Evolving The Picture
( Originally Published 1903 )
THE artist gets his picture from two sources. He either goes forth and finds it, or creates it. If he creates it the work is deliberate, and the artist assumes responsibility. If he goes to nature, he and nature form a partnership, she supplying the material and he the experience. In editing the material thus supplied, the artist discovers how great is the disparity between art and nature, and what a disproof nature herself is to the common notion that art is mirrored nature, and that any part of her drawn or painted will make a picture.
The first stage of the art collector is that in which his admiration dwells on imitation such as the still-life painter gives him, but soon his art sense craves an expression with thought in it, the imitation, brow-beaten into its proper place and the creative instinct of the artist visible. In other words, he seeks the constructive sense of the man who paints the picture. " The work of art is an appeal to another mind, and it cannot draw out more than that mind contains. But to enjoy is, as it were, to create; to understand is a form of equality." With the horse before the cart and the artist holding the reins, he gets a fresh start, and is in a fair way to comprehend Richard Wagner's assertion that you cannot have art without the man. In the same manner does the student usually develop. With the book of nature before him he is eager to sit down anywhere and read, attracted by each separate item of the vast pattern, but he finds he has opened nature's dictionary and that to make poetry or even good prose he must put the separate words and phrases together.
After the first roll of films has been printed and brooded over, the kodac person is apt to ask in a tone of injured and deceived innocence, " Well, what does make a picture ?"
He with others has supposed it possible to go to nature and, taking nothing with him, bring something back. Though one does not set out with the rules of composition, he must at least present himself before nature with fixed notions of the few requirements which all pictures demand. Having looked at a counterfeit of her within four sides of a frame and learned to know why a limited section of her satisfied him by its completeness he approaches her out of doors with greater prospects of success than though he had not settled this point. Good art, of the gallery, is the best guide to a trip afield. Having seen what elements and what arrangements have proved available in the hands of other men, the student will not go astray if he seek like forms in nature. Armed with defininite convictions he will see, through her bewildering meshes the faithful lines he needs. The star gazer with a quest for the constellations of the Pleiades or the Great Bear, must close his eyes to many irrelevant stars which do not fit the figure. Originality does not require the avoidance of principles used by others. Pictorial forms are world's property. Originality only demands "the causing to pass into our own work a personal view of the world and of life." Personality in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is a graft. The forms of artistic expression have been preempted long ago. The men who had the first chances secured the truest forms of it and in a running glance through a miscellaneous collection of prints one's attention is invariably arrested by the force of the pictures by the older masters; so dominating is the first impression that we concede the case upon the basis of effect before discovering the many obstacles and omissions counting against their greater efficiency. But the essence is of the living sort. With this conceded and the fact that nature's appeal is always strongest when made through association with man it is for us to cultivate these associations.
" Study nature attentively," says Reynolds, " but always with the masters in your company ; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals, with whom you are to contend."
A wise teacher has said the quickest road to originality is through the absorption of other men's ideas.
Before going forth therefore with a canvas or plate holder, it behooves us first to know what art is. Certainly the most logical step from the study of constructive form is through the practical technique of work which we would emulate. To copy interpretations of outdoor nature by others is commendable either at the experimental period, when looking for a technique, or as an appreciation.
Besides this mental preparation, the next best equipment for finding pictures is a Claude Lorraine glass, because, being a convex mirror, it shows a reduced image of nature in a frame. The frame is important not only because it designates the limitations of a picture, but be-cause it cuts it free from the abstracting details which surround it. If one has not such a glass, a series of small pasteboard frames will answer. The margin should be wide enough to allow the eye to rest without disturbance upon the open space. Two rectangular pieces that may be pushed together from top or side is probably the most complete device. The proportion of the frame is therefore adaptable to the subject and the picture may be cut off top, bottom or sides as demanded.
Many artists reduce all subjects to two or three sizes, which they habitually paint. The view-meter may in such cases be further simplified by using a stiff cardboard with such proportions cut out' By having them all on a single board a subject may be more rapidly tested than by the device of the collapsible sides. A light board, the thickness of a cigar-box cover, 4x5 inches, and easily carried in the pocket, will enable one to land his subject in his canvas exactly as he wants it, and avoid the grievance of reconstruction later. By leaving a broad margin about the openings, one obtains the impression of a picture in its mat or frame, and may judge of it in nature as he will after regard it when completed and on exhibition.
The accompanying photograph' was produced by a revolving camera encompassing an area of 120 degrees. As a composition it is not bad, but unfortunate here and there. It has a well-defined centre, and the two sides balance well, the left clogging the vision and thus giving way to the right, which allows the eye to pass out of the picture on this side beyond the fountain and across the stretch of sunlight. At a glance, however, one may see three complete pictures, and with the aid of the view-meter a number of other combinations may be developed. Its construction is that of Hobbema's " Alley near Middelharnes," in the National Gallery, London, of so pronounced formality that a number of such construction in a gallery, would prove monotonous.
Beginning on the left, we may apply the view-meter first to exclude the unnecessary branch forms and sky space on the top ; second, to cut away the tree on the right, which, in that it parallels the line of the margin, is objectionable, and is rendered unnecessary as a side for the picture by the two trees beyond in the middle plane ; and, third, to limit the extent of the picture on the bottom, tending as it does to force the spectator back and away from the subject proper. The interest is divided between the white building and rustic bridge and the pivot of this composition adjusts itself in line with the centre tree.
In the next picture the first tree on left of avenue is cut away for the same reason as in the previous arrangement, and although one of a line of trees in perspective, the trunk as an item is unserviceable, as its branches start above the point where the top line occurs, and can there-fore render no assistance in destroying an absolute vertical as has been done in the left tree by the bifurcation, and the first on the right by the encroaching masses of leaves. The eye follows the receding lines of roadway beneath the canopy and is led out of the picture by the light above the hill. The last arrangement is more formal than either of the others but gives us the good old form of composition frequently adopted by Turner, Rousseau, Dupré, and others, namely of designing an encasement for the subject proper, through which to view it. For that reason after the arch overhead has been secured all else above is cut away as useless. The print has been cut a little on the right, as by this means the foreground tree is placed nearer that side and also because the extra space allowed too free an escapement of the eye through this portal, the natural focus of course being the fountain where the eye should rest at once. It has been cut on the bottom so as to exclude the line where the road and the grass meet—an especially bad line, paralleling the bottom of the picture and line of shadow upon the grass. This shadow is valuable as completing the encase-ment of the subject on the bottom and in starting the eye well into the picture toward its subject.
Our natural vision always seeks the light. Shadows are the carum cushions from which the sight recoils in its quest for this. Letting the eye into the picture over a foreground of subdued interest, or better still, of no interest is one of the most time-honored articles of the picture-maker's creed. If the reader will compare the first and last of these three compositions he will see how in this respect the first loses and the last gains. The element of the shaded foreground in the first was cut out in preserving a better placement for the subject.
The photographer comes upon a group of cows. " Trees, cattle, light and shade—a picture surely ! " Fearful of disturbing the cows he exposes at a distance, then stalks them, trying again with a different point of sight and, having joined them and waited for their confidence, makes the third attempt. On developing, the first one reveals the string-like line of road cutting the picture from end to end, the cattle as isolated spots, the tree dividing the sky space into almost equal parts. In the second, the lower branch of tree blocks the sky and on the other side there is a natural window, opening an exit into the distance. This is desirable but unfortunately the bending roadway on the right accomplishes the same purpose and so two exits are offered, always objectionable. With this out, the value of the rock and foreground cow is also better appreciated as leading spots taking us to the natural focus, the white cow lying close to the tree. The rock in left corner having no influence in a leading line should be suppressed. The cattle now swing into the picture from both sides and one of them opposes the horizontal of her back to the vertical of the tree, thus easing the force of its descent.
In the last there is much more concentration. The road does not parallel the bottom and though passing out of the picture the vision is brought back again along the distant line of trees. The objection to this arrangement lies in the equal division of the subject by the tree-trunk. The white cow focalizes the vision but the sky and the more graceful branches soon capture it. The cow in the right foreground is only valuable as an oppositional measure to the line of cows stretching across the picture which it helps to divert, otherwise she carries too much attraction to the side.
The best arrangement for the subject would have been the tree one-third from the left side, the white cow touching its line, one or two of those lying on the ground working toward the fore-ground in a zigzag, little or no diversion from the distance on the left of tree. The swing of the picture would then have been from the foreground to the focus, the white cow and tree, thence to the group under the tree and out through the sky. This would have divided the picture-plane into thirds instead of halves, bringing it into the form elsewhere recommended as being the arrangement of Claude's best pictures.