Tapestry, pictorial language and composition


Kåre Jonsborg is best known for his tapestry. Mr. Jonsborg studied in detail various techniques of tapestry, making his arts work in the language of weaving. This can for instance be seen by his tapestry cartoons being made of many straight lines and having the same colour applied for larger areas. The weavers therefore loved to weave after his cartoons, as they were adjusted to weaving, and therefore easy to weave after without having the weavers having to translate/interpret the cartoons from a painting to a tapestry. A tapestry cartoon is a painting which the weavers use to make a tapestry cartoon. The cartoon is the original works of arts made by the artist which can also be hung on the wall, and sold, as a final painting.

Tapestry cartoon painted by Kåre Jonsborg (to the left) and final tapestry (to the right) compared. The motive is a small version of the motive to Moss city hall, the tapestry is vowen by Else Halling. The size of the cartoon and the tapestry are the same (152 x 120 cm). Photo tapestry cartoon: Ellen Kasnes (2019). Photo tapestry: Atle Pedersen (2019).

The straight lines and clean cuts are made with detailed knowledge of tapestry and weaving. An example from the history of arts of who actually lacked this approach to tapestry is the great Italian Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520). When Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521) commissioned the Italian renaissance master to make tapestry cartoons for tapestry in the Sistine Chapel (cartoon from 1515 pictured to the left), there were severe technical problems to have the tapestries made. As the cartoons had to be interpreted and new weaving techniques had to be developed in order to have the cartoons weaved, it took several years from the cartoons were finished until the tapestries were done – and with great difficulty.

Baldishol Tapestry. Foto: Frode Helland

Many of the techniques of Kåre Jonsborg were taken from analysis of middle age tapestry (such as the Baldishol tapestry). The knowledge of how these were made had been forgotten. No documentation existed, but Kåre Jonsborg backward engineered the techniques by studying the ancient tapestries. He also applied the techniques of classical arts acquired through his teachers and by many years of intense research of the old masters. Much of the tapestry pioneer work was done together with Else Halling and her colleagues at Norsk Billedvev AS before and during World War II at the “Kunstindustrimuseet” (“Art industry museum”) in Oslo, Norway. Together, they, among other things, made a palette of colours with basis in colours available from plants in nature. This palette was used in all the tapestries and based on the same colours/plants which were used in old middle age tapestry. This was pioneer work which other artists picked up and applied later in their works of art. Many of the larger tapestries made by other artists in Norway are in fact woven in a weaving loom designed and made by Kåre Jonsborg for the company “Norsk Billedvev AS” which produced many of the larger tapestries produced after World War II. All of Kåre Jonsborg´s tapestry cartoons were made by applying construction, which will be further described below.

For more information, the webeditor recommends the book “Norsk Billedvev – Et atelier og en epoke” by Øistein Parmann (available on the Norwegian national library website if you have a Norwegian IP address https://www.nb.no)

Compositional construction of pictures

It is a bit hard to explain how to start to be able to read a classical painting. If you only are used to photographs you may not be able to get your eye to move around in the painting. To read a classical painting is like reading a book. You as the viewer need to let your eye enter the painting, and then let the eye move of the direction of where you feel that it is attracted. The artist has used different effects to try to control where you move your focus in the painting. You as the viewer, then get a visual experience by following the pictorial language paths of the artist throughout the work of art. If you know how to read a classical painting, you will often see that it has a story incorporated into it.

Fried Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Photo: Carl Van Vechten

During the years from 1935 to 1940 Kåre Jonsborg studied under the Danish painter Georg Jacobsen (1887-1976). Kåre Jonsborg was instructed by Georg Jacobsen in the art of pictorial composition through a constructional approach. In Norwegian it is called “konstruksjon”, so for this website, the webeditor choose to referred to it as “construction”. Georg Jacobsen was originally educated as an architect and acquired the skills of pictorial composition by doing research together with the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886 – 1957). The cooperation between the two was mainly done in the years of 1919-1921. Diego Rivera was to become one of the most famous painters in Mexico, and was also later to become the husband of the infamous Frieda Kahlo. Diego Rivera had a unique intuition as far as understanding pictorial composition is concerned, while Georg Jacobsen was ingenious at taking the discussed concepts and make them into specific theories that could later be applied in other works of arts. The two of them travelled together, studied art and passionately discussed these topics for hours after hours. The theories had several elements such as:

  1. Compose a painting consisting of harmonic geometric shapes that worked well both in the picture plane/canvas as well as in space/depth – without making breaking the picture plane/canvas (Editors note: by breaking the picture plane, the webetitor refers to not keeping the pictorial plane/canvas consistent or maintain it – a photography or perspective drawing will often not keep the pictorial plane – it will make depth without getting the viewer also experiencing the pictorial plan/canvas. The lack of the feeling of a pictorial plane will make the painting feel that it does not stick together, it removes a lot of the power the viewer gets from a painting, and thus not wanted in a classical painting).
  2. The life of a painting is not only described by what is the motive, but more importantly also how the picture plane is used/connected to space in the image.
  3. Based on proportional laws such as the golden ratio, Georg Jacobsen, constructed a set of rules to consistently make harmonious pictures. The individual parts of the picture is placed in a manner that applied a constructional structure which makes the individual parts of the image feel harmonious and work well with the overall picture format.
  4. The painters emphasised to make a pulse in the pictures. There is thus a combination of dynamics as well as consistency in the painting.

Without construction it is very difficult, even for the best skilled artist, to make consistently good compositional results every time – especially when working with larger formats. Many artists will discover that they will get into problems when they go from working in a small format to a larger one – and construction is a tool to overcome this obstacle.

Although the documentation of pre Georg Jacobsen construction is limited, by studying the old masters, it is evident that the masters applied construction in their works in the renaissance and the baroque periods. This can be seen in for example the arts of Leonardo daVinci, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt. Mr Jonsborg was able to locate proof of construction lines in many works, document them, and backward engineer the construction of the composition. Please see some examples below.

When we get into the rococo period, most artists no longer knew the skill of construction (please see below expressed by Kåre Jonsborg himself). There are a couple of exceptions, however, one of this was according to Kåre Jonsborg the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857). Kåre Jonsborg did an indepth analysis of JC Dahl´s painting Stalheim from 1842.

Diego Rivera knew Pablo Picasso (1881 to 1973). Georg Jacobsen and Pablo Picasso meet through Mr. Rivera. That Picasso also applied construction can be seen in the analysis Kåre Jonsborg did of Picasso´s work which is shown below.

If you would like to learn more about the theories of Georg Jacobsen, please consult his book ”Noget om konstruktiv form i billedkunst” published in 1965.

Kåre Jonsborg took the knowledge he acquired from his teachers, Georg Jacobsen being the most predominant, but also Jean Heiberg (1884 to 1976)  was important. Mr. Heiberg was a student of the well known Henri Matisse in France, and had acquired lots of knowledge from him. Kåre Jonsborg combined the knowledge acquired from his teachers with his own research in classical arts to understand the compositional secrets of the old masters. He was then the leading expert of his time to apply these techniques into tapestry. He passionately travelled around in art museums all over Europe to study the classical pictorial language hidden in old paintings.

Very few artists living today are aware of the knowledge that will be shared with you on this web page. For some reason, they do not seem to be too interested in what makes a good painting or not. It is a shame, since the final works is what suffers. Therefore, in order to increase awareness and hopefully spark the interests, the webeditor has chosen to share a taste of Kåre Jonsborg´s research.

To give you a glimpse of the theories, the web editor will show you a series of slides made by Kåre Jonsborg which he himself used to explain the very basics of his theories. The text is freely translated into English by the web editor with a basis of extracts from the artist´s personal notes made for a presentation he presented at a few occasions such as at an art exhibition in Farsund in 1971.

Extract of presentation on Arts by Kåre Jonsborg – freely translated and edited by the webmaster.

A painting (in this case the wall) is a surface consisting of two dimensions, the width and the height. A painter only has these two dimensions to express himself in and explain what he intends to communicate. The Egyptians do this quite simple. If it is a human, they always show the head in profile, the shoulders in front, the hips, the legs and the feet in profile. In this manner, the viewer is presented with having presented directly towards him, the side of the individual body parts which is the broadest in width. The painter has presented the individual bodyparts independently of how the viewer from a an optical / naturalistic point of view would have seen it. Still, it gives a unique description of a 3 dimensional object on a 2 dimensional medium (the canvas). If the artist was to display multiple figures behind each other, they are placed standing above each other (seen above).

This Greek relief has gone somewhat further in presenting the principles a bit more naturalistic. However, you still are faced with the same main principles. The individual figures turns and explains each other. If you see a figure in profile, you will see an other one displayed showing the front. In this way, you achieve the same as the Egyptians, but less static and more natural.

This is a Greek-Roman round sculpture, standing in the Carlsberg Glyptotek i Copenhagen, Denmark. No matter which angle we watch it from, we always get an idea of how much space the sculpture will take if we watch it from a different angle.

If we watch her from the side, it appears as if she lifts the arm and in a way that demonstrates how much space she will take if we had changed angle and watched her front.

If we watch her from the front, it seems like she turns while demonstrates her placement seen from the side.

This is a trick which is frequently used in paintings and portraits throughout the history of arts. Michelangelo uses this eagerly in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and almost all of Titans portraits applies these techniques.

Introduction to construction

At the bottom of this illustration you can se an ellipse. It is perceived to be an ellipse placed flat on the wall. However, if you see it in relation to a circle of the same diameter, you will immediately see that the ellipse is turning into a circle in space. At the top illustration, this effect gets even stronger due to the ellipse being tipped at an angle compared to the initial representation. This is an important perception psychological concept.

Example: The polyptych of Perugia

Photo Source: Wikipedia

In Perugia, Italy, there is an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca “the Polyptych of Perugia”. This is a large and complex altarpiece with many scenes. At the top is the Annunciation with Virgin Mary and the Angel. In the middle, a madonna and to holy figures at each side. At the very bottom there is a predella with fairly small pictures (approximately 30cm x 20cm), and in some of these it is quite obvious that simple construction has been applied.

St Anthony resurrects a child (bottom left picture of the polyptych)

Photo: Wikiart.com (public domain)
Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

The format of the image is the shorter side of the golden ratio on the horizontal axis applied twice on the vertical axis.

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

If you look at the bow rockets of the baby cradle, you can see that this makes a large part of a circle. This is so large, that you actually feel the whole circle. The girl standing next to the cradle covers an ellipse with the same diameter as the circle of the baby cradle. The diameter of the circle of the baby cradle equals half the height of the painting. This is how the earlier mentioned perception of space occurs.

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

There are yet another 2 circles to observe in the painting. The second one is to observe on the right in the above illustration. The kneeling munch covers a large part of a circle, and the standing munch´s lower body is actually a corresponding ellipse.

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg
Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

If we then turn the latter mentioned circle around the centre of the first circle, until a prolongation of the axis between them hits the right corner of the painting, we have located a third circle in the painting.

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg
Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

The third circle also has two potential ellipses in the construction. Here you see the complete contruction:

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

The door is also a rectangle of the same size as the ellipses. Here you actually have several things acting together. That you feel the same size throughout the picture give short of a rhythm and the correlation between circles and ellipses gives a concept of space which should not be confused with an imitation (editor´s interpretation – not be confused with somebody who tries to imitate space in a painting, but does not know these concepts)

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

Rectangles of the same size as the ellipses can be seen in these places:

Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

Example: Piero della Francesca – The Legend of the True Cross

Piero della Francesca´s masterpiece is the decorations in Arezzo. The motive is a legend about the holy cross.

Mr. Jonsborg had an overview picture in black and white, but please click here for an interactive overview of much better quality:


Finding and recognition of the true cross:

Photo: wikiart.org (public domain)

We will not go into the details of this picture now, but please try to observe how well organised it is.

Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes:

Photo: wikiart.org – public domain

In this battle painting, I observe what I believe are constructional lines that have broken through the plaster. It is not difficult to observe a whole series of parts of circles and ellipses working in correlation in this picture. We could almost state that the whole battle is done constructionally on the pictorial plane.

Web editor´s note: Kåre Jonsborg received a scholarship from the Norwegian Government in 1963 to travel and do research on arts. In order to give the reader an insight in this battle painting, the editor has hereby translated and edited some of the content from Mr. Jonsborg´s written report which he gave the government when he returned back home:

“I had from earlier observed on photographs that there were some lines and fractions of circles in these fresco paintings. I wanted to look deeper into this. Were these scratches due to later damages, or was it Piero´s construction that had come through the paint and now was showing? To research this was the main core of my study trip. In the battle between Heraclius and Chosroes can you see a large amount of lines. Please see attached copies of a few of my sketches, where I have highlighted where these lines can be seen. In particular, in the area which I have highlighted in blue many lines can be observed.

Sketch highlighting componsitional construction lines by Kåre Jonsborg
Photo by Kåre Jonsborg
Photo by Kåre Jonsborg
Photo by Kåre Jonsborg

I think it must be certain that these lines are made underneath the outer layers of colours. Its visibility depended on the lighting. Among these lines there were several clear parts of circles and ellipses.

The reason for this is probably like this: Piero has written construction and drawings on the foundation of the wall before it was painted. The important foundations of the work was sketched in sinopia directly on the wall. In order for the fresco to get strong and for the artist to being able to work on the painting for several hours, lots of water must have been applied to the wall. If the wall is really wet, it is possible to apply dryer plaster. The outer layer of plaster has then absorbed some of the sinopia which after time has worked its way through the outer layer of colour.

I have not yet had time to experiment with a complete constructional explanation to the area of the battle painting. It is, however, worth noticing the baldachin to the right of the painting.

Illustration VI

It is a circle. I can clearly see the starting position of a cone. One of the many spacial positions are shown near the centre of the picture. If you first get aware of this in the reproduction, and then later observe it in front of the actual fresco, it is very convincing. There is a possibility of another cone. The largest circle in the larger format, and the smaller is the larger of the first mentioned (webeditor is not quite sure what circles he tries to explain). The large represents the victor, the small the loser Chosroes. These cones then perform the battle abstractly on the picture plane – varying spacial shapes and flat shapes in the picture plane. If you look at all the flags and banners in the sky, you will notice that there is a very exciting play going on.

Example: The invention of the cross

For this picture, I have made a constructional proposal in more detail. It consists of 36 dias slides. However, for this report I will not go through these as it would turn it into a large book.

I attach an illustration that shows the main principles.

The format is build up by constructing the golden ratio. It is done from both sides, and the distance between these points applied twice makes the height of the painting. The size of the cone is demonstratively shown in the picture by the two round rings standing on a horizontal axis, in the middle of the temple-looking building. The diameter of the smallest circle equals the distance between the centres of the circles (editor – not sure what he means). The largest width is the is the width of the building. If you then apply this size and place it at the very left down at the baseline, it will follow the pilar of the cross and the back of the woman at the edge of the picture. The cone then moves step by step through the picture, follows the bar of the cross in some positions. There are also other things going on, but always in the same size, shifting between spacial shapes and shapes on the picture plane. Illustration below is taken from this painting, and shows how the ellipse follows the spade blade. By using binoculars in front of the fresco, you can clearly see how the lines of the spade continues past the spade, and how the line of the ellipse is drawn through the leg.

Illustration VII

We have been ruined by the movies when it comes to observe. The people of the renaissance could follow a story told in pictorial language. The size of the cone that was repeated to lead the eye, and the cycle of the image became a reality before their eyes. They viewed an image actively.”

Webeditor´s note. We will not return to Kåre Jonsborg´s presentation:

Detail of area of the right wall:

Photo: Piero della Francesca [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is from Queen of Sheba´s visit at King Salomo´s. Look how the different horses explain each other. You can see the horse from the side in full width. You can also see it foreshortened from behind, and actually also from the front. The men´s legs also show where the horses could have had their legs when they step back and forth. Try to count legs and horses. It is not easy to get it to add up. The whole scene is moving.

Photo: Piero della Francesca [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration by Kåre Jonsborg

Or this holy man who is located on the window wall. Notice one circle for each elbow and the placement of the head in the middle. In a way, this fastens the placement of the man to be seen from the front. If you cover the right side of the picture, you will se the whole man in profile. It is only the head that is missing.

For the location of the head, there is actually a possible circle by the strange way the cape rises on the sholder. Here you see the same principle as earlier shown, although a bit more comprehensible. It is shown how much space the figure takes both from the front and from the side.

The Ressurection

Photo: Piero della Francesca [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sketch by Kåre Jonsborg

This picture by Piero is fairly small. It is located in the city hall of his birth town, Sansepolcro. Look at the rectangle of the coffin. It can tilt up in an inclined position by the flag and out towards right. The whole resurrection is then schematically shown on the picture plane. The figure of Christ is placed in the middle of this schematic.

The concepts just shown have likely been passed through as studio/workshop traditions throughout the history of arts. Through written sources we know that Albrecht Durer tried to learn the secrets of the Italian masters. He was 12 years in Venezia. A painter called Jacopo de´ Barbari was to tell him the secrets for good pay (Wilhelm Watzold: Durer Phaidon 1935). However, Durer still never get to know any of the secrets. In the time of the French Revolution, the education of artists go from the workshops to the academies, and knowledge were forgotten. The reason is that a professor would be so afraid of leaking information to his competitors that he would not say anything. However, some knowledge has been passed from artist to artist throughout the centuries – although only as spoken tradition. The realism was in particular a factor that watered out the comprehensive work of picture composition that had been done before. We can, however, still see this knowledge in our Norwegian painter JC Dahl (ta med komposisjonen).

Johan Christian Dahl [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
J.C. Dahl was a student of Eckersberg in Copenhagen and friend of Caspar David Friedrich, which both were student of the classic painter Jac. Luis David in France.

Then Cezanne is able to find the secrets without passing it on to anybody. He was from Aix able to rediscover the secrets that had been forgotten for so long. He finds principles for picture construction that made the basis for cubism. The cubists are only so interested in what they are able to find of compositional theories that they do not pay attention to whether they understand them or not. There has been lots of misunderstanding throughout the whole history of arts, and not least in modern time. Cezanne died in 1906, and the history repeated itself by the secrets being stolen by death. In the renaissance it was Titian´s students, Tintorette, Veronese and El Greco. Now, after the death of Cezanne, it was Diego Rivera, Braque and Picasso.