Getting Out Of The Picture
( Originally Published 1903 )
This is important because necessary. It is much better to pass out than to back out. Pictures show many awkward methods of exit. In some there are too many chances to leave ; in others there are none. Pictures in which there is no opportunity for visual peripatetics require no such provision. In the portrait we confront a personality, and some painters plainly tell us by the blank space of the background that there shall be but one idea to the observer's mind. In this event he has but to bow and withdraw. But suppose the curtain of the background be drawn and a glimpse is disclosed of a landscape beyond. This bit of attraction leads us toward it. Instead therefore of breaking off from the subject we are led away from it. The associations with the subject are ofttimes interesting and appropriate and the great majority of portraits include them. As soon therefore as we begin on any detail in the background we connect the portrait with the pictorial and the sitter becomes one of a number of elements in the scheme, the fulcrum on which they balance. A patch of sky, besides creating an expansion in the diameter of the picture introduces color, often valuable, as noted later.
But more than this, these sky spots in a dark background are air holes. They enable us to breathe in the picture, giving a decided sense of atmosphere. When well subordinated they offer no distraction to the subject, but give to the picture a depth. When no other object is introduced, a gradation is serviceable. Much may be thus suggested and besides the depth and air properties thus introduced, such variety of surface excites visual motion. The eye always follows the course of light from the shadow. The artist may make use of this fact in balancing the picture and of leading the eye out where he will. As it is desirable to enter the picture in a series of curves or zigzags, in like manner it should be left, though the natural finish of such a series should connect easily with its start.
The eye should never be permitted to leave the principal figure or object and go straight back and out through the centre. If this is allowed the width of the picture is slighted. Therefore if the attraction of the natural exit is greater than other objects they exist in vain.
The exit should be so guarded that after the visitor has moved about and seen everything, he comes upon it naturally. For example conceive a subject—figures or cattle—with the principal object in the foreground. From this the other objects, all placed on the left side, move in a half circle back and into the picture, this circuit naturally leading to an opening in the trees or to a point of attraction in the sky or to a glimpse of distance. If this be not of less interest than any object of the progression, the unity of the picture disappears, for from the principal object in the foreground the vision goes direct to the distance.
Providing two or more exits is a common error of bad composition. This is the main objection to the form of balance on the centre, which produces two spaces of equal importance on either side.
In the drawing of the " Shepherdess 71 by Millet the attraction of two alleys which the eye might take is largely regulated by the subordination of one of them by proportional size and a lowering of the tone of the sky. At best, however, it is a case of divided interest, though the deepest dark against the highest light helps to control the situation. If for the balance of the pines in the snow scene' a small tree on the right were added, the objection would then be that from the central point of attraction, the pines, the vision would go in two directions, toward the houses and the tree. The visual lines connecting these two points would cross the first or principal object instead of leading from this to one and thence to the other as would not be the case if the added tree appeared in the extreme distance on the right. Under this arrangement there would be progression into the picture. A still better arrangement would have been direct movement from the mass of trees to the houses placed on the right, with the space now occupied by them left vacant.