|The Clubfoot Boy by Jusepe de Ribera,
oil on canvas, 1642.
Art…has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe; and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things.
– William Steig, Author of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
The vertical-horizontal framework remains inherent in visual composition, just as the measured beat down in music. Obliqueness is always perceived as a deviation, hence its strongly dynamic character. -Rudolf Arnheim
Most of our physical environment is dominated by vertical and horizontal elements: both form the backdrop of our lives. These lines are balanced and rational, and compositions based on these formal directions exist in art as in life.
The vertical line is an element of resistance against gravity; as such, it embodies far more energy and vitality than the horizontal line. We stand upright and square our shoulders to face challenges; our waking, active life is spent on our feet; and buildings rise from the ground in confidence. In paintings as well as real world situations, the vertical is a strong line direction that denotes a measure of power and assurance.
In Jusepe de Ribera’s The Clubfoot Boy, the figure has been placed in a tall rectangle. By utilizing this format, our eyes travel up to see him in a position of strength and confidence. Imagine the difference in the message if he was shown reclining in a long horizontal rectangle. The puckish attitude of the child-beggar would be completely lost.
Hans Holbein’s oil painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb was shocking due to its feeling of claustrophobia and static hopelessness. This earth-bound, rectangular composition serves to make the Christ’s subsequent resurrection all the more miraculous.
|The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein, 1521,
oil and tempera on wood.
We are now led to the energetic line that denotes movement and directionality: the dynamic diagonal. This line creates tension because it is inherently unstable; it teeters and lunges to add an unpredictable element to a composition; it cannot be sustained in one place without pushing the eye ahead to the next area of the work of art. Artistic movements like the Baroque period are a celebration of emotion and passion–therefore, the diagonal is the main line motif of this era.
|The Raising of the Cross
by Rubens, oil on canvas, 1610.
In Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross, the dominant line of the central Christ figure takes the eye from the lower right to the upper left of the composition. The complementary strain of the bodies on either side of Christ point our eyes up to him, while the radiating diagonals extend down from the cross like a grim maypole. This organization of line allows the composition to be dynamic without becoming chaotic.
|The Eendracht and a Dutch Fleet of Men-of-War Before the Wind
by Ludolph Backhuysen, oil painting, 1670.
In Ludolph Backhuysen’s The Eendracht and a Dutch Fleet of Men-of-War Before the Wind, the use of the diagonal conveys the tumultuous movement of wind and waves. The diagonals are not consistent in their attitude and the different angles do not seem to lead us anywhere in particular. The artist has achieved flux by not coordinating his diagonals–everything feels slightly off and works to create a feeling of seasickness.
We can intensify the experience of reality in our work by identifying a dominant sensation. Creating a simple pictorial hierarchy with our line direction is a good first step to orchestrating a riveting experience for your viewer: we are able to transcend accuracy and build a dialogue that will endure throughout the passage of time.
Please look for another article on this subject in the March 2013 issue of The Artist Magazine.