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. [William Gershom Collingwood]
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 179-185

[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. His Fésole Club Papers from Vol 2 and 3 of the Parents' Review were reprinted a decade later in Volume 14 and 15.]

"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 colours,—for flowers do not grow in bouquets, but in constellations."

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. Any small ground-growing flower will do for study, provided that you get it with the ground it grows on.

In town, you can buy a primrose-root for a few pence; 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 endeavour"—and transfer that as it stands into your tray.

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 first 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; much of 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 colours,—for flowers do not grow in bouquets, but in constellations. These traits of character and turns of behaviour 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. On this it 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 (but not much below) the level of your eye. 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 relations of light and dark colour, and the broad effect of undulating surface. When you come to paint, do not go up to it every now and again to peep into the obscure or tangled parts. If anything looks obscure, paint it obscure; if you see a tangle, try to match the colour of the space, without following out the details. 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 [or hooks?] and dewdrops on waxy lilies. The difference between these two standpoints is the distance of the highest from the lowest aims in 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. Sketch that flower in the middle of your paper; add the rest around it, in due proportion and position, so that the whole picture 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.

When the shapes have been settled with penciled outlines, get someone to criticise, remembering that it is always possible 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 that you have to do the sketch over again.

At the next sitting take a fine pen; put some wet paint (brown or black) into your pen with the brush, and draw 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. Then rub out the pencil.

"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 definite and beautiful. It is a line—an ideal or mathematical line, not a solid 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 it separately and independently, giving undivided attention, 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 Fesole 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 pen-line, continuous, unbroken, equal in thickness throughout, and as delicate as you like.

"But 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 mostly 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 or the exact limitations of the matter in question. Flames and cotton-wool, and such like edgeless objects, can be painted only as tours-de-force, and are not subjects for students. In our primrose and its associated tufts of feathery grass, wherever no edge 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 Fesole 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 form, rather than contenting yourself with conventional blots of pleasant or forcible colour, and the distance of the object from your eye will save you from all niggling and pettiness of treatment.

"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 beginner can rival. (Since this was first written there has been a great development of "Brush-drawing" for small children, showing that something of the artist's power is within reach of anybody. As we proceed you will see that we gradually drop the pen line and get to pure brush work; but as these lessons are planned for learners who are not in a kindergarten and not under immediate superintendence of a teacher, the old reasons for outlining still, I think, hold good.)

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. From that, the art advanced to the fuller and more complicated methods, such as those of William Hunt. 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 uncodified 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 Fredrick Walker and his school, though they made such use of body-colour, in the end, as created a new manner, like distemper painting. Fifty or sixty years ago, Ruskin tried to get his pupils to paint somewhat like old William Hunt, sketching in and "fudging out," with great attention to local colour and texture. He 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 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 ," 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 practising chiefly Fresco, in which decision, certainty, and 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 modelling

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. And here you will be exemplifying the third principle of Fresco: the first was 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 pale chrome 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. If you need to take out lights, wipe them out before the tint dries, using a clean brush which has been wetted and nearly dried on your paint rag.

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 gamboges 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.

One sitting should suffice for the colouring 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.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The Primrose lesson was so simple that the drawings sent in were nearly all successful. Some of the directions or suggestions perhaps require a little emphasis and explanation.

In setting up any still-life model, see that some part of it is on the level of your eye, as you stand or sit at work. If you look down on your subject, you will paint a picture which everybody must look down upon to see it rightly; but usually pictures are hung up to be looked at, more or less on the level of the eye. Seeing the picture, when done, ought to be like looking at the model when it was being painted; therefore, also, when you hang your pictures, don't hang them very high or low on the wall. A good deal of the wearisomeness of exhibitions comes from the necessity of adapting your eyes to unnatural points of view for "skied" or "floored" pictures; and this need never happen in a private house.

The student's outline is merely the guide to the correct placing and shape of colour-masses; do not, therefore, make it into an elaborate pen-drawing of textures and details; but consider it as the boundaries of countries and counties on a coloured map, and don't put in "rivers, roads and mountains," i.e., ribs of a leaf, etc.

The directions for colouring proceed on the assumption that the work is done in pure and transparent water-colour, without Chinese white. We came to body colour later on, in our Fesole Club; but at first, Chinese white in a beginner's brush generally means daubing.

See a sample of Collingwood's own art here and here and even here

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008