Online Art Student Book
DRAWING AS A PREPARATION FOR PAINTING.
"MAKE a careful drawing before commencing to colour," is a maxim art students hear very often, yet in spite of it (or because of it ?) the advice does not always .or often ensure success. It may be conceded, ,nay demanded, that the study of colour by painting must be guarded by careful search after form, without which colour can hardly be said to exist, and it will be well to -discuss what constitutes a useful preparation for painting. The difficulty which confronts a student is that for this groundwork, he must, as a rule, use an implement other than the brush, thus dividing the work into two stages, first a drawing made with a point, then a painting with a brush. With charcoal or pencil one is seduced into doing the sort of work characteristic of the implement. Assuming the exercise to be a portrait in oil, a more or less complete expression of the model is often made with charcoal, pencil, or chalk, outlines of features, etc., being firmly drawn, outlines which one is dismayed to find, disappear under the first broad strokes of the brush, or if one firmly resolves to keep within one's wedges, the paint shows hard and meagre at the edges, and, on the canvas being held up to the light, the con-tours appear as haloes surrounding the forms, indicating an absence of paint, and consequently a poor way of painting, a wretched technique.
Fig. 39--A " lay in " of an oil study with the charcoal sketch establishing the general line and chief planes.
Fig 40 -- A costume study in water-colour. In the dark hair etc., the line forms the boundary and is lost in the tone, but the lines of the light collar, hands and feet, are drawn outside the form, being absorbed by the adjacent darker tones.
Now it is precisely along those contours that much of the work lies. Here are the "passages" of colour, where tone and colour change or pass across. The student should weld his edges, here melting into a broad envelopment, there being brought sharply together. In the Venus of Velasquez as already mentioned, the contours of cheek and shoulder are blurred, whereas in passages round the knees the edges are well defined, because these areas are more sharply focused.
Therefore, if the student is interested in the painting of his edges, it will be seen that a preparatory drawing in another medium may be a positive hindrance. Further, if he concentrates too early on the details, his planes will suffer. Whether the painting is to be finished "au premier," or in successive stages matters not, the fact remains that a detailed initial drawing of the forms is worse than useless. Nothing written here, however, must be seized upon as an excuse for haste or carelessness; the placing made with charcoal should be carefully considered, and the strokes dusted out if need be, until lines significant of the planes, and showing the general direction of the forms and their proportion one to another have been settled. This is not easy if the student, as is often the case, is gloating over the "portrait," which should be achieved, however, by right method and not consist in tips for securing likeness. Especially should the torse be considered. It is in working out these broad planes that the student really learns to paint : for, with the background, they afford ample space wherein to wield the brush. The planes, of course, are to be seen in the head also, but they are smaller and more complicated. Unfortunately, students are not seldom so preoccupied with the portrait that the torse receives but a small share of attention. It is perhaps the desire to make a portrait rather than to learn to paint that brings about the distressing medley of colours on face and body often seen on the beginner's canvas. Colour, instead of being united, is isolated, in spots of many hues, unrelated, like a patchwork quilt. But the study of colour, like that of drawing, should concern itself first with the big facts. The novice fails to see that every person has a complexion varying in each individual case, and showing not only in the face, but in the hands and throughout the body. Whatever variations are made in local colour should be carefully considered in relation to this general hue. Hence the value of painting from the human figure, giving as it does practice in generalizations in regard to colour, and in looking at colour in the mass, just as in drawing, it demands search for main directions and chief planes to which the detail should be subordinated.
When a study for oil painting is being prepared, charcoal should first be used to search out the composition, the relations of the masses and the directions of the forms, all details being disregarded. (FIG. 39). This can then be lightly dusted off, so as to leave no extraneous matter on the canvas, and a brush dipped in umber and rubbed on the palette until nearly dry, may be employed to fix the main forms, and carry the preparation a stage further. The brush should be dragged over the surface so as not to fill up the tooth of the canvas with paint. This broad edge suggests envelopment and discourages tight painting. If desired, a clean brush dipped in turpentine may be used to sharpen the contour where contrast is required. That is, the whole of the passages may be studied in line before painting begins.
It is however in water colour that the evil effects of a bad preparation are most clearly seen. The drawing is done according to tradition with the lead pencil, the seductive influence of which leads the student to make a study complete in itself, the addition of colour resulting in a muddled and inartistic performance. This confusion comes from making a sharp distinction between drawing and painting, as earlier it has been seen to be made between drawing and shading. But whereas oil painting is painting, it is better to consider water colour as drawing, especially when used transparently on a white surface, a method which should be practised by every student before attempting gouache or mixed methods. All judges speak of water colour drawings, and in the early artists' colourman's catalogue, the water colour brush is referred to as a "pencil," a name which it would be useful to resuscitate, for beginners seem to regard a brush as an implement for spreading or flooding colour, ignoring its chief merit and one which its makers show most care in obtaining, a flexible point surpassing even the pen in incisiveness and fluency. It may be noted here that while in the west, one or two brushes, all of the same shape are generally considered sufficient equipment by the student of water-colour, in Japan brushes are made specially for certain effects, wide flat brushes for broad washes, long pointed ones for drawing and writing, etc., so that the outfit comprises many brushes.
It might be mentioned, also, that students are often the proud owners of brushes that while effective once have long outworn their usefulness. A watercolour brush, the point of which has disappeared, can only be used for rough work. For successful drawing, a student must periodically add to his stock of brushes.
The Japanese painter does no preliminary sketching. He at once makes his drawing, and backs it up with washes of colour. The western student, aiming at other results feels the necessity for a more tentative method, and certainly, if the caution that he is throughout making a drawing in colour be insisted on, there is no reason why the pencil preparation should betray a lack of unity with the following stage in colour. And as it is to be a drawing done in transparent colour, directly and without rubbing or washing out, there is need for this preparation to be more intimate and complete than in the case of the oil study.
But students, ever anxious to indulge their taste in colour, are prone to slur over this preparation. They have a notion that the strokes of the brush need not show, forgetting that every time it is laid upon the paper it makes a mark of definite shape, whether dark or light. The most frequent cases of insufficient preparation occur in outdoor landscape composition, where the boundaries of the forms are hastily sketched without regard to their structure or their edge contrasts. In such study the students are faced with a fresh complication. In their studio work, from the figure or still life, the comparative simplicity of the forms has allowed of a fairly complete rendering. But out-of-doors there are numberless small shapes which, though merging into larger ones, yet distract the eye by their multitude and complexity. The multitudinous forms, such as blades of grass, leaves of trees, cloud forms, etc., present a real difficulty to the beginner. Often he solves the problem in a utilitarian and inartistic fashion by stroking, spotting or dashing irregular splashes on the paper to imitate this apparent irregularity, and in the process loses the orderliness, the series, the radiating arrangements of leaves and branches.
Here an insistence on a right preparation may save the student from falling too low in the artistic scale. He can be shown that the more complex the subject the more necessary is it to search out the significant forms, that likeness must be got through choice and not through dashing the brush on the paper in the hope of securing happy shapes, and that everything that is to be coloured should first be plotted out. Some of Turner's unfinished drawings should be examined from this point of view. Such importance did lie attach to a good preparation, and so sure was his colour sense, that he not seldom made his drawing in pencil, giving all the time to this stage, and coloured it when away from the subject. Close scrutiny shows that his lines really prepare for the colouring ; the work is not a drawing painted over.
In beginners' work one often finds pencilling which is of no use to the colouring, but rather a hindrance; features, hands, etc., are sketched in carelessly and with a profusion of strokes that takes no count of the subtlety of the brush point and its power of definition. Shading especially is out of court, leading, as it does, to dirty colour.
On the other hand, all should be carefully drawn, as for instance the space for two hands clasped in the lap of a female sitter. (FIG. 4o.) Every portion of the composition should be prepared, the main masses and their relations, the directions of forms, while the position of details, such as the features, should be indicated without being completed in terms of a pencil. Such preparation strengthens the composition, gives emphasis to the connecting lines, and finally gives the brush full play in its charming power of elaborating detail.
The pencil work, of course, may be carried very far so long as it does not interfere with the right function of the brush.
A simple exercise would be a still life group (FIG. 41), and it may be noted here that a subject which suits oil painting, revelling as it does in rich dark colour, is quite unsuitable for water colour if its quality and charm are to be considered. That is to say, if the student is to be given opportunity of studying his medium, in this case water colour, the, masses should approach lighter tone rather than darker. Rich, glowing hues in water colours are only possible if the study is kept small in scale.
Finally, the contour of the dark area should be drawn within, that of the light, outside the form.
Fig. 41--A watercolour study of still life with a pencil preparation. The pencil lines are emphatic where strong passages occur, but are lighter or even disappear according to the degree of envelopment of the edge. The pencilling is not a drawing, but a preparation.
Fig 42. -- A drawing by Holbein. [Windsor Castle].
HITHERTO drawing has been treated as based on appearance. "Is it like ?" has been the test, though always accompanied by the proviso that selection must be the student's aim. To draw everything the eye can discern is impossible, and it has been shown that the beginner's mass of unselected detail reveals his low level of artistic outlook. Though truth to nature has been insisted on in so far as the planes of the figure, and indeed, the beauty of its pose are revealed by light and dark, yet constantly in these pages the student has been cautioned that absolute fidelity to nature is impossible, and that any attempt in that direction leads only to a pseudo-photographic presentment essentially vulgar and inartistic. But if it be assumed that the student has some control over his vision, that he can face his subject calmly and set down with some precision his selected facts, the time has now come for him to see that this is only the beginning, that the practical convention of the particular form of art he has chosen will compel him still further to select and co-ordinate his facts in harmony with the necessary simplifications which his art demands, whether it be painting, engraving, mural decoration or illustration.
Of course drawing may be an end in itself. The portrait drawings of Ingres show that. One might have added those of Holbein, but for the fact that these were made as studies for portraits. Here is a typical instance of what is meant by convention. Holbein, following the custom of his day, and a very good one, understood it to be his business to master the forms of his portrait, especially the features of the face. Whether he intended to transfer them to the canvas is a secondary matter. He certainly drew as if he did. What he wanted was the actual limiting lines of his subject's features--all including the construction of the planes was subordinate to that, and in consequence, while drawing these boundaries with the most scrupulous care, he ignored in a great measure, and necessarily so, the give and take of the lighting, the envelopment, the forward and backward movement of the edges. Thus in the drawing of Sir Elliott Knight (FIG. 42) the nose is drawn with a firm line throughout, though it is certain that under the general condition of lighting that part of the nose seen against the cheek would not in actual vision supply so strong and accented a line. But Holbein wanted to be sure of his form, and without conscious intention on his part, his convention created itself. Within these limits what delicacy and subtlety of vision can be discerned ! Almost it seems as if the restrictions under which he worked enabled him to see and represent with a maximum of refinement. If the line between the closed lips for instance be examined, it will be seen how it varies, how unlike it is to the hard wire-like one might ignorantly assume would suffice for Holbein's purpose. It varies throughout its length, s6ftening here, tightening there, showing that far from drawing it as a mere line, Holbein searched out the form of the line above, below, and especially the two ends of it. One might examine all his forms, with a like result. It seems ungracious after this to point out that Holbein is uncertain sometimes of the alignment of his features, that he occasionally places the eyes too high, and that he frequently makes the further eye too large, while noting however its distinctive forms.
Starting then from Holbein's method we might assume a priori that each form of art demands its own convention of drawing, which has linked with it a dependent grace and beauty. The sketches of Alfred Stevens have already been referred to as examples of drawings made for a definite end. They are mainly studies for sculpture, and in them are seen the master's efforts to attain his ideal. He demanded the highest degree of plasticity, drawing his figures with solidity and weight, for they were to be translated into stone or bronze. He ignored the accidentals of light and shade, and rough hewed his figures with broad strokes indicating the actual structure, much as a biologist cuts up his tiny bone into a number of sections, or a geographer constructs a relief map by contour lines. (FIGS. 61, 62).
More important still to Stevens was the movement of his figures. Here the meticulous exactness of Holbein's forms is replaced by a rain of lines, one might say scribbled in, but always with the aim of securing the utmost freedom of movement and poise. He moved the lines, say, of the back twice or thrice, he drew an arm in several positions. In a word the master used drawing for his own artistic purpose, made of it a tool to express his ideals.
Each form of pictorial representation in turn could be taken and shown to demand from drawing a convention suited to its needs. The etcher seizes on the great planes of his subject ; he makes use of force to hold his foreground forms near the eye, but with the tenderest delicacy his distances float away from it. FIG. 43 shows that the drawings have been made by an etcher; without the sub-conscious prompting of the acid bath it is not likely that the force of the darks and the delicacy of the more distant parts would have been rendered so directly.
Similarly FIG. 44 a study for an etching shows clearly that it has been made with the resources of the craft always in view. The great sign and foreground darks dominate the composition, while the background is kept tender and quiet, as would happen were it lightly bitten on a plate. But more than this, there is the knowledge of the limitations of etching, that it is a convention and not an imitative process, that it depends on variety of line and shape, hence an insistence on these. Every window in the background has its individual treatment : no two are alike ; also many parts are worked to a closer degree of finish than the etching was intended to display, for it is impossible to put the whole of a drawing into an etching; one must have more than one can use in needling the plate from a drawing.
FIG. 43--Drawings in lead pencil on smooth paper. The sharp accents of dark under the eaves, around the chimneys and elsewhere, are the promptings of a vision influenced by the convention of etching. The character and direction of the lines also show this.
Fig 44. -- A drawing in lead pencil and black chalk on cream-coloured wrapping paper.
The history of illustration in black and white provides further examples of convention. The illustrators of the early sixties, who had succeeded in throwing off the thraldom of the engraver with his cross hatching tools, mechanical aids and ruled lines, though insisting on their work being followed in facsimile, yet found a convention necessary, one with freedom though still based on that of Bewick, and one that followed more or less closely what has been set forth in these pages, that form is expressed in light areas by darks, and in dark areas by lights. In the dark areas they used the white line in the way we associate with Bewick. But in the light areas they emphasized their forms clearly with the black line. Examples of these illustrations may be seen in old volumes of the "Cornhill," "Once a Week," "Good Words," etc.
Phil May, who built up his own convention by elimination, sometimes omitted the line of the white collar. It might be said that this was a retrograde step, for the omission suggested an objective vision which contrasted oddly with the rest of his very abstract convention. But he perhaps considered it as a joke, or more probably it assisted in giving that looseness and freedom which he desired.
His work is rather misleading to young students who think that they can do easily the same sort of thing, but his method as disclosed by his friends and himself is another example of the strenuous drawing necessary to the convention he employed. He really drew most minutely and carefully ; then went over the drawing with his fat line, omitting details, or redrew from memory. A friend told the writer of a policeman posing in May's studio. The artist made drawing after drawing till the floor was littered, then, the sitter paid and gone, another drawing was made embodying the character as learned in making the previous sketches. The two methods employed both led to the same result, insistence on character by quality of line and omission of superfluous detail.
If the subject be that of mural painting, which preserves the flatness of the wall by the absence of concentrated composition, or of violent colour and forcible lights and darks, a convention of representation must be followed which harmonizes the above conditions. One naturally turns to the Italian traditional practice of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There the technique of buon fresco, the only method of painting without vehicle other than water, on fresh or damp plaster necessitated a clearly defined contour. The work had to proceed with some speed, for in a short time the plaster dried, rendering further progress in the same manner impossible. Thus the conditions militated against realistic work in light and shade even if such had been understood in those times. The outline cartoon was traced on the still soft plaster, and the colouring proceeded without delay.
Unfortunately the climate of our great cities has been declared unsuited to this simple and beautiful technique, although Mrs. Sargant Florence asserts that it stands the ordinary weather conditions of this country very well indeed. She points out that pure fresco flourished in districts with a high rainfall. Her own frescoes at Oakham and elsewhere have stood the test of this climate satisfactorily. The influence of fresco has been felt by succeeding styles of mural painting, although for a time the craft wandered in the dangerous paths of realism.
Mural painting then may be taken as the type of a number of crafts where drawing is viewed without insistence on light or shade, or rather the emphasis is laid on the line and structure, the accidents of light being ignored. Moody's interesting chart of the styles of painting should be consulted in this connexion. In this he shows that the lights and darks, sparkling but spotty, of the imitative Dutch panel pictures contrast with the broad simple shadows melting into the light, of the Florentine frescoes.
This supplies the clue to drawing practice in the life class. While students are studying the principles on which the representation by appearance is based, it is well to make the problem as simple as possible, avoiding complications of lighting. These arrangements have been noted earlier. The lights should be kept strictly in one direction and limited in area, so that the planes are clearly separated by light and dark.
But the advanced student should prepare to study the figure under less restricted conditions. The light should be expanded so that it envelops the figure, reduces the strength of the dark planes, and eliminates small spotty darks, while the contour becomes more completely visible, this being assisted by varying the background, making it lighter than the bulk of the light areas of the figure, or darker than the masses of dark. In the early Florentine frescoes, the backgrounds are generally light in tone, while the backgrounds of the frescoes of Pompeii are dark in tone or rich in colour, the forms telling light against them.
Under such conditions the student will be constrained to adopt to some extent a linear convention. The light and shade are still there but reduced in intensity, and subordinated to the contour. But it should be understood that structure and movement are more important than ever, for on them success will mainly depend.
It is needless to investigate the conventions of other forms of plastic art in order to see what part drawing plays ; the heedful student will do that for himself. But ever as he advances in the study of drawing, he is conscious of new complexities ; the better he draws the more conscious will he be of his limitations and his inability to achieve what he desires, and it is well, for one who draws with facility and ease is on the downward path of mannerism and stereotyped form.