Arthur Rackham’s’ Rhinegold and the Valkyries’… wow what a drawer. Such looseness. Such flow. Such freedom, Such spontaneity, right? Like it just falls out of his head just the way you see it. Or does it?
Well yes you are right. His final application of line has the feeling that it was spontaneously created. Erupting from his fertile mind like Jack’s beanstalk from the ground. Created with the freedom of a child with crayons, but with 1000% deadlier accuracy.
But let’s break it down a bit more here. Just why is this such a successful drawing? I think there is more going on than just a towering imagination, and virtuoso handling of ink. There is a hidden math to it. And in my opinion, some calculated decisions disguised by a swashbuckling use of the brush.
1-The thick and thin. A bit obvious here but worth pointing out to those new to inking. The line width here is specific. Rackham used his thinnest most delicate lines on the girl. He also used them on the clouds. Which was a choice likely made to keep the clouds from demanding too much attention and coming too far forward visually. But a second, inadvertent thing the clouds do, is lend their softness and delicate nature to the only other thing with thin lines… the girl. Heh the rocks sure don’t have that thin line. By contrast, what sort of line are the giants inked in? Thick and aggressive. Whats that lend to their character?
2-Power of the ellipse. The cross hatching on the appendages of the giants follows the ellipse. It does not ride along the direction of the arms but wraps around the arms, pulling form. From the furred boot of the main giant, up his arm, reinforced by the staff tilt, back through the rear arm, and finally out the arm of the secondary Giant. Rackham is leading us through this image like we entered a wormhole in space.
3-Use of diagonals. Well there are big ones like a giant letter Z over the entire image.
4-But I am really looking at the radiating lines on the rear giants shirt. Check it out. Like a bullseye, they point to the aggressive fist of the dominate giant. Giving that grab extra intensity. Power. Let’s take the impact a step further. The position of the rear giants head could have been anywhere. But with it turned to the left, it is as it if Rackham lent the power of the radiating lines and arm ellipses, to an implied impact. No I am not saying it is a punch. I am saying the energy has a payoff because of the position of the head.
5-If you flip that head the other direction what happens? It stops the energy like a brick wall. And if you like you can run that energy right out the extended arm to the left.
6-Speaking of walls… look at the staff. Why do you think it is there? It could have been anywhere. But it is not random choice. It is a really long staff. And what it does is create a barrier. Like a rocket breaking through earth’s atmosphere, the shoulders and head of the main Giant break that barrier. They are the only thing to break that barrier. That Boss giant has all the power here. He is in control, and he is advancing. Move that staff in front of that head and all that control, all that momentum is lost. Even if you keep the exact pose.
7-But there is resistance. The damsel. Look at her angle. Feet planted. Opposite of the Giant. That is obvious. Dig deeper. Look how straight her arm is. About the straightest horizontal in the image. That gives her strength when surrounded by a bunch of curves. But there is another almost perfect horizontal. The arm of the rear giant. When you match a parallel like that you lend the strength of one to the other. In a way, that balled fist is HER fist.
8-More resistance. Why else do we believe the girls is strong and resisting? It is a lent power thing- like the arm mentioned above. Notice the rock in the lower right corner. What direction are they leaning? Yup. That is a planned move my friends. All that power of the rock is lent to her resisting angle. But Rackham took us one step further. That freakin dead tree. Look how thick it is. How deep into the ground do its roots go? It is old, and stubborn. Been there ages. Will still be there ages from now. You’d need a tractor to pull that thing out. And directionally, she inherits all that stubbornness.
9-Over powered. Alas out heroine is not the only thing that inherits power from the immovable. Boss giant gets his share too. From the rocks in the distance. They lean his direction. And we assume they are huge because of their distance over the hill. Those directional shapes combined, sadly, overpower hers. Couple that with him breaking the implied barrier of the staff, and his momentum will be hard to stop. Heck even the other huge giant could not deter our Villain. What chance does she have?
10-Hope. Yes there is, compositionally, some hope remaining. It is the drapery of the damsel in distress. See how it blows back, crossing the line of both giants legs? That my friends, as small as it is, is an escape route for our girl. There is a freedom in the way it blows. It is not constrained by the event. Again, in our head, let’s imagine the drapery is clinging to her side. He could have drawn it that way right? That with the addition of her head surrounded in darkness, the line of the staff boxing her in on one side and the legs on the other like prison bars, she is stuck. A seemingly small choice in drawing with massive implications.
At least this is how I see things! Your results may vary. And I should say that, sure, there is chance Rackham made all these complex decisions on the fly with no premeditation. Maybe I am seeing what I want to see. But if he did not have to plan this out, it is only because his instincts are so honed, so trained, that they manifested on the fly. But heck isn’t that what we all strive for? To train to such a level that we don’t have to think of such things? We can just do. You can get a huge file of this on Wiki. Print it out. Study it. Come to your own conclusions why it works.
Rackham is one of my favorite artists. I have a first printing of both The Rhinegold & The Valkyrie and Siegfried & The Twilight of the Gods that I found at a rare book store. Two of my favorite things I own. His control of ink is masterly and his ideas are beautiful, creepy and whimsical all at the same time. I am continuously learning from studying his art.