Learn to Draw > Color composition techniques


Apart from the fact that it is of no importance anyway, no one can state afterwards why and on what basis an artist suddenly felt impelled to alter his conception. A correction is unlikely to spring so much from pondering as from the artist's sensibility. Painters and sculptors, if they are worthy of the name, do not think; they see and feel, just as a poet hears and feels what he writes, and as he goes by sound and not grammar.

Turn back if you will to the detail from the Michelangelo fresco. Art critics will be ready with cogent explanations as to why Michelangelo colored over the marked contour, which he had drawn in so vigorously on the cartoon. But I feel certain that if he had altered nothing, the same critics would explain why not with no less cogency.

With this in mind you will know better than to regard the following analyses of two compositions as infallible. We are groping after the truth, not expounding it.

One thing is certain, however, and this is that the usual test, which is to try to convey a surface composition by means of schematic lines, is preposterous. Movement can never be interpreted as line, but only as surface area, and even direction lines describe a path of vision rather than a line of vision. Add color, and the design will be composed mainly of colored areas, which it is quite absurd to express in terms of lines. Lines used to analyse a color composition can only be regarded as a plan, a framework or pointer to indicate the general trend or feeling of movement.

Marc, The Red Horses

The two pictures on the pages that follow are placed side by side because both have the horse as their ostensible subject. Their artistic aims are otherwise quite dissimilar. The picture by Marc is a well-balanced, selective composition, which leans heavily on the picture's boundaries.



These boundaries can neither be contracted nor enlarged without significantly altering the true sense of the picture, which hinges on the three horses. They are intercepted in the course of motion; and taken on its own, the scene is like a high-speed photograph.

This motion, as it were, frozen, is stretched across a network of horizontal and vertical lines, facing left, and is emphasized by a triangular link between the focal points of the picture, that is, between the three heads. The marked bias of this network in a leftwards, downwards direction is taken up by a set of lines leading downwards to the right, but this is revealed only on closer study.

The result is a returning sense of repose and delightful harmony. These lines weave the animals and the landscape into a whole. The diagram shows that the true motif of the picture is a series of planes which whirl around, wind about, and finally settle as they were. The three horses are treated as a whole, and the potentially unwelcome effect of frozen movement is thus offset.

The color likewise brings out the motif. An intense red impels the scene forward, and the violet of the middle horse is seen as a connecting shade of red. This is the keynote which shines brightly and is everywhere repeated, both in the foreground and in the background. The yellows and blues produce the same effect, and as a result a web of colors may be discerned in addition to a web of lines. The green is the only color to appear in the background and nowhere else, but in this way it impels the main motif forwards, but this again is modified by the clear blue with its warmer effect.

Although the picture is exceptionally gaily colored, it is seen at first glance as a colored fabric, a gay material. Closer inspection brings out its amazing vitality.

Whereas Marc applied his colors in thin coats, and exploited to the full their chromatic potentialities, Reuther used the palette knife to produce a porous effect. He does not treat his colors as "absolute" and costly paint to be carefully husbanded, but as a palpable material, reminiscent of a granular whirl of lines on a dark stone.

Right: Composition analyses (linear pattern and surface impression)

Reuther's picture has two-color planes. The first, the foreground, holds the true picture content, horses and riders, in dull, grayish-pinkviolet tones, with many gradations of black; the second, the background, is a bluish-green and conveys an impression of indeterminate distant expanses with a glassy look about them, in spite of the fragmentary porous paint layers. The shadows, which seem to keep breaking through, weld the foreground and background together into one plane, even though the shapes and color surfaces of the motif itself stand out much more unequivocally against the background than they do in Marc's picture.

It is doubtful whether the connecting lines which we reconstruct were used at all in visualizing and planning the work. The painting does not depict any motion in progress. Animals and riders alike are impassive and at rest; but the whole is instinct with the possibility of an imminent departure-at a gallop. A springy rhythm built up of arcs points upwards to the right, where it is intercepted and balanced by an arc which rears up toward the left-hand portion of the picture like some massive bridge thrown across slender supports, calling to mind an audacious construction in reinforced concrete.

Nevertheless, this picture, which is difficult to explain in detail, has some of the formal elements of the prehistoric cave paintings: massive bodies on thin, fragile legs, which accentuate the fleeting, fugitive nature of animals. This tendency has become almost a stylistic commonplace among present-day artists to whom the subject matter serves as a starting point. The two principal lines of the composition are ihtercepted by a swirling movement starting in the direction of the horses' heads.

The circumference ravels itself into a knot over against the two heads, and as with all live animals it is problematic whether the imminent wild movement which one senses will proceed from flight or from a bitter struggle. The riders' function is accentual; they stress the element of tranquility, but rather than taming the animals' primitive force, they are at its mercy.



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