Some Canadian Water-Colour Painters
Charles John Collings -
Nothing is more strange in art than the way that chance and materials seem to favour you when once you have conquered them. - Ruskin
In view of the long and vigorous practice of the art of water-colour, it is only reasonable to suppose that every possible method of handling has been exploited long since. but in 1912 Mr. Collings proved to the satisfaction of the London critics that such a supposition was mistaken. He showed a group of water-colours of Canadian mountain scenery at the Carroll Gallery, and they were defined as:
exquisite, among the most remarkable achievements since the days of Turner, little lyrics in paint, veritable poems in colour, of rare quality and beauty, hardly equalled by any other living painter.
Inspired art, said the Times. Collings was described as a colourist of the first rank, as one of the most original as he is one of the most entirely pleasing of the artists in water-colour of the day.
a new revelation of the beauty of which water-colour is capable. And the critics have reviewed many exhibitions subsequently with equal enthusiasm, with many comments on the new technique, and the marvel of its invention.
Northcote said, "It should be the aim of the artist to bring something to light out of nature for thefirst time - something like that for which in mechanics a patent would be granted; an original invention or a decided improvement. Patents are not give for making a time-piece or a telescope as long as it differs not from others." A new revelation comes but seldom. Many of us, alas, add nothing to the sum of the knowledge of beauty, but Mr. Collings shows there is much behind and beyond the ordinary vision, not expressed by abstractions, but by colour and form related to nature. He depicts majestic peaks silhouetted against the sun, or in a blaze of light, or wrapped in mist, wreathed with clouds in the mystery of half-light, enveloped in snow, in all conditions, and placid lakes that mirror them. He invests forests, waterfalls, hillsides, burnt timber lands with a strange and compressing interest, converting them into fantasies whose variety has no limits, and whose colour displays a magnificence that suggests another world, if it be not a new vision in this.
If the beauty in nature is merely a reflection of that in the mind, Mr. Collings will ever be appreciated by thoughtful people conscious of its many manifestations.
Charles John Collings was born in Devon and trained for the law. Determined to paint, he sought lessons from N. J. Baird, who, in a very short time, confessed that he could teach him no more. Mr. Collings exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1887 to 1898, when he sent instead to the International Society of Sculptors, Engravers and Painters. Since 1900, in spite of the praise bestowed by the newspapers and art journals, the public has had few opportunities of seeing his work save in one-man shows. In 1910 he left England, and sought a retreat in the wilderness, amid the mountains. He set up his tent in the deep snow that winter, thirty-five miles from Sicamous, on Shushwap Lake. The next year he began to build a house on this site, and this is now far more comfortable than its remoteness would suggest.
His wild surroundings minister to the needs of his brush, and it may be, have helped to determine his final method of expression. at any rate his technique is most appropriated for the subjects he chooses, more than that, manner and matter seem to be wedded.
His method is explained in a few words. he soaks a sheet of hot-pressed, that is, smooth paper, for a day or two, and, ready to paint, lays it on a sheet of slate or glass (latterly he has used a slab of cork), in order to conserve its moisture. He paints with pure pigments of full intensity, mixing them only on the paper, and removes any superfluity, or reduces intensities, with a clean brush. Certain passages would seem to indicate the admixture of paste, but he does not use it. The masses of floating colour, where they meet and combine, often create forms and hues of great beauty, fortuitous perhaps, but coherent when manipulated by an artist like Mr. Collings. The painting is finished by the time the paper dries, when, formerly, it was burnished to increase its brilliance.
Brangwyn is responsible for an apt description of Mr. Collings' style. At one time the two of them, together with J. R. Weguelin, also a delightful water-colourist, had studios in the same Kensington block, and exchanged visits and ideas. I have heard it asserted that Brangwyn grafted some of Mr. Collings' grace and exquisiteness on his own, but that does not pertain to his water-colours. Admiring a living spray of apple-blossom, the latter remarked that he could never paint it. "Oh", said Brangwyn, "you'd soon cut it out".
Cutting out is exactly what Collings does, with a sable brush. Instead of building up form with superimposed washes of colour, or even of defining form with brush strokes, he achieves all his middle and higher tones by lifting the pigment which is floated all over the paper in the earlier stages of painting. There is practically no evidence of dry painting in any of his work, bo dry accents, or hard edges. His colour is diffused in soft and graceful effects, and has, on occasion, the purity and brilliance of opal, or the richness of agate. Passages of tender green and rose, within a setting of pearly grays, have all the quality of jewels. Always the elaboration of a natural theme, his colour is a transmuted and extended harmony, a symphony in pigment.
All the painting is done within doors. A pencil drawing that embraces the facts of a landscape, and suggests an adequate arrangement, is all that he needs. Thus his imagination has free rein, unhampered by masses of detail in tone and colour. These drawings are interesting in themselves, vigorous and direct.
Mr Collings makes good use of black pigment in mixtures, especially grays. For the rest, his palette is one that any water-colourist might use. He does not use colours that spread unevenly, such as French ultramarine or cerulean blue, out of regard for surface quality.
In his famous symposium of the advantages of old age, Cicero failed to include the enduring joys of a natural and acquired faculty for the perception and appreciation of chromatic beauty, or grace of form and line, of graphic rhythms and harmonies. Yet of all the arts its enjoyment is the least dependent on passing years, and becomes a thing of the mind, pure spiritual vision, rather than more physical seeing. The man who is able to record his visions of loveliness is thrice blessed, for he is the apostle of beauty. An artist leans more on the perception and expression of beauty in colour as he grows older.
Such is Mr. Collings. at eighty he is producing pictures which manifest as much if not more enthusiasm, freshness of conception, and skill, than ever before. His vigorous virtuosity was never more apparent, nor the remarkable quality of technical perfection that his small paintings have always displayed.
I saw him last in 1928. He was on his way to Banff to get some snow studies, virile and eager as a youth. He was smoking a brand of tobacco far too strong for my taste, and spoke of teaching the hotel chef to make a Welsh rarebit, which he liked to eat before retiring. The years have passed him by lightly.
Fred H. Brigden -
He who recurs to nature at every recurrence recurs his strength. - Reynolds
If Mr. Collings inclines to fantasy, Mr. Brigden keeps his feet solidly on earth, a pedestrian like David Cox, who has no inclination to adventure upon flights of fancy, to whom nature in her gentler moods displays a beauty unsurpassed. He relies entirely upon an exceptionally refined sense of selection, which, though his vision is essentially objective, gives a quality to his urbane landscapes that is akin to idealism.
He came from England to Toronto, with his parents, at an early age. He has since recorded the scenic beauties of the Dominion with a sympathetic brush, and may be described truly as a Canadian painter. He has sketched in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the eastern townships of Quebec, the Laurentians, Northern Ontario, and a great deal in the neighbourhood of Toronto, particularly in the Don Valley, where he has his summer home. He is one of the noble army of week-end artists; and sketching tours have been permissible only upon his periodic holidays. He is managing director of the large engraving business that bears his father's name, and president of the Western branch. Opportunities for uninterrupted studio work have been few, but he contrives to complete enough large paintings both in oil and water-colour for the year's exhibitions, fulfilling his duty in that respect as president of the Ontario Society of the Canadian Water-colour Society.
His snow pictures - he has painted many - are worked up from pencil notes, but his chief enthusiasm is for carrying sketches to completion on the spot. He enjoys the hazards of sketching, the uncertainty of what is going to be achieved. a sketcher, he said to me, has his good days, when he comes home rejoicing, and also days when he is very glad to cover up the score. In this way also Mr. Brigden reminds me of David Cox, who would say, "I can't paint at all to-day, nature is too hard for me". Engaging modesty!
If Mr. Brigden had spent his life in England, he might possibly hav sought inspiration in its sodden skies, but his sketching stool is unfolded only in the mallow days of late summer. The low sun which sheds a glamorous light over the Canadian scene at the season, shines more rarely in the country that Cox knew. Thus gray and gold each has its champion, and the glory of each its intimate interpreter.
In the landscapes of Mr. Brigden it is always afternoon; earth flaunts her motherhood; peace and warmth and splendour assume a cosmic significance; there is no discordant note; snow loses its repellant attributes and sparkles irresistibly, suavely chromatic. They claim affection, these views of laughing water, smiling skies, and happy fields where joy forever dwells. He lavishes upon a cascade tumbling through a remote forest the same friendly spirit as upon a brook burbling through a meadow. It is as impossible for him to do otherwise as it was for the older master to depict scenes that were in any way forbidding. It is a matter of character and predilection. Only a nature lover can depict its varying aspects emotionally. "He best can paint them who shall feel them most" wrote Pope. The poet was a painter, too, and thus anticipated the modern belief that emotion is the prime motive in pictorial art.
His technique -
Mr. Brigden invariably completed a sketch at one sitting which may comprise four busy hours, and he endeavours to keep his first impression of the scene in tact. His care in determining the best possible arrangement, in fact, of impressing on his mind the final aspect of the subject in full tone and colour, before making a mark on the paper, cannot be too highly commended. Frequently he views the scene through a paper frame of the same proportion as the picture is intended to be, held at arm's length. A rectangular cut in a post-card serves the purpose. Thus he is better able to visualize and arrive at a good composition, the best possible in the circumstances, which is perfected after drawing a few tentative arrangements in his sketch book.
Now he delineates carefully the main features of the composition, with pencil, and he proceed to fill in the spaces with direct washes. He strives to avoid going over the surface more than once, but sometimes he is forced to abandon this ideal method, and to superimpose other washes. He achieves luminosity by adding pure colour as the wash is flowed on, that is, by mixing pigment on the paper. This is the dry method most suitable for out-door work, In the studio he often keeps the paper damp, but invariably finishes with the accents provided by well defined touches applied to dry paper.
Mr Brigden is a purist. He does not use Chinese white to give body to his colours, and he does not scrape, nor sponge, nor scrub, relying solely upon direct washer, or touches for his effect.
The beginner perceives much virtue in the methods of a master. His exact procedures, his palette,
and perhaps his manner of wielding a brush, are matters of supreme interest. For water-colourists, however, use the same set of pigments, as Vast is the modern range, and technique is a variable quantity. For his information, Mr. Brigden's palette, inherited from C. M. Manley, a Toronto painter, follows:-
Yellow Ochre Burnt Sienna Vermilion French Blue
Aureolin Burnt Umber Light Red Cobalt
Raw Sienna Raw Umber Rose Madder Viridian
Antwerp and Cerulean blues occasionally.
Some of Mr. Brigden"s sketches have that quality of permanence which keeps them forever in the mind. I cannot forget his renderings of the cedars in the Don Valley, by the smoothly flowing stream, in a blue haze o shadow, with the middle-distance bathed in a warm sweet light, nor his visions of cliffs and forests receding along the north shore of a placid Superior on a glamorous afternoon, or leaping rapids in a northern river, of a mighty falls flinging a humid mist of spray, like a veil, over the forest, and of young poplars and wild rose and the illimitable distances of the prairie.
By comparing Mr. Brigden with David Cox, I had in mind their similarity of outlook, and their common traits. In style, if it is proper to write of artistic affinities, Mr. Brigden might more justly be describes as a disciple of Peter De Wint. Their paintings sometimes have quite a remarkable resemblance.
Frank Carmichael -
He who thinks nature, in the narrow sense of the work, is alone to be followed, will produce but a scanty entertainment for the imagination. - Reynolds.
I had been told that, while St. Thomas Smith is the dean of aquarelles in Eastern Canada, Frank Carmichael is the strongest among the younger painters. I have been acquainted with the latter for some years. I knew what he could do with oil paints, but I never chanced to see any of his work in the less popular medium until a few days ago, when, on my urgent request, he sent me a parcel of sketches. Mr. Carmichael broke into the profession of art in his teens as a junior commercial artist, with a Toronto firm. he saved enough money to go to Europe to study, and went, but he was back in Canada in 1914. It was in 1925 that he first sketched successfully in water-colour. He camped on that occasion at Jackfish and Coldwell, on the north shore of Lake Superior. This austere remote country he has made his own in art. He was accustomed to hear the fatuous assertion that water-colour did not lend itself to the interpretation of such landscape, and for many years his experiments seemed to favour this view, which indeed explains its prevalence. It is a difficult medium. Late in life David Cox said, "There is not half the trouble with oil as with water colour. I should never touch water-colour again only for my honour and duty to the society I belong to." Cox - the master of water-colour - who took his first lessons in oil when he was fifty-six years old!
Mr Carmichael saw the tremendous possibilities of water-colour. Perhaps he was piqued by its lack of response. But he determined to master it, just to prove, as he says, that it had all the possibilities he saw in it. The interest in his pictures is always set well away from the spectator, and is never placed in the foreground. Nothing obstructs the clear view of his romantic distances, neither a screen of foliage, nor a tangle of branches near the eye. Pattern derived from such elements often is obvious, always flat, and where interest is centred in a point beyond, has little structural affinity therewith. Mr. Carmichael's lineal arrangements are homogeneous, and every form, whether solid like rock, or diaphanous like vapour, has some dynamic significance in the design. That which cannot be moulded to a considered purpose is eliminated; it ceases to exist for him. But Mr. Carmichael's attitude towards nature is not merely selective. It is directed by profound thought, interpretative, never purely representational. He manipulates form and colour in an endeavour to convey some comic truth, a truth more vital if less obvious than that the average landscape painter perceives, or, of he perceives will consider pictorially.
The liberties he takes with the various aspects of form are strictly governed by a proper regard for probability. He is a realist to that extend. His approach is devotional. The grandeur of that vast country which he paints overwhelms the imaginative soul, points his insignificance, his futility. The comprehension of its massy permanence spares only hope to save him from utter spiritual debasement. Hope has inspired artists in many ages. It provided a motive when soaring Gothic churches were built seven hundred years ago.
The essential spirit of Gothicism is rampant in Mr. Carmichael's work. It is expressed in the upward flow of lines, the subordination of all horizontal tendencies. The contours of steep mountains echo those of the pinos, those dark fingers pointing forever to the sky. the same leaning toward verticality is apparent in the hill villages he draws - in the exaggerated sharpness of the gables of all the houses. Mr. Carmichael's line is emotional; dignity, which tends to austerity at times, is achieved by other means. There is no vestige of humour or flippancy in any of his works, but often a lyric note, which with his quality of colour, goes straight to the heart, and the conviction is ever in the mind of the spectator that he can strike this not at will.
None of the chancy effects that the aquarellist is so often tempted to adapt are to be seen in his pictures; there is no evidence of adventitious aid. He paints directly, rigidly, impelled only by the thought the scene inspired. Every brushstroke contributes to the one end. No part is permitted to display beauty in itself, but only in relation to the whole. He makes it manifest that the tree owes life to the elements, the soil to the rock; that the movements of water are directed by the winds and the configuration of the earth. The unity in these designs expresses universal interdependence, a Guiding Hand. Mr. Carmichael is fluent in expression; his themes are new and worthy; he has found a brooding beauty in nature, deeply moving and hitherto obscure.
As a true creative artist, with a new philosophy, and the ability to expound it, he has always condemned servile dependence upon tradition. He recognises the futility of viewing nature through the eyes of others, and the stupidity of honouring conventions established in the past during periods of artistic stagnation. Such faults, unfortunately, are common to painters; few are free. Cotman tried to imitate his more popular contemporaries for economic reasons, but his genius was always too much for him.
Mr. Carmichael has unconsciously developed the idea of pattern, first explored by Cotman. He has added depth, pulsating rhythm, to design, and a realization of solidity to form: All unknown in Cotman's day, but a strong feature in modern art. These qualities will be rejected presently as traditional, I suppose, but inasmuch as it became possible for us to perceive them by virtue of the vision of older masters, so will they help to determine fuller further expression in art.
The beliefs and practices that have come down to us throughout the ages, and the pictures of former years, which together constitute tradition, cannot be dismissed as useless or obnoxious. They are the foundations on which we build, and the measure for progress. That no painter can avoid using the achievements of his ancestors in art, is self-evident. Artists at all periods have deceived themselves by thinking they were adopting a child's vision, an unaffected outlook upon life and nature that should free the hand and eye from the shackles of tradition, but they have been the most sophisticated of all artists.
Mr. Carmichael has gone back to nature with a mind equipped with knowledge, a clear eye, and an artful brush. He has not attempted to demolish and rebuild the old foundations, nor has he striven to lay the courses on another on the same old plan. He has added to the structure; he has erected an impressive edifice on the old foundation.
Mr. Carmichael has lived and worked in Ontario all his life, save for the one short excursion to Europe. He has a strong affection for his country, and a great faith in its future in art. Not rabidly national, he believes that art is the expression of that inner life developed through constant contact with everything around us.
The demand for national art, national music, national literature, seems to me unreasonable. Chauvinism cannot well be expressed in art, which is an international language if ever there was one. There are, however, certain minor facts sometimes evident in painting, that serve to determine the nationality of the subject, for they relate solely to subject. In landscape the facts are geographic. The relation of race to art, and of geography to race, is a matter for the ethnologist. Many modern critics insist that racial characteristics have their influence in art and may be recognised. You have your choices.
Mr. Carmichael confesses that, while he may have his head in the clouds, his feet are firmly planted in his own native soil, and unconsciously and inevitably he expresses it. Most landscape painters have been cosmopolitan, however, and love of country, in a political sense, and love of art, seem not to be synonymous. Reynolds wrote, "The painter must divest himself of all prejudices in favour of his age or his country."
The Canadian painter is especially fortunate. He may be true to his country, in that he never paints outside her borders, yetr, though his taste in landscape may be absurdly capricious, he may find somewhere or other just what he wants. Mr. Carmichael's interest never has been diverted from the Canadian scene, though I do not believe he has painted on the east coast or the Pacific, where the atmosphere is humid. It is the clear air of the interior that he loves.
Every year he goes back to the pine country with an enthusiasm whetted by months of hard labour in the field of commercial art. If the weather is unfavourable, his sketching holiday is ruined, and I venture to say that Canadian art suffers too. Canada is too busy to realize fully the value of art, and of her artists, or she might make it possible for such as Mr. Carmichael to paint uninterruptedly. This, however, is a situation that will improve with time and is an unprofitable topic for discussion.
Mr Carmichael's whole energy as a painter is given to the clear expression fo the emotion inspired by an effect in nature - the most direct means, the simplest statement suffices. His is an unobtrusive technique. He avoids any formalized method of handling water-colour; he despises tricks; he inclines to the opinion that a picture is not judged great by the manner in which it is painted as much as by the emotional motive that prompted its painting. Nevertheless he is a sound craftsman.\\He has no pet colours, finding "the same value and usefulness in any and every colour, so long as it works freely, and is permanent." He does not use gouache, preferring to remove superfluous colour with a brush and clean water, for, as he justly observes, transparent colour becomes part of the paper, and gouache always lies on top, and seems foreign to the character of the rest. With further reference to this matter, he writes, "If washing is carried through consistently, from top to bottom, in its turn it becomes a treatment just as much as clean hard wash, also, I am seeking a fuller realization of form and space than is generally sought in water-colour. Perhaps I am trying to push the medium too far, but I find washing brings me closer to the consummation of my aims than direct work."
Whilst sketching, Mr. Carmichael works as directly as possible on dry white paper, beginning at the top, and working straight down to the bottom, striving to obtain the desired effect as speedily as possible. but the medium is difficult, and man is frail. Like every other water-colourist he has found that direct, undisturbed washers of pigment sometimes need strengthening or reducing.
The sketch is begun by making a very careful outline with a black carbon pencil. This is an important matter, and one which I have neglected consistently, relying on a faint brush line fixing only the position of the chief masses. A bold outline, carefully drawn constitutes an immediate record of the scene, which the addition of colour and tone merely elaborates. The sketch is eloquent at every stage. A black line moreover, whether drawn with canyon or pen, lends palpable substance to the form it embraces, and that can be achieved as easily in no other way. It relieves the painter of the necessity of envisaging the shape of every wash, and thus permits undivided attention to the broader aspects of landscape.
The luminosity of Mr. Carmichael's sketches is enhanced by specks of white peper left between brush-strokes in the hurry op painting. speed is essential to the sketcher. Effects are fugitive, the glory of a moment only. They never recur.
A preliminary wash all over the paper is not a device that commands itself to Mr. Carmichael. he has adopted it, and he watched his effects vanish whilst waiting for the wash to dry enough for him to proceed. Russell Flint used to carry a spirit-lamp to hasten the drying of big washes, but that was in England, or Scotland.
The dry method enables Mr. Carmichael to go over his subject completely, then to go back, and embellish or correct without undue waste of time. His indoor practice is much the same. Naturally he gives more thought to arrangement, and further clarified the underlying idea. His washes are a trifle more expressive than in the sketch. They are merged where necessary, and terminated sharply where a definite edge is desired. They indicate the same ideal of directness and comprehension, but how may be described as a nebula out of which forms are developed, both as solids, and solids in space. To attain this result sometimes involves repeated washing out and repainting.
Mr. Carmichael's very interesting and informative letter, from which I have quoted, ends plaintively, in the true spirit of water-colour. Indoor painting with him, as with all of us, is a matter of sustained effort, of failure and fresh effort, depression and elation. The practice of water-colour has a chastening influence.