such as telegraph poles along a road, colour forms, or hills, is rhythmic.
It must be apparent that these ends must be achieved by the manipulation of tone and colour, as well as of line and form. For example a spot of white on a dark ground does not need the emphasis of a series of radiating lines. It is sufficiently obvious already. So also is a spot of colour of the same tone as the ground but in violent contrast.
The Dutch landscapes of the seventeenth century often display an effulgence of light in the middle darkening towards the edges and the corners. Cotman used this device on occasion with great effect, his area of light well set within the panel, and his darks impinging upon it. An adaptation of this practice in modern landscape is the introduction of a shadow across the lower edge of a picture. There is also the necessity of bringing down the deep tones of the sky at the zenith to the lower levels, within the visual range of landscape, so that the upper edge of the panel is low in tone. This is especially noticeable in the work of the landscape etchers, and may have been derived from the Japanese colour-print.
Like Girtin, many painters bestow more care on the central feature of their compositions than on other parts, which are slurred in relation to their distance from it; the theory being that, when the eye is focussed on one point, whatever surrounds it is indistinct, and is felt rather than seen. It is accepted at any rate, that the sharpest contrasts should come near this point, both in colour and tone. The highest light should be near the darkest dark.
A few generations back the drawing teacher talked glibly of the Red Note in landscape, which was then deemed the necessary contrast to the prevailing green, and was introduced vividly in figures, or in the washing on the line. It was a somewhat crude device.
Thus the analysis of good pictures will result in the accumulation of numerous rules for composition, whereas a verbal analysis will only result in mystification for the student.
A masterly statement of the rules may be found in Harold Speed's Drawing, and a less comprehensive, but an equally sound one in Ruskin's Elements of Drawing.
The student should bear in mind that he cannot sketch and obey all the rules invariable, but he can analyse his sketches and mend his mistakes with their help. The more experience gained, the fewer faults will be committed. The Pre-Raphaelite manner, that of rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing, may be proper for the young student, but it rarely suits the experienced sketcher. He reserves the right to remove a blot on the landscape, to change the positions of things, to suit his composition, providing only that de does not transgress the laws of probability.
Adrian Stokes wrote of his Autumn in
the Mountains', I found the subject in the South Tyrol almost
exactly as I tried to render it, excepting the trees and the roe-deer,
but the trees might have been there, for several of them were
close by, and the roe-deer, though very scarce, still survived
among the hills.' David Cox's idealism is nothing but selection.
In working directly from nature he was often frankly realistic.
It is most unusual to come across a scene that may be torn from its surroundings, and, with no addition or change, will satisfy the eye as a perfect landscape. It would be ridiculous to reject a view simply because one tree seems out of place. Why not move the tree? Turner had no qualms at all. His topographic drawings were accurate impressions of localities but not literally accurate. In one of his views of Newcastle, he moved buildings from one side of the Tyne to the other; he showed more of them than could possibly be seen at once, all to suit the pictorial purpose.
Sir Charles Holmes has said that all fine pictures in some degree possess the four qualities of unity, vitality, infinite, and repose. None of these can be expressed without a knowledge of thepainter's craft; they are not intrinsic in any scene, and are achieved only by chance in literal copies from nature. The painter who is so enamoured by the beauties of the parts of a landscape, that he strives to represent all, cannot succeed. His picture will be an arrangement of a series of portraits of things without unity. However exquisite the contours or the colours of clouds, trees, rivers or hills, may be in themselves, they must be sacrificed if they do not conform with the general plan; their province is to help in the expression of the whole effect. They are ancillary instruments that echo or point the theme in emotional depths, vibrations, and overtones, and in sweet passages of harmony. There must be variety and contrast, but in measured doses.
It was to this that Degas referred when he asked, Are not all lovely things made by renunciation?'
Durer might well have been one of the first painters of his day, as Vasari claimed, if his perception in these matters had been equal to that of his Italian contemporaries.
Many painters have affected to despise the laws of art, claiming that all art is imitation, or recklessly abandoning all rules in frenzied reaction. But art is long.
Print-making as an aid in the study of Composition
Print-making is a very valuable aid in the study of arrangement. It is a studio craft; thus thought and care may be expended in the complete development of an original idea; the haste essential in sketching is unnecessary. The very fact that a number of copies will be scattered abroad is an inducement, if there were no other, to exercise the greatest care in every phase of the process.
To know what you have to do is the first condition; to have in mind a complete conception, not merely an idea, and furthermore, to have before you a cartoon representing the full expression of your conception, in line, tone, and colour.
In the majority of print processes the subject is engraved in reverse, so that the composition may be studied under a new aspect.
Gordon Craig advised Lovat Fraser to engrave his design for The Beggars' Opera, in order that he might try out diverse colour schemes on an indefinite number of impressions. But the colour wood-cut is better than a black and white engraving for colour tests. The method of making these involves the preparation of as many engraved blocks as there are colours in the composition. But the artist is not restricted to the use of one given set of colours, or one scheme of gradations. He may, in printing, convert a sunny scene to one of romantic moonlight, or the greens of a summer landscape to the russet tints of autumn.
Simplicity, one of the chief charms of the wood-cut, suggests the virtue of breadth in painting, and the general character of prints of this type demonstrates the futility of dependence upon detail, instead of effect. To make a black and white wood-cut, all that is needed is a smooth piece of plank and a jack-knife. The whites are cut out, and the black masses and lines are left in statu quo. A more sophisticated print of this kind may pe produced by substituting a graver for the knife, and a piece of box-wood cut across the grain (as you saw a log) and polished, for the plank. Impressions are taken by dabbing printers' ink on the block, laying a damp piece of paper upon it, and rubbing with a burnisher. Or you may take a rough impression by brushing water-colour, oil-colour, house paint, any fluid pigment, over the block, and by rubbing the back of the paper with a smooth hard tool of any kind, with the handle of a tooth brush for example.
To make an etching, a colour wood-cut, or a lithograph is a more complicated matter, and the subject of many text-books, a few of which are listed at the end of the book.
One other simple process, not often described, is that of making glass-prints. The titles cliches-glace, or cliches-verre, must mystify many who study exhibition catalogues. There prints closely resemble etchings in appearance. But the line has no relief, and no plate-mark is visible. Carot, Millet, Rousseau, and Daubigny used the method, and it is not dead yet. A sheet of glass is covered with an opaque soft ground. A mixture of tallow and lamp-black would serve. A drawing is made thereon with a point such as that of a gramophone needle which, set in a handle, makes a splendid pencil. The point removes the ground in its passage, leaving clear glass where black lines are needed. The plate is then printed as if it were a photographic negative, and will give innumerable impressions on sensitized paper.