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Backgrounds General Principles

Always commence the portrait by putting in the background. Among the
four different methods which I have given, the student can make his own
selection. For myself, I prefer the last two mentioned.

There can be no definite rule given for the lights and shadows in the
backgrounds, as every portrait will need a characteristic background
adapted to the subject. There should always be a nice disposition of
light and shade, the light coming against the dark side of the face and
the dark against the light side, and generally a cast shadow. What this
is may be learned by setting a cast (or any other object) near the
wall, letting the light strike it at an angle of 90 degrees, and
noticing the size and position of the shadow thrown on the wall. The
cast shadow in your background must not be too near the head, as
simplicity should be one of the principles of the background, and this
can only be attained by breadth of light and shade. The background is
of secondary importance, and should not intrude itself on the portrait
in its effect of lines or light and shade. Backgrounds for half or full
length figures need especial study in their effect of lines, and one
who intends to succeed in making them properly should study linear
composition in Burnet's essay on Composition,[A] especially the
following passages. "Composition is the art of arranging figures or
objects so as to adapt them to any particular subject. In composition
four requisites are necessary--that the story be well told, that it
possess a good general form, that it be so arranged as to be capable of
receiving a proper effect of light and shade, and that it be
susceptible of an agreeable disposition of color. The form of a
composition is best suggested by the subject or design, as the fitness
of the adaptation ought to appear to emanate from the circumstances
themselves; hence the variety of compositions.

"To secure a good general form in composition, it is necessary that it
should be as simple as possible. Whether this is to be produced by a
breadth of light and shade, which is often the case with Rembrandt,
even on a most complicated outline, or by the simple arrangement of
color, as we often find in Titian, or by the construction of the group,
evident in many of Raphael's works, must depend upon the taste of the
artist. It is sufficient to direct the younger students to this
particular, their minds being generally carried away by notions of
variety and contrasts.

"In giving a few examples of composition, I have confined myself to the
four simple and principal forms, not only from their being most
palpable, but also from their possessing a decided character, which is
at all times desirable. To those who imagine that such rules tend to
fetter genius, I shall merely quote Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose works,
if properly understood, render all other writings on the subject of
painting superfluous: 'It must of necessity be that even works of
genius, like every other effect, as they must have their causes, must
likewise have their rules. It cannot be by chance that excellencies are
produced with any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the
nature of chance; but the rules by which men of extraordinary points,
and such as are called men of genius, work, are either such as they
discover by their own peculiar observations, or are of such nice
texture as not easily to admit being expressed in words; especially as
artists are not very frequently skillful in that mode of communicating
ideas. Unsubstantial, however, as these rules may seem, and difficult
as it may be to convey them in writing, they are still seen and felt in
the mind of the artist, and he works from them with as much certainty
as if they were embodied, as I may say, upon paper. It is true these
refined principles cannot be always palpable, like the more gross rules
of art, yet it does not follow but that the mind may be put in such a
train that it shall perceive, by a kind of scientific sense, that
propriety which words, particularly words of unpractised writers such
as we are, can but very feebly suggest.' (Sixth Discourse)."

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