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 4, 1893/94, pgs. 430-436

[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.]

XIV. The Royal Road

In the old times, when lands were wild, and tangled woods or trackless wastes made travelling really what its name implied--a travail--a toil and a pain, the best of kings were those who built the roads. We go off by train or coach for our holiday jaunt, and little think of the labour that was spent in bygone ages to bring this trim and tended countryside, with its highways and byways ready for our use, out of the primeval wilderness. And in any kind of study, nowadays, we have our methods and manuals prepared for us--we little know with how much labour--by former kings of these realms of thought. They say sometimes that there is no royal road to learning, but when you think of it, what road is there, so long as it is a right road, that is not a royal one?--surveyed by eyes that could see beyond a limited horizon, and fenced, for our wilful feet, by wise provision, which we in our turn are wise in recognising and obeying.

In drawing, as in any other study, you can go across country if you choose, but if you want "to get on" you must follow the beaten track. It may not lead you as far as you would like to go; it may be less interesting than loitering in pleasant places; but your pilgrim's progress is assured so long as you persevere in it.

But which road? Are there not many ways of learning art? Some recommended by this authority and some by that? Yes; it is true that there are cross-roads and by-paths, which the active walker may take, especially when he travels with some Mr. Greatheart to guide him. But for the rest of us it is best to go by the king's highway--the old road that all the great men of the past have taken, none the worse for its antiquity; just as many a triumph of modern engineering for coach or railroad carriage has only retraced the ancient line, laid down over mountain and moor hundreds of years ago by the Romans.

Now the object of these papers has been to indicate, as simply as may be, the way and course of study laid down by the royal road makers in art.

As new members one after another have joined the Fésole Club it has been convenient to refer them, for the principles on which it is worked, to the back numbers of the Parents' Review. But now it seems that many of these back numbers are no longer to be bought, and therefore it becomes necessary to repeat the substance of what has been said, though it would be difficult to present this old, old story in a new and entertaining form.

The Fésole Club was formed in March, 1891, at the suggestion of the Editor [Charlotte Mason], to give opportunities for subscribers to this Review to have correspondence lessons in drawing. It was called the Fésole Club, because the principles intended to be followed were to be those of Mr. Ruskin's Laws of Fésole, the book he wrote, or rather began, as a manual for his Oxford drawing school. That book was hardly intended for private study, and it has been found too difficult to serve as guide for most young people. But the method it sketches out and the suggestions it makes for amateur study are nevertheless perfectly practicable; indeed, they are of all systems the most practicable, for they reduce the teaching of drawing and colouring to its very lowest terms, according to the methods of the great masters of the early Renaissance.

I said just now "amateur study" for, of course, it must be well understood, that any young person intending to become an artist, must go to the regular artists' schools, and not expect to find short cuts to professional excellence in the works of Mr. Ruskin or any other writer. Indeed, though it seems a hard saying, it is, I believe, a true one, that the less a young artist reads about theories and principles of art, the better. He cannot evolve pictures out of principles, and he need not waste his time in trying to deduce principles out of pictures; that is for the poor art-critic to do. The young artist must get into contact with the concrete, with actual facts, with nature and practice, and the more genius he has for art, in all probability the more incapable he will be--at any rate the more indisposed he will be for criticism or philosophising.

But the amateur student is in quite another position. He cannot expect to produce artistic results in the same sense that the professional artist's work is "artistic". An amateur, after two or three years' study, giving two or three hours a week to drawing, can hardly expect, unless by unparalleled conceit, to do things that critics would desire to look into, as works of art; and yet, as reflections of nature, as notes of beautiful visions, and memoranda of strong emotions, an amateur's work may be not only beautiful, but it may be extremely valuable, and well worth the time spent in learning how to produce it. The question is, then, how to economise the amateur's time and labour; and above all, how to teach nothing that will ever have to be unlearnt.

For example, any young person may learn in a few lessons from any clever teacher, of whom there are many, how to reproduce his mannerisms, and make what is called a "charming sketch." But that is not learning to draw; that is only learning how to manufacture a single article, for which there is an extremely limited demand, and of which there ought to be a still more limited supply. Learning to draw means much more; it means gaining the habit of seeing it when it is set before you. Mannerist sketching means shutting your eyes to everything which cannot be easily represented in your teacher's style; and habituating your hand to certain kinds of action, which prevent it from following the forms of nature with real accuracy and unaffected fidelity.

The simplest way of all would be to teach the beginner from the beginning to lay down the correct form, the correct tone, and the correct color, at one moment, and with one movement, by dexterous brushwork. And that is, of course, what the greatest artists have always attained to. No doubt it is quite possible to encourage the habit of brushdrawing in the beginner, and to teach it as a special branch of education, as an accomplishment, useful in training the eye and hand to decision. In elementary exercises very pretty results can be obtained, and there is no doubt that the brushdrawing drill is capital practice. But the members of our club would hardly consider themselves fortunate if they were condemned to go through all the exercises necessary to make them even tolerable brush draughtsmen before advancing to the study of nature in her more complicated and interesting forms. There is hardly a single subject which could be set to a sketching class, in which the attempt of young amateurs to draw with the brush would not mean every sort of disproportion and clumsiness. Perfect brushdrawing is the glory of the master, the swaggering imitation of which is the shame of the misguided amateur.

Is it too strong a thing to say? I think not, because there is another way of drawing by which you can be correct without being clever; and there is no need for you to be clever; while correctness is the root of all the value of anything you can do in art. Only so far as you are correct can you make things beautiful. A careless draughtsman can be picturesque or comic, but only accurate drawing can be beautiful. If you doubt that, try to draw a mouth. If you can draw a beautiful mouth with the brush, you are a master, and need no lessons such as I can give. But if you find it hopeless, I can tell you how to learn, and I can assure you at the same time that the great brush-draughtsmen have learnt their art in exactly the way I propose to you; that is to say, by giving up the attempt at dexterity, and fixing all attention at first upon accuracy. In the Florentine School the earliest drawings of the great masters are in painstaking outline. Michael Angelo, for example, facsimiled German engraving with his pen as a boy, and afterwards became the boldest wielder of hammer and brush in Rome, and, beyond cavil, the draughtsman of his age. To step over into modern times, you may have seen the engravings from Turner given in [Ruskin's] Modern Painters as examples of the most perfect and elaborate brush-drawing of mountains and rocks. The engraver, in order to give full value to their accuracy, has drawn a fine line round each of the little spaces which, in the originals, are merely dabs and splashes of the brush; but dabs so exquisitely formed, and splashes so accurately placed, in spite of their apparent freedom, that no amount of elaboration can improve upon their correctness. How, do you suppose, did Turner come by that power? It was simply by steady point work during the whole period of his youth; and not only that, but by the habitual sketching of everything in pencil outline in preference to splashes and effects of colour. The same can be shewn, I believe, of all the old-fashioned masters who have become really great as draughtsmen with the brush. Some, of course, like [Albrecht] Durer, never get beyond point work; of some, like Tintoret [Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto], we have hardly remains enough to judge their juvenile work; but speaking generally, when the members of the Fésole Club are asked to outline their studies, they are only asked to do what most great artists have done, and in so doing have become great draughtsmen.

Outline then is the first step in our process; either simple pencil outline, or outline corrected and completed * with the quill pen, or refined with the crowquill steel pen (using Indian ink); or if the student wishes to take the most difficult, but at the same time the most perfect course, outline with the fine brush point. The next step is to lay on the colour.

* [In three steps: A. strike the leading lines; B. mark the points of detail and expression (these with the lead pencil, lightly, and if possible, without the use of indiarubber); C., with steady, equal, fine pen line, draw the contours of masses. This last is the outline proper.]

In old times when people talked about chiaroscuro, which was a sweet mysterious work, like "Mesopotamia" to the old woman, there were three stages of art,--outline, and shading, and colouring. But I believe Mr. Ruskin was one of the first in modern times, at least in England, to insist upon a practice which is now becoming general--though not be any means so general as it should be,--by which the student is directed to match the colour of nature as nearly as possible, and to lay it frankly on his paper or canvas at once. The general colour of any visible mass can be more or less imitated by mixing a tint to match it, just as you match a ribbon in a shop; holding up your bit of paper with a trial tint upon it between your eye and the object you are painting, and then laying that tint over the mass you have outlined.

If you have made your outline right, it will not look like an elaborate pen etching, or complete engraving of your subject, but it will look rather like a map of it; for by "outline" we mean outline in the strict sense of the word--the contour of masses of different colours. For instance, in drawing a leaf, you do not outline all its ribs (unless they show masses of different colours, which is unlikely); while if there are spots of discolouration, brown or yellow, you would outline them, as being separate colour-masses. This, of course, makes the outline a much simpler business; it also makes the effect of your picture more likely to be simple and massive. And when you come to draw, as you ought, at a distance of ten or twelve feet from even small objects, to outline them firmly, refusing all fidgetty detail, but getting their great colour masses simply laid down with the pen, and simply tinted with the brush, you will begin to understand why we take the name of Fésole for this club, you will find some of the broad and dignified spirit of the greatest Florentine art, stealing, you can hardly tell how, into your studies of chairs and tables, or cocks and hens.

But it is not enough to rest with a flat wash over the outline. The colour must express the light and dark, and every colour-mass must be modelled. While the colour is still wet you can take out the lights with a nearly dry brush, and when the tint is dry, or nearly dry, the darkest touches can be thrown in. In this way you preserve the transparency and clearness which are the especial virtues and beauties of water-colour. Water-colour that is washed and rubbed becomes gritty and loses its brilliancy; water-colour that is too often retouched and over-painted becomes opaque and heavy; but you cannot be wrong with a single wash, matched to the general half-tone of the mass, and modelled and reinforced in this manner. Nor need the process take either much time or much labour. What it does require is great attention, and decision, not of hand, but of mind. In this way water-colour sketching on our principles becomes one of the most educational of all occupations.

I should not venture to say that, if I were going to ask you to do dull exercises and uninteresting drill, but the fact is that our first attempts have always been direct sketching from nature; and that is what they must always be, until the students are their own masters, able to dispense with the leading strings and to follow their own bent or talent. This method of outline and modelled colour is not proposed as a principle for artists, but simply as a method of study; historically the method of the great Florentines, and always the simplest and most natural process. Given the habit of representing nature on these terms, and all the other powers and possibilities of art may follow in their due time. Observation to begin with, choice of subject and taste in composition may follow in their own course as they naturally develop themselves. This is, at any rate, nothing in the way of affectation and unnatural mannerism to be unlearnt, and every step in the process is a firm one.

It has sometimes been asked what are the rules of this club. There are no rules, but what the common sense and good feeling of the members should dictate. To send in their studies punctually,** to see that the portfolio sent round to them containing the exercises and criticisms which form the class teaching of the club, are carefully handled, properly repacked and forwarded, and in a general way to do as you would be done by, is all that is asked. But one thing is needful, and that is perseverance. The Royal road, in common parlance, has come to mean a railroad, that carries you like a parcel when once you have taken a ticket. The Royal road of the times when travelling was travelling, had only one sort of Royal coach upon it, and they called that the DILIGENCE.

**[The subject for August, in our present Natural History series, will be Caterpillars. Get your caterpillar on a large sheet of paper--not too close under the eye--say five or six feet off, so that you may see him as a whole without technical attention to detail. Let him crawl about as he likes, and do you make as many sketches of his attitude and colour as the time will allow. Drawings to be sent in by the end of the month to W.G. Collingwood, Coniston, Lancashire.]

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