1. An artist's life
The landscape painter lives a lonely life. He communes more with nature than with his fellow man. His also may be a sedentary job. He sits whilst he works, assuming an ultimate greatness unrelated to his prestige as an artist.(1) To escape this fate some take to the hills, some, like the great Turner, and the lesser MacWhirter go for long hikes across Europe sketching as they go, some indulge in underseas painting, others go abstract. We did none of these things but built a house in the Rockies, praying that the steep trail down to town, traversed at reasonable intervals, would provide exercise sufficient to keep me slender.
On the first count I undertook to conduct a class in Landscape Painting, whereby, for six weeks in the summer I should bask in the warmth of human relationships, and at the same time, by driving my class hither and yon, up hill and down dale, particularly up hill, I should take adequate care of my figure.
That the artist's life means something less than Beer and Skittles I must insist, in the circumstances. The question always arises as to what so and so will do with his, or her, talent for drawing. If he, or she, is young and untaught, yet promising, the answer is — study; if he, or she, is already proficient in art, study also, but study another profession. For there is no doubt about it the amateur gets all the fun out of art. By amateur I mean he who practises only in his leisure moments, and earns his bread by other means. This advice I always offer; that it is sound I am convinced, and anyone who will take the trouble to study the lives of artists of other days, may also be convinced. Lives of Great Men all remind us...
Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists of the English School is an admirable volume for the purpose. The author introduces human little touches, which Bryant, for example, does not, avoiding long, impersonal descriptions of works of art; he strives to keep the reader interested. The brief account of Frank Vandermyn illustrates the point. He was a portrait painter who practised in London in the middle of the eighteenth century, and who constantly indulged in a pipe while painting, 'by which he lost many sitters.' There exists a mezzotint from a portrait of him, painted by himself, lettered 'The Smoker.'
Francis Vivaris had 31 children! Thomas Troughton 'undertook a voyage to Africa and was shipwrecked on the coast of Morocco, where he was detained in slavery from 1747 to 1780, and suffered great hardships.'
Cornelius Ketel was the original 'finger-painter', who practised in England until 1581, and was so enamoured of his own skill that eventually he 'laid aside his brushes and painted only with his fingers, and Walpole says that, increasing in his folly, he next tried his toes.'
John Kay's aptitude as a face-painter in miniature led him to caricature. His victims were well-known people, and his portraits were 'extreme in their resemblance, humorous, exaggerating and intensifying little points of character, they gave offence. Many were bought and destroyed. The artist was cudgelled and charges brought against him by the magistrates.'
Few artists really enjoy painting portraits, a fact upon which I have commented frequently. James Inskipp is described as 'of an irritable temper' and 'ill-fitted to contend with the trials of portrait painting.' He is said to have dismissed a distinguished sitter on his second sitting, telling him with an oath that he hated him and would not paint him.
There are many such stories and they point a moral for the aspirant painter, but the most forceful of all is implied in the frequent epitaph, 'He died in poverty and neglect.' Take the case of Wenceslaus Hollar, of whom Walpole wrote, 'to have passed a long life in adversity, without the errors to which many men of genius have owed it, and to have ended that life in destitution of common comforts, merely from the insufficient emoluments of profession, and with a strictly moral character, such was the fate of Hollar.'
Hollar's etchings are said to number 2,400 — costumes, portraits, history, antiquity, views and landscapes. They form a most valuable record of contemporary life.
'The times' wrote Redgrave, 'were unfortunate for art. The Fire of London and the Great Plague added to the perplexities of all, and he (Hollar) fell into absolute want, when, about this time (1669) he was sent to Tangiers by the King to make drawings of the forts and defences and of the surrounding country. For his two years of labour and his valuable drawings, some of which are now in the British Museum, he only received one hundred pounds, after many supplications and long delay; and on his return his vessel had to encounter a serious attack by Algerian corsairs.'
Fate's final buffet came when he was disturbed on his death-bed which he prayed to retain for the few hours he had to live, by bailiffs who entered his apartments to seize the only remaining piece of furniture.
Artists are supposed to lead a placid life, and are presumed to die peacefully in their beds. But this is not necessarily true. Let us consider, with the help of Redgrave, some of the dire evils that may beset an artist.
Andre was shot as a spy.
Basevi fell from a scaffold whilst contemplating the interior beauty of Ely Cathedral.
John Brown and J. Dwyer died of sea-sickness.
W.O. Burgess was killed by a cricket ball.
George Chalmers, one of the best of the Scottish artists, was found by the police thrown down an area with his skull fractured and his pockets rifled.
John Chatelaine and captain Grose died from eating too heartily.
R. Cleverly fell from a cliff to his death.
Robert Davy was murdered on the street by robbers.
Robert Cochran was hanged in 1484 by nobles who were jealous of his friendship with the King.
Alec Dobson died gallantly after having saved others from fire.
William Duffield, who painted still-life, lost his sense of smell, and, painting in his room from a dead deer, was insensible to its dangerous state of putrefaction, which caused a fatal illness.
D.T. Egerton was murdered in Mexico.
Gahagan was laid low by the fall of a statue on which he was working.
Theodore Gardell was executed for murder.
Gilray, the caricaturist, threw himself out of a window.
Michelangelo Hayes was drowned in a tank.
R. Huristan was killed by lightning.
Theodore Lande fell from a sky-light.
Edward Ryland was hanged for forgery.
George Samuel was killed while sketching when a wall fell on him.
Vanderdort hanged himself.
Van Hove was murdered.
William Wissing was poisoned.
This perhaps is enough to persuade young enthusiasts of the trials and dangers of art as a profession.
Whether or not our move to the mountains was made for either of the reasons stated, I must confess that I have never seriously doubted that my choice of a profession was an inspired choice. It is a wonderful calling. In his last lecture Constable said, 'Paley observed of himself that the happiest moments of a sufficiently happy life were passed by the side of a stream; and I am greatly mistaken if every landscape painter will not acknowledge that his most serene hours have been spent in the open air, with a palette in his hand.' 'It is a great happiness,' said Bacon, 'when men's professions and their inclinations accord.'
The commonest reason given by students for seeking admission to my class is probably that they wish to cultivate a hobby, and they are generally older people. The young ones hope to become professional artists and usually continue their studies elsewhere. They — the latter — are more pliable: their faults are not ingrained. Some of their elders never seem to be able to shed their bad painting habits however hard they try; others respond surprisingly. However we are all interested in art and in each other; we do our best, and we enjoy ourselves.
I explain — vainly, I believe, — that the contemporary artist must compete with every artist who has ever lived and whose work has survived; with all living brothers of the brush, with his pupils, with children, with week-end painters, and the army of amateurs hidden behind every rock and bush in the landscape. And today no standards remain by which to judge painting, since critics and iconoclasts imagine they have destroyed tradition. They offer us instead the eye of a child.
Back to Nature always has been the reaction against too much formalism, and that is just where we are going.
2. The Sketching Season Opens
When spring is here the sketcher begins to look over his equipment and relishes in anticipation the soothing hours he will spend in the open, warmed by the sun, fanned by the breeze, charmed by the manifold delights of nature. The matter of equipment is important. It must be overhauled as carefully as the angler's tackle, replenished if necessary and improved if possible. It must be compact and portable, yet practicable.
The sketcher is interested in new devices that augment these qualities; if he is experienced he has no doubt invented such devices himself. In any case he likes to hear how the other fellow equips himself for this engrossing quest for beauty in landscape.
One will cut down his material to the minimum, so that he may walk without undue fatigue, while another will burden himself with a lot of things. It all depends. Richard Meryman, a famous U.S. painter (he once won the Popular vote at the Carnegie International) with whom I once sketched in the mountains, lugged about a heavy easel and a six-foot canvas, and a huge sketching umbrella. But he never strayed far from his car.
He must have had a couple of hundred brushes, and pounds of paint. He laughed at the simple needs of my method, but I could go where he could never hope to follow. He was as convinced of the good sense of his own ways as I was of mine.
The essentials are something to paint on and something to paint with. To these one usually adds something to sit on; but this is not always a necessity. In the hills and by the lakes there is always a ledge of rock, a bed of heather, a boulder or the root of a tree, which will rest the bones and provide a suitable elevation.
The stool, however, is never really cumbersome. Mine is a folding three-legged affair. The wooden legs fold up to form a smooth, round stick, which is carried in the hand, and the detachable leather triangle forming the seat goes in my rucksack with all the rest of my things — materials, and lunch, and sweater on occasion. The rucksack rests on my back and even when full its weight is negligible.
So that, fully equipped, I carry only a billet in my hand, and a bag on my back, which is not much of a burden. There are more comfortable seats, but they are awkward and heavy, and there are less comfortable ones, such as the English shooting-stick. My own combines the virtues of comparative comfort and utility.
The same type, fitted with a webbing seat, is stocked by most dealers in artist's materials. This seat may as well be thrown away at once; it is a snare rather than a seat, a specious token of security apt to collapse at any moment, if one's figure is too generously padded.
Making these same remarks to a former class, I once set up my tripod and patted the leather top affectionately. Then, deriding the inferior seats with which my pupils were provided, I sat down with heavy emphasis — too heavy as it turned out, for my stool collapsed and I with it, feeling very embarrassed. Even a leather top will not last forever.
The sketcher in oils is well served by the modern box, containing his colours, his brushes, palette, and mediums, and fitted with a lid which accommodates his wooden panels or canvases, and which is used as an easel. This outfit is the simplest yet devised, but much heavier than that of the water-colourist. The latter needs only two brushes, a water-bottle with a fitted cup, a palette and a piece of paper.
It is remarkable how little intelligence went into the manufacture — or, rather, the design — of water-colour boxes. Formerly the inlaid water-colour box, divided into little compartments holding forty or so cakes of pigment, some brushes, a glass dish for water, and a porcelain palette, was considered to be the acme of perfection, as it certainly was of expense and clumsiness.
Even now the sketcher is required to balance his whole stock of pigments on his thumb while he paints, since the lid of his box is his palette, and some recent models have the water-bottle attached to the box also.
I buy my paints in tubes, and squeeze out enough on a folding metal palette, which is a true palette and not a warehouse. I leave the tubes at home when I go sketching.
There remains only paper to discuss. I never use a 'block' which is a sheet of cardboard supporting some 24 sheets of paper bound together at the edges. The paper cockles unpleasantly. Many water-colourists prepare paper by pasting it on a sheet of cardboard. I don't. I like a more solid panel, which I can hold with my knees instead of with my hands: I would rather have my hands free. Formerly I used a double frame. The only objection to that is that the edges of the paper come out a mangled mass.
Now I have two light boards of three-ply wood, measuring eighteen inches by thirteen. I soak the paper in water until it expands a little and fasten it down with 1 inch gum-tape. My panels are of the size to take a quarter of an Imperial sheet of paper, so that there is no waste. When my sketch is finished, the edging of brown gum-paper is stripped, then wetted and scraped until a clean white border remains. The sketch is thus as fit to display as if it were matted.
Sketchers soon determine what pigments suit them and how many. My selection varies. Right now my palette holds yellow ochre, pale cadmium yellow, Indian yellow, French ultramarine, monastral blue, light red (Venetian), alizarin rose madder, cadmium red (light), burnt sienna, raw umber, monastral green, Mars violet.
Many a time, grossly deceived by my satchel and stool-stick, someone enquires 'How're they biting?' In the same friendly spirit let me express the hope that, having overhauled your tackle, all you sketchers may have a good catch this season.
4. Return to Nature
The faults in modern painting are sometimes ascribed to a lack of faith, a condition which pervades contemporary life as a whole. It is a postulate worthy of elaboration, and it is significant that today many of the journals which, through the defection of their so-called art critics, have threatened to wreck the very foundations of art, have begun to raise such questions as, 'what has come over Art?' or 'Where is Beauty?'
In other days — the days of faith — no such question arose. Material beauty definitely lay in the marvels of creation and it was the privilege of the artist to emulate its various manifestations with reverence and sincerity. Art is egregiously described as the creation of things of beauty; it is rather the adaptation of the forms in nature that please the eye and their rearrangement after laws that govern natural growth.
Good art has always conformed to the canons of beauty revealed in nature, tinctured by taste or style. Taste is mutable; beauty eternal. Taste influences subject and treatment. That which intrigues one generation is rejected by the next. Thus the Grand Manner, the Heroic, the Eclectic, and the Narrative, and a thousand other styles that once were popular are derided today.
It is true, the works of old that we venerate as masterpieces all display the marks of styles that are now outmoded, but in them is a preponderant element of indestructible beauty. The artist cannot always evade the dictates of fashion, but he can keep his faith; he can cherish the conviction that beauty is truth, and sharpen his perception by a persistent search for that quality amidst the wonders of the world.
There have been periods of degeneracy in art, as now, occasioned by the vanity of artists lacking faith, virtually by their denial that ultimate perfection lies hidden in nature. Such art is generally distinguished by violent stylization.
Recovery is always made along the same road, the return to nature. By this I do not mean the adoption of the degraded style of naturalism — the artless copying of natural forms and appearances, but the application of the laws that govern growth and underlie the orderly beauty of creation.
Giotto was inspired by nature, and leads the noble pageant of the art of the Renaissance in Italy. A hundred years later Donatello and Masaccio saved Giottoism from decay. Again and again revival succeeded decline. After Michelangelo's death artists took to imitating the masters, and Caravaggio provoked the reaction, preaching a return to nature. Later Velasquez evaded the grip of Spanish mysticism, and achieved greatness by the same route. Regnault said, 'Before a work of Velasquez I feel as if I were looking at reality through an open window.'
Gainsborough, Crome, and Constable were among the first to venture upon 'setting up and easel int he fields' and to upset the cult of classical landscape. The pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists strove to convert dry academicism into living art by looking with fresh eyes upon the fruits of creation.
I think that those who do not love nature as 'the vicar of the Almightie Lord,' cannot appreciate art nor can they produce it.
Reynolds used to say that only gentlemen should study the arts; Fra Angelico said that he who practised the art of painting should live without cares and anxious thoughts; that he who would do the work of Christ should perpetually remain with Christ.
Banff is an ideal location for a school of Fine Arts, for here nature displays some of her handsomest features. It is set in a long valley and surrounded by mountains. There is some snow on the peaks all the year round, and in the summer one is liable on awakening any morning to fine a white sheet covering the mountain tops. Snow comes into its own during the winter when its depth and quality is a matter of concern to those in high-up ski lodges, whilst down in the town the citizens stand at their windows and hopefully watch the drifts building up. They are impatient for the snow to stop falling so that they can indulge in the joys of Shovelling. I shall discuss snow in (or on) landscape later. It is sufficient to remark that in few other places can snow pictures be painted outdoors in one's shirtsleeves.
Down in the valley all is peace in the summer and the fall. The lacy patterns of snow on the heights add to its beauty. The Bow river flows smoothly here for the most part, bordered by scrub willows, aspens and lodge-pole pines. Here and there are scanty stands of Blue Douglas fir, thick in the bole, and towering, survivals of the fire that swept the valley many years ago. Moose range around, beaver work and play in the side streams, mule deer graze in the meadows, elk and Bighorn sheep come down from higher ground to drink. Grizzlies invade the Park at rare intervals, but the black bear regards it as his own domain.
Our house on Tunnel Mountain overlooks the town and faces the setting sun. We have a view of the valley until it veers to the north ten miles away and seems to be blocked by the Massive range.
When there is any doubt where by class shall sketch I say unhesitatingly, 'We'll take the West Road.'