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, pgs. 613-618

[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.]


Painting is a very troublesome business, if you want to do it properly, because it involves so many different aims;--there are so many things to attend to at once. You begin with mere representation--form, colour, light and shade; and go on to choice of subject, composition, harmony, and the rest. It is something like the Esquimaux driving that we read of, with about a dozen dogs, each harnessed separately to the sledge by a single thong in your hand to whip them with, while they run about this way and that, jump across one another's backs, career and creep at their own wild will, half-savage things as they are, until the traces are all in a tangle, and the inexperienced traveller is at his wits' end. And yet the native Esquimaux manages them well enough. How is that?

He begins when he is a little boy with one dog and a toy sledge; then, as he grows bigger, he drives a pair; and year after year increases his responsibilities as he increases his experience; until at last his driving seems like a sort of wizardry as he pilots his complicated team with dexterous cracks of his thong-whip through the maze of snowy hummocks and crevassed intricacies of the ice-floe.

In the same way our only chance in painting is to take one difficulty at a time. We have learnt various preliminary means to represent some of the simpler facts of Nature; and now we find that these alone do not enable us to paint a picture. For Nature is one thing and Art is another. Nature gives the materials, and Art uses them. Nature finds the flowers, and Art lays out the garden. Nature provides the stones, and Art builds the house. Nature shows us a number of visible facts, bewilderingly infinite, and Art selects and arranges them into a picture.

The very word Art means, in the primary and remote sense of it, a fitting or joining of one thing to another; as when a prehistoric Aryan fitted his flint into a cleft stick, or wove the rough boughs to make his house, or plaited thongs or threads into a scarf. So the business of Art, from the beginning to the end, is more than taking what Nature gives, more than reproduction, than imitation; it involves some arrangement, some adaptation, some fitting together of the materials; in a word, what artists call composition.

By what principles, then, is Art controlled in its choice and arrangement of materials?

Just as the gardener must follow the suggestions of Nature in the treatment of his plants, and as the builder must begin from the natural masonry of the living rock (see No. 1 of these papers in the Parents' Review for March), so the artist learns from Nature herself her own method of composition.

This is an art
Which does mend nature,--change it rather: but
The art itself is nature.
Winter's Tale.

Beauty in Art is produced by working according to the principles that make beauty in Nature. Beauty in Nature is seen most strikingly when the great principles, the main laws by which Nature always works, are seen to be exemplified, without let or hindrance. The difference between the world we live in and whatever primeval tohu-bohu can be conceived--formless and void chaos, of mud uncrystallised, matter unorganized, vapours that were not clouds, and violence that was not life--the difference between that and this lovable, paintable world is simply the orderliness of Nature. The beauty that we love and paint comes into being with the fitness of things for their places; the regularity of their movements, in spite of apparent confusion; the harmony of their working, in spite of apparent conflict. And more than that, this beauty can only be perceived when we have some sense, however dim, some faith, however faint, that the order of Nature does exist. In parts of Nature where we neither see evidences of natural law nor believe in beneficent design, we find only ugliness. Until you study them and sympathise a little in their ways, and lives, and strange, adapted structures, you think that all creeping creatures are ugly; when you know about them you find them, in their way, beautiful--never so beautiful as birds and beasts; but e knowledge that they too live and move according to natural law opens your eyes to whatever beauty they have. So it was that in the earliest times wild woods and mountains were thought to be a waste chaos, a place of dragons and deeps. The early Greeks liked rocks only when they were hewn and square; they liked trees only when they were planted into trim gardens. But as people gradually found in wild Nature the evidences of a kindly ordainment, as the Jews did and the early Christians, they began to find beauty in them, and subjects for Art. And when, in more modern times, they saw even in "horrid crags" and "savage forests" examples of law and order, then parallel with physical science there grew up landscape art.
In a word, beauty is the result of order, ugliness of chaos; and if we know the principles by which order was established and chaos turned into cosmos, we shall know the principles by which Nature makes beauty. And by applying those same principles, Art shall make beauty--if, as we saw, it is but a reflex of Nature's operations, a sequel, a sort of child's play imitating the work of creation, very much in the spirit in which children imitate the dealings of their parents, with their dolls, and toys, and games.

Where are we to find the principles of creation? I do not think they can be more simply stated--for our purpose--than in the old Biblical account. It is puzzling enough in many points, but plain on these: --

I. The first principle which, our fathers have told us, was exemplified by the Creator in His work was Contrast; the division of light from darkness. That, too, is the first thing we need to know in our spiritual life; the broad distinction of good and evil.

II. The next was Symmetry; the division of the waters beneath from the waters above, repeating one another in balanced opposition. Throughout the Bible, and throughout the history of Art, whether Christian or heathen, you will find that symmetry is the outward and visible sign of Justice. Let an artist try to paint heaven, or any company of blessed creatures where the injustice of this world is done away with, and you will find him involuntarily recur to the formal symmetry of hieratic Art. And in our spiritual life, this is surely the second lesson we have to learn--justice, and the fear and hope of it.

III. The third principle exemplified in the Biblical account of Creation was Unity; the gathering together of the waters to one place, and, on the other hand, the fellowship of all the varied vegetation of the dry land, after their kinds; their fraternity of common function and of common origin, by which they are at one among themselves. And surely this, in the moral world, we have to learn when we have understood the nature of justice; for fear we think only of our rights and never of our responsibilities.

IV. The fourth was Variety, in counterstroke to the third; the setting of greater lights in the sky to rule day and night, and to lead the hierarchy of the morning stars. For there is no unity of a whole without difference in parts; no fraternity without seniority and juniority.

V. The command to multiply asserts the principle of Infinity--that is, unchecked vigour, undecaying life; energy with its concomitant strength and purity, as opposed to disease and death.

VI. The sixth day's work was the assertion of Principality, when man was set over all the earth, as the moderator, the measure of all things. And it seems that it is a necessary condition of creation that in every group there should be a leader, in every realm a king.

VII. And the seventh was Repose.

You may feel these analogies to be fanciful, but so they occur in striking sequence--the edicts of the seven days of Creation, the Seven Lamps by whose light all creative work, however humble, must be wrought, if it is to produce something with vital power in it. A good picture has this vital power, in so far as it appeals to you--calls out to you for attention and thought; makes you smile or weep, love it and linger before it, and forget the crass matter out of which it was formed, in the marvellous fact that paint and canvas, lines and colours, so fitly joined together, have become a new and living influence in the world.

So we need look no farther now for our rudimentary laws of composition or picture-creating. They may be stated differently, but hardly in simpler terms; and perhaps the very circumstances of their derivation will fix them in some memories the more firmly. You must have Contrast and Symmetry; Unity and Variety; Infinity ranged under Principality; and the whole issuing in Repose.

Seven new horses for your driving, and of these each one a Pegasus, with burning breath and beating wings! As if it were not enough to have the responsibility of the plough-team you have labored to tame to your hand--Outline, Shading, and Colour; as if these were not the best of earthly breed, and powerful in themselves for any toil! Here are seven steeds of heavenly pedigree, it seems, accustomed to the fiery chariot of imagination, to the fairy car of Poetry; ready to spurn the common earth and their plodding companions, and to carry you away into the empyrean of the ideal, unless you keep strong rein upon them, and a cooler head than Phaethon.

But we began by resolving to attempt only one thing at a time. Let us take this one--Contrast; and study how to manage him. Of the rest there is too much to learn to be even named to-day. But Contrast seems no such difficult thing to manage. You must be able to say of your picture that this is light and that is dark, and no mistake about it. Can you always say that? or do we not often find pictures in which it is difficult to tell where the light comes from, what sort of light it is, or how much of it falls on the different objects? Let there be a division of light from darkness; though not necessarily violent--for the day is not all glare, nor the night all blackness.

And there are other contrasts beside those of chiaroscuro. You must be able to say this is round and that is flat; this is curved and that is straight; this is sharp and that is soft; this is blue and that is brown; and so on. In every department contrast is possible, and contrast is required. Alone it will not perfect your picture; but for the sake of study let us fix our minds on it for this month. October, the "ripe-embrowned," when you will no longer be able to sketch out of doors, unless a most inclement year make some amends with a tranquil autumn, suggests a fruit-study. You remember the lemon, or--no, we won't talk about that lemon; we can do so much better now. We will get apples and plums, nuts in the husk and ears of corn, or whatever the season affords, and arrange them on a board in a side light, ten or twelve feet away, with moss behind, or leaves, or, if nothing comes handier, a crumple of brown paper for a background; arrange them to bring out their contrasts. There are contrasts in their colour--green against red and yellow against purple; there are contrasts in their tone--light sides against dark, bright things against gloomy ones; there are contrasts in their forms and textures--the spiky nut-husks against the rounded apples, the soft plums against the keen spears of bearded corn, the solid organic forms of the group as a whole against the flatness of the background, and the mechanical smoothness of the table.

With this subject you can do all your arranging before touching paper. In landscape it is not possible to "move the cottage from yon aged oak" and play the peaks of mountains about like chessmen, unless in imagination. The point of view must be chosen; the effect of light and cloud must be watched for; the moving figures must be caught in a suitable attitude. All, there, is incomparably more difficult. But your fruit can be calmly arranged; and you may profitably spend a day over the business before you think of sketching. It is a good plan to set up your model in some out-of-the-way place, to warn everyone off, and to stand a card with "Please do not touch" upon it, for farther precaution. Then take the next day to outline, and a day or two more to paint; remembering that your aim now is not to stipple textures and to trifle with the details which are invisible at the distance, but to render firmly and broadly the contrasts which are your especial study this time. When you have quite done, you can dust the fruit with a pair of bellows, and, permission being granted, the children will be delighted to eat your subject.

Typed June 2013