Angular Composition Based On The Horizontal
( Originally Published 1903 )
As the vertical may be termed the figure painters' line so the horizontal becomes the line of the landscape painter. Given these as the necessary first things, the picture is made by building upon and around them. The devices which aid the figure painter in disposing of one or many verticals have been briefly viewed. A consideration of the horizontal will necessarily take us out of doors to earth and sky, where nature constructs on surfaces which follow the horizon.
The problem in composition which each of these lines presents is the same and the principle governing the solution of each identical ; balance by equalization of forces. Given a line which coincides with but one side of the picture it becomes necessary for the poise of the quadrilateral to cross it with an opposing line. The rectangular cross, though more positive and effective, is no more potential in securing this unity than the crossing of lines at a long angle. A series of right angles will in time arrive at the same point as the tangent,' but less quickly. Each angle in such an ascent produces the parity of both horizontal and vertical. The tangent expresses their synthesis. In Fortuny's " Connoisseurs," the right angle formed by the line of the mantel and the statue takes the eye to the same point as the tangent of the shadow. Again, the principle allows the modification of any arm of the cross, maintaining only the fact of the cross itself. When a line passes through the first or necessary line of construction it has, so to speak, incorporated itself as a part of the picture, and what it becomes thereafter is of no great importance. If the reader will make simple line diagrams of but a few pictures, this point will be made clear, and it will be found that such diagrams which represent either the actual lines of direction or lines of suggestion from point to point or mass to mass will comfortably fill the quadrilateral of the frame as a linear design.
In all analyses of pictures the student should select the first or most commanding and necessary line of the conception. Having found this thread the whole composition will unravel and disclose a reason for each stitch.
Let a horizontal base line be assumed and verticals erected therefrom, without crossing it. The reason why no picture results is because there is no cross. Such a design would suggest many of Fra Angelico's decorations of saints and angels ; or the plan of the better known decoration of " The Prophets " at the Boston Library by Sargent. These groups, it must be remembered, are not pictorial and are not compositions from the picture point of view. Their homogeneity depends not on interchange of line or upon other mechanics of composition, but only upon the unity of associated ideas. In instances, however, where some of the figures of these groups are joined by horizontal lines or masses which bisect these verticals the pictorial intention begins to be felt.
Of the accompanying illustrations' that of the view on the shore with overhanging clouds shows a most persistent lot of horizontals with nothing but the lighthouse and the masts of the vessels to serve for reactive lines. At their great distance they would accomplish little to relieve this disparity of line were it not for the aid of the vertical pillar of cloud and the pull downward which the eye received in the pool below the shore. The most troublesome line in this picture is the shore line, but an effort is made here to break its monotony by two accents of bushes on either side. What, therefore, would seem to be a composition " going all one way," displays, after all, a strong attempt toward the recognition of the principle of crossed lines.
The sketch shows the constructive lines of a picture by Henry Ranger, and lacks the force of color by which these points are emphasized.
In the wood interior the stone wall is the dam-aging line. Not only does it parallel the bottom line, always unfortunate, but it cuts the picture in two from side to side. Above this the bottom line of the distant woods gives another paralleling line, running the full length of the picture. Given the verticals together with these, how-ever, their force becomes weakened until there ensues an almost perfect balance, the crossing lines weighing out even. The sketch from Claude Lorraine, out of the " Book of Truth," shows a great left angle composition of line not very satisfactory, owing to its lack of weight for the long arm of the steelyard. The principle, however, which this sketch exhibits is correct, and its balance of composition would be easily effected by the addition of some small item of interest to the extreme left. It is not, however, a commendable type of composition, owing to the difficulty of obtaining a rational balance, but when this is to be had in just its right force the plan of lines is excellent. In the matter of measures, were the whole composition pushed to the left we would at once feel a relief in the spaces. But the impressionist queries why not take it as it stands ! So it might be taken, and a most balanced picture painted from it; but these considerations apply to the black and white, with-out the alteration which color might effect.
No less aggravated a case of horizontals is the charming picture of mother and child by Mr. Orchardson. The long cane sofa and the recumbent baby are the two unaccommodating lines for which the mother's figure was especially posed. Howsoever unconscious may appear the renderings of this figure, plus the fan, the underlying structure of it conforms absolutely to the requirements of the unthinking half of the subject. It is an instance of an unpromising start resulting with especial success through skillful playing to its awkward leads.
The principle of the diagonal being equivalent as a space filler to the crossed horizontal and vertical is shown by comparison of the wood interior with the winter landscape,' in which the foreground has been thus disposed of. The force of a horizontal is more cleverly weakened by such a line because besides adding variety it accomplishes its intention with less effort. As a warning of what may happen when these principles are neglected or overdone one glance at the equestrian picture by Cuyp is sufficient. His subject, a man on horseback, is an excellent cross of a horizontal and vertical in itself and simply required to be let alone and led away from. The background destroys this and, in-stead of being an aid to circular observation, persists in adding a line to one in the subject which should have been parried, and thus cuts the picture in two.
Cuyp in this as in another similar picture had in mind light and shade rather than linear composition, but even so, the composition shows little intelligence. No amount of after manipulation could condone so vicious a slaughter of space and line opportunities which the background, with its reduplicating edge, accomplishes.
Study in that vast and changeful realm the sky offers a greater opportunity for selection than any other part of nature.
The sky is but one of two elements in every landscape and in the majority of cases it is the secondary element. If the sky is to agree with an interesting landscape it must retire behind it. If it causes divided interest, its interest must be sacrificed. Drawings, photographs and color studies of skies with the intention of combining them with landscape should be made in the range of secondary interest and with the calculation of their fitting to the linear scheme of landscape. Skies which move away from the horizon diagonally, suggesting the oppositional feeling, are more useful in an artist's portfolio than a series of clouds, the bottoms of which parallel the horizon, especially when these float isolated in the sky. When the formal terrace of clouds entirely fills the sky space, its massive structure is felt rather than the horizontal lines, just as a series of closely paralleled lines becomes a flat tint.