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Second Letter of Zeuxis to Arte

My dear Arte,

In the previous lessons we analysed some of the qualities of the mostly at first sight invisible lines that are at the basis of the structure of a painting. Viewers do not immediately see these lines. They see areas of colour first, and primarily of the areas of pure hues. They need to go through a process of intellectual analysis to discover the main directions so that the order and design of the painter is laid bare. Viewers have to go through much the same process to discover the subtleties of composition.

I write you this letter to teach you a few concepts of composition and to introduce our future lessons, which will all handle this subject.

By composition we will mean in our next lessons the distribution, not anymore of the main directions, but of the two-dimensional forms over the canvas of a painting. The forms are nothing more than the areas of colour, which are positioned in an obvious, easily perceived way against a background that participates less conspicuously in the narrative or in the expression of the message of the picture. The areas are recognised after a while, either as surfaces that merely represent themselves or as forms that have meaning. In both cases the forms constitute the scene, the representation of the message.

The background and the scene are the two main parts of the composition and in the following paragraphs we will be more concerned with the forms of the scene than with those that constitute the background. The background supports the scene, but viewers will usually find less obviously delineated forms in the background.

Like as happens with the structural skeleton of the picture, a viewer does not become immediately aware of the design the painter used, which is of the composition of a painting. The overall patterns of distribution of coloured areas strike the viewer and the impact of the visual perception evokes emotions in them without conscious analysis. Yet the viewer’s mind reacts intuitively, without being aware intellectually of the design, to the patterns of the shapes. Our next lessons will be about the analysis of these distributions of shapes, and I will show what the overall structural areas can be in which painters co-ordinate their compositions.

The psychologist Rudolf Arnheim wrote in 1954, ‘We might observe that when by some circumstance the mind is freed from its usual allegiance to the complexities of nature, it will organise shapes in accordance with the tendencies that govern its own functioning. We have much evidence that the principal tendency at work here is that toward simplest structure, i.e., toward the most regular symmetrical, geometrical shape attainable under the circumstances’ G96 . We will start by analysing these regular, symmetrical, geometrical shapes that our mind seems most able to distinguish behind the complexities of the details of figures, plants, monuments and landscapes of real paintings. Abstract art will help us most in understanding our basic feelings towards these shapes.

With that we are at the second stage of how painters work while conceiving of a painting.

The painters have the idea of a scene in mind, vague and still much in the way of an emotion more than in real forms. Then they draw a few lines on canvas or paper, which will be the general directions of the structure of the work. Around these lines painters draw a few simple shapes, mostly geometrical shapes of also only a few lines, which will outline how the main forms will be positioned in the painting. This is the crude and basic composition.

Painters do not always consciously and rationally proceed this way. We have examples of unfinished drawings that bear complex, finely detailed parts in one corner of the paper, and that thus does not seem to have been started based on an obvious underlying design. It is without doubt however that the structure of lines and the distribution of forms in the composition were then clear in the mind of the draughtsman or painter before the first details were depicted. The mind-image of structure and composition is so present in the mind of the painter that detail can first appear and that the real lines of structure and the real forms of the composition need not be physically present in a preceding blueprint. And we have many examples of drawings and of crude paintings, sometimes tens of them, that show how much painters worked and worked over intricate details only of the structure and of the distribution of forms.

More on that in our next lessons.

Your dearest friend,


Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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