Books, Pictures, and Teachers
Reading maketh a full man. - Bacon.
It is possible to unravel some of the secrets of the quality of the masterpieces of water-colour by studying books and reproductions. There are excellent monographs on the masters to be had, and an immense and widely distributed quantity of drawings which constituted, after all, the factual monument to their genius and amazing industry. I have studied Cotman in Vancouver, John Varley in Winnipeg, Peter De Wint at the Victoria and Albert Museum, David Cox in Birmingham, and in Devonshire, and in a London vicarage which contained scores of his paintings - so many that the walls were covered and cases of them, unopened, were stored in the attic. You will find Turners wherever you go. Thus the student need never be at a loss, though far from London, whose museums contain the largest collections.
Coincident with an artist's complete mastery of technique is the inability to talk about it. The first faltering steps are forgotten: the material aspects of painting, of paramount importance to the student, give place to the spiritual, and the artist finally devotes himself to the quest of beauty and truth unhampered by, and unconscious of, any difficulty in its expression. For this reason few artists attempt to write text-books on art. Reynolds' Discourses as related to his won practice are sometimes purely rhetorical.
Still there are most valuable books on all phases of painting, compiled by masters who were able to recall the obstacles encountered in their early days, and how they were overcome, ranging from the treatise by Cennino Cennini, written in the fifteenth century, to the finely illustrated books fo the present day. If the student imagines that by reading he will be enabled to produce masterpieces of painting he will be disappointed. He will be disappointed in any case, feeling that the author fails to divulge his secrets. There are no magic recipes for the mixing or the application of pigments such as he half expects to find.
It is not in the choice of colours, or materials, of subject or treatment, that quality exists. One artist uses a set of colours that another damns; one scrubs, another scrapes; one paints in Patagonia, another in China. They differ on every technical point. youth will find out for itself, unmindful of the experiences of others.
Experience will master any of the means employed in painting. The colours of youth studies so earnestly, and uses in such variety, will submit eventually to his authority; his picture will pulsate with chromatic rhythms for the unconscious use of three or four pigments where he used twenty before. Form will materialize without measurement or conscious striving. His preoccupation will be his complete conception, not the part by the whole.
But to attain to this happy state he must work all the time. "Nothing is denied, "said Reynolds, "to well-directed labour, nothing is to be obtained without it." Every genius owes his achievements to unremitting toil. The industry of Apelles prompted the expression nulla dies sine linea - never a day without a line. Michaelangelo told Vasari that he frequently slept in his clothes, "being wearied with his labours he hae no mind to undress merely that he might have to dress again". Constable would work all day until he was sick with hunger.
If books will drive the student to the close study of nature - he must never fail there - and to incessant practice in painting, they will have served the best possible purpose, for such habits constitute the road to success. He will read to renew his enthusiasm and to refresh his mind.
A brief bibliography follows:
David Cox's manual on water-colour, reprinted by the Studio(London)
Water-colour Painting by A. W. Rich. Seeley Service Co's New Art Library.
The Practice of Water-colour by A. L. Baldry. Macmillans
Water-colour Painting by Romilly Feddon.
On landscape painting, irrespective of medium, the following books will prove inspirational:
Landscape Painting by Adrian Stokes. Seeley, Service Co.
Landscape Painting by sir Alfred East
Landscape Painting by Birge Harrison
Harold Speed's Book on drawing is the best I know (Seeley Service Co.) It contains some very informative chapters on composition. The Art of Etching by E. S. Lumsden is in the same series. Wood-cuts and Some words by Gordon Craig, tells all one needs to know on the art of making wood-cuts. The Technique of the Colour Wood-cut by W. J. Phillips (Brown Robertson Co., 424 Madison Avenue, New York City) I hope, has justified its existence. The philosophy of art is expounded by sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Discourses, and by Vernon Blake in Relation in Art. The English masters of water-colour and their works are discussed in the British Artists Series, published by Frederick Stokes Co., New York, and edited by S. C. Kaines Smith. There are volumes on Cotman, Cox, De Wint, Girtin and Bonington, Sandby, Cozens, Turner, and Prout.
After the rudiments are passed, very little of our art can be taught by others - Reynolds
The modern frenzy for university courses, lectures and lessons, does not flatter the age. Whilst lecturing at an American university I met a student of eighty-seven, and hundreds of others, not so old as that, but who might have been much better employed. They demanded spoon-feeding, and had neither the independence, nor the confidence to step out and forage for themselves. It is often remarked that art schools never produce artists; that their graduates become dilettanti, whose productions tend to smother professional work. There is some truth in these statements. Only an infinitesimal number of art school students ever prevail as artists. Many good students stay at school too long. I don not mean that it is possible that they could ever learn enough, but they remain too long in a mentally dependent state. They learn how to fly but never spread their wings. eventually they despair of unaided achievement, or put off their effort to some future day which never arrives.
He who walks in the traces of another is but little likely to get before him - Michaelangelo
It has been interesting to follow the more recent revolts, or fads, in art. The impressionists went out-doors, or back to nature, as a protest against the long reign of lifeless studio painting - every ew school claims to go back to nature - but in their enthusiasm for light and colour, form was never given its due. Impressionist endures to this day, and has affected all landscape painting. It was left to the cubist to reinstate form, but they went to such extremes that they forfeited all sympathy. They affected to express volume, and to do so, they reduced natural objects to their derivative geometric shapes, mostly to a conglomeration of cubes. As a concession th rhythm the cubes were often repeated in diminishing progression. The surviving remnant of the clique at last issued a manifesto declaring that their original aim was achieved, and that they had succeeded in exciting a proper and reasonable interest if form as such. But they sadly misread the universal rule, which the ancient Greeks knew, "Nothing too much". Nothing but volume was their reading, for colour went by the board, as did ever other principle, except perhaps rhythm.
Cezanne was not an extremist to that extent, and his extraordinary feeling for volume and stability was developed along more natural lines. He was at one with the impressionists in that he was concerned with actuality of form and colour.
Van Gogh used colour definitely as a means of expression. Matisse was obsessed with colour too, and according to some authorities he is one of the most remarkable colourists of all time. But with Matisse too, other things suffer, his form is unacceptable. He never hesitates to lengthen a human limb, or to bend or break it, or shorten it, if the spaces between seem to demand such operations in consideration of other principles. The shapes left between objects are of as much importance to him, as they should be, as the shapes of objects themselves, but to some artists his methods only suggest incompetence or laziness.
It is unfortunate that the students who are attracted by the paintings of these men, and they are as the sands of the sea, should see in them only their negative qualities. They industriously imitate their inaccuracies and their discords, while the spirit which evolved them remains unperceived. The qualities I have named are worthy of imitation - painting is essentially an imitative art, - but not the defects. It is most unwise also, to use only one painter as a model. In this connection it would be profitable to read Reynold's sixth discourse.