The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fésole Club Papers

by W. G. Collingwood
Volume 14, no. 8, August 1903, pgs. 597-602

[William Gershom Collingwood, 1854-1932, was an artist in the Lake District. He spent part of his life as John Ruskin's assistant, and became a family friend of Arthur Ransome, "who based his book Swallows and Amazons on his experiences of sailing with the Collingwoods' grandchildren" in Collingwood's boat, called Swallow. He loved Viking/Norse culture.]

VIII. The Sign of the Scales

"Divide and conquer" was the ancient rule of statecraft. We trot out our Pegasus team, the principles of composition, one at a time; and hope, if not to break them in immediately, at least to learn their points and something of the management they require. Last time we studied Contrast; this time it must be his yoke-fellow, Symmetry.

Here let me say that the seven principles we have named are not exactly Mr. Ruskin's laws of composition, as stated in any of his books.

(a) In Modern Painters, Vol. II., he gives six chief laws of Beauty as seen in Nature:—

Infinity, Unity, Repose, Symmetry, Purity, Moderation.

These are stated to be not meant as exhausting the subject, but as illustrating analogies between Creation and its Creator.

(b) In Elements of Drawing there are nine laws of composition, that is to say, the conditions of beauty in Art; these also being offered not as exhaustive, but merely as useful reminders:—

Principality, Repetition, Continuity, Curvature, Radiation, Contrast, Interchange, Consistency, Harmony.

(c) In the Laws of Fesole these nine are reduced to three "ultimate elements of Beauty in artificial grouping":—

Dependence, Difference, Balance.

These three, however, reduce the subject to its lowest terms and thinnest abstraction. A little more explicitness will, I think, be needed. All the various headings of Mr. Ruskin are implied in our seven laws of Creation, which, as they are associated with one of the best known passages in all literature, can be recollected with a very little effort.

But it must be remembered that these are laws of Beauty, not rules. They are the statements of existing facts, which may be observed and imitated; they are not precepts by which if you work you are sure to do right. It can never be too strongly stated that rules will never make procedure safe; no art can be learned or practised by rules. If it could, then obviously you and I would have it in our power to be Raphaels and Beethovens; genius and talent would be idle distinctions. But, in fact, real artists work from feeling, without conscious reference to rules. When their work is done, but not till then, we see the natural and necessary laws of Art exemplified in it.

Still, for us, who are finding our way, not so much to imitate their masterpieces as to understand them, it is right to keep the formulae of universal fact before us. The mistake is to suppose that by using them as rules (that is, by obedience to the letter while misunderstanding the spirit) we shall produce good work. I could moralise on this; but I deny myself, in order to take an example which will lead directly to our point.

How futile the application of rules and how difficult to frame them, is shown in an amusing passage in The Two Paths (pg 84 to 86), where three rules—contrast, series, and symmetry—are laid down by a friend of the author's as sufficient for all purposes of design, and illustrated in a "choice sporting neckerchief" of which the picture is given. Mr. Ruskin, commenting, shows that the mere application of rules is not enough; much more is involved in the creation of the designwhat we usually call, in short, judgment and taste. But he goes on to remark that strict symmetry as commonly understood is only applicable to inferior materials, to conventional patterns—that it is not endurable in the human figure.

And yet he has said that symmetry is one of the laws of Beauty!

The difficulty is merely one of words. Symmetry in the language of pattern-designers means the effect produced when you fold your paper down the middle and rub off a reversed impression of the pattern on one side, like a reflection in water. But the word symmetry ought to be replaced in its proper meaning. Symmetrical is merely Greek for "commensurate," and commensurate is Latin for "of like measure," whether as regards size, or shape, or length of time, or weight.  Whatever it be you choose as common quality, in that respect the two things are alike; in others different. There are, therefore, many kinds of symmetry; the symmetry of reflection is one rudimentary form of it; the symmetry of repetition or interchange is another, in which you have two things alike, but their measurements with regard to a central line are reversed. You may have symmetry of value, as that between a penny and a penny bun. You may have symmetry of weight, a pound of lead in one scale against a pound of feathers in the other. And in ordinary language, the symmetry of value is called equity or justice; that of weight is called balance. It is in this broader sense that we ought to use the word.

Now, the first condition needful for symmetry is that our two things should be different in some respect; the second that they should be alike in some respect. There is no equity when you give a penny bun and take a similar penny bun; either they are alike and nothing happens, or one is stale, and the transaction is unfair. The notion of justice only steps in when you exchange your penny bun for a penny piece, or a penny stamp, or a penny anything else. And the more apparently unlike the two things are, the more striking is the sense of justice when you discern it. So that the best art is that in which symmetry is concealed; the best composition is that in which you cannot tell at once what it is that balances what; in which you can't say, "Behold, with what obvious art the painter has introduced his secondary masses, his complementary colours, interchanged his lights and darks, reflected his forms, and balanced his composition!" How do you know when a bargain is just?  When both parties are satisfied. How do you know when the pound of feathers in one scale equals the lead in the other? When the scales are at rest. And so, in a picture which is in the highest sense symmetrical and balanced, you know the fact only from the satisfaction you feel in it; form, colour, light and shade are all in stable equilibrium; you want nothing altered, though you cannot tell why.

This is the case in all great naturalist painting; in the representation of things as they are in this world. But it is a curious fact that in proportion as the subject of a picture is raised out of the world of men into whatever heaven the painter may conceive, the symmetry, which is the outward and visible sign of justice or equity, becomes more apparent. Hieratic Art, whether Egyptian or Greek, sacred conceptions, whether in the Old or New Testament, are always obviously symmetrical. We do not see the justice of God openly working in this world, but we cannot conceive of heaven without its plainest manifestation. And so the medieval painters put always their Madonna in the middle and saints in balanced order round; but the painters of the Renaissance, who dwelt more upon the humanity than the Divinity of Christ, and brought him down from the seventh heaven to the carpenter's shop, or—I don't blame them—into their own back-garden, lose the desire of symmetry as they lose the awe and sacredness of their subject.

In these Fesole lessons our principle is to begin at the beginning, and to follow in our individual development the general development of the history of Art. We are to end with the covert symmetry of great naturalism, the type of Faith, the confidence that all things work together for good, even in this travailing world. But heaven lies before us in our infancy. Let us begin as little children to whom the justice of home and heaven is explicit. Let us take the simplest instances of balance by repetition and interchange, and insist upon the one idea for the present.

First, as to light and shade. We have noted the contrast involved in separating light from darkness, day from night. But what would sunshine be without its shadows? What is the midnight sky without its moon and stars? In our picture then we must have our dark field and our light field, but in the dark there must be light, and in the light there must be dark. This is the law of interchange—the favourite scheme of Prout [probably Samuel Prout], to whom we look, as I have said before, as our schoolmaster. Starting from his simple methods we mean to pursue our own course of development. If you make a rough sketch in soft pencil on the back of an envelope from one of his pictures, you will find that about half of the picture is the dark mass with light spots in it, and the other half a light mass with dark spots in it, on the principle of heraldic quartering.

Sit in the corner of a room, in one of the corners next the window, and look across to the other corner next the window. It must be by daylight—best of all, when the sun is shining in. Sketch the interior roughly in soft pencil on a little bit of paper. You had better half-shut your eyes so as to see no detail, but only the broad masses. You can take into your picture a bit of the window and its frame, the curtain, and a table and chair or two standing by the curtain, some of the carpet, the wall beyond, with the furniture against it and the pictures on it; and if the room be not very high, a bit of the cornice and ceiling. As you sketch, looking only for the distinctness of light and shade, you will see that your picture is broadly divided by a diagonal line above which everything is in gloom, below which everything catches the light. Lay in the gloom with a general shading, and leave the light as white paper. Then, in the light field, shade all the parts that are dark, and in the gloom, look for whatever lights there may be reflected from picture-frames, catching on a hanging lamp, or outstanding furniture, and rub out these places roughly with indiarubber until you have a scribbled sketch which illustrates this law of symmetrical interchange. Then take another paper and make a similar sketch of the lines, which will in all probability lend themselves without much trouble to illustrate Repetition. You will see the upright lines of the window repeated by the upright lines of the picture-frames, the horizontal table by the horizontal cornice; and you will find that if you have any shape of round or square, oval or oblong, in one half of the picture, you will not be content until you have something like it in the other half.

With these studies before you, begin your picture with a firm pen outline, and then tint the colours. In doing this you will find when you have painted the faint green of the trees outside the window, or the blue of the sky, that you will want to repeat them with stronger and more limited masses of green or blue indoors. The colours in the carpet will cry out until they are answered by similar colours, more subdued perhaps and more widely spread, on the wall, or more concentrated in ornaments or flowers on the table. And so you will go on until you have filled in every mass, attending to nothing else but its balance with the mass that repeats it. The more advanced student may make a charming subject out of this lesson; but I think it is not beyond the powers of the youngest beginner to look out for examples of this law. So with two horses of our team in hand, Contrast and Symmetry, we will put up for the present at "the Sign of the Scales."

Results of this lesson in symetry:

Influenza was rampant that month, and the portfolio was not so full as usual; thirty drawings were sent in, some of which were complete little "interiors." A fault in the teaching so far was the omission of careful and explicit directions about values of tone. There ought to have been a paper on that subject, and the want of it had to be made up by a good deal of writing in the monthly criticisms, and illustrative sketches—for example, of a hand held up, in a side light, with a white cuff and a black coat-sleeve. How many are there who know without trying the experiment, that the lights on the black sleeve are brighter than the dark on the white cuff? How many remember that there is no crow so black but he has a light on his back?

It was necessary also to remind some students that the light of the sky, seen through the window, is brighter than the things it illuminates; unless the things are bits of bright glass, and so forth, which catch and reflect more light than you happen to see through the panes you are painting.

On the other hand the gloom is full of reflected light; never mere blackness. When the sun is shining (or when you paint by the light of a single lamp) the cast shadows have distinct edges; but in the usual indoors light the edges of shadows are very soft. This is especially the case in still-life subjects; when you paint flowers or fruit in a pot or on a plate, the shadows they cast are as soft-edged as mist-wreaths, and it will never do to blot them in and leave the paint to dry with hard edges; work off the colour at the edge with a clean and dryish brush.

Light is expressed by gradation, not by white paper. Some of the most luminous skies in old pictures are really very dark in actual tone; but their gradation makes them shine. Darkness is expressed far more by flatness than by blackness; you can suggest a moon light with quite a faint grey tint on white paper, if you keep that tint flat.

Tone, therefore, is purely relative. A picture is not good in tone because it is dark all over, but when its different masses are just dark enough compared with other masses. "How much darker" is one of the things which have to be observed; and the preliminary soft-pencil study should be a help to the observation of these facts.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Hana 'ia i Hawai'i, October 2008