Drawing For Beginners/Chapter 14
Action and Composition
WHEN I was very young I cherished intense admiration for a certain little friend who was fond of drawing birds—not single studies of birds, but birds in flight. Flick, flick, flick—so many swift touches of the pencil and the birds sprang into sight, crowds of little
birds with curved wings against solid chunks of rolling clouds. Have you not drawn them yourself? Have you not sometimes watched the birds crossing the sky and tried to follow their flight with a pencil?
Fishes are not so easily studied, but sometimes they can be observed in tanks, or in the wonderful Nature pictures of the 'movies,' and fishes swimming in water bear resemblance to birds flying in the air.
We are inclined to neglect our opportunities of studying
things in action. Now that most of us can see in the cinematographs things moving as they never (seemingly) moved before, we should be all the better primed for this very fascinating study.
When crows caw and circle round tall trees, or pigeons rise in great sweeps and eddies from the ground, ti seems as if they were weaving patterns against the sky, and if each little beak held a gossamer thread there would be an exquisite pattern floating against the clouds.
Given sufficient motives or reasons for gathering groups together, then the result must be patterns shaping and reshaping.
Birds in the air and fishes in the water form shapes by the grouping of their bodies.
Children chasing a butterfly or a ball; children playing
Fig. 91. Pattern formed by the Movement of the Fish in the Water
with kites; children rushing along a flat surface bowling their hoops; a flock of
You will ask, is it possible for anything to move without making some continuous pattern? The answer is that there is no end to movement. We dance, and our arms and legs follow the curves and actions of our body. We run, and the same thing happens in a different degree. The dog wags his tail, not in one, but in many continuous movements. When we wish to plan a drawing or painting we must put this sense of movement into our picture. Obviously our figures and objects
If we sketch a cottage on a plain and put it down squarely on our paper, the cottage in the centre with a tree on either side and a sketch of flat country beyond, how foolish and empty the flat plain appears!
But shift the cottage to one side, and search for some little 'incident' (or action), though it is but a pathway, to impart an interest to the larger space. Then the sketch becomes at once more satisfactory—it holds the eye. Firstly, we are attracted by the cottage and trees massed pleasantly together; secondly, by the
pathway, which brings the eye back again to the centre of the picture.
Nature has her compositions; we merely select from them with a little care. We do not aim—the Fates forbid!—at rearranging Nature. But we do aim at choosing a happy time, or, rather, sketching a good subject at a happy moment. Landscape, figure, domestic pictures, historical scenes—whatever the subject demanding our attention—this problem
arises—what arrangement, plan, or movement will you give your picture?
Let us assume for the sake of argument that you wish to
draw the single figure of a girl. We sketch her in a single position, standing with her arms to her sides, and more bulk at the head than at the base; how silly she looks—how meaning- less! But give some reason for this particular picture—the flowing of a scarf, the widening of the design at the base, an uplifted arm holding a basket, clouds floating behind her head, and sloping banks on either side. Then the eye is caught first by the central figure, next by the shawl, arm, clouds, and led at last to the banks and trees.
Possibly you might object to that particular pose. You want something quieter and more restrained; in fact, you wish to keep to the original pose of the slim upright figure. Very well; but would it not be wise to place your figure in an upright space, and introduce either a misty effect with delicate lines, or else something that will help your figure?
I have seen it stated that arranging 'pictures' is a very different affair from arranging simple studies of 'ordinary' subjects; that one could not possibly apply the same ideas to both.
But this is a false notion, and precisely where many people go wrong.
After all is said and done, your so-called 'ordinary' subjects, your pots and pans, your flowers and books, may be the subjects in which you excel. For everything to which we direct our attention should result in a picture, must result in a picture. It may be a bad picture if we do not take the laws of Nature into consideration, but a picture nevertheless of a medium size.
We will take the subject of three pots, one large and two of a medium size.
These we place in a row, the large pot in the centre and the two smaller pots on either side of (Fig. 100).
You can see for yourself that this is an unsatisfactory arrangement. The eye lands on the central object and then slides out of the picture. Better to group the pots together
in a less mathematical manner, making a more irregular pattern (Fig. 101).
Had the two small pots been of different heights, the first arrangement would have balanced itself better.
Or, if we strongly desire an oblong instead of an upright composition, we could place two of the pots together and the third a space apart, linked by a fragment of ribbon, a feather, a spray of leaves (Fig. 102).
The study of a simple subject, such as a flower with some leaves, is an easy introduction to composition.
First choose an oblong, circular, or square space, and say to yourself that in that space you will sketch the flowers or the leaves. Try to fill the space pleasantly.
The word 'fill' must be taken with reservation. I do not mean that you should aim at crowding a varied number of flowers or leaves together, but at arranging a spray, a very slender spray with few leaves, and selecting its characteristics. Having sketched your study with pencil or brush, consider it well. Is the composition lop-sided? Have you crowded too much into one place? Have you left a space crying aloud for some attention, though it be but a few short strokes of the pencil or brush?
Turn your drawing upside down. Look at the picture as a pattern, regardless of other interest, and try to consider it as such. Or, again, collect a number of small objects, a few vases, ornaments, shells, ribbons, books, hats, balls, gloves, candles (and candle-shades), and, arranging those which harmonize together in groups, make swift sketches merely for the sake of arranging patterns, of practising composition.
|Fig. 102. An Oblong Composition|
Whether we wish to push on our studies and become eventually professional artists, or whether we only intend to amuse ourselves by sketching now and again, we shall certainly have to give attention to these considerations.
If you are a professional artist, the space that you intend to fill with pen or pencil bulks very largely on your horizon. If you illustrate stories for magazines, or for books, then the arrangement, or composition, demands a great deal of thought. The editor or publisher specifies the number of square inches allotted for your picture, and it is by no means an easy task to fill that space satisfactorily.
If portraiture is your special forte, then it is essential to arrange the composition so that it fills the canvas and paper pleasantly. Sometimes I have seen portraits arranged with so little care that the unfortunate subjects seem to be slipping out of the picture. The biggest spaces should be given to the most important part of the picture.
Several young artists gathered together would find it helpful to enter into a friendly competition in a particular subject to be drawn in a specified space. They would work independently and would eventually compare their sketches and discuss the various points.
It is remarkable how seldom similar sketches agree. Our neighbors' interpretation of the same thing often arouses great astonishment in us, and gives us much food for thought.
As time goes on our minds will naturally incline toward good composition.
Nature's beautiful 'arrangements,' her 'composition,' her 'rhythm,' her 'action,' will strike your eye at every turn.
A group of tossing elm-trees against the clouds and a few dark wings streaking the sky; a tumble-down shed round which cows are grouped, standing or lying, lazily chewing the cud; a shuffle of chimney-pots against a city sky and a trail of smoke; a boy flying down a long, narrow wet street, with a bundle of papers beneath his arm; a swan 'floating double' past a tuft of reedy grasses; an old man leaning on a thick stick or with a bundle on his back and climbing a steep path; a woman sitting under the light with her sewing grouped at her elbow; boys and girls gathered about a game, or fire, or a gate—all these are natural 'compositions,' and charming ones.
You might turn your attention to advertisements, for these are arranged with a view to attracting the eye and gripping the attention. Look at them as so many patterns, and ask yourself if the allotted spaces have been filled pleasantly.
Look at reproductions of the Great Masters. The wonderful way in which these painters grouped their subjects is an education in itself. The extraordinary simplicity of the arrangement, action, and composition will often surprise you.The shapes of some pictures have given rise to quaint legends, and probably the most famous of all is that of Raphael's Madonna della Sedia, or Madonna of the Chair. The story goes that Raphael was passing through a village at a vintage time, and seeing a mother and child sitting in a doorway was filled with a desire to paint the beautiful group. The only materials to hand were empty wine-vats. On one of these Raphael seized, and began this picture on the upturned bottom of the vat.
- Then Raphael snatched a half-charred ozier stick,
- And on the wine-cask at that moment drew
- That Child and Mother, just then glorified
- By the last sunshine's deepest, softest hue.
The picture is treasured as one of the world's most beautiful paintings, but whether the wine-vat legend was invented to explain the peculiar shape we shall never know. As a composition pure and simple, look and judge for yourself.