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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fesole Club Papers (painting foregrounds)

by W. G. Collingwood
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 361-365

VI.—Greenbank House

Foreground is a part of the picture for which the sketching amateur usually finds it convenient to have no time. Few people have the resolution to omit it altogether; and yet few paint it with any care or thoroughness. They hold their theories, alleging optical laws or practical requirements, and quoting Modern Painters* or any other authority. At the same time, foreground studies may become the most beautiful of frameable sheets; and the wealth of the wayside—well, a teacher is not expected to make phrases about gold, or puns about banks.

It is quite true, nevertheless, that the account at these banks can never be overdrawn. Little children, whose lives are spent chiefly in rambling along country lanes after the perambulator, people the gaps in the walls and shelving recesses in the steep roadsides with fairy playmates in imaginary homes. They see things in the close foreground which the rest of us pass unnoticed. Especially is there a place I know where you step across the little ditch or gutter upon a bit of flagstone which stands for a front door (as part, in all mythology, symbolises the whole); and there is an appearance as of going upstairs in the turf; and upon the stairway there open little flat places, enough for a child to creep into, beneath the level under-branches of a nut-tree, so that you have the semblance of a tenement of several storeys—sitting rooms, and bedrooms, and a comparatively spacious nursery on the top floor, with its one window well barred by the twigs of sapling oak bushes; and its back wall is the road wall, of course. This is Greenbank House. No fairies live there, but an ideal family—the MacCarthys. The origin of the name is lost. Mrs. MacCarthy is a capable woman, the protagonist of the play; for the father of the family spends his time in nothing better than painting and writing for the Parents' Review; or it is "Oh, he is gone to get money out of the bank." Vinsula, the eldest girl, is always getting married; Katie is the scapegrace and scapegoat, a bad example to her (real) friends, teaching them mischief and mispronunciation; the infant Samuel is a mere pet. But there are no such wall-papers as those of Mrs. MacCarthy, patterned with lichen on the purple rock, and robin-run-in-the-hedge; no such carpets, changed through all the varying year—violets and primroses after the first spring cleaning, ferns in the fireplaces for summer, and, in the winter, a drugget of russet leaves among the wilted grass more beautiful than a Turkey carpet.

There are other houses in Roadside Town. There is Low Wall School, where you sit and study the cup-mosses; and Rock House, which boasts a solid stone staircase; and Heather House, where Prudence and Charity live; and abbeys with sculptured "Prentices' Pillars," imagined out of writhing ivy-stems around old trees. But month after month and year after year these haunts are tenanted by creatures of fancy, little scenes which carriage-folk whirl past in a cloud of dust, and sketchers of landscape slur in the corner of their drawing-blocks, with a blot or two of raw sienna and a few zigzags of brown madder.

You know Durer's drawing, or the autotype of it, representing a bunch of grasses, in Froschperspectiv, from a frog's point of view? [here?] How much we miss from losing the child's point of view!

They say poets never grow up; "they lie in Abraham's bosom all the year"; they are ever youthful Olympians. And we, too, may recover childhood if we can throw off ambitions worldly and artistic, and go quietly and confidently to nature. There are few things that can make you happier than the peaceful study of a bit of wild wayside, if you can care enough for it to forget yourself in it, not thinking of the fine picture Mr. Ego is going to make, nor the cleverness of his execution, nor the knowledge he has, or wants to get, through scientific analysis of it, but just of itself, as it is given to your eyes. To look at it is something, but its spirit will not come at once; you must look long enough, with a child's forgetfulness of time. Gazing for long, though, becomes tedious; you begin to think of the dinner-hour. But to draw it is to caress it; all the difference between staring at a kitten and stroking it; between watching a game and playing it. That is why it is worth learning to draw.

Now most would-be painters are soon tired of their work. They do not know that they are careless, but they don't care enough to go on until they see all that there is to be seen, and feel all there is to be felt—something more than a few clever blots represent. Indeed, the Blottesque style is hardly conceivable as adequate portraiture of anything you love. Paint your best friend in that manner, for an example! I believe we love trees and mountains, springs and flowers, better than the ancients who deified them; but there are still people whose portrait of Greenbank House would be a blottesque libel, for the sole reason that they are, in this matter, a sort of egoists—they think more of their skill than of their subject.

You need not look far in any country or in any garden to find a Greenbank House for yourself, or a Shrub Cottage, or a Rockery Castle. Study such a bit of foreground, the first you find; the only advice I offer is, let it be a little bit. Give yourself time. Take a sitting to outline all that can be outlined, and then, on successive days, paint it piece by piece. But don't work all day long at the one subject; the light changes, and your sight changes, by day-long poring on the intricate page. An hour is too short a time; two hours allow you enough to get into the spirit of the thing, without losing spirit in fatigue.

The chief difficulty will be in the complexity of the detail; but this is a difficulty which vanishes when the outline has been firmly drawn. You remember that the outline means the contour of anything. Whatever has a shape has an outline; it may be soft or sharp, but it has a limit beyond which it does not reach, and up to which it does. Outline does not mean texture—ribs of leaves, fibres of bark, and so on; so that it is really a simpler thing than it seems at first.

When the outline is settled, pen it in with an even, fine, firm line everywhere, and then paint every mass so mapped and enclosed. You mix and match the tint of each little piece to its full depth. You lay it on, and while it is wet—not very wet—take out the lights with a clean brush that has been dipped in water and dried with the paint-rag. They say you must not suck your brushes; so, don't, if you can help it. With many of us it is a survival of infancy, but though poets are childlike, all such survivals are not necessary to the poetic habit.

This modelling of every little mass of colour, by taking out the lights, and (if necessary) reinforcing the darks, is the great safeguard against the blottesque manner. The blotter leaves his mass unmodulated; nature never does. The blotter's lights are crude gaps of light paper or under-tint; nature is infinite in gradation. The blotter's work is the same all over; nature is full of variety in texture and quality.

Also it is a safeguard against heaviness and overwork. When you touch and retouch, unless you are an accomplished painter, the colour becomes opaque and black. When you rub out it becomes woolly or gritty, and loses its luminousness. But when you make up your mind, by outlining exactly what the shape is to be, and by matching the colour and tone, what the tint is to be, you are fulfilling the standard maxim to "know what you have to do, and do it." That is true boldness, freshness, decision. It is wholly removed from slapdash. And the finish so obtained is truer and more refined than the most elaborate stippling.

This way of work makes you think, too. It does not allow you to put down things at haphazard, hoping to correct them; to paint coarsely, intending, at a more convenient season, to refine your work; to handle timidly, expecting to add force at the finish. You must look first until you see where you are to alight, and then take your leap pluckily. You must give all your attention to the single thing you are doing, and absolutely refuse the temptation to be scatterbrained.

Hitherto, the studies have been simple, and kept to subjects which could not always make pretty pictures. In future, by a natural progression, they must be planned to give more scope to the learner's own abilities. This of foreground, for instance, can be made as simple as you choose, by picking out an easy bit—something distinct and definite for the principal and central object—say, a few wild strawberry or dock leaves and stones; or it may be made more difficult by taking complicated subjects like grass and ferns and wild geranium, or extensive banks seen through thin boughs of nearer bushes. It may be made pretty nearly impossible by trying to do a gooseberry bush on the other side of a horizontal box-edging. But it leaves great scope for students of various powers. And as some new members intend joining us at the beginning of a new half-year, for their benefit, and to jog the memories of a forgetful minority of elder members, I think no shame to have restated the old laws of Fesole and of the Fesole Club—the necessity to a student of severe outline, of matched tints, and of modelled colour-masses. By-and-by, all the sooner for subservience to strict training, you will be accomplished craftsmen, and able to handle your tools in your own fashion.

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These last sentences are left standing to show that there was still difficulty in getting some pupils to venture on firm drawing and fresh colouring, though many actually read and followed the direction in the articles; also to show that this outline and wash style was always regarded as a method for beginners, not an ideal style of high art, but something from which they could rise higher as their powers developed. In many cases, where pupils learn from successful and accomplished artists, the chief thing they learn is their master's style; and the end of their learning is to make imitations of his pictures. In this case, the aim was to prevent anything of the kind, and to force the learner to look for himself at realities.

The view out of the window admitted no foreground; this study of foreground, if it has any peep of distance beyond, will still be mainly foreground, and either way an interesting picture may result. But for the sketcher's own satisfaction and success it is wise to remember that either the foreground or the distance ought to be the principal subject, as set forth in article No. IV. This does not mean that either foreground or distance should be coarsely and badly painted, but that the chief interest should be in one or the other.

If the distance is the principal subject, don't choose a point of view where an ugly wall or railing runs horizontally across the front of the picture. Get off the main road when you sketch, however beautiful the distant scene may be; and if you have not time to work out the foreground carefully, leave it as a vignette rather than spoil the picture with hurried and violent dark daubs.

If the foreground is principal, remember that the distance is known in a picture to be distant by aerial perspective, which means that the darks are bluish and the lights yellowish or reddish, and everything tender and delicate. In a foreground, out of sunshine, darks are warm in colour, lights are cool (i.e., grey or bluish).

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* Vol. I., Part II., Sec. II., chap. iv., § 6 (vol. I., p. 185 in the 1888 edition). Mr. Ruskin praises the slightness and mystery of Copley Fielding's foregrounds, carefully, however, limiting his remarks in a note.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008