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Lesson Five – Composition and shapes

Arte and Zeuxis are again sitting by the small river that flow peacefully not far from Arte’s house. It is still spring. Many birds happily fly around them. They have started early, for what Zeuxis has promised to be a long lesson. Arte has her easel before her, and a thick pack of sheets of white paper lies on the stand. She has a black crayon in her hand.

Zeuxis: Have you read my letter on composition, Arte?

Arte: Yes, Zeuxis, I did. I am all ready. But as I know you, we will start with the essentials.

Zeuxis: We will indeed! It is a trivial statement, Arte, to say that paintings are confined within a frame, within an outer form that determines the limits of the picture. Painters receive their frame mostly as a given. They can only create their compositions within the boundaries of the frame. Basic structures are inherent to the dimensions of the canvas, and painters cannot but naturally conform to the basic areas of the frame.
The frames used in oil or tempera paintings are usually square or rectangular in form. When rectangular, the longest sides can be held up right and we will call that a standing frame, or serving as the base in which case we speak of a resting frame. Such positions have been used frequently. Landscapes are often painted in rectangular frames with the longest side below; portraits have often the shortest side as base.
Other forms of frame exist, and another form that has been occasionally used is the tondo, which has an oval form. Painters used even completely round frames. The tondo can be considered as a rectangle with rounded corners for our means of analysis, even though the oval forms ,when they are more pronounced, are a considerable challenge for the artists. Can you draw a few frames, as you believe might exist, Arte?

Arte draws several frames in the plates 31 to 35.

Zeuxis: Good, Arte! You drew a few frames that painters have used to tend their canvases on. You drew no trapezium, and that is right too. Forms like trapeziums or other complex frames have almost never been used, because they present very difficult challenges of composition for the artist. Such forms, like the tondo and the circle, have also been more difficult to constitute with wooden planks, or with wooden frame structures for canvases.
The dimensions of the frame are of course very important. Epic scenes of history come only to their full right in pictures of large dimensions. More intimate scenes will not suit in large frames, so the dimensions of these paintings have remained more modest. In this way the dimensions of the frame explain much of the primary intentions and feelings of the artist.
Artists have used the frame boundaries in an explicit way, drawing for instance human figures only in half against the sides. They then emphasise the frame to the viewer, expressing the limitation of the medium, but at the same time they appeal to the imagination of the viewer, so that he or she would imagine the scene beyond the boundaries of the medium. Other artists make the viewer forget about the frame.

Arte: That would then be in the same way as when I look through a window at the unveiling landscape of our meadows and the river, so that I forget about the window and only see the landscape.

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte, dear. And since you mention windows: windows can be painted inside a frame and show another scene or a background landscape. Windows then are frames within a frame, containing usually a picture in its own right, a picture within a picture. Such representations are powerful attractors of attention for viewers. So much so, that using a window view in a painting may be so conspicuous that it draws too much attention away from the main scene. The painter will have – unless he uses the effect for its own value – to balance the window in a picture with other strong attention points in the scene.

Zeuxis: Now that we have talked about frames, we can embark on a few words about the basic areas of composition inside the frames. The basic areas of composition in a frame are derived from the main elements of the frame, from its sides and corners. The basic areas of composition are obtained by dividing the frame either horizontally or vertically in equal parts. Rarely more than three such subdivisions were used however, since more than three would mean areas too small and too many for one picture. When more scenes were necessary, painters preferred to paint on separate panels and juxtapose the pictures independently. Can you draw these areas, Arte?

Arte draws the plates 36 to 39.

Zeuxis: All right. You got the hang of it. Basic areas of composition also are the triangles formed by the corners of the frames. These are then the triangles under and above the diagonals. Painters used the lower triangle to present a scene of figures and the higher triangle to show a background landscape or the sky. There is usually a feeling of elation, of a spiritual growing sense of the scene in such compositions. Do you understand what I mean, Arte?

Arte: I think I do, Zeuxis. Were you talking of these?

Arte draws plates 40 and 41.

Zeuxis: I was indeed, Arte. Remember we already saw these in a previous lesson? There are really not so many of these basic areas. It is time for an example. I love a painter called Sébastien Bourdon.

Zeuxis projects a painting of Bourdon.

Zeuxis: Sébastien Bourdon was a French artist of the seventeenth century. He fully exploited the triangles under the diagonals in several of his paintings. I show you here the "Martyrdom of Saint Andrew". Saint Andrew was crucified on an oblique cross. Bourdon showed the moment that this cross is dressed, and when Andrew gives himself entirely over to his longing for Christ. Bourdon used the left basic triangle in his picture. Most of the figures and the action of the scene are positioned in his composition below the diagonal.

-> Sébastien Bourdon (1616 – 1671). The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew. Musée des Augustins. Toulouse.

Zeuxis: Some more theory. Further subdivisions can be used when the frame is divided vertically in two or more parts. One then obtains several triangles, but more importantly two areas that we call the "Pyramid" and the "Open V". These are very important areas of composition, Arte, and painters have used them more than you can imagine!

Arte: I am very expectant to hear about it, Zeuxis.

Zeuxis draws plate 42.

Zeuxis: The "pyramid" is a triangular form obtained by drawing two oblique lines from the middle of the top side of the frame to the two lower corners of the canvas. The term "pyramid" indicates a volume, whereas here we only see a triangle surface. In most paintings however, this area was used to show a three-dimensional form in space, a pyramid or a cone. We will use here the term to mean the triangular zone.
The pyramid area was much used in portrait paintings, and indeed most often painters have filled this zone with an illusion of volume in the form of a cone.
This pyramid area has a solid base in the lower side of the frame, so that the portrait of the model, or several figures together, was solidly founded. The attention of the viewer is then focused through the direction of the slanting lines to the top, where one usually finds the face of the main person that stood for model.
This structure is a structure of intimacy with the viewer. It is a structure that gives an impression of closeness, of inward focusing with the viewer himself as the base. The view of the spectator naturally flows upwards, and in this elated way arrives at the focal point of final attention, the face of the model. Variants of this structure, whereby the lines of the pyramid are lowered, so that they do not reach exactly the upper border of the frame and so that the top of the pyramid stays lower, of course exist also.

Arte: Can you illustrate that with a real painting, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis thinks; then he makes a painting appear on his magic screen.

-> Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659 – 1743). Louis XIV, King of France. Le Louvre. Paris. 1701.

Zeuxis: Hyacinthe Rigaud made a portrait of Louis XIV, King of France in 1701. He showed the Sun King in all his courtly grandeur. Remark the pyramid structure in this picture, Arte. Rigaud opened to the right the blue brocaded royal cloak to form one side of the pyramid, and he put on the right a low, small table and cushion covered with the same tissue to form the other side of the pyramid. The portrait glows of royalty and arrogance, and all the lines focus naturally at the face of the king.
Hyacinthe Rigaud’s picture is a good example of the cone or pyramid, and very many portraits show this structure. Sometimes the pyramid is formed by low elements that add at the base such as children playing around a woman. A most classic image is that of the Virgin Mary with the young Jesus, and John the Baptist playing at her feet.

Arte: I think I understand well, Zeuxis. That was not so difficult. How about the "Open V"?

Zeuxis: Essentially, the "Open V" is the pyramid inverted. This basic structure is the exact opposite of the pyramid. With the "Open V", two oblique lines go from the middle of the lower basis to the left and right top corners. This basic structure gives an impression of openness, of a widening view into the depths of the space lying in the open V. Can you draw it, Arte?

Arte: Well, if it is the opposite of the pyramid, then it must be something like this.

Arte draws plate 43.

Zeuxis: The "Open V" structure has been much used in landscape painting. We find the scenes, dense forests or mountains to left and right, in the left and right lower triangles, whereas usually a widening and deepening landscape lies in the open V. The open V can also be constructed in the triangle above crossed diagonals.

Zeuxis projects again Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s picture.

-> Hubert (1365 – 1426) and Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441). The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam. Around, but after 1430.

Zeuxis: Look again at the picture of the "Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre" of Hubert and Jan van Eyck that you have seen a few times in the previous lessons. The van Eycks used the crossed diagonals as the basic structure of composition. We see a splendid widening view of the city of Jerusalem in the open V of the top triangle, above the crossed diagonals.

Arte: I see this area of composition in that picture. I’ll draw it for you.

Arte draws the plate 44.

Zeuxis: That’s it! I presented earlier Sébastien Bourdon’s picture of the "Martyrdom of Saint Andrew". Have you remarked how also in this picture an open V form appears? Can you explain what you see?

Zeuxis projects again the scene of Sébastien Bourdon.

-> Sébastien Bourdon (1616 – 1671). The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew. Musée des Augustins. Toulouse.

Arte: Indeed. This Bourdon situated the main action along the right diagonal, the line going from the lower right corner to the upper left. But a second oblique direction goes from the figure of the woman with child, painted in light colours, so different from the scene of the martyred Saint Andrew, to the scene of the Roman Governor on the right.

Zeuxis: Yes, between these two directions opens a V structure, and in here Bourdon painted the statue of the Roman god that was the reason for Andrew’s martyrdom. The Roman Governor wanted Andrew to adore the heathen god, but Andrew refused. Remark the intelligence of the composition of the Baroque artist Bourdon, based on strict academic directions. In Baroque art, the scenes are often so lively viewers tend to believe there was no underlying structure in the picture, but with the best painters there always was!

Zeuxis projects now another picture, an abstract painting.

Zeuxis: The open V structure has also been used in abstract painting to give viewers sensations of opening space. The better-known examples of this are the experiments of the Washington painter Morris Louis. Louis made several pictures of slanting sidelines in different colours. These seem to open space in the middle for the viewer, and make the viewer almost believe that the lines continue next to the sides of the frame, in the viewer’s own space.

-> Morris Louis (1912 – 1962). Alpha-Phi. The Tate Gallery. London. 1961.

Arte: That was a nice picture too. I love the colours! Are we through all basic areas of composition?

Zeuxis: no, one more to see!
An area of composition much used in narrative paintings is the stage.
Narrative paintings tell a story or several stories in a picture. In the Renaissance and also in later centuries, painters drew a logical parallel between these scenes and theatre and opera. Therefore, and also because stories need a frame of architecture or of landscape, painters drew a stage around their scenes of figures. The stage setting could be buildings to the right and left side or trees, and part of forests. For instance classic scenes were often situated in clearings of a forest. The stage environment then becomes a basic area of composition in pictures. Here, I’ll draw this one for you.

Zeuxis draws plate 45.

Zeuxis: On for some more theory of the art of painting, Arte!
The design or composition of a painting is the arrangement on the canvas or panel of the shapes and the colours. We have discussed previously how the basic lines or directions could be used for the structure of a painting, and we also saw the various areas within which compositions could be assembled. I will expose to you now the basic shapes that can be used in compositions and also what we mean by the harmonious arrangement of these shapes, or lack of harmony.

Arte: So we will finally leave lines and areas. We are progressing, Zeuxis.

Zeuxis: You are progressing, indeed, Arte.

Zeuxis holds a short pause. Then he continues to explain.

Zeuxis: The basic shapes are the forms created by man’s mind. The triangle, rectangle, square and circle do not exist in nature. Nature is not built in our strict dimensions of length, width and depth, which lead to simple mathematical forms.
Nature works in fractal dimensions, and ever repeats the same patterns of growth from the simplest to the most intricate forms. Thus very complex forms are generated, forms too complex for a human to imagine in a straightforward way. Nature’s macro-patterns are built from endless repetition of very simple microscopic forms, which practically never can be seen in larger agglomerations. Due to the repetitions of growth the natural patterns are extremely complex. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot discovered this phenomenon in the 1980’s and used the term "fractal dimension" to describe the mathematical processes by which the patterns could be generated. Viewers and painters tend to simplify the natural forms into the basic abstract shapes. So it is with these forms that we will have to start to assemble compositions.

Arte starts smiling for sheer incredulity.

Zeuxis: Do not laugh at the simplicity of these shapes, Arte. This is serious stuff! The great German painter Albrecht Dürer, who lived in the beginning of the sixteenth century, made many studies in proportions. His sketch book still exists. You can see in this book how he represented a human body in these simple shapes. He represented a head by a square, and the rest of the body by rectangles. In this way, he sought ideal proportions for the limbs of humans, and how to use fine proportions in his pictures.

Zeuxis: First squares and circles!
Squares and circles are the simplest shapes. They can be defined by the least number of parameters: one length for a square, and a diameter - which is one length again – for a circle. These shapes have an inward seeking quality and they produce this effect on our mind. They are limited in area, and they are closed shapes. Therefore they tend to exist for themselves alone, they do not need support and they are self-sufficient. These shapes tend to be dominant forms in a picture, so that they are usually used sparingly, and often in dominant positions of a picture. The square and the circle strongly attract the attention of the viewer.
The circle represents the cosmic principle, the sun, the moon, and the final attractor of cosmogony that is the Black Hole. The circle is complete and closed. The circle concentrates unto itself forms and directions, but it is also self-sufficient. The circle does not communicate, and is thus a mystery in itself. The circle does not radiate unless it is painted with lines or rings emanating from it. The circle keeps its colour in, to itself. The colour associated with circles is blue, a distant, cool, non-committing hue.
Smaller circles are dots. Wassily Kandinsky started his analysis of forms with dots, and he used dots in quite specific places in his pictures. We will consider dots as small circles.
A particular circle with two other smaller circles of another colour represents a human eye, and such a form placed in a crucial place of a picture literally draws immediately all attention of the viewer, and attracts the viewer’s own sight into the depths of the picture. Such forms have to be used sparingly by painters, because they can entirely dominate a scene and a picture, monopolising the attention of the viewer on this form only.
Squares also are closed shapes, but the angles of the square let escape some of the energy confined in circles. Yet, squares generally are warmer shapes, and thus also generally associated with warmer colours like orange and red.

Arte: Zeuxis, Fine, fine. Why in heaven's name should I learn these shapes, Zeuxis? I know them well enough! I understand why I had to learn about lines since after all they build the structure, the armature of a picture. But why learn about such simple shapes? Why are they important?

Zeuxis, somewhat baffled: That is a good question! The complex forms you see in pictures are constituted of simple shapes. They are sets of simple shapes, adapted in size and colours to the forms we see in a picture. It is with the simple shapes that we can understand the inner proportions of the forms and the proportions of the forms among each other. We, Greek painters, had schemes of such proportions, and we called that the canon of forms, but I do not want to teach you such old principles. Nevertheless, our mind works with such shapes also. By our mental acts we are able to distinguish simple shapes, signs, and schemes so that complex forms are first simplified by our mind enough to be recognised, categorised and compared with other forms. Once the object analysed and recognised, our mind stores it in its entirety, but in a specific way and labels it. Its individual features have to be analysed, scrutinised and then memorised in its most characteristic form. If we study shapes, we will be able more to recognise patterns in forms, and know how to see simplicity in the complexity of forms. We will speak of masses, which will have generally the form of the simple shapes we study here.
Do not underestimate these simple shapes. A draughtsman and a painter will acquire by training a set of schemas based on our simple shapes, by which he or she can produce more easily an animal, a plant or any other object. The analysis of a complex form in simpler shapes serves as support for the representation of our memory images. Draughtsmen and painters that are deficient in a good grasp and memorising of this analysis, have it much more difficult to draw from the object. A great painter of the nineteenth century, Paul Cézanne, proposed to one of his students to see the world in terms of cylinders, cones and spheres. I concede that he told this in reference to what he himself had been taught, but his statement was praise to what he had learned.

Zeuxis: There is more to this. The great art critic Ernst H. Gombrich defined a concept that he called the "characteristic shape" of an object. He meant by that one or more shapes by which we easily recognise an object, probably by which we have stored basic information of an object, the "distinctive features". Gombrich told that primitive art concentrated on these, because that art insisted on clear and easy classification.
These distinctive features are important because it is on these that we rely when confronted with an uncertainty. When we see an object, our mind looks for its classification. Our mental acts perform an effort to clarify meaning. Perception could then be a process in which many interpretations are tested against one another, and finally a choice made. Our mind and sight can transform to a certain degree the mere photographic record on our retina, to meet this process of recognition. So: a painter who is out on maximum communication does not paint a photographic record. He or she will help somewhat the mental act of perception; he or she will skew the object towards modes of easier recognition, and assist the viewer to recognise and interpret forms. A good painter has learnt to look at an object, at a landscape, not as it is (not as a photographic record) but as a beholder sees it (perceives it).
The characteristic shape of an object is probably a complex shape, but I would be surprised if it were not analysed, classified, stored and recognised in terms of the simple shapes that we study here, even though that would be the three-dimensional equivalents of our shapes.

Arte: All right, all right, Zeuxis, to so much knowledge I abandon! I will praise also what you teach me then. I promise to be more patient and confident.

Zeuxis: Now rectangles and triangles!
Triangles and rectangles are more complex shapes than squares and circles. Rectangles and triangles need two or more parameters to be defined. These parameters are for a rectangle the lengths of its two sides and for a triangle the length of the base and the height plus the position of that height on the base, which is again a length. So when a square and circle need but one parameter to define its figure, a rectangle needs two values and a triangle three.
Rectangles, at least when painted with one side horizontal, represent stability - as does a square - but the rectangle form is softer, and less inward seeking than a square. The long, upright rectangle represents grossly the profile of a man standing up and thus is felt more natural than a square.
Figurative painters thus often used rectangles in their first, overall base design to assemble and weigh the masses of their figures in a composition. The colour associated with the rectangle might be green or blue.
Triangles also are a protective and stable form, especially when the triangles have their base horizontal. The triangle then shows a direction to the top, to the skies and thus is a symbol of aspiration to "higher up", to transcendence. Triangles have sharp angles and from these angles energy seems to seep away. So, triangles are more "open" shapes than the circle or the square.
We have already encountered the pyramid form, the basic form of portrait painting. The pyramid is also one of the basic areas of composition in a frame, within which scenes can be painted that form a restive and very stable impression in the viewer. In figurative pictures, rectangular and triangular shapes are mostly used firmly based on the ground, as gravity imposes.
When rectangles and triangles are painted in slanting positions, and more so if they are set in scattered arrangements over a panel, then these shapes take the quality of unsupported slanting lines. The shapes then indicate nervousness, sick obsession, unsettling motion, instability, even madness, tension and of course lack of equilibrium. These effects have been used mostly in abstract pictures.
The colour usually associated with rectangles and triangles is yellow. Yellow is a radiating colour, like the energy that seems to escape from the sharp angles of triangle shapes.

Arte: Ah, Zeuxis! That was the first time you started to talk to me about colours also. I feel we are getting there! Are there more complex shapes than squares, circles, rectangles and triangles?

Zeuxis: Of course.
Other shapes but squares, circles, rectangles and triangles are trapeziums, lozenges or ovals. These have also been used in pictures, but then mainly in abstract paintings. They have been used rarely, however, and seem not to offer particular advantages over combinations of the basic shapes. Often purple or cyan colours are associated with these shapes when they are constituted of straight lines and angles. More round shapes are often painted in warmer colours, like in orange.
Ovals are circles elongated in one direction. Ovals are softer, less inward directed and self-centred than circles. They are more appropriate to contain the human figure. Ovals that contain figures are protective of the figures. A very old presentation of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary in religious pictures was inside a flaming oval. This form bears the name of "mandorla". "Mandorla" means "almond" in Italian. This oval, womb-like organic form, combined with the softened pyramidal composition of the figures was one of the most traditional ways of presentation of devotional pictures.
Organic shapes do not resemble geometric shapes. Organic shapes are the shapes of natural, living things. Natural shapes, as for instance the shapes of plants, can be thought of as built from the endless repetition of very small, elementary geometric forms. Organic shapes of humans or animals seem to be formless, with many curved lines, or with intricate changes of direction. They are usually in three dimensions closed forms, forms without holes, but firm and curving unto themselves.
Painters sometimes exploited the strange difference in forms of organic shapes and geometrical shapes to contrast the organic and the inorganic. One of the painters who did this repeatedly was Giorgio de Chirico, as in his picture of "Meta-physical Interior with Hand of David". Here the straight, inorganic lines and shapes have been put in contrast to the organic shapes of the hand of David.

Zeuxis projects again Giorgio de Chirico’s painting.

-> Giorgio de Chirico (1888 – 1978). Meta-physical Interior with Hand of David. Collection of the Foundation Giorgio and Isa de Chirico. Rome. 1968.

Arte: How then do I use these shapes, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis: Squares, circles, rectangles and triangles are truly the basic shapes in compositions, Arte. Painters use these forms before they fill in the details of their pictures, because these were easy forms to draw in just a few lines. The basic shapes then are the basis of compositions. With these shapes in schematic representation of the areas of the painting, the artist can weigh the areas and obtain a first feel for the harmony or disharmony of the composition. By placing various shapes along each other in a certain direction he or she can suggest movement. At this point enters a notion called "harmony".

Arte: Ah, now I’ll learn I believe something really interesting. What is harmony?

Zeuxis: With your female intuition you hit the nail, Arte.
Harmony is extremely difficult to explain. Harmony is the quality that makes a picture instantly aesthetically pleasing and agreeable to a viewer. The word "instantly" is important in this context, for as we will see later, viewers can find a picture interesting and emotionally pleasing for still other reasons than the instantaneous evocation of an agreeable effect. I will define later what harmony is about, but harmony has to do with the composition of the shapes and colours of the various areas on the canvas. The term has to do with the relations between the forms, the lines and the colours. We could speak of harmony when only one sole area is shown, but a painting usually consists of more than one area and harmony is a quality of how the various areas are perceived in combination. Harmony is perceived as intrinsically created by the repetition of the same shapes or by the combination of the differing shapes used in the painting.
Unsupported forms of triangles, rectangles, squares and circles are used in complex, free compositions. The weight of the various areas, that is their measured surface and their form (wide, elongated, etc.), can be used to help the communication of the painter. Painters have mostly tried to balance the areas as masses of colour, drawn in various places of their picture. Balance of masses is usually perceived as harmonious. The lack of balance of areas can be contrary to natural appearances, and thus, surprising. This does not mean that the resulting deviance from harmony as a rule is displeasing. Harmony is not a prerequisite for a painting to be able to be admired. Painters can break harmony on purpose, or not be concerned with harmony at all, and still create original, interesting work that will ultimately evoke aesthetic pleasure.
The deviance from harmony can be accepted by a viewer in certain circumstances and remain aesthetically pleasing, as long as it has a well-defined purpose, is justified and supports the aim of the artist. A classic example is the depiction of figures in the Middle Age northern pictures. Medieval pictures represented Jesus or the Virgin Mary in the largest shape in pictures, whereas the humble donors or the angels of a panel were represented much smaller. Natural proportions were thus not respected, but the message of humility, as contrasted with glory, was well emphasised.
By harmony of forms or shapes in a picture we mean that the forms that are composed together on a panel have approximately the same dimensions overall, are symmetrically balanced around an axis or point, or gradually lead to each other’s mass.
The forms can be as well one of the basic shapes, as combinations of the basic shapes, as more complex shapes with even round shapes. We say that two such forms are balanced or "in harmony" when their general shape and area is approximately the same.

Zeuxis draws the two plates 46 and 47 to let Arte feel what he means by harmony. Plate 46 shows balanced shapes, whereas plate 47 shows unbalanced shapes.

Then Zeuxis also draws plates 48 and 49 to show the difference between balanced and unbalanced complex forms. Plate 48, he says, represents balanced complex forms and plate 49 unbalanced complex forms. Arte studies these.

Zeuxis: Harmony of forms is a fundamental aspect of composition. It is realised by the weight of the masses of the shapes when they are arranged in a composition.
But harmony of forms and balance are more than merely the weight when patterns of shapes are used. Patterns are the repetition of the disposition of the masses in a panel. The balance may be lost when the repetition patterns are unequal. Balanced arrangements feel more harmonious when the viewer can expect them. A successive form is no surprise if its mass and general shape is not too much different from the previous one. Sequences of shapes that change only slightly do not impose too much change of information in our minds, thus need less processing, and therefore seem to flow naturally in an agreeable way from one to the other. They seem to appeal more to our inner feelings of aesthetics then.
The plates 48 and 49 that I just drew illustrate the principle of balance and lack of balance in repetitions, Arte.
In plate 48 we have a balanced repetition on the left side. These shapes only differ somewhat in length, in one dimension only, and only slightly so in that dimension. The global form seems to be mirrored, but the viewer easily recognises the mirroring.
In plate 49, however, we have much more departure from the shapes that are situated on the left side. The forms now differ strongly in shape and also in distance. A viewer is surprised by this deviation from the perceived norm he or she has found on the left, and thus will receive an impression of lack of harmony. This creates a feeling of tension in the picture.

Arte: I understand, Zeuxis. Are not colours then also important in balance?

Zeuxis: We have not yet discussed colours, Arte, but colours are indeed most important in balance, because balance also means that the tones of the shapes are similar. This does not mean that the shapes need to have the same colour, but the hues and tonality need to be similar. Contrasting colours of complementary hues increase the impression of less equilibrium and of surprise. On the other hand we will see later in the chapter on colours that colours bear a quality of distance. Blue leaves an impression of being farther away and yellow-orange of being closer to the viewer. A blue surface will only balance a yellow-orange area when it is painted somewhat larger. The difference is subtle, but relevant.
Colours enter the sense of overall balance because they carry a weight in the overall view of a spectator. The weight of the colour adds to the weight of the areas, and thus adds or destroys balance in the same way as dimension and shape do. One way to perceive this is to think of quadrants over the frame and look at the general masses as shapes.

Zeuxis draws plate 50 to illustrate the concept he is talking about.

Zeuxis: I have illustrated this in the last plate. I drew the imaginary quadrants as a grid of lines in this picture. We could imagine that there is balance in these forms, because the open space on the left, sometimes called "negative space" has a spatial value of 12 whereas the grey rectangle has a value of 6 due to its grey colour, even though its spatial value is only about 5. The dark circle attracts and holds attention, and thus although its area is only something like 1, its total spatial values is also about 6. Thus due to the colours, balance is created in the picture in a combination of shapes and colour. Such feelings of balance are of course very subjective. But simple schemas like my last plate can indeed explain something of the harmony in balance of masses of a painting.

Zeuxis turns to his screen and shows a painting Arte has seen before.

-> George Stubbs (1724 – 1806). Soldiers of the Tenth Light Dragoons. The Royal Collection. London. Around 1793.

Zeuxis: In George Stubbs’ painting of the "Soldiers of the Light Dragoons", we see a horse on the left. This is a rather large mass of brown colour. In order to balance this mass in the picture, Stubbs had to darken the smaller figures on the left side. So he placed there two soldiers in black uniform.

Arte: Clever! There is much to discover in such a painting.

Zeuxis: Oh, Stubbs was clever all right. Never believe that because a painting looks simple the painter was a simpleton. But: on to further notions of balance.
Our feeling of gravity can also create a strong feeling of balance of masses. You have learned that a weight close to a point of action can be balanced by a smaller weight further from that point. This feeling can be used in paintings to create a sense of balance, like in the following drawings.

Zeuxis draws plates 51 and 52.

aurther off can balance a large but bright shape.

Arte: Zeuxis, I think of something! Can you show us again the picture of Canaletto we saw earlier?

Zeuxis complies.

-> Antonio Canale called Canaletto (1697 – 1768). Venice. The Grand Canal from Campo San Vio towards the Bacino. The Royal Collection. London, around 1730.

Arte: Look, Zeuxis! In this view of the Grand Canal of Venice, Canaletto painted two larger areas on either side of the Canal. One building is on the left. It is a broad shape, somewhat long. On the right Canaletto saw a building like a tower, so a high shape. This shape is more imposing than the shape of the building on the left. Yet the two shapes are in balance because the one on the left is longer than the one of the right and it is situated somewhat more towards the centre of gravity, or the central axis of symmetry.

Zeuxis: You understood the concept, then, Arte.
Balance is a somewhat mysterious concept, and certainly a rather difficult concept to explain in simple terms. Balance is about the relationships between shapes and areas of colours on a painting, and in general about relations between any features of a picture.
The best analogy that I can think of is our own cosmos. Within our universe, celestial bodies are kept in space by the all-pervasive action of the gravitational forces created both by the universe and by the bodies themselves. Any displacement of a star or a planet or a black hole has an imperceptible but very real effect on the other bodies, so that all change position within the universe, to find a new state of equilibrium of gravitational forces. We can think of the canvas as a similar universe, within whose space the forms have found their positions by the action of invisible forces. The forces work on the shapes and fix their places. When one of the forms changes position, the position of the other forms must change too in order to preserve the balance.
When the balance is not preserved, then tension remains in the universe of the painting. This either can be caused by an error of design of the painter, which is then usually a nuisance for the viewer, or it can be of course a desired effect, as the painter can indeed willingly introduce points of tension in his work. In order for these tensions to be accepted by viewers, the tension must be part of the scene or of the subject of the painting. Let me show you another picture.

Zeuxis projects a Byzantine mosaic.

-> The Emperor Justinian and his Retinue. Mosaics from the Church of San Vitale. Ravenna. Ca. 550.

Zeuxis: Look, Arte, this is not a painting but a mosaic. I just wanted to show you this briefly so that you would know that these concepts are very old indeed.
This is a mosaic from the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. It is a very old church, and the mosaics were made entirely in the Byzantine style, in the art of the Eastern-Roman Empire of Byzantium or Constantinople, under whose influence laid the Italian Veneto region around 550, when the mosaic was made.
Look well. There are soldiers on the left side in darker tones. And these are balanced by the priest who wears a cross, to the right of Justinian, dressed in darker tones than the rest of the Emperor’s retinue. But this priest stands closer to Justinian. And he is alone. So this mass of darker colours is closer to the middle, and balances the more distant soldiers on the left. To the left also stand two councillors in lighter hues, and we find lighter hues also on the right in two other priests. Justinian wears a darker cloak, so that we remark him immediately, but next to him on the right stands another man, somewhat in the background and in lighter mosaic tesselae. To the right side you see somewhat lighter colours than on the left. Now, Justinian is not exactly in the middle, but a little to the left also, so that the lighter colours balance the darker tones.
You have here a very old classic mosaic picture, Arte, and you here already the notions of balance of masses of darker and lighter hues quite clearly applied!

Zeuxis: Up to new concepts, Arte!

Zeuxis draws the plates 53 and 54.

Zeuxis: I want to teach you another principle of harmony of forms, which is repetition.
Most viewers perceive repetition of the same shapes placed successively next to each other so that the shapes do not change very much, as being harmonious and agreeable. This principle applies to painting, but very much so also in architecture. People feel in architecture the symmetries and repetitions of windows, or of other architectural or ornamental elements, such as columns or friezes, to be harmonious. Repetition means that the shapes and patterns can be easily recognised, and that effect is pleasing.
Repetition is a powerful means in design that is often pleasing. But repetition without variation can become monotonous. Therefore, slight variations are generally introduced by painters in their pictures and the variation recognised in the repetition give a feeling of marvellous harmony such as in Canaletto’s view of Venice.
Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1918) stressed variety in symmetry. He wrote, "don’t be afraid to look at the great masters of the best periods. They created irregularity within regularity. Saint Mark’s cathedral in Venice: symmetrical, a whole, but not one detail is like another!" G87 .
Colours can enhance or break the sense of repetition of shapes. When shapes are repeated, using the same colour or colours that slightly change in hue, tone or intensity, but when that variation is in a consistent, gradual way, the effect of repetition is enhanced. This is particularly so when all pure, fully saturated hues are used. The repetition can then become very dominant in a picture, to very striking and attention-monopolising effects. When in the repeating shapes the colours change at random, the colours do not support the repetition of shapes, and viewers may recognise such repetition with more difficulty.

Arte: Is this repetition always necessary to make nice paintings?

Zeuxis: No, not necessarily. Generally however, repetition is quite pleasing.
Still, you have a point, too! Harmony of forms is not always linked to repetition of shapes on different sides of a panel. Repetition, or the copying of shapes in different places of a canvas may be absent in a picture. For harmony of forms to be obtained in these pictures, some sense of direction and gradual transition of forms is then expected. The sense of direction that is thus created can be a powerful effect in a picture, especially when the movement generated by the repetition goes to the upper part of the frame. This always indicates a longing for the heavens; it indicates elation. Rapidly, abruptly changing shapes in a progression of forms will be detected as surprising and disturb the normal expected progression of shapes. This always creates feelings of tension in a picture. Let me illustrate this for you.

Zeuxis draws the plates 55 and 56.

Arte: I see what you mean, Zeuxis. I kind of like the progression in your firstt plate.

Zeuxis: Ah, Arte, that is called rhythm! Rhythm in a picture is created by the progression of the shapes. These give a feeling of a movement willed by the artist. The eyes of the viewer will follow the progression or rhythm, and thus the painter can guide the viewer’s eyes over the picture to the details the artist really wants the viewer to remark. Such rhythms can be pronounced, and even be the dominant element in a picture, such as for instance when many flowing and curved lines form patterns over a picture. Or the rhythm can be subtle, only invoked by subtle gradations in volume and direction of shapes.
The rhythm can be enhanced by colours or diminished. Viewers will expect colours and variations of hues in the whole to support the progression. Randomising the colours over the shapes will not support the rhythm of the picture.

Zeuxis shows a new picture.

-> Luigi Russolo (1885 – 1947). Revolution. Modern Art Collection of the Gemeentemuseum – The Hague. 1912.

Zeuxis: We already mentioned the dominance of the right side in pictures. Viewers will perceive a movement or rhythm of shapes to the right sides as more natural, thus more agreeable. Still, there can be exceptions as in Luigi Russolo’s painting "Revolution". Here the movement of the advancing people is to the left. Revolutions are mostly politically leftist movements, so Russolo painted the revolution of the masses going from the right to the left side of the picture. Do you remember we found the right side in a painting the more stable, expected side? Revolutions are contrary to what is expected and tradition!

Zeuxis: A next concept, Arte, when we learn about shapes, is symmetry.
Shapes can be linked in symmetries. By symmetry we denote the quality whereby a form is represented on the other side of a point or axis, at the same distance, in exactly or in almost the same shape, or in its inverted shape. Symmetries guarantee that the weight of the masses of the areas in a picture are well balanced, and thus are an important factor in the harmony of forms.
Various axes of symmetries exist in a frame. These axes can be the vertical line that goes through the centre of a picture, or the horizontal line that goes through that point. The diagonals also can be lines of symmetry. The symmetries are formed in that we find areas of composition on exact opposite sides of these axes. Here, I draw a plate that illustrates symmetry around a vertical axis for you.

Zeuxis draws plate 57.

Zeuxis: Symmetries of areas, and also the similarity of the colours of these areas, are often used in paintings to bring balance and rest in the picture. It tends to be an intellectual effect, but one that seems necessary to give an impression of order to the viewer, however delicate and lightly touched often the balances and the areas can be. In this, it is very important for a viewer to be able to rapidly recognise the symmetries. If a picture is loaded with picturesque details or with too many forms, the picture will not be perceived as being harmonious. A painting can well show many figures and details but the sizes, progression, balance and symmetries have to be readily recognised by the viewers. A small patch or form of colour on both sides of an axis of symmetry is often enough to prove a feeling for the cleverness of the painter and for the peacefulness of the picture.
Symmetries are balanced, that is the areas to either side of the axis of symmetries are similar in surface. Balanced symmetrical surfaces enhance the feelings of solid foundation and of the "right" touch of a picture. They are part of the harmony of forms.

Zeuxis projects a new picture now.

-> Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510). Altarpiece of Saint Barnaba. Gallerie degli Uffizi. Florence.

Zeuxis: Do you remember still the mosaics of the church of San Vitale we saw just a moment ago? You can detect strong symmetries in that picture. Here is another one. We look at the "Altarpiece of Saint Barnaba" of Sandro Botticelli. You can discern the pyramid structure in this painting, always a solid foundation for an image. The symmetries are around the central vertical axis, in which the Virgin Mary can be found throning under a shell symbol. Mary was often called the Stella Maris in Medieval and Renaissance times, and the shell was a symbol of the seas. Three saints stand to the right and to the left. Two angels on each side in the same poises complete the scene. All these figures are in positions of symmetry. Also, the architectural structures to left and right are in symmetrical balance and of the same surfaces. Thus the composition radiates harmony, equilibrium and rest.

Arte: When we had it about progression and repetition, you told me that this repetition could be interrupted to introduce variation. I suppose we can do the same with symmetries. What would the effect be?

Zeuxis: Oh yes, absolutely!
Symmetries and balance of areas may be broken, and then the feelings induced in the viewer are of nervousness, chaos and unrest. The picture lacks in harmony of forms when symmetries and balance of forms are not satisfied. Although we can thus play with the areas in ways that are not "natural" and not "harmonious" in order to express particular inner feelings, it is also true that certain associations seem to touch the viewer more agreeably than other.
When the shapes are placed in such a way on the canvas that purely aesthetic, lyrical, agreeable feelings are aroused in you, then we say that a composition is harmonious. These feelings are easily enough expressed by the words they define. But what exactly these feelings are and how they are induced in humans, is a much more difficult matter to comprehend.
Symmetries and balance of areas are needed in a picture to be agreeable to viewers. It means not just balanced areas, but also balance of colours in symmetrical repetition. We have explained it means additionally gradual instead of abrupt progression in shapes. Such harmony is difficult if not impossible to express in words, since the visual experience is a particular event of the eye and mind that is very different from literature or other arts.

Arte: Is harmony of forms necessary for a picture to be beautiful?

Zeuxis: We should define the word "beauty" first, and that is near impossible, since the word can mean so different things. The meaning of the word differs from person to person, from culture to culture, from civilisation to civilisation and century from century.
Beauty for a picture does not necessarily mean that it is nice, gorgeous, sweet, lyrical or gentle. It does not necessarily mean that symmetrical and repetitive, balanced shapes need to be shown. The philosopher Plato said that of amm material things there existed ideas. For instance, of the many kinds of trees that exist, there is one general idea of a tree. The idea can also be called the Form. Aristoteles, the pupil of Plato, once wrote that the major Forms of the beautiful are order and symmetry and delimitation. Since ever, people have appreciated and sought order and symmetry in a piece of art to like it.
"Beauty" is difficult to define as a concept in terms which are outside the domain of aesthetic terms. We might try here to define "beauty" in terms of form, in the terms of the technique of painting, as a particular assembly of shapes, lines, colours and so on. Such attempts fail, since the aesthetic quality of a thing (or even a concept) is much more elusive and much wider than merely form. Thus, although I teach you the elements of design of paintings, I am also involved in guiding you to recognise the "beauty" of a painting and the combination of the elements of design do not suffice for that aim. A picture can be original, surprising, catch your interest by many means, and by these qualities also induce feelings of pleasure. Thus, although we analyse here what most contemporary people would perceive as harmony, this harmony of forms is not a prerequisite for a painting to be "beautiful". Tensions and surprise, even nervousness and broken movement, can also be desired effects in pictures. It is interesting to analyse how painters have reached a particular effect. The feelings evoked in viewers have at least partly a basis in the techniques used by the painters, and these can be explained.

Arte: I understood that the breaking of symmetry arouses the interest of the viewer. And that means the viewer looks more and with more insistence at the picture.

Zeuxis: Right. Breaking of symmetries or breaking of repetition has an effect on the expectations of the viewer.
In a regular repetition, the viewer expects one same pattern after the next. This psychological effect of expectation is disturbed by the breaking of symmetry or the breaking of repetition. The expectation is disturbed, and therefore the attention of the viewer is suddenly enhanced, sharpened, aroused anew. This playing upon moments of renewed attention is what appeals to a viewer, and it is an effect that is eagerly – but not overtly – sought by painters. A painter who does not appeal to the attention of the viewer, or rather a work of art that does not in this heightened and ever-stimulated way of appealing to the attention of viewers in unexpected ways attracts renewed interest, becomes dull. The art of the great painter is to seek a balance between symmetries and repetitions on the one hand, and the breaking of these on the other, or on modulating such features to attract attention. Furthermore, viewers rather appreciate it more intellectually when the artist did this in a subtle way, without them having a sense of being openly manipulated. This is all quite difficult theory, Arte, so let me illustrate this with an example.

Zeuxis shows a strange picture.

-> Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1923). The Excommunication of Robert the Pious. Musée d’Orsay. Paris. 1875.

Zeuxis: We look at Jean-Paul Laurens’ picture "The Excommunication of Robert the Pious".
The French King Robert, son of Hugo Capet, the very first King of France, was betrothed to Berthe, the widow of Count Odo of Champagne. Not only was Robert family of Berthe, but also the godfather of one of her sons. So there was a direct spiritual connection between Robert and Berthe. The Church considered a marriage incestuous. Pope Gregorius V declared the marriage illegal in 998, and excommunicated the King. Jean-Paul Laurens showed the scene of the excommunication.
Although this painting has all the characteristics of clarity and simplicity of a Neo-Classicist work, it lacks symmetries everywhere.
The Bishops have just excommunicated the French King, and they leave through a Romanesque door, but there are no figures on the left side to balance them. Berthe clings to Robert, but no symmetric form to the left of Robert balances her figure or the white patch of colour of her dress.
Robert and Berthe are caught in the cross formed by the tapestry, the two desks on either side of the throne, and a blue pattern on the floor, but the lines of this cross are mostly oblique and do not flow symmetrically into each other.
The Bishops leave through the door, but Robert and Berthe stare fixedly in another direction, towards the overturned and extinguished candle that is the symbol of the end of their spiritual lives. Robert and Berthe have sagged together, and the weight of the tapestry that is also part of the cross of Christianity, visually emphasises the menace over them.
Jean-Paul Laurens broke balance deliberately in this painting, to create the visually perceptible tension that should accompany the tension in the souls of Robert and Berthe. The visual tension supports the psychological tension of the figures.

Arte: So, what should I paint, Zeuxis: harmony, or no harmony and no balance?

Zeuxis: You pick, Arte. It depends on your subject.
Harmony of forms is a means that appeals to most viewers. Hence painters have applied it over the centuries, and it was the basis of the teaching in the painters’ academies of the capitals of Europe. In the beginning of the twentieth century artists started deliberately to break the harmony of forms in order to introduce special effects and feelings.
It should not come to you as a surprise that these experiments were first done on the simplest shapes I have shown you before. Such simple shapes make the effects most evident. We have learned from these experiments in representation of simple shapes that individual persons react differently on the patterns of forms of a picture.
We do not know how feelings of aesthetic pleasure are induced in a mind. We do not know what the processes are. We do not know how a mind reacts to patterns of shapes and colours. These must generate waves of subsequent signals in the neurones of our brain, so that the brain stimuli arouse feelings of pleasure. We suppose that such patterns of perception are more or less the same in all humans, but we do not know whether that is a true statement. And we do not really know just how, by which processes, and by what patterns different feelings are created. That is the great mystery of paintings, Arte!

Arte: And that is like music, Zeuxis!

Zeuxis: Good, Arte.
It is indeed appropriate here to talk of music. Music is a wonderful art, since its wandering patterns of sounds immediately generate feelings in our mind. In order to savour music, we need no interpretation. We do not need to analyse intellectually the sound waves in order to like a symphony. We abandon ourselves to the musical patterns without thinking. The sound patterns then immediately create emotions.
The English writer Walter Pater (1839-1894) has given now famous lines on this subject. He wrote, "All art consistently aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it."
The art of painting also, in particular styles more than in other, thus aspired to music, to the immediate evocation of emotions in viewers, and its foremost means in that are colour and patterns.
Sir Isaac Newton devised a system of seven colours from his analysis of rays of light through prisms, in analogy with the musical scale G97 . Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) also wrote on this in 1899, but then emphasising colour, stating, "Colour, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force." Thus, form disappears and only instantaneous emotions remain.
Such a process must take place to a certain degree also when people look at patterns of shapes and of colours in the visual arts. The degree to which people are receptive to the patterns can be very different. The means remain inexplicable by our current knowledge of the mind processes. It is therefore very difficult to state that harmony of shapes, balance and symmetry, are necessary for a painting to be "beautiful". The sensation of "beauty" depends on as yet unexplained processes and means. The only measure remains the proper feelings induced in an individual viewer.
Nevertheless, analysing what harmony of forms means is twofold interesting. It does explain for many people – we believe the largest part of western people – what is agreeable in paintings, and it allows us to recognise by which technical means a painter has reached a certain effect of evoked emotions.

Arte: Look, Zeuxis, I drew two pictures of what you would call balance and lack of balance. The second picture shows shapes in what you would call nervousness, no?

Arte draws plates 58 and 59.

Zeuxis: A viewer will probably look with interest at your unbalanced shapes without symmetries of your second plate as being unusual. He or she will look and look again, be fascinated, but not always like what is shown. Compositions with broken symmetries and labile shapes surprise viewers, an effect that the painter may well seek on purpose. Broken patterns and unexpected symmetries, also unexpected colours, create tension in a painting. The viewer will try to understand intuitively the reasons for the breaking of symmetry and balance. If a reason can be found quickly (the reason may be indicated by the title of the picture), then the viewer may regain his or her comfort once more. He or she will understand what drove the painter, and accept, even admire the lack of harmony. If a reason cannot be understood rapidly, the viewer will become uncomfortable, and lack feelings of aesthetic. The picture will derange and unsettle the viewer. Most viewers prefer balanced and symmetrical arrangements of shapes in a painting, which is harmony of forms, even though they may savour explained deviations from natural harmony.
Lack of harmony through breaking of symmetry and balance may be thus the specific effect sought after by a painter. The artist can then deviate from harmonic proportions, bring shapes in a non-symmetrical arrangement on the panel and confront shapes out of proportion to each other. He can enhance the effect also by using colours that contrast. He may put warm colours on one side and colder colours on the other. He may use contrasting patterns of parallel or of oblique lines that conflict with each other’s directions, and which compete in induced feelings. It is often easier to recognise when harmony is lost than when harmony is present.

Arte: Have you taught me now all the concepts of harmony, Zeuxis?

Zeuxis: I hope you have understood that all these concepts of harmony have to do with the relationships between the forms of a painting, Arte. There is one more concept to learn, and that is unity.

Zeuxis: Harmony is mainly a static principle in paintings. It is a peaceful, restful concept. Harmony needs to be recognised, remarked easily by viewers. Hence viewers prefer not too many shapes in a picture, so that they would not be confused in their attention.
When many forms do have to be represented, a dominant form will bring the desired rest. The viewer will be able to return to this form, and from there explore the painting. It will be a mark of attraction. See the following drawings, Arte. They illustrate for you the concept of dominant form.

Zeuxis draws the plates 60 and 61.

Zeuxis: In my first drawing, many shapes are dispersed all over the vision plane. When you look at this drawing, you will pass from shape to shape, Arte, wander with your eyes around the picture and return to shapes visited before. There is no unity in this picture, and no dominance by a single form. In the second drawing, all shapes seem to be placed around one circle. This form rallies the other. Your eye movements will now all start from the circle and radiate from that mark to the other shapes.
We look again at the painting of the van Eyck brothers.

Zeuxis shows again the painting of the Van Eyck brothers.

-> Hubert (1365 – 1426) and Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441). The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam. Around, but after 1430.

Zeuxis: The dominant shape in this painting is definitely the tomb. The tomb is a dominant element, from which our attention can go in all directions to discover the details of the picture. The van Eycks even positioned this shape as solidly horizontal and exactly in the centre of the scene, so that it really enhances your feeling of it being the central focus of the picture.

Zeuxis: In my last drawing, the various shapes are linked to the central circle. This drawing illustrates another principle of harmony that enhances the restfulness of a picture, namely the concept of unity.
Unity refers to the linking of the various elements or forms of a painting. When as in my last picture but one (plate 60) all shapes are unlinked, the viewer’s eyes will move erratically over the picture. This will give a feeling of unrest and of nervousness. When however the shapes are connected, such as in the last plate, the shapes create a sense of belonging, a sense of unity.
Roger Fry (1866-1934) expressed this as "Unity of some kind is necessary for our restful contemplation of the work of art as a whole, since if it lacks unity we cannot contemplate it in its entirety, but we shall pass outside it to other things necessary to complete its unity. In a picture this unity is due to a balancing of the attractions of the eye about the central line of the picture" G86 .
The concept of unity is also important in repetition and in the creation of direction. Indeed, when a sense of direction is indicated by a progression of shapes, the distances between the shapes have to be equal, or the shapes have to touch. If the distance between the repeated forms varies too much, the forms will lose unity, and the direction will not be perceived as strongly by viewers. This again will create a feeling of surprise, of breaking of the repetition and hence of breaking the harmony.
Forms are usually linked in painting in order to stimulate the sense of unity. In the painting of the "Three Maries" of the van Eyck brothers, the open tomb constitutes the unity. But the "Open V" structure also creates unity, as the green pasture leads to the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not hidden between the rocks, but seems accessible and thus united with the front scene. We find often thus between parts of a landscape a uniting road linking the various details of the landscape together.

Zeuxis projects another picture.

-> Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557). Joseph in Egypt. The National Gallery. London.

Zeuxis: Look at Jacopo Pontormo’s "Joseph in Egypt", Arte. This is in many respects a strange and remarkable picture. It contains many stories from the life of Joseph the Egyptian. But Pontormo connected all the scenes in a very strong way. He painted large stairs below, leading to the scene on the left. These stairs descend to the right, but there starts a spiral stairs leading to a scene on the upper right, where Joseph asks his father to bless his Egyptian son. The stairs link the various scenes, so that the stairs are the unifying concept creating unity and rest in the painting. Without this element of composition, the scenes would have been disconnected, separate and isolated.
Another interesting example of such linking is in Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné’s picture of Adam and Eve that we have seen before. The yellow colours that represent the broad circular movement of the sun, link Adam and Eve. One finds often that painters have introduced such linking of forms between focus areas of attention in pictures.

-> Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné (1888 – 1942). Adam and Eve. Collection Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. 1912.

Zeuxis draws now a new plate, plate 62.

Zeuxis: Dominance and unity are features of a painting and so are two other types of compositions: open and closed structures. I have already hinted at that concept, Arte, when I talked of circles and triangles.
What I have drawn now is an example of a closed structure. Many smaller elements are confined within a dominating structure or scene. Such compositions invite the viewer to concentrate his or her attention on the central theme and to focus the view on one item or area of the painting.
More open compositions, such as in my previous drawing but the last (plate 61), propose the viewer to explore the many pictorial elements in the picture plane.
Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s "Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre" is a more open composition, as various figures are in different areas of the picture. The unifying element is the open tomb, but this only links the sub-themes, as there are the Maries, the soldiers and the angel. The sub-themes invite to several separate stories in your mind.
In looking at the structure of a picture, one must distinguish separate forms from the grouped forms that are in a unity.
Grouping can be realised in various ways. It can be visually obtained by similarity of shapes – which then seem to belong to each other -, by similarity in directions – lines pointing in the same direction -, in fact in any aspect of shape, colour, brightness, location in one place, or even effect of movement and content meaning.
The analysis we made so far of the simple shapes and some of the notions of symmetry, repetition and balance, taught us as well how to discern the separate parts of a composition, as well as its overall grouped structure.

Arte: I think I understood all you taught me in this lesson, Zeuxis, but I am would like to know why we, humans, seek such harmony, balance, symmetries, and all the other concepts you spoke of.

Zeuxis: That may remain a mystery, Arte. Some explanation was given by Rudolf Arnheim.

Zeuxis draws the simple picture of plate 63.

Zeuxis: Arnheim looked at drawings like this. He remarked that most people see a white circle – or for some observers white squares – in the centre of the cross, even though there does not really exist a contour of a circle or of a square G96 . With analysis of other such patterns, Arnheim concluded that a basic law of visual perception in Gestalt psychology was, "Any stimulus pattern tends to be seen in such a way that the resulting structure is as simple as the given conditions permit". He defined simplicity as the subjective experience and judgement of an observer "to feel no difficulty in understanding what is presented to him or her". In this view, a square is a simpler form than a triangle, because in the square all angles are equal and straight and all segments of line too. The square has less structural features, described in terms of distance and angles. Two concepts are closely associated to this question of simplicity: the concept of parsimony – what is the simplest structure that will serve a purpose – and the concept of orderliness – which is the simplest way of organising this structure. But parsimony and orderliness, which underlie relative simplicity, can be present whatever the level of complexity.
The principle of parsimony states that the painter should not represent beyond what is needed for his purpose, and that then viewers truly appreciate a picture. Great works of art are complex, but they seem to "have simplicity in that the wealth of meaning, forms and colours in the overall structure clearly defines the place and function of every detail in the whole" G96 . This way of organising a complex structure in the simplest way possible, Arnheim called orderliness.

Zeuxis projects Titian’s Pietà now.

-> Tiziano Vecellio (1488/1490-1576). Pietà. Galleria dell’ Academia - Venice. 1576.

Zeuxis: A good example for this principle is Titian’s Pietà. It is not certain whether this painting is a finished one, and I indeed believe it is not. Titian often seemed to have made drawings or first outlines of paintings and left them untouched for months. Let’s assume the picture is not finished. Then the picture represents the idea of the theme, the first conception of the subject in the mind of the artist.
Remark, Arte, the strong lines and the directions in this painting. Look at the strong structure, which really holds the figures together and locks them into unity. Begin with the ascending line along the right diagonal’s direction. Titian might have started the picture with this line in mind. He made a drawing of this structure first, and later positioned his figures along the line. Finally, he placed a few sparse colours to indicate the basic accents in the painting. The picture then was in fact finished for the artist, complete and the act of creation done. The rest was sweat. I grant you the rest was truly genius sweat, in filling out eventually all details and finer colouring, but the invention was finished. The details and further colouring would have added complexity and variety, but the viewer would feel at ease at the completed painting, because he or she would always perceive the underlying strong simplicity. Titian’s picture, moreover, is also simple in meaning, since the suffering of Jesus and the mourning of the other figures form a coherent emotion. The structure supports that meaning and the emotions, so that the rule of simplicity is satisfied too, and there is correspondence between structure and meaning.

Zeuxis and Arte contemplate the painting for a while in admiration; then Zeuxis continues to talk.

Zeuxis: The characteristics that enhance simplicity are for Arnheim unification, enhancement of symmetry, reduction of structural features, repetition, dropping of non-fitting detail, elimination of obliqueness. We studied all these elements. Whereas adding complexity, adding differences is sharpening, introducing obliqueness, adding asymmetry, and adding structural features. Simplicity enhances ease; sharpening enhances tension in a painting. We look at pictures and at drawings and always seem to prefer - and thus even to really see even though elements are physically lacking - the form that aims at simplicity..

Arte: And viewers appreciate pictures with which they can be at ease. So, they appreciate simplicity. Plus, simplicity allows them to perceive the whole painting consistently, easily, clearly, and directly. People are lazy … or our mind is lazy.

Zeuxis: Correct. It seems, however, that people do not like over-simplified pictures either. They seem to prefer a combination of unity and simplicity on the one hand, and dynamic variety on the other, ease and tension at the same time.
Arnheim argued that our mind organises the shapes we see in accordance with the tendencies that govern its own functioning. Arnheim found evidence that this principal tendency was a seeking of simplest structure, a tendency of perception towards the most regular, symmetrical geometrical shape attainable under the circumstances G96 .
You mentioned the laziness, Arte, but simplicity also means in-built pre-organisation by our senses and mind, so that views are rapidly recognised. Rapid recognition is an advantage in nature. It allows perceiving dangers rapidly, and reacting accordingly.

Arte: You taught me much, Zeuxis, and you gave me much to think about. I did not know that painting was so difficult. But it was exciting!

Zeuxis: Why, thank you, Arte. It was exciting also to explain these concepts to you. I am tired now. There are quite some more subjects to talk to you about. I will write you a few words, so that you can keep the conclusions of what we talked about. Do you like mathematics?

Arte: I do like mathematics, Zeuxis. Why do you ask?

Zeuxis: There is a concept of proportions in compositions that you should know of. By the way, also Aristoteles linked order and symmetry with mathematics. But that is better written. So I’ll write you a text about that, and you can read that alone. I promise the maths will be easy.

Arte, ironically: All right, Zeuxis; your obedient and loving student will also study your maths. Please do not return so rapidly!

Zeuxis disappears.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.