There seems to be a strife between opposing forces at the basis of all things, a strife in which a perfect balance is never attained, or life would cease. The worlds are kept on their courses by such opposing forces, the perfect equilibrium never being found, and so the vitalising movement is kept up. States are held together on the same principle, no State seeming able to preserve a balance for long; new forces arise, the balance is upset, and the State totters until a new equilibrium has been found. It would seem, however, to be the aim of life to strive after balance, any violent deviation from which is accompanied by calamity.

And in art we have the same play of opposing factors, straight lines and curves, light and dark, warm and cold colour oppose each other. Were the balance between them perfect, the result would be dull and dead. But if the balance is very much out, the eye is disturbed and the effect too disquieting. It will naturally be in pictures that aim at repose that this balance will be most perfect. In more exciting subjects less will be necessary, but some amount should exist in every picture, no matter how turbulent its motive; as in good tragedy the horror of the situation is never allowed to overbalance the beauty of the treatment.


Between Straight Lines and Curves

Let us consider in the first place the balance between straight lines and curves. The richer and fuller the curves, the more severe should be the straight lines that balance them, if perfect repose is desired. But if the subject demands excess of movement and life, of course there will be less necessity for the balancing influence of straight lines. And on the other hand, if the subject demands an excess of repose and contemplation, the bias will be on the side of straight lines. But a picture composed entirely of rich, rolling curves is too disquieting a thing to contemplate, and would become very irritating. Of the two extremes, one composed entirely of straight lines would be preferable to one with no squareness to relieve the richness of the curves. For straight lines are significant of the deeper and more permanent things of life, of the powers that govern and restrain, and of infinity; while the rich curves (that is, curves the farthest removed from the straight line) seem to be expressive of uncontrolled energy and the more exuberant joys of life. Vice may be excess in any direction, but asceticism has generally been accepted as a nobler vice than voluptuousness. The rococo art of the eighteenth century is an instance of the excessive use of curved forms, and, like all excesses in the joys of life, it is vicious and is the favourite style of decoration in vulgar places of entertainment. The excessive use of straight lines and square forms may be seen in some ancient Egyptian architecture, but this severity was originally, no doubt, softened by the use of colour, and in any case it is nobler and finer than the vicious cleverness of rococo art.

221We have seen how the Greeks balanced the straight lines of their architectural forms with the rich lines of the sculpture which they used so lavishly on their temples. But the balance was always kept on the side of the square forms and never on the side of undue roundness. And it is on this side that the balance would seem to be in the finest art. Even the finest curves are those that approach the straight line rather than the circle, that err on the side of flatnesses rather than roundnesses.

Between Flat and Gradated Tones

What has been said about the balance of straight lines and curves applies equally well to tones, if for straight lines you substitute flat tones, and for curved lines gradated tones. The deeper, more permanent things find expression in the wider, flatter tones, while an excess of gradations makes for prettiness, if not for the gross roundnesses of vicious modelling.

Often when a picture is hopelessly out of gear and "mucked up," as they say in the studio, it can be got on the right road again by reducing it to a basis of flat tones, going over it and painting out the gradations, getting it back to a simpler equation from which the right road to completion can be more readily seen. Overmuch concern with the gradations of the smaller modelling is a very common reason of pictures and drawings getting out of gear. The less expenditure of tone values you can express your modelling with, the better, as a general rule. The balance in the finest work is usually on the side of flat tones rather than on the side of gradated tones. Work that errs on the side of gradations, like that of Greuze, however popular its appeal, is much poorer stuff 222than work that errs on the side of flatness in tone, like Giotto and the Italian primitives, or Puvis de Chavannes among the moderns.

Between Light and Dark Tones.

There is a balance of tone set up also between light and dark, between black and white in the scale of tone. Pictures that do not go far in the direction of light, starting from a middle tone, should not go far in the direction of dark either. In this respect note the pictures of Whistler, a great master in matters of tone; his lights seldom approach anywhere near white, and, on the other hand, his darks never approach black in tone. When the highest lights are low in tone, the darkest darks should be high in tone. Painters like Rembrandt, whose pictures when fresh must have approached very near white in the high lights, also approach black in the darks, and nearer our own time, Frank Holl forced the whites of his pictures very high and correspondingly the darks were very heavy. And when this balance is kept there is a rightness about it that is instinctively felt. We do not mean that the amount of light tones in a picture should be balanced by the amount of dark tones, but that there should be some balance between the extremes of light and dark used in the tone scheme of a picture. The old rule was, I believe, that a picture should be two-thirds light and one-third dark. But I do not think there is any rule to be observed here: there are too many exceptions, and no mention is made of half tones.

Like all so-called laws in art, this rule is capable of many apparent exceptions. There is the white picture in which all the tones are high. But in some of the most successful of these you will generally 223find spots of intensely dark pigment. Turner was fond of these light pictures in his later manner, but he usually put in some dark spot, such as the black gondolas in some of his Venetian pictures, that illustrate the law of balance we are speaking of, and are usually put in excessively dark in proportion as the rest of the picture is excessively light.

The successful one-tone pictures are generally painted in the middle tones, and thus do not in any way contradict our principle of balance.

Between Warm and Cold Colours.

One is tempted at this point to wander a little into the province of colour, where the principle of balance of which we are speaking is much felt, the scale here being between warm and cold colours. If you divide the solar spectrum roughly into half, you will have the reds, oranges, and yellows on one side, and the purples, blues, and greens on the other, the former being roughly the warm and the latter the cold colours. The clever manipulation of the opposition between these warm and cold colours is one of the chief means used in giving vitality to colouring. But the point to notice here is that the further your colouring goes in the direction of warmth, the further it will be necessary to go in the opposite direction, to right the balance. That is how it comes about that painters like Titian, who loved a warm, glowing, golden colouring, so often had to put a mass of the coldest blue in their pictures. Gainsborough's "Blue Boy," although done in defiance of Reynolds' principle, is no contradiction of our rule, for although the boy has a blue dress all the rest of the picture is warm brown and so the balance is kept. It is the failure to observe this 224balance that makes so many of the red-coated huntsmen and soldiers' portraits in our exhibitions so objectionable. They are too often painted on a dark, hot, burnt sienna and black background, with nothing but warm colours in the flesh, &c., with the result that the screaming heat is intolerable. With a hot mass of red like a huntsman's coat in your picture, the coolest colour should be looked for everywhere else. Seen in a November landscape, how well a huntsman's coat looks, but then, how cold and grey is the colouring of the landscape. The right thing to do is to support your red with as many cool and neutral tones as possible and avoid hot shadows. With so strong a red, blue might be too much of a contrast, unless your canvas was large enough to admit of its being introduced at some distance from the red.

Most painters, of course, are content to keep to middle courses, never going very far in the warm or cold directions. And, undoubtedly, much more freedom of action is possible here, although the results may not be so powerful. But when beauty and refinement of sentiment rather than force are desired, the middle range of colouring (that is to say, all colours partly neutralised by admixture with their opposites) is much safer.

Between Interest and Mass.

There is another form of balance that must be although it is connected more with the subject matter of art, as it concerns the mental significance of objects rather than rhythmic qualities possessed by lines and masses; I refer to the balance there is between interest and mass. The all-absorbing interest of the human figure makes it often when quite minute in scale balance the weight and interest of a great mass. Diagram XXVII is a rough instance of what is meant. Without the little figure the composition would be out of balance. But the weight of interest centred upon that lonely little person is enough to right the balance occasioned by the great mass of trees on the left. Figures are largely used by landscape painters in this way, and are of great use in restoring balance in a picture.


Diagram XXVII.


Between Variety and Unity.

And lastly, there must be a balance struck between variety and unity. A great deal has already been said about this, and it will only be necessary to recapitulate here that to variety is due all the expression or the picturesque, of the joyous energy of life, and all that makes the world such a delightful place, but that to unity belongs the relating of this variety to the underlying bed-rock principles that support it in nature and in all good art. It will depend on the nature of the artist and on the nature of his theme how far this underlying unity will dominate the expression in his work; and how far it will be overlaid and hidden behind a rich garment of variety.

226But both ideas must be considered in his work. If the unity of his conception is allowed to exclude variety entirely, it will result in a dead abstraction, and if the variety is to be allowed none of the restraining influences of unity, it will develop into a riotous extravagance.