Circular Observation Of Pictures
( Originally Published 1903 )
THE entrance into a picture and obstacles thereto, as applied to landscape, has already been considered, from which it is evident that wisdom renders this as easy as possible for the vision, not only negatively, but through positive means as well. An obstruction through which penetration is impossible, clogging the picture in the fore-ground or middle distance when such an object is not the subject, or when the interest lies beyond, produces a redundant composition.
When in nature we observe a scene that naturally fits a frame and we find ourselves gazing first at one object and then at another and returning again to the first, we may be sure it will make a picture.
But when we are tempted to turn, in the inspection of the whole horizon (though this be circular observation), it proves we have not found a picture. Our picture, on canvas, must fit an arc of sixty degrees. The other thing is a panorama. The principle is contained in the illustration of the athletes.' This picture has the fascination of a continuous performance and so in degree should every picture have.
In the foreground, or figure subject the same principles apply. The main point is to capture the observer's interest with the theme, which to his mental processes shall unfold according to the artist's plan. With twenty objects to present, which one on the chessboard of your picture shall take precedence and which shall stand next in importance, and which shall have a limited influence, and which, like the pawns, shall serve as little more than the added thoughts in the game ?
In " The Slaying of the Unpropitious Messengers," a picture of great power and truly sublime in the simplicity of its dramatic expression, the vision falls without hesitation on the figure of Pharaoh, easily passing over the three prostrate forms in the immediate foreground. These might have diverted the attention and weakened the subject had not they been skillfully played for second place. Their backs have been turned, their faces covered, and, though three to one, the single figure reigns supreme. Note how they are made to guide the eye toward him and into the picture and discover in the other lines of the picture an intention toward the same end, the staircase, the river, the mountain, the angular contour of the portico behind tying with the nearer roof projection and making a broken stairway from the left-hand upper corner. See, again, the lines of the canopy composing a special frame for the master figure.
Suppose a reconstruction of this composition. Behold the slain messengers shaken into less recumbent and more tragic attitudes, arranged along the foreplane of the picture ; let all the the canvas to the extreme distance and thence in a circuit back ; in another it moves on a flat plane like an ellipse in perspective. Again, first catching the eye in the centre, it unfolds like a spiral.
Much of a painter's attention is given to keeping his edges so well guarded that the vision in its circuit may be kept within the canvas. A large proportion of the changes which all pictures pass through in process of construction is stimulated by this consideration—how to stop a wayward eye from getting too near the edge and escaping from the picture. When every practical device has been tried, as a last resource the centre may be strengthened.
In order to settle this point to the student's satisfaction no better proof could be suggested than that he paint in black and white a simple landscape motif, with no attempt to create a focus, with no suppression of the corners and no circuit of objects—a landscape in which ground and sky shall equally divide the interest. He may pro-duce a counterfeit of nature, but the result will rise no higher in the scale of art than a raw print from the unqualified negative in photography. The art begins at that point, and consists in the production of unity, in the establishment of a focus, in the subordination of parts by the establishment of a scale of relative values, and in a continuity of progression from one part to another. The procedure will be somewhat as follows : Decision as to whether the sky or ground shall have right of way ; the production of a centre and a suppression of contiguous parts ; the feeling after lines which shall convey the eye away from the focal centre and lead it through the picture, a groping for an item, an accent, or something that shall attract the eye away from the corner or side of the picture, where, in following the leading lines, it may have been brought, and back toward the focus again. Here then, will have been described the circuit of which we speak. In the suppression of the corners the same instinct for the elliptical line has been followed, for the composition, by avoiding them, describes itself within the inner space.
A composition in an oval or circle is much more easily realized than one occupying a rectangular space, as the vexing item of the corners has been disposed of, and the reason why these shapes are not popularly used is that hanging committees cannot dispose of them with other pictures. The attempt in the majority of compositions, however, is to fit the picture proper to the fluent lines of the circle or oval. In " Hunts-man and Hounds," a picture which is introduced because the writer is able to speak of points in its construction which these principles necessitated, the pyramidal form of composition is apparent, and around this a circuit is described by the hand, arm, crop, spot on dog's side, elbow of dog's foreleg, line of light on the other dog's breast, the light on table and chair in background—all being points which catch the eye and keep it moving in a circuit. In the first arrangement of this composition a buffet occupied the space given to the indication of chair and table. This did not assist sufficiently in diverting the awkward line from the left shoulder, down the arm, into the dog's head and out of the picture. Judgment here lay between filling the space with the dog's head, which would have separated it too far from the man, or striving to divert it as noted. The space between this line and the side of the canvas was the difficult space of the picture. There is always a rebellious member in every picture, which continues unruly throughout its whole construction, and this one did not settle itself until several arrangements of the part were tried. In order to divert the precipitate line a persistence of horizontals was necessary—the table, the chair and the shadow on the floor. The shadows and the picture on the wall block the top and sides, and the shadow from the fender indicated along the lower edge complete the circuit and weaken the succession of verticals in the legs of dog and man.