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Learn to Draw > Composition

The Impressionists also introduced a measure of movement into the principles of composition, which were gradually becoming ossified. By composition we mean the dividing up of the area of the picture. Composition began to develop as soon as an artificial and clearly defined area replaced the natural rock surface as the field of the picture: first the wall and later the support of wood or canvas, silk or paper. Even when a modern mural is freely placed on an empty surface its position is always related to the edges of that surface, most closely, of course, when the picture occupies it completely.

Just as, before Impressionism, a depicted movement always seems checked, and rarely communicates the illusion of being inherent, so composition was fixed in a balanced arrangement, in a frozen, self-contained moment from life, employing the interplay of movement and rest, the forces and centers of gravity. To create the sense that movement is in progress involves an entirely different compositional idea.

At first sight the harmony is missing which until then was usual inside the bounds of the picture. A dissonance has been introduced into the picture plane, requiring an alteration of the placing of the subject, a displacement of the conventional centering of balance. There seems to be an excess of unused space at the expense of the significant part which is the center of interest.

a tricky composition that comes off brilliantlyThe tension of movement in Impressionist composition (which, of course, continued in the following periods) is comparable to that in classical oriental paintings. In the latter the empty space is introduced, to a large extent, as a field for movement, although these compositions are always harmoniously conceived.

It would certainly be wrong to regard Impressionism as a break in the development of art, although it contradicted so much that had gone before, including the tradition, vacillating but constant, which had aimed at naturalism. Impressionism is better regarded as the apex of a symmetrical curve which begins by turning away from naturalism. Impressionism is an end, a climax, and a beginning as well.

A considerable distance has been traveled since then, but the path seems to be leading into the desert. The objective world is more and more seen as a thematic and formal source, which then becomes a schematic memory, until even this memory vanishes. This is not to be seen only in finished works, for in many instances even instruction in painting and drawing is also turning away from the objective.

One may ask what remains whet'the objective world is not used even for study and practice? Were there any other subject material it would not matter, but we have now to await the results of a pedagogic effort which causes the student to represent a horse so that a layman, after much puzzling, thinks it may be a squashed liver sausage.

The question arises whether we can call training that which uses as a beginning what a few individuals found as the highly personal climax of their pictorial expression, a climax which cannot possibly be accepted as a universally valid starting point. Such training arrives at what it most wanted to avoid: academic restriction. It is a restriction greater than any yet if "abstract art" is the only admitted foundation and also the starting point.

a graph showing the balance between realism and abstraction through different schools of artThis being so, it is not surprising that the material side of painting and drawing is so much neglected in the schools. Numbers of painters and draftsmen have no idea of the nature of the materials they constantly use, and this at a time. when all materials have been thoroughly investigated and analyzed in their composition and qualities, their technical and artistic possibilites. Institutes and technical periodicals can give exact information, and manufacturers can supply materials of a quality never surpassed. Yet materials are ordered which the manufacturer knows, better than any painting technician, to be neither necessary nor durable. These are produced because they are in constant demand by the ignorant.

The beginner is helpless in all this. He is guided by what he picks up by chance here and there; he has to rely on a few dusty old manuals which contain a mass of antiquated information, not to mention the plethora of wretched small tracts. At the same time there has been for many years no difficulty in reviewing and judging painting and drawing materials and their technical use.

Nowadays everything which has shown itself to be suitable over the centuries is used as support, from natural rock and wood to cloth, paper, and now artificial fibers. In the early history of painting the powdery pigment was transferred to the support by first making it into sticks; also, once the color was mixed with a binder so that it could be spread, the brush came into early use. Both of these processes have persisted. Only recently palette knife and airbrush have been added, although spraying is seldom used outside of commercial art.

The following sections of this book are written with the conviction that painters and draftsmen should be masters of their trade. We will deal, then, with the resources surveyed so for and attempt to explain a little their fluctuating importance in picture making over the centuries. This explanation should make a beginning possible for those who have as yet no clear idea of all the different factors involved in the making of a picture. They should then be able to see more easily which things they can themselves use most effectively.

Next: Drawing: In the beginning was the line

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