I should strenuously advise every student to make a collection of photographs and prints after the great Masters, beginning with the engravings of Man tegna and Durer, or with Holbein's "Dance of Death," and from these go on to the more complicated works involving light and shade. Let 1 copy, analyse, fill his eye with them; then attempt to arrange objects brought together by his own initiative into similar patterns. In this way he will have some chance of getting his mind and eye familiar with the proper methods for filling a space in a fine way. If it be argued that by this practice he will fail to be a commercial success, I frankly do not believe it. In this respect I was interested to learn of a set of drawings by Japanese school-children which were lent the London County Council some time ago.
They displayed astonishing skill considering the ages and condition of those who had executed them, so much so that a friend of mine suggested that they had been traced; this was strenuously denied by others. The secret was out shortly after, however, when the Japanese Ambassador, in opening the exhibition, explained that in Japan they started the training in drawing of their ordinary school-children by making them from the work of their great Masters. In this way the eye and brain were trained from the beginning on the lines of the best tradition available. Another instance of the far-sighted yet simple common-sense of this remarkable people. The mere drawing of an object, without any idea of its possible after use, is of little service in developing talent or intelligence; and very little more trouble is needed to teach a good method of placing it on the paper as design, so I cannot see why some similar experiment might not be tried here in ordinary schools with advantage. It is done, of course, in art schools, but not so consistently as might be desired. Too much of the training is still so much routine without any definite aim. The savage starts his design with the idea of decorating a weapon or an implement; why should not this end be kept in view from the commencement in our exceedingly civilised training?
To return to rules, however. Speaking generally, the principal object in a picture should be near the centre; and, on the whole, it will be found best to have it in light. Here, again, the contrary also holds good, and many fine compositions have been made by relieving the central point dark against a light. Still, the management of the latter needs much experience, so the beginner will be wise to experiment with his point of interest in light.
A markedly geometrical form will be found to draw the eye at once in a picture; as witness the circle made by the nimbus about the head of a Madonna or Saint. So it is well for the artist to see that one does not occur where it is not wanted.
Another rule which belongs to the old tradition, and a very valuable one, admonishes the artist to take care that none of the leading features of his picture shall be perpendicularly over, or horizontally level with, each other, especially if the mass in either case occupies about the same space.
Nor is it wise to repeat the forms or lines of one kind by forms of an object of a totally different nature; for instance, do not make a silhouette of a mass of rocks and another of trees repeat each other with similar forms. A contrast of forms conveys distinct impressions to the mind at once; and it will be found that observance of this rule will help the immediate intelligibility of a picture. This, after all, is often an important matter when one has to appeal to minds less trained in the minutiae of Nature than the artist's. In a figure picture the front plane is always the most difficult to arrange; if one succeeds in making a fine pattern with it, and one that conveys the general emotion desired, the rest will be found to suggest itself.
The middle distance in landscape is generally the difficult spot. A contrast of near and remote objects will help to express space; but, as a rule, they must not be brought sharply up against one another. Some portion of the middle distance must be introduced to lead the eye on, and the proper joining up of it to the front and back plane is a sure test of the artist's powers of composition. The fulness of a slightly curved line, as in distant hills, can be made more obvious by placing a straight line, say of shadow, at its base. Indeed, a straight line in any position will assist in emphasising the richness of a curve; but do not bring any strongly accented form sharply against the edge of the frame.
According to the schools, in a composition of more than two or three figures, one or more should invariably have its back to the spectator.
This is all very well in a general way, and has been used by the Old Masters with magnificent effect. But some of the most beautiful modern pictures have been designed on just the contrary principles: it is all a matter of how it is done.
In Whistler's celebrated picture called "The Music Room," the chief figure, a lady in a black riding habit, looks out to the right of the frame; while on the left is the reflection in a mirror of another lady outside the picture; behind the principal figure is a child in white, reading. Yet all these come together into a most ex-quisite harmnony. Another innovation. The great French artist Degas has invented the most astonishingly novel and charming effect in composition, cutting off figures into strange shapes and patterns, with a superficial resemblance to the results gained by .1 snapshot photograph, but controlled into rhythm by his own consummate art.
Sketch showing the arrangement of a picture by Rembrandt at
Cassel. This artist's magical handling of light and shade transformed into beauty the commonest subject or the homeliest type
In order to give an idea of various distinct methods of composing a picture, five which merely show the patterns of characteristic compostitions by five of the masters, the result of whose work is having perhaps more nfluence than that of any others on modern painting to-day.
This sketch gives the spacing of J. F. Millet's cele-brated picture "The Man with the Hoe," with the monumental effect so characteristic of his methods of composition. He was a great student of Rubens and Michael Angelo
Finally, it may be said that there are two great types of artist: one which charms, and no one asks the why of wherefore - to it belong such temperaments as
Botticelli, Watteau, Gainsborough. The other convinces or persuades, a much longer matter as a rule. So M ichael Angelo, triumphing over the impossible by sheer genius, convinces. Velasquez, quietly in the cool light of reason, persuades us of the beauties he has to show be they decked even in the outrageous fashions of an Infanta.