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Notebook, 1993-

RELATIONSHIPS - On Composition

Ruskin, John, The Elements of Drawing. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1971 [Originally Published in London, 1857]

The Law of Radiation

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210. We have hitherto been concerned only with the binding of our various objects into beautiful lines or processions. The next point we have to consider is, how we may unite these lines or processions themselves, so as to make gro ups of them.

Now there are two kinds of harmonies of lines. One in which, moving more or less side by side, they variously, but evidently with consent, retire from or approach each other, intersect or oppose each other; cu rrents of melody in music, for different voices, th us approach and cross, fall and rise, in harmony; so the waves of the sea, as they approach the shore, fl ow into one another or corss, but with a great unity through all; and so various lines of composition often fl ow harmoniously through and across each other in a picture. But the most simple and perfect connexion of lines is by radiation; that is, by their all pringing from one oint, or cosing towards it; and this harmony is often, in Nature almost always, united with the other; as the bo ughs of trees, though they intersect and play amongst [p. 180] each other irregularly, in dicate by their ggeneral tendency their origin from one root. An essential part of the beauty of all vegetable form is in this radiation; it is seen most simply in a single fl ower or leaf, as in a convolvulus bell, or chestnut leaf; but more beautifully in the complicated arrangements of the large boughs and sprays. For a leaf is only a flat piece of radiation; but the tree throws its branches on all sides, and even in every profile view of it, which presents a radiation more or less correspondent to that of its leaves, it is more beautiful, because varied by the freedom of the separate branches. I believe it has been ascertained that, in all trees, the angle at which, in their leaves, the lateral ribs are set on their central rib is approximately the same at which the branches leave the great stem; and thus each section of the tree would present a kind of magnified view of its own leaf, were it not for the interfering force of gravity on the masses of foliage. This force in proportion to their age, and the lateral leverage upon them, bears them downwards at the extremities, so that, as before noticed, the lower the bough grows on the stem, the more it droops; besides this, nearly all beautiful trees have a tendency to divide into two or more principal masses, which give a prettier and more complicated symmetry than if one stem ran all the way up the centre . . . . Thus I consider the perfect general type of tree structure; and it is curiously connected with certain forms of Greek, Byzantine, and Gothic ornamentation . . . . It will be observed that [the both the illustrations] the branches so spring from the main stem as very nearly to suggest their united radiation from the root. This is by no means universally the case; but if the branches do not bend towards a point in the root, they at least converge to some point or other. In the mathematical centre of one curvature is thus, in one case, on the ground, at some distance from the root, and in the other, near the top of the tree. Half, only, of each tree is given, for the sake of clearness . . . . As the positions of such points may be varied without end, and as the arrangement of the lines is also farther complicated by the fact of the boughs springing from the most part in a spiral order round the tree, and at proportionate distances, the systems of curvature which regulate the form of vegetation are quite infinite. Infinite is a word easily said, and easily written, and people do not always mean it when they say it; in this case I do mean it; the number of systems is incalculable, and even to furnish anything like a representative number of types, I should have to give several hundreds of figures.

NOTE: Every line in these is itself one of varying curvature, and cannot be drawn by compasses . . . . [p. 183]

211. Thus far, however, we have only been speaking of the great relations of stem and branches. The forms of the branches themselves are regulated by still more subtle laws, for they occupy an intermediate position between the form of the tree and of the leaf. The leaf has a flat ramification; the tree a completely rounded one; the bough is neither rounded nor flat, but has a structure exactly balanced between the two, in a half-flattened, half-rounded flake, closely resembling in shape one of the thick leaves of an artichoke or the flake of a fir cone; by combination forming the solid mass of the tree, as the leaves compose the artichoke head. I have before pointed out to you the general resemblance of these branch flakes to an extended hand; but they may be more accurately represented by the ribs of a boat. If you can imagine a very broad-headed and flattened boat applied by its keel to the end of a main branch, as in [fig.], the lines which its ribs will take, supposing them outside of its timbers instead of inside, and the general contour of it, as seen in different directions, from above and below, will give you the closest approximation to the perspectives and foreshortenings of a well-grown branch-flake.... the boat only failing as a type in that its ribs are too nearly parallel to each other at the sides, while the bough sends all its ramification well forwards, rounding [p. 183.] to the head, that it may accomplish its part in the outer form of the whole tree, yet always securing the compliance with the great universal law that the branches nearest the root be most back; and, of course, throwing some always back as well as forwards; the appearance of reversed action being much increased, and rendered more striking and beautiful, by perspective. [p. 184]

212. You may suppose, if you have not already discovered, what subtleties of perspective and light and shade are involved in the drawing of these branch-flakes, as you see them in different directions and actions; now raised, now depressed: touched on the edges by the wind, or lifted up and bent back so as to show all the white under surfaces of the leaves shivering in light, as the bottom of a boat rises white with spray at the surge-crest; or drooping in quietness towards the dew of the grass beneath them in windless mornings, or bowed down under oppressive grace of deep-charged snow. Snow time, by the way, is one of the best for practice in the placing of tree masses; but you will only be able to understand them thoroughly by beginning with a single bough and a few leaves placed tolerably even . . . . First one with three leaves, a central and two lateral ones . . . . then with five.... directing your whole attention to the expression, both by contour and light and shade, of the boat-like arrangements, which, in your earlier studies, will have been a good deal confused, partly owing to your inexperience, and partly to the depth of shade, or absolute blackness of mass required in those studies.

213. One thing more remains to be noted, and I will let you out of the wood. You see that in every generally representative figure I have surrounded the radiating branches with a dotted line: such lines do indeed terminate [p. 184] every vegetable form; and you see that they are themselves beautiful curves, which, according to their flow, and the width or narrowness of the spaces they enclose, characterize the species of tree or leaf, and express its free or formal action, its grace of youth or weight of age. So that, throughout all the freedom of her wildest foliage, Nature is resolved on expressing an encompassing limit; and marking a unity in the whole tree, caused not only by the rising of its branches from a common root, but by their joining in one work, and being bound by a common law.

You must have noticed, I should think, that whenever a leaf is compound--that is to say, divided into other leaflets which in any way repeat or imitate the form of the whole leaf--those leaflets are not symmetrical, as the whole leaf is, but always smaller on the side towards the point of the great leaf, so as to express their subordination to it, and show, even when they are pulled off, that they are not small independent leaves, but members of one large leaf . . . . The a of A is balanced equally by its opposite; but the minor b1 of B is larger than its opposite b2 . . . . Again . . . . while the central mass, a of A, is symmetrically divided, the b of B is unsymmetrical, its largest side-lobe being lowest . . . . [p. 185.] So that universally one lobe of a lateral leaf is always larger than the other, and the smaller lobe is that which is nearer the central mass; the lower leaf, as it were by courtesy, subduing some of its own dignity or power, in the immediate presence of the greater or captain leaf, and always expressing, therefore, its own subordination and secondary character. This law is carried out even in single leaves. As far as I know, the upper half, towards the point of the spray, is always the smaller; and a slightly different curve, more convex at the springing, is used for the lower side, giving an exquisite variety to the form of the whole leaf; so that one of the chief elements in the beauty of every subordinate leaf throughout the tree is made to depend on its confession of its own lowliness and subjection. [p. 186]

215. And now, if we bring togetehr in one view the principles we have ascertained in trees, we shall flind they may be su mmed under four great laws; and that all perfect vegetable form is appointed to express these four laws as in noble balance of authority.
1. Support from one living root.

2. Radiation, or tendency of force from some one given point, either in the root, or in some stated connection with it.

3. Liberty of each bough to seek its own livelihood and happiness according to its needs, by irregularities of action both in its play and its work, either stretching out to get its required nourishment from light and rain, by finding some sufficient breathing-place among the other branches, or knotting and gathering itself up to get strength for any load which its fruitful blossoms may lay upon it, and for any stress of its storm-tossed luxuriance of leaves; or playing hither and thither as the fitful sunshine may tempt its young shoots, in their undecided states of mind about their future life.

4. Imperative requirement of each bough to stop within certain limits, expressive of its kindly fellowship and fraternity with the boughs in its neighbourhood; and to work with them according to its power, magnitude, and state of health, to bring out the general perfectness of the great curve, and circumferent stateliness of the whole tree.

216. I think I may leave you, unhelped, to work out the moral analogies of these laws; y ou may, perhaps, however, be a little puzzled to see the meaning of the second one. It typically expresses that healthy human actions should spring radiatnly [like rays] from some single haert motive; the most beautiful systems of action taking place when the motive lies at the root of the whole life, and the action is clearly seen to proceed from it; whhile al so many beautiful secondary systems of action taking place from motives not so deep or central, but in some beautiful subordinate connection wit the central or life motive.

The other laws, if you think over them, you will find equally significative . . . . [Imperfect vegetable form I consider that which is in its nature dependent, as in runners and climbers; or which is susceptible of continual injury without materially losing the power of giving pleasure by its aspect, as in the case of the smaller grasses . . . . ]

. . . . Shadows of leaves upon the ground . . . . If you examine them, you will find that the shadows do not take the forms of the leaves, but that, through each interstice, the light falls, at a little distance, in the form of a round or oval spot . . . . Of course the sun's rays produce the same effect, when they fall through any small aperture . . . .

This law of radiation, then, enforcing unison of action in arising from, or proceeding to, some given point, is perhaps, of all principles of composition, the most influential in producing the beauty of groups of form. Other laws make them forcible or interesting, but this generally is chief in rendering them beautiful . . . . like the law of principality, with careful concealment of its imperativeness, the point to which the lines of main curvature are directed being very often far away out of the picture... Sometimes, however, a system of curves will be employed definitely to exalt, by their concurrence, the value of some leading object, and then the law becomes traceable enough . . . .

[Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1971. pp. 180-188. (Originally Published in London, 1857)]




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