The Aesthetics Of Composition
( Originally Published 1903 )
Breadth Versus Detail
SUBJECTIVELY the painter and the photographer stretch after the same goal.
Technically they approach it from opposite directions.
The painter starts with a bare surface and creates detail, the photographer is supplied there-with.
Art lies somewhere between these starting points ; for art is a reflection of an idea and ideas may or may not have to do with detail.
According to the subject then is the matter of detail to serve us. In the expression of character a certain amount of detail is indispensable ; by the painter to be produced, by the photographer saved. But detail is often so beautiful in itself ! and is not art a presentation of the beautiful, pleads the photographer. And the reply in the Socratic method is : " Look at the whole subject : does the idea of it demand this detail ?"
The untutored mind always sees detail. For this reason most education is inductive, but though the process is inductive, the goal is the eternal synthesis. It is the reporter who gathers the facts : the editor winnows therefrom the moral.
The artist must—in time—get on top and take this survey. Looking at any subject with eyes half closed enables him to see it without detail, and later, with eyes slowly opening, admitting that much only which is necessary to character.
The expression of character by masses of black and white proves this. Bishop Potter is unmistakable, his features bounded by their shadows. From such a start then it is a question of procedure cautiously to that point where the greatest character lies, but beyond which point detail be-comes unnecessary to character.
The pen portrait of Thackeray by Robt. Blum is a careful delineation of the characteristic head of the novelist set on shoulders characteristically bent forward and the body characteristically tall. What more can be told of Thackeray's personality ? Would the buttons and the wrinkles of the clothing help matters ! No, as facts they would not, and when art has to do only with character, the simplest statement is the most forcible.
Millet, at one time, was known as " the man who painted peasants without wrinkles in their breeches." Not because wrinkles were too hard for him, nor because they were not thought worth while, but because, in his effort to prune his picture of the unessentials, the wrinkles were brushed aside.
When, however, art has to do with filling an entire space with something, and the clothing occupies a considerable part of it, what shall be done ? This changes the details of the question. Yet all portraits that hit hard in exhibitions are those conceived in simplicity, those in which the personality is what stops and holds us.
There are certain large organic lines of drapery which the character demands, but beyond this point opinion divides authoritatively from the complete silence of obliteration to the tumultuous noisiness of "the whole truth."
In the portraits by Carrière all detail is swept away, and the millinery artists are shocked. Simplicity should never compromise texture and quality. This side of the truth cannot prove objectionable.
" You have made my broadcloth look like two-fifty a yard and it really cost four," was a criticism offered by a young lady who posed in a riding habit. Such practical criticism is frequently necessary to bring the artist down from the top height observatory where he is absorbed with " the big things."
Breath does not signify neglect of detail or neglect of finish ; it means simplification where unity had been threatened. It is seeing the big side of small things, if the small things cannot be ignored.
The lighting of a subject has much to do with its breadth. A light may be selected that will chop such a well organized unit as the body into three or four separate sections, or one that produces an equal division of light and shade—seldom good. Shadows are generally the hiding-places for mystery ; and mystery is ever charming. None better than Rembrandt knew the value of those vague spaces of nothingness, in back-grounds, and in the figure itself, a sudden pitch from light and positiveness into conjecture. We hear in photography much of the " Rembrandtesque effect," which when produced, proves to be just blackness. There can be no shadow without light, and Rembrandt's effort was to obtain this, rather than produce darkness.
The feeling of light may also be broadly ex-pressed by a direct illumination. Here the shadow plays a very small part, and the subject is presented in its outline. Under such an effect we lose variety but gain simplicity. This brings us close to the region of two dimensions, the realm of Japanese art and mural decoration. The portraits of Manet, the decorations of Puvis de Chavannes, and the early Italians, display the quality of breadth because of the simplicity of lighting which these subjects received.
Breadth in the treatment of the figure may be obtained by graded light. If a shadow be produced at the bottom of the picture sufficiently strong to obliterate both the light and shade of detail, and thence be made to weaken as it proceeds upward and finally give place to light, where light is most needed, great simplicity as well as the element of variety will be the result.
Thus, in the most effective treatment in mural decoration, one sees only the grand forms, the movement, the intention, those things which most befit the inner surface of the building being also those which bear the greater importance. The fact is used as an argument for the assumption that painting should, after all, be an art of two dimensions, length and breadth, reserving thickness and its representation, for sculpture. This robs painting of the quality of natural aspect, except under the single effect of absolutely direct lighting and ignores its development beyond the flatly colored representations of the ancient Egyptians, our American Indians and the Japanese, a development inaugurated by the Greeks and since adhered to by all occidental nations.
The student who goes to nature and sees mass only, discarding all detail, will run the chance of being a colorist as well as a painter of breadth, two of the most important qualifications ; for if he refuses to be stopped by detail his intelligence will crystallize upon that other thing which attracts him. He will think the harder upon the simple relations of tones and the exact color. Slowly dexterity will add a facility to his brush and he will, while aiming at character, through breadth, unconsciously introduce characteristic detail. This is the hope of the new method which is now being introduced into the system of public school instruction.
The scheme as developed by Mr. Dow is decorative rather than naturalistic, the æsthetic side with " Beauty," as the watchword being in greatest point. The filling of spaces in agree-able and harmonious arrangement does not demand strict acknowledgment to natural aspect. Indeed this is denied in most cases where the limitations of decoration are enjoined. With the first principle, truth, upon which all education rests, as the basis of such study, the nature part of this system will fall into its logical channels. If nature's largeness and simplicity contributes to its value, then nature should be consulted when she is large and simple. Studies of trees in gray silhouette, should be made at twilight, either of evening or early morning, when the detail, which is useless to the decorative scheme, is not seen. Under such conditions no slight or sacrifice is necessitated. Nature then contributes her quantity directly and the student has no warrant in assuming to change her. There are times also when the face of nature is so varied that the most fantastic schemes of Notan are observed ; a harbor filled with sails and sea-gulls, a crowd of people speckling the shore, the houses of a village dotted over a hillside. Under a direct light these become legitimate subjects offered by nature herself to the scheme which, however, she only now and then honors.
The system therefore accompanies the student but part way and leaves him still knocking at the door of the complete naturalistic presentation of pictorial art, a development which stretches into limitless possibilities by the use of the third dimension.
Work in two dimensions by reason of its greater simplicity should naturally precede the complications involved in producing the completely modelled forms of nature, and therein the argument for its use in the early stages of the student's development is a strong one.