Lectures on Art by Alphonse Mucha

[The artist’s] greatest joy will be that of seeing other souls also vibrating with the happiness of his emotion.

My partner picked up a fascinating book at the library: Lectures on Art: A Supplement to the Graphic Work of Alphonse Mucha, published in 1975 as a companion to a previous book written by Mucha’s son Jiří and Marina Henderson.

Alphonse Mucha lays out his philosophical and practical ideas about art and how to make it well. On the very first page, he defines art, beauty, and the artist:

The aim of art is to glorify beauty. And what is beauty? Beauty is the projection of moral harmonies on material and physical planes. On the moral plane, beauty addresses itself to the evolution of the spirit, and on the material plane, it addresses itself to the refinement of the senses through which medium it reaches the soul.

The person who can communicate his emotions to the souls of others is the artist.

There are three conditions to be met to make a “complete work of art”:

  1. harmony between the “suggestion of the artist” and the bodily senses (I think “suggestion of the artist” means what s/he actually produces artistically)
  2. harmony between the suggestion of the artist and his/her emotions
  3. “harmony between the emotion of the artist and a moral truth”

#3 is pretty interesting. As I quoted above, he mentions “evolution of the spirit” and “refinement of the senses”, so I don’t think he intends “moral truth” to mean something so limited as “stealing is bad”, but perhaps a belief the artist feels compelled to share, like “humans are part of Nature”.

Expressing Gratitude

According to Mucha, communicating his/her emotions through art requires the artist to “charm”, to delight the bodily senses of viewers so that they will receive the artist’s emotions and moral truth. This is where he gets practical, describing his rules for providing areas of visual activity and rest, points of interest, pleasing proportions, “glorifying” the decorated object’s characteristics, and using color strategically.

Most importantly, Mucha asserts that, since humans evolved surrounded by the natural world, we are most comfortable with – love, even – the curved lines and 2:3 ratios found in Nature.

The Arts: Painting (1898)

Visual activity and rest

Mucha believed that the eye muscles literally got tired when following a line that was too straight or too long, or repeating the same motion over and over looking symmetrical compositions. Getting tired eyeballs means the viewer won’t like the artwork and so will be far less likely to receive the artist’s feelings/beliefs.

How to solve the problem of eye fatigue? Provide areas of rest for the eye. This is ubiquitous in his work: areas of intense busyness – geometric patterns, mosaics, flowers, etc. – and areas of flat color or white.

Salome (1897)

Points of Interest and Pleasing Proportions

Areas of activity and rest don’t apply just to lines, but to forms and composition as well. A point of interest, for Mucha, is a spot the viewer’s eye is drawn to, such as a face, hand holding something, or area of intense color. He instructs the artist to have three points and arrange them according to a ratio of 2:3. (This is close to the Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds but not quite.)

His explanation of how to place three points according to a 2:3 ratio is confusing, but his accompanying illustrations helped a little. I did a lot of measuring and math to conclude that this is his method for placing the points horizontally:

  1. Place two points of interest where ever you want.
  2. Draw a vertical line down the center of both points of interest.
  3. Measure the distance between these two vertical lines.
  4. 2:3 ratio application: Divide the distance between the two vertical lines by 2. Then, multiply this by 3. This is the horizontal distance that should be between the vertical line of the third point and the vertical line of whichever of the first two points is nearest to it.

Easy peasy… not! I spent an hour trying to figure it out and I probably didn’t even get it right : P Also, from the examples Mucha gave, it seems that he didn’t always put the vertical lines down the centers of the points of interest, but sometimes on the sides.

His method for placing points vertically:

  1. Place the first point of interest where ever you want.
  2. Divide this point into fifths by drawing four horizontal lines.
  3. Place the second point of interest so that its top or bottom edge lines up with the 2nd or 4th line running across the first point of interest.
  4. Repeat with the third point of interest – you can choose either of the first two points as the reference.

If you’ve been to graphic design school, this may remind you of composition assignments that, at the time, seemed super boring, but were actually pretty foundational.

Glorifying the decorated object

Mucha is emphatic about not hiding the characteristics of objects to be decorated. In fact, he says:

[Art] should be subordinate to the character and the purpose of the object or the form to be decorated.

This has three somewhat anal-retentive parts:

  1. The artist must “thoroughly know the character of the object”. A kind-of dense example: Decoration for a wall should call attention to where it meets the floor – where it “resists the attraction of gravity” – and its upper edge, where it supports the ceiling.
  2. Once the artist knows the object thoroughly, s/he should emphasize the “important characteristics” of the object. If something is flat, the decoration on it should be flat.
  3. As such, hypothetically, the design detached from the object would still indicate what the object was. For example, it really bothers Mucha that a book cover could be reproduced as a poster, card, etc. He always designed book covers with a decorative column covering the spine, visually calling attention to the fact that books have bindings. A Mucha book cover could be removed from the book and you would still know it had been a book cover because of that decorative column.
Cloches de Noel et de Paques (1900)

I’m not so convinced of this rule, and it seems he also felt a bit limited because he provides a workaround for putting 3D objects on flat surfaces: “windows” or “cut outs”. This is an often-overlooked but recognizable aspect of his style – a realistic scene inside a distinct frame that usually has parts of it isolated or cut out, a fairly modern-looking technique. This way, it’s very obvious that the scene is on something flat. Who knew that Mucha’s artistic philosophy caused him to do this?

Poster for Moet & Chandon Dry Imperial (1899)

Strategic color

So I’ve been an artist my whole life, but it took Alphonse Mucha to point out to me that complementary colors are two primary colors mixed together and missing the third:

  • green = blue + yellow (missing red)
  • orange = yellow + red (missing blue)
  • purple = red + blue (missing yellow)

Keeping complementary colors in mind, the artist can create the illusion of colors without actually using them. Mucha’s example is putting yellow paper behind black lace to make the lace look slightly purple. Allowing colors to affect each other is “one of the greatest secrets of… the masters of colour.”

Following the idea of eye fatigue above, a good artist will also allow the eyes to rest by placing neutral colors, such as black, white, silver, and gold, between contrasting colors.

Final thoughts

I am so glad I read this book! Not only did it give me great insight into Alphonse Mucha’s own art philosophy, techniques, love of nature, observational skills, and pragmatism, it revealed why I and so many others instinctively find his work irresistible – it’s because he brought natural proportions and imagery into his art. Plus, he has practical design advice that I’m going to use to make my art better (and hopefully irresistible too!).

If you want to read this book yourself, you may find it hard to find. A library is your best bet, as sellers on Amazon, AbeBooks, and eBay are asking a lot for it. There is only one edition that was published in 1975, in London by Academy Editions and in New York by St. Martin’s Press. Good luck, because I highly recommend it!