Unity of Effect

Gassed, Sargent, 1918-19, oil on canvas , 230 x 611cm, Imperial War Museum, London

“Go for the tout ensemble!” At art school, my teacher, Charles Cecil was keen to drum into his students certain aspects of our training and this phrase was often repeated like a mantra. He would exhort us in our painting and composition never to become the “past master of the piecemeal” and aim for the “tout ensemble” or the unity of effect. I have written about this concept a little in an earlier post but I think it is worth elaborating.

Unity of effect. It sounds esoteric but the idea is simple. Painting piecemeal is painting a picture that does not quite hang together but is more a gathering of vignettes. It is often tempting for the beginner to try to finish one part of a painting before going onto another e.g. on a portrait, the nose, and then the left eye and after that, the mouth. The painter ends up with a set of body parts that look fine on their own but together do not produce a credible likeness. Similarly, a still life of beautifully painted disparate items of various colours equally spaced apart will look awkward – it will be piecemeal and lack a unity of effect.

For unity of effect, the painter must stand back to get a full view of the picture and have a coherent idea of how it should look in its entirety. The artist should work the painting up as a whole so that it comes together, almost emerging from the canvas, gradually becoming clearer. If he sticks to a limited palette i.e. a handful of colours that too will help unify the image. Furthermore, he needs to keep his tonal passages together i.e. not have a dozen spots of darkness or lights dotted around the picture pulling the viewer’s eye in all directions.

Above and below are a few paintings which I feel have particularly strong unity of effect.

Gassed by Sargent above has unity particularly in colour (very limited palette) and tone.

December Morning, Pin Mill, Edward Seago, oil on canvas, 40 x 61cm,

The picture above by Seago has unity particularly in its composition – the boats seem to hang together and the artist lets us know very clearly what his painting is about.

The Wyndham Sisters – Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tenant, John Singer Sargent, 1899, oil on canvas, 292 x 213.cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his portrait of the Wyndham Sisters above, Sargent at first painted the dress of the central (and prettiest) figure, Pamela, a light blue. He then painted it over in a tone and colour similar to the dresses worn by her sisters as he felt that the eye would be overly drawn to Pamela ‘s dress and the picture would thus lose its unifying theme. Some of the blue is just visible underneath. I believe the correction shows Sargent’s understanding of well balanced composition and the effect a picture should produce as a whole.

Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice by Anders Zorn, oil on canvas, 90 x 66cm, 1894, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

In the portrait above, Zorn has provided unity of effect in the tone (the light falls on Isabella Stewart Gardner almost exclusively) and in the brushwork (there is a sense of brisk movement conveyed in the handling of the dress and arms).

Some of you may have worked in film, photography or product design and some of you may have been architects or fashion designers: in these fields of work, just as in art, what a thing looks like matters. The concept of unity of effect is neither new nor limited to art: it is the Parthenon, a Kurosawa film shot, a Chanel suit or the VW beetle just as it is also Gassed by Sargent.

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