On the Need for More Rigorous Thinking about the Laws of Form
Vague terminology, lack of basic definitions--these are the foremost defects of art criticism. Music and architecture fare better, but in most writing on the visual arts, waffle and muddle add up to total irresponsibility--a situation that suits some artists and critics just fine, but deprives both of objective criteria.
Here in Leonardo, which has since its founding struggled to encourage a more "scientific" approach to art, I want to make the attempt--for my own sake and for that of colleagues whose help I would like to enlist--to define some basic laws binding on the maker of pictures and essential to the understanding of picture-making. First, though, it must be clearly stated that these laws do not exist in isolation but coexist and struggle in such a way that one law will appear to dominate a given space, thereby subordinating others. Essentially, however, all are equally valid for all work on flat surfaces, whether figurative or abstract, i.e. for prints, drawings and paintings. For monumental forms the laws are somewhat differently accentuated. For performance art and installations they are modified by theatrical considerations.
The Law of Contrast
Contrast is the relationship between opposites. Without contrast visual art is unthinkable. If we eliminate contrast altogether, we obtain an evenly painted surface. It then becomes the interior decorator's or exhibition designer's problem to locate the square on the wall, again involving the law of contrast, a law that necessarily presupposes two extremes and a classic mean.
The Laws of Color and Tone
These are best examined together, as one law. Using a color and tone chart, one sees that tone darkens when moving from center to circumference; the farther from the center the darker the tone, culminating in black. Tonal structure is modified by the Law of Contrast between extremes of dark and light. Color structure is similarly modified between the extremes of cold and warm. Possible variations within this basic theme are: dominant cold colors, equal balance and dominant warm colors.
The Law of Daub and Line
This law also finds expression in connection with the Law of Contrast. Possible variations are dominance of daub, equal balance and dominance of line. Since the Reformation, and right up to the twentieth century, line as such was ousted from the center of the equation and used mainly to indicate outline. Over the last 100 years, however, the importance of the free line has been restored.
The Law of Pictorial Space
This law is less dependent, or at least less obviously dependent, on the Law of Contrast. It is not subordinate to any system of perspective, whether linear or reversed. The formula here is above/below, or what is on what. The line is on the paper, the daub on the canvas. The spatial dimension in this sense cannot be ignored. Twentieth-century artists have [End Page 1] sought ways to "flatten" space, a tendency that gave direction to the main thrust of artistic experiment right up to the 1960s. It has to be borne in mind that pictorial space is modified by optics. Our direct vision perceives an oval central space, flattening the picture, as it were, toward the edges. We perceive the center on three planes--foreground, middle ground and background; but the part of the picture seen with peripheral vision is perceived on two planes, and the edge on one.
The Law of Rhythm and Symmetry
Rhythm is repetition of basic forms with variations in detail; symmetry is mirror repetition. The exact repetition of form produces ornamental design. Rhythm is dominant on the surface of the frieze (i.e. in the Parthenon or ancient Egyptian art). Symmetry (the pictorial equivalent of balanced scales) is the sensation of a constant axis of tremulous tension within the limited space of the pictorial surface. The supreme example here is Poussin. If we take an isosceles triangle, where the axis of symmetry is straight down the middle, we have the schema for the majority of portraits, whether they be by Rembrandt or by Picasso. Other basic geometrical forms that organize the picture in a symmetrical fashion are the circle, the oval, the square, the cross and the sinuous S-line of Hogarth. Their function is to prevent the picture from flowing over its edge. If we depict an abstract or concrete object on the left side of the picture, then we must either balance it with some other object or objects on the right side or introduce a vertical axis and extend the right side until it balances the object on the left.
The Law of Lines of Power
This law regulates the relationships between vertical, horizontal and diagonal movements across the pictorial surface. Each has its own potential, which cannot be ignored. The horizontal line can be extended ad infinitum, and this potential resides in every single point along the line. The vertical is limited in height and depth--the imagination boggles at projecting it to infinity. The eye follows the vertical upward more readily than downward. The inherent nature of the horizontal and the vertical is to coordinate the edges of pictorial space, but most importantly they define the position of all objects in the real world. Mondrian constructed his work along these lines, from the early picture in which the surface was divided into relatively small spaces to the large scale of his later constructions. Even when he stood a square on the angle rather than on the side, he retained the basic horizontal/vertical movement (here I am very roughly paraphrasing Vladimir Favorsky). The movement of the diagonal is from bottom left to top right and from top left down toward bottom right. Telling examples of the diagonal are to be found in Venetian art, particularly the work of Tintoretto. Any line tilted out of the vertical acquires some characteristics of the diagonal--a sense of tension and a wish to break out beyond the edge of the work--which can be quite difficult to control. It is possible to exploit these qualities to simulate tension. Of the Russian painters, Malevich and Popova were particularly addicted to the diagonal.
I have tried here--objectively and succinctly, as the genre of the editorial demands--to formulate those laws that I come up against every time I approach the easel but of course I am well aware that the implementation of every law has to be worked out anew by every individual artist and that knowledge of laws does not guarantee the production of masterpieces. What it does guarantee is professionalism. What it confers is the liberty to play with these generally applicable laws in an individual manner.
I am still wrestling with some formulations (for the law governing large-scale works, for instance) and I would be happy to see my colleagues continue the discussion in the pages of Leonardo.
Leonardo Honorary Editor
Durham City, DH1 1QN