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Learn to Draw > Surrounding Color


Picture framing is also to be considered from the outset. A selective composition inevitably calls for a frame to shut it off, and a mount is often used. The type of composition which grows out of the surface does not need one, however. In other words, you cannot alter your selection once you have decided on it without interfering with the effect of the picture itself. On the other hand, you will find that you can enlarge the area of a picture with ill-defined limits, without altering the effect of the picture.

Contracting the surrounding area is rather a different matter. The design will lose its urgency and become more commonplace. This may not affect the composition of the scene itself, but it will affect the picture's spiritual content. To take an example: if you stand on a broad plain, the effect of the expanse, solitude, and so forth is largely due to the immensity of the heavens above.

If you view this same landscape through a finder, which takes away a good deal Qf the expanse of sky, much of its grandeur will also disappear. There was an academic maxim which would seem very much to the point here: it laid down a ratio of 1 :2 or 2: 1 between earth and heaven. To construct their pictures so that the "empty" space was left in all its glory was one of the masterly achievements of the classical Japanese and Chinese painters and has never been surpassed.



If hitherto we have been concerned solely with the surrounding shadow, this should not be taken to mean that it is a sort of inevitable constituent of an "active" composition. The reverse is true! The surround may equally well be bright, but what it must do is to stand in some kind of relationship to the picture content, whether by reason of its texture or its color. The surrounding area may be white, especially in a watercolor; and in a watercolor this will usually be the white of the paper, or support.

In other media, a gray or tinted ground can also be very delightful, particularly when the tinting is not tonelessly smooth and dead but shows the irregularities of the brush strokes. It is then that it really contributes to the picture.

Modern mural painting exploits the support to similar effect. The texture and color form a lively continuation of the picture itself, and act as a unifying element with the architectural limits and joins, which in their turn are underlined by a representation focused on one spot. This spot then becomes an animated center in a fixed surround.

This manner of composing a mural painting undoubtedly marks an advance over the rigid framing of murals practiced in earlier times. It is an advance which enables us to achieve as much or more, with limited means, as in a painting which utilized every available space between joints in the building, and released a shower of shapes and colors. Even the most receptive onlooker will feel no more than this, and even he will probably not take away much of the detail of the picture, however often or searchingly he looks at it.

A modern, simple type of mural, with its greater economy, makes a more lasting impression. Just try to reproduce from memory at home something you have seen in, shall we say, a baroque church. You have scant chance of success. If you try with a sgraffito, a mosaic, or a painting on a modern building, you are certain to draw a fair reproduction.

This indeed is the aim of composition. We aim to produce a picture at once forceful and memorable; a picture which will be at its most commanding when the boundaries of the surface are not too rigidly adhered to, depended on, leaned on; a picture which remains the focal point of an expanse, quite apart from its own centers, tensions, and rhythms. As there is no book of rules for composition such as there is for linear perspective, we shall not attempt here to translate into terms of color precepts which you have already learned about composition in drawing. It is more instructive to seek out, brush in hand, what exactly constitutes the composition of this or that well-known painting.

The following may be found relevant:
The a posteriori analysis of any work of art, or of an artistic era for that matter, is open to question, whatever its purpose. Were the old masters to be told all that later generations have read from, or into, their works, they would be beside themselves with astonishment. It has become an absurd parlor game in art history to don the armour of immense learning and clap a completed work of art in the steel frame of rigid logic.

Next: Color composition techniques

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