The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fésole Club Papers

by W.G. Collingwood
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 184

[William Gershom Collingwood, 1854-1932, was an artist in the Lake District. He spent part of his life as John Ruskin's assistant, and became a family friend of Arthur Ransome, "who based his book Swallows and Amazons on his experiences of sailing with the Collingwoods' grandchildren" in Collingwood's boat, called Swallow. He loved Viking/Norse culture.]

III.--Flower Studies in the Fresco School

The leaves have not yet come upon the trees, and we must wait a while before proceeding with our studies of foliage. But we can lead up to them, and prepare ourselves for them, by some careful watching of the smaller and simpler kinds of plant-life, grass, and herbage, and the wild flowers of this month of May: of which the easiest to get, and to keep, and to paint, is--on the whole--the primrose. Daisies shut their eyes just when we are trying to get the drawing of them right, like sleepy sitters; and wood anemones are very weariable models. Celandines, for all their sentimental interest, as "heralds of the mighty band," are but indifferently beautiful when looked at individually; they have none of the refinement of our other wild flowers, whereas violets--who can paint them? But any small, ground-growing flower fill do for this month's study, provided only that you get it with the ground it grows on.

In town, you can buy a primrose-root for a few pence at a greengrocer's in a back street; in any part of the country you can dig one up in your garden, or by the wayside. Then set it in a shallow box about a foot square, or in a little tray or dish, along with such tufts of moss, weed, and grass as grow around it naturally; bits of stone also, if you like, to fill out the box and imitate a real bank. The best thing of all would be to cut a turf, without disturbing its accidents of dead leaves and tangled shoots--"All March begun with, April's endeavor"--and transfer that as it stands into your tray. But if that is impossible, something pretty may still be done in the way of Lilliputian landscape-gardening.

You will now have a bit of Nature brought indoors. No wet days, no wind and wintry weather, can prevent your quiet study. The roots can be watered, and they will keep fresh as long as they are needed. In that alone they have a great advantage over a cut posy, which droops or withers only too soon. And a cut posy is not quite natural. Our object in this lesson is to observe and note down in the frankest manner the radiating lines of growth, the springing curves of life, the way the plant comes out of the earth, and the poise of the flower upon its stalk; but all this is lost when flowers are picked and put in water. More than that, we may reasonably expect a charm and an interest in Nature's own arrangement of her decorative objects; in her harmonious composition of differently shaped and variously tinted leaves; in her economy of exciting colour,--for flowers do not grow in bouquets, but in constellations. These traits of character and turns of behavior are family secrets among flowers, revealed only to their friends: and you know them well only when you know them at home.

This portable garden, then, can be set up (as you set the lemon) on a cabinet or shelf, or on a pile of books or boxes, whose top is not less than three feet from the floor. On this the box can be propped so that it slopes a little towards you, as if it were part of the surface of a wayside bank, just below the level of your eye as you sit and work. It should be ten or twelve feet distant from you; for you want to see it as a whole, not poring into its minor details as if you wanted to make a botanical diagram of the pattern on its wrinkled leaves; but getting the true proportionate relations of light and dark colour, and the broad modulations of undulating surface. And when you come to paint, do not get up every now and again to peep into the obscure or tangled parts; sit still in your place, and if anything looks obscure, paint it obscure; if you see no detail, do not try to put any detail. For you will see what you would not see if you had the primrose on the table beside you--the spring of the lines, and the gradation of the surfaces of the leaves, and the tender softness of the petals, not cut up by any hard marks and violent, exaggerated modeling. In a word, you put yourself at the point of view of one of the early Italian fresco-painters, who gave truth without pettiness, and breadth without emptiness; and you abandon the point of view of the vulgar still-life painters--the painters of flies on cast-iron books and dewdrops on waxy lilies. The difference between these two standpoints is the distance of the highest from the lowest art.

But before you begin to paint, measure one of the nearest and most important flowers, so that you draw it strictly life-size; and then pencil down the subject without further measurement, which would only mislead you, since the whole thing is in perspective owing to the slope of the box, and the fact that some of the plants come in front of the others, not to mention the foreshortening of the leaves themselves. So one measurement, the breadth of one flower, will be enough to fix the scale of your drawing. Outline that flower in the middle of your paper, add the rest around it, in due proportion and position, so that the whole picture, which should be about the size of the Parents' Review, is filled up with flowers, leaves, and stones, without showing either box or background. You will see that there is the making of a beautiful picture there--a window, at any rate, over a garden of fadeless blooms--if you have put a real bit of Nature into your box, and painted it with intelligence and care. No "talent" need be bespoken for this kind of work; some experience is wanted, but that you will soon get if you try again after failing with your first attempt. Every drawing should take neither less nor more than three sittings on three consecutive days. You will have three weeks for your experiments, from the beginning of May till the 21st, when the drawings should be sent in (to the writer, at Gillhead, Windermere).

When the shapes have been settled with pencil outlines, get someone to criticize, remembering that it is always possible, even in the study of art, to make a mistake. A fresh eye--that is, anyone except the student--may discover mistakes that escaped the fatigued and accustomed eye. At this stage of the proceeding it costs little to make an alteration. Later on, you may have to throw your drawing away in disgust at finding how the beauty of the subject depends on the right size of each space of colour, and its right position--two conditions which require an accurate outline. So spare no trouble to get the spaces rightly planned out, or "placed" in relation to one another; and then stop, for that will be enough at one sitting. Put the work away till next day; not, however, till next week, or you may find that your garden has grown, and grown quite contrary.

At the next sitting take a fine pen; rub some Indian ink on a plate with a few drops of water, and put the wet paint into your pen with a brush, as there will not be enough to dip the pen into. If you have no Indian ink, lampblack will do; but writing-ink (though that can be used by the skillful) is apt to spread when it is wetted with the subsequent painting, and so to thicken the lines which ought to be fine and delicate. Then, after rubbing the drawing light with bread or indiarubber, ink your outlines neatly; that is to say, the contours or coast-lines of the colour-masses only; not the little markings and details which are not edges but shades.

"But," says someone, "here is teaching quite contrary to the accepted methods of art. There is no outline in Nature, nor in good painters' work that we see in exhibitions."

There is no outline in Nature; but there is an edge to most things, and that edge, in such objects as the human figure, flowers, landscape detail, and so on, is perfectly definite and exceedingly beautiful. It is a line--a mathematical line, not a black one; but it cannot be separately studied and independently represented without using a black line to stand for the impalpable but actual limit line. Unless you study this department separately and independently, giving undivided attention to it, you are likely to ignore it, and never appreciate form. That is why some sort of outline is desirable in students' work; and the laws of Fésole lay it down that it must be a pen outline (or a fine brush line, which is much more difficult to draw) because the first pencilling is likely to be undecided, which implies some clumsiness and error, and needs to be corrected by the delicate pen-line, continuous, unbroken, equal in thickness throughout, and as thin as you like.

"Bur Mr. Ruskin says that you can't outline candle-flames and cotton-wool, and yet he tells the student to outline his studies. Is not this one of those contradictions which are said to abound in his writings?"

Precisely; and a very good specimen, for these contradictions are only verbal and not real; they do not exist in the author's mind, but only in the reader's, when he has misunderstood either the general drift of the precise limitation of the matter in question. Flames and cotton-wool, and such like edgeless objects, can be painted only as tours-de-force, and are never set to students by wise teachers. And even in our primrose and associated tufts of feathery grass, wherever no edges is visible, draw none; where one colour fades by gradation into another, paint it so, by working two wet tints simultaneously together. The laws of Fésole only ask that where you do see an edge it should be drawn with the fine point and with full attention to all its delicacy and beauty, so that you acquire the habit of looking for natural form, rather than contenting yourself with conventional blots of pleasant or forcible colour. The distance of the object from your eye will save you from all niggling and pettiness of treatment; while the severe outline will guard you from that dangerous ambition to be picture-making, by which amateurs are tempted to substitute vagueness for knowledge and slip-shop for observation.

"But," says a third, "how about the majority of modern artists who don't outline--who greatly object to a hard outline, as they call it, and insist on softness?"

In many pictures there has been a most careful outline, which is only obliterated by the strength of the colour; in others, the outline, though not drawn with a point, is expressed by dexterous limitation of touches and washes, in a way which no student can rival, for it is the height of practical power to draw with a full brush. To pencil an outline and rub it light is a sort of pretending to draw with the brush; it is an attempt to get the first-rate result with second-rate power; and it fails by betraying its timidity and clumsiness. Some artists again don't care about form; they prefer other qualities, and are content if they get a pretty effect of colour or chiaroscuro. But all good art begins with form; all sound and competent artists can do more than knock off the pretty sketches which they sell for their living, and they would be quacks and charlatans if they couldn't draw an outline when they wanted--they would be uneducated if they had not been taught to do so in their student days.

The English school of water-colour painting began in a method very like that which we are following; with careful severe outline, often with the reed pen, clearly tinted with colour; of which style an interesting series of examples may be seen at South Kensington, and a fine collection was on view at the Royal Academy last winter. From that the art advanced to fuller and more complicated methods, such as those of William Hunt, who painted lemons and primroses to perfection. His plan was to outline very sketchily, and, as he said, "fudge out" the painting with clever washes and free touches, hatching and stippling, in transparent and solid colour--processes which he could never explain to his pupils, nor give any reason for--just because they were the unmodified result of his own peculiar talent and experience. But he began in his youth with the severe style of the old-fashioned school.

His method was practically that from which the water-colour painting of the pre-Raphaelites was originally derived, and that of Frederick Walker and his school, though they made such use of body-colour, in the end, as created a new manner, like distemper-painting, and leading to it in some cases. But when Mr. Ruskin taught with Rossetti at the Working Men's College they tried to get their pupils to paint somewhat like old William Hunt, sketching in and "fudging out" with great attention to local colour and texture. It was found, however, during a long experience, that the average untalented beginner needs a much more certain method and definite guidance, and one that ensures attention to the higher qualities of art. It is dangerous to tell him to be clever, to be free, to aim at "quality and surface"--that is like encouraging the piano-student to storm the keyboard like Rubinstein before he can finger Bach's Inventions. In all the arts the most romantic and emotional masters start from the severe classic school, and recur to it with pleasure. Byron, with his innovations and audacity, leans upon Pope; Mendelssohn, all melody and sentiment, you would think, bases his tunes on the counterpoint of Bach. And in an age which found its expression in the softness of Reynolds, the sketchiness of Gainsborough, and the slap-dash of Romney, it was the height of taste to "admire the works of Pietro Perugino," which in many cases are as severely outlined as can be. All the chief early schools of Italy, in which the greatest masters studied, lean upon the undisguised outline; and necessarily, as practicing chiefly Fresco, in which decision, certainty, distinctness are absolutely required. Beginning in that way, the great painters both of Italy and England developed their own talents in their own way. We can't ask better than to start as they started--from old "mother outline," as Blake said.

"But," once more, "a primrose is, if anything, soft, fragile, and delicate. Will not the outline make it look hard?" Not of necessity, not if the lines are continuous and even, delicate and beautifully curved, the gradations gentle, the colour clear, the relations of light and dark accurate, the tones broad, the detail unexaggerated. It is not the vagueness or blur of the edge that makes a face or a flower soft, but the truth of relief and the delicacy of modeling.

In the study, then, for the second sitting, get a fine pen outline, giving the radiating curvature of stems and leaves, which you will feel with its full force after the lesson in tree-boughs last month. And then with all doubts and difficulties of drawing put aside, proceed at the third sitting to colour, on the principle of matching tints and finishing at once, premier coup, as it is called. And here you will be exemplifying the third principle of Fresco: the first is Breadth of mass, the next Definition of contour, and now Freshness of colour resulting from decisive execution. Each primrose flower should be done at once, without retouching. In one brush take diluted lemon yellow for the lights; in another, faint yellow ochre and cobalt, matched beforehand, for the shades; and lay them on without hesitating, letting them run into one another where they meet, so as to produce their own natural gradations, which are so much more perfect than any stippling or sponging can elaborate.

You may at first think the darks are not strong enough, and want to re-enforce them; but beware! The fresh tint and first wet gradations will give softness and luminosity, and if you have matched carefully, trust to your matching. Of the leaves, match both lights and darks: use whatever paints will represent them; not violent metallic greens like viridian, nor crude mixtures of prussian blue and gamboge and such like. A quiet pigment, cleanly laid, and not fouled by subsequent rubbing or washing, gives a much sweeter and stronger tint than you might suppose; so that cobalt and raw sienna will probably be green enough for your leaves--though, if you see them greener, paint them greener.

I have gone into detail, tediously perhaps, over this lesson, because it will be worth your while to understand it, and because the principles of our method are not quite familiar, though reasonable enough. If the talk is tedious the work will not be; one sitting should suffice for the coloring of your study, which will look highly finished without labour. For most of the time is spent, in water-colour work, in retrieving mistakes, and polishing coarseness, from both of which you are delivered by this new-old method of wet work, the Fresco style of Fesole.

Typed by Karen Canon , Mar 2013