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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