A study of basic human emotions expressed by motion within a spatially limited plane

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A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Department of Fine Arts The University of Southern California

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Fine Arts

by Spencer R. Williams June 1950

UMI Number: EP57880

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This thesis, w ritten by

SPENCER R. WILLIAMS under the guidance of

h % S ....

F a c u lty C o m m ittee,

and app ro ved by a l l its members, has been presented to and accepted by the C o u n cil on G ra d u ate Study and Research in p a r t ia l f u l f i l l ­ ment of the requirements f o r the degree of


n„„ May 31, 1950 F a c u lty Com m ittee

.. C h a irm a ;





The problem.................................


Definitions of the terms u s e d ................


Motion or gesture ..........................




Spatial plane or "Picture plane"




Plastic composition ...............


Interest-load ..............................


S i mi lt an eit y ............. ................


Statement of organization of thesis ..........





THE E X P E R I M E N T ................................







This study was a carefully controlled attempt to con­ struct a composition in color which would express some of the basic human emotions involved in the home-coming of soldiers after World War II, and which would be done in a way that eliminated, as much as possible, dependence on portraiture for the expression of these feelings. The problem was approached through the medium of an oil painting depicting returning soldiers being met at a railway station by their families.

This particular subject was

chosen because it readily lent itself to the type of treat­ ment implied by the problem and because the actual scene


left a strong impression on the mind of the author. Too often representational scenes of this kind hasve laid, what seemed to this investigator, undue stress upon the facial expressions of the models in order to clarify the emotions involved.

Therefore, the attempt in this thesis was

to limit, as far as possible, the expression of emotion to the -physical notion or gesture of the figures while maintain­ ing the gesture as an integral part of the total composition. All movements and gestures were further confined bylimiting the spatial plane in which they were set.

2 II.


Motion or Gesture.

For the purpose of this thesis

these two words shall be considered synonymous and to mean any

apparent or pictured movement of a figure which identi­

fies, to us, what the figure does as well as what the combi­ nation of motions do in relation to their spatial organiza­ tion. Composition. the

The combination, or putting-together, of

separate elements of painting to make a new, and harmon­

ious whole. Spatial plane or tTPicture plane.11 These two phrases shall be considered as synonymous and to mean the spatial framework of a composition as it is defined by the various objects in the picture.


a background, perhaps

made up of trees or sky or a wall, will define the farthest limits to which the eye can penetrate into the "picture plane.11 Plastic composition.

A composition which attempts to

create an illusion of solidity within depth is termed plastic as opposed to linear composition which is primarily concerned with the decoration of the surface. Interest-load.

The weight of attention given to any


particular area or object in Simultaneity.


composition by the observer.

The use of more than one view of a

single object in the same composition.

In practice separate

views are often superimposed. III.


Chapter II contains analyses of a few solutions other painters have used for similar problems with critical eval­ uations of those solutions as compared with, or relating to, that of the present work.

In Chapter III a program for the

solution of the present problem is set forth, while Chapter IV is the documentation of the experimental procedure as it took place.

The final chapter contains the summation end

conclusions the writer has drawn from the experiment.



While many solutions .of the problem of portraying human emotion in color by gesture alone have been reached in the past, none, as far as this writer knows, have been pre­ cisely what was attempted here.

Of the many previous solu­

tions of a similar nature by other painters, the author is particularly indebted to the following: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Prodigal Son, in several ver­ sions and in both painting and etching.

This famous series

most closely parallels the present work in feeling and in­ tent.

Aside from the obvious differences in time, place,

and subject, Rembrandt was not primarily concerned with ex­ pressing emotion by gesture alone; he allowed the emotions to be expressed in the faces of his figures, for he appears to have been interested in revealing the inner, psychological turmoil of people and, by means of plastic composition, chiaroscuro, and his own great sensitivity, he was able to express an extraordinary depth of human understanding. Honore Daumier, The Uprising.

This painting shows

part of a crowd in dark and sombre colors against which is set the white figure of a man with upraised arm.

The mouth

of the white figure is open in a yell, and the crowd seems

5 to murmur and move threateningly. of three planes:

The composition consists

the white figure in the foreground first;

the crowd around him second; and the buildings in the back­ ground third.

The upraised arm of the white figure forms

a diagonal which parallels the roof-tops in the background. This is a solution in line and mass which does not de­ pend upon color for coherence.

The proof of this can be

seen in any good black-and-white reproduction of the picture. It is as moving in black-and-white as in color.

As a matter

of fact, this painting depends upon line and form alone and could probably not has/e been done any other way.

No other

solution would have had the expressive power Daumier needed. Kathe Kollwitz, Outbreak.

This combination etching

and aquatint shows an infuriated mob rushing off left, while an old woman in the immediate foreground raises her arms in ■sympathetic anger.

The strong directional movement of the

mob is controlled by the vertical figure of the old woman, which acts as a foil to its horizontal motion, while at the same time seeming to encourage it. The sky behind, with its stopped-out whites of clouds against the aquatint tone, seems as ominous as the nob. Everything in the composition, the figures, the sky, the ground, bends to a. common purpose in revealing a strong emotion.

As in the Daumier painting, however, the work is

conceived in black-and-white.

All due credit must go to


this, and similar Kollwitz works, for showing the author how every part of a composition can be put to work to express a single purpose,— in this case, an emotion. Pablo Picasso, Guernica.

This gigantic canvas, in

black-and-white, which has had so great an effect on other painters, seems to have achieved the ultimate in the ex­ pression of horror and terror.

It is an indictment of bru­

tality in the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War*

The terror and Horror are expressed by

means of distortion, simultaneity of views, and the use of a bare, unrelieved black line.

This line, showing the pur­

posely distorted figures end features of men and animals, is perhaps more expressive of brutality than any other medium could be.

This was a solution to -the problem of expressing

terror in the people in the painting and horror in the people who see the painting. There are many other examples of emotional expression in art, but most of them are open to question as to the exact emotion intended by the artist.

It Is very easy to

read into paintings purposes and emotions which were never intended by the painter.

Thus one might say that some of

RaphaelTs Madonnas express mother-love and that paintings like Rivera’s The Grinder express resignation, that Hopper’s Sunday expresses boredom, and so on.

Hone of the cases cited,

other than those of Rembrandt, Daumier, Kollwitz and Picasso,

seem positive enough to be called (by this writer) clear-cut evidence of painting to express a particular emotion, how­ ever. In reviewing the present work it will be noted that the author is indebted to Daumier for directing his atten­ tion to the total plastic compositional effect; to Kollwitz for demonstrating how all parts of a painting may be focused on a single purpose in the expression of emotion; to Picasso for showing the extremes which may be achieved by the use of an appropriate technique; and especially to Rembrandt for his exposition of the possibilities of expressing human emotion in a plastically controlled setting.



To a large extent, the problem dictated the procedure. The problem was to construct a composition In color which would express the human emotions involved In the home-coming of soldiers after the war and to do It in a way which would eliminate, as much as possible, dependence on portraiture for the expression of these feelings.

Since It was to be

done In color, it seemed logical to the writer to: 1.

Work out the composition In color, determining be­

forehand what areas were to be filled with a particular color, how much interest-load each would carry, and how the various colors worked together In a spatially balanced com­ position.

This last concept Is that which the author thinks

of as "working color," or color used for Its properties of seeming to advance or recede in the picture plane.

It Is

possible, by balancing colors against each other, to achieve a poise within space. 2.

It was this 'which the author sought:

Determine what general areas the figures would

occupy in relation to the boundaries Imposed by the four edges of the canvas and the plane of the background; 3.

Combine figure areas 'with the color pattern;


Make black-and-white studies of the various figures


Attempt to simplify the figures to the point where

they expressed exactly what was intended and nothing else; 6.

Make al complete color sketch in a relatively real

istic manner to check such things as the placement of figur the fall of shadow, the color effect, the plastic arrange­ ment of figures within the spatial plane, etc.; 7.

Paint the final picture.

Because controlled color was one of the mainconsider ations of the investigator, it was decided to limit palette to nine colors including hlack and v/hite.

the These

colors 'were: 1.

Zinc white;


Ivory black;


Cadmium red, light;


Alizarin crimson;


Cadmium yellow, medium;



Mars yellow;


Burnt Sienna;


Cobalt blue;


Thalo green.

The purpose in limiting the palette

w e is

to force the

author to use the few colors at his disposal wisely and to the best purpose of which each was capable.

While each

color has its limitations, at the same time it is capable of great variety when mixed properly with other colors.


'was the authorTs intention to realise the maximum varietj7*

10 of each. Perhaps it should he pointed out that the palette decided upon contained only two reds, one yelloY/, one blue, one green, and too earth colors beside black and white.


investigatorTs purpose in choosing these particular colors instead of others was because he had used them in the past and found them adequate for almost all colors found in nature.

CHAPTER IV THE EXPERIMENT Following the procedure set forth in the previous chapter, the author first made a rough color lay-out, indi­ cating the areas to be filled by each color.

Next the de­

finitions of the various figures wore drawn in over the color lay-out.

(See illustration on the following page.)

Unfortunately, the composition proved untenable due to a split between the two main groups of figures which tended to divide the picture.

Too, the angle of sight at

which the figures were drawn was so high as to make a co­ hesion between the groups difficult to achieve.


fault, a psychological one, was that the figures, seen from so high an angle, seemed to give an impersonal feeling to the observer.

This defeated the desired effect of a common

bond between the observer and the people in the picture. And so, after many unsuccessful attempts to close the gap and lower the angle of view, the entire composition was abandoned.

The original color was utilized in the Color

Sket ch, ho\7ever • On the advice of the chairman of the author1s thesis committee, the solution to the composition problem was sought in a series of black-and-white mass-studies in which only the large areas of shadows on figures and cast by


figures were drawn, all extraneous detail being ignored.


reason for the use of this technique ?;as that its limitations forced attention to the essential details of the composition and nothing else.

That is, not having to be concerned with

the accuracy of the drawing or with the sympathy or antipathy between colors, the authorTs attention could freely be given to the arrangement of movement and gesture within the pictureplane, as well as to such matters as balance, rhythm and the plasticity of the composition. The final mass-study (illustrated on the following page) solved, to the writerTs satisfaction, the problems implied in step two as outlined in the previous chapter. At this stage in the picture!s development, only five main figures were used in the composition. ing from right to left:

These were, read­

the old woman facing left and waving

her hand; the embracing couple; the woman leaning on the rail; and the soldier moving out of the tunnel at the extreme left. All these figures had to be studied very carefully and a pro­ fessional model was used for the old woman and the woman lean­ ing on the rail.

(See reproductions on following pages.)

Some of the author!s friends posed for studies of the embracing couple in the center end another professional model was used for the figure of the soldier waving his hand at the left.

All the figure studies were done "with a 6B char­

coal pencil on tinted charcoal paper.










19 In the definition of the experimental procedure, the next step was to have been the combination of figure and color areas, said step five was to have been a simplification of the figure drawings to a point where they expressed only the emotion intended and nothing else.

In actual practice,

however, both of these steps were combined for solution in the Color Sketch because, after several attempts, the author found that:

(a) the color and figure areas matched in his

mind and could not be separated; and (b) the simplification of the figures could be done with greater ease within the context of the picture rather then, separately.

It seemed

somewhat ncold-blooded,! to simplify and distort figures first and then place them in the framework of the picture— like cut-outs pasted on a wall.

Furthermore, each figure,

it was hoped, depended on every other figure for balance and coherence and these elements could not be seen out of con­ text.

Therefore, the next step was the construction of a

Color Sketch. The Color Sketch was done on a small canvas of the same relative dimensions as the final one.

In the Color

Sketch gaps were found to exist between some of the five original figures.

For Instance, between the woman leaning

on the rail and the back of the man embracing the woman, a large empty V-shaped area was found.

The standing figure

of o. woman was introduced here to fill the space.

Then, at

the junction between the woman leaning on the rail and the edge of the doorway beyond her, it was necessary to place another figure moving to the right behind the front group of figures in order to prevent the movement of the eye being stopped at the man in the doorway.

This would have resulted

in a very static kind of composition with only one main eyemovement being employed. To continue this secondary eye-movement back to the right, the chairman of the authorTs thesis committee sug­ gested the use of several other subordinate figures follow­ ing the same motion.

These were introduced behind the heads

of the foreground figures.

Models were again employed for

studies of these figures. For the purpose of adding weight to the left side of the picture to balance the heaviness expressed by the mass of the two embracing people, pieces of luggage were painted in near the feet of the woman leaning on the rail. Making no attempt to solve all the problems raised by the Color Sketch, the author went


to the Final Painting.

The reason so many problems were left unsolved at this stage was that the author feared he might !Ipaint himself out11 on the small canvas and that the Final Painting would then become merely an exercise in enlarging. In the Final Painting, the Color Sketch w*as used as

2L background wall-color was changed several times, as well as the colors of the figures1 clothes.

The relative sizes of

the old woman and the embracing couple were altered to satis­ fy the laws of perspective, as were the sizes of the figures in the background. A considerable attempt 'was made to stimulate the viewer1s interest by the use of textures as seen in the fur of the old womanTs coat, the cloth of the other figures1 clothes, the leather of the luggage, the material of the wall in the background, etc.

This was not done in any attempt to

lend visuaTL verisimilitude to these materials but simply to enhance the sensual effect given to the viewer. As the Final Painting progressed, it gained a coherence which neither the final mass-drawing nor the Color Sketch had had, and it is hoped that this effect as well as the origin­ ally intended emotional impact is carried to the viewer.

It would be gratifying to be able to say vd.thout qualification that this thesis succeeded in expressing the emotions which it set out to express, but such judgments must rest with the viewer alone and each may see it differ­ ently,

It can be proved that the emotions expressed did not

depend upon portraiture, because most of the faces are not seen or are seen from such a distance that they donTt express anything except the fact that they are faces.

The original

color conception was considerably altered during the develop­ ment of the painting but never lost its first identity.


was darkened and changed in certain areas, but remained essentially the same— that is, color which worked.

By this,

the author means that the color had more of a purpose than merely to add realism to outlines.

Each color was used for

its property of seeming to recede or to advance.

( It is

well known that nhot!l colors, i.e. yellow, red, and orange, seem to come forward while ncoldn colors, i.e. blue, green, end cold greys, seem to recede in distance.)

With this in

mind, the writer sought to achieve a balance between warm and cold colors.

In addition, the relative TtstrengthT! of a given

color was used in place of weight or for emphasis.

An ex­

ample of this may be seen in the strong yellow-ochre used on

-r V


24 the barracks-bags on the floor at left where a small, strong note of color tries to balance the large olive-green area of the embracing soldierTs overcoat. It can therefore be seen that the conception of color as a working part of the picture was one of the prime reasons for this thesis.

The success of its application,

again, must be a matter for the artistic judgment of the individual. It will have been noticed that a wide difference ex­ ists between the projected experimental procedure and. the actual work.

As has been explained, all changes in plan were

due to the results which actual experimentation gave. To recapitulate:

this thesis was an attempt to combine

and solve several problems; a composition to be conceived in "working" color with figures expressing emotion by gesture alone, within a limited picture-plane.

The procedure to be

followed was outlined and compared to the actual work as it progressed.

Each important decision was explained on the

basis of its effect on the whole problem, and the conclusion of the work was determined by the satisfaction of the com­ mittee that the problems had been solved. called nHome coming,11 is the result.

The painting now