Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

A Discourse of Zeuxis on Structure

When we look at a painting we see areas of colour. The way these areas are distributed over the support of the picture is the composition of the painting. We will of course in Arte’s lessons much handle the aspects of composition. But the areas of colour also show directions in the picture. These directions can be thought of conceptually as the ‘lines’ of the painting and these lines together form the structure that is underlying the composition.

The lines that the human eye distinguishes, often intuitively and immediately without conscious analysis, can be of a varied nature. The lines may be immediately perceived as the borders of monuments or of objects. They can be the central axis of geometrical shapes used by the painter. They may be the general directions of the orientation of the shapes, in the flat space of the canvas. In abstract paintings, the lines may be present physically as segments. The lines form patterns and these patterns create the structural skeleton upon which the composition of shapes is constructed. Painters often start by drawing a few of these main lines, or they have these main lines in their mind, and then they position the shapes, figures and objects along or around these basic directions.

As an example, to explain the above theory, we take the painting of Hubert and Jan Van Eyck called "The Three Maries at the Open Sepulchre". This picture shows the open tomb from which Jesus has resurrected. The borders of the tomb form long horizontal segments of lines and these constitute one of the main directions of the picture. The slab of stone that once closed the tomb has been displaced. The axis and the borders of the slab show oblique directions. These lines are directly visible in the painting. An angel sits on the stone tomb. The angel sits vertically, so that the central axis of this angel figure is a vertical line. Our eye perceives this direction as it conceptualises the scene, and our eyes intuitively follow this direction as they wander over the figure to take in the details. Vertical lines also are in the central axis of the three Maries, three human figures standing next to the tomb on the left. The three soldiers are sleeping, but in our mind and with our eyes we follow a direction that goes from one soldier to the other and that is an oblique direction from the lower left to the upper right. The lances of the soldiers form lines too, and these more or less emphasise the direction of the sleeping soldiers. Now look at the rock formations behind the main scene. The borders of the rocks form oblique lines too, which come together in one point behind the angel. The direction of the three sleeping soldiers, of the stone slab and of the right rock formations seems to be at the same angle. In the far lies Jerusalem, and here again we find a preponderance of horizontal lines. The main lines, the directions that we can distinguish, are thus the oblique lines of the rock formations, emphasised by several other sub-lines (soldiers, their lances, stone slab), the very obvious horizontals of the stone tomb, and the verticals of the angel and the three Maries.

-> 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.

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck used these lines to construct their composition on. These lines form the structure of the picture. The structure of this painting consists of many lines. Its verticals, horizontals and oblique lines build a quite complicated structure. In many paintings the structure is simpler, and often based on just one main direction. We will see many examples in these lessons of the structure of compositions. Recognising the main directions of a structure is usually quite easy.

The lines of the structure have psychological value. We know these lines from our daily experiences, so we assign meaning to them intuitively. Some of that meaning stays linked to the lines, even if they are used in an entirely different context, the context of the painting we look at. The painter may have combined the lines into patterns that take some time to perceive, but generally the directions can quite easily be discovered to form the analysis. The lines, even when physically not present, even when they have to be deduced by our intellect as directions of axis of symmetry in the forms, and thus not immediately perceived as such, influence our mind with their psychological value.

Lines evoke feelings. Vertical lines, as we have seen, evoke feelings of elation. Such feelings are of course enhanced by the overall representation, by the subject of the painting and by our further understanding of the many other elements that make up the whole work. Lines are but one element of the whole, but they do support the mood or the emotions evoked in the viewer.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
Book Next Previous

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.