The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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

by W. G. Collingwood.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 277-282

[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.]

V.—The Ethics of Leaf-Land.

The object of these papers being to encourage observation, not to teach an accomplishment, you will not expect this one to contain an easy recipe for tree-painting. What I desire is to get you in the way of finding out your own recipe; and you will not be long in doing this when you understand the chief requirements which govern the aspect of leaves in their arboreal societies—how they behave in company—that is what I mean by the moral laws or ethics of leaf-land.

The difficulty begins when our subject is not diminished to a haycock in the far distance, nor so near that every leaf is separately visible. Large-leaved trees at about fifty paces' distance are already quite far enough away; the leaves of birches and willows and bushes of thorn and so forth, at twenty paces, or even less, can hardly be discriminated: they must be suggested by some ingenious manner of work, if anything more be required than the general outline and simple modelled mass which we have already master.

Something more is required, for at that distance foliage is distinctly visible as texture. The leaves have the effect of the hairs in a fur, or the threads in a coarse woollen drapery; they modify the surface without altering the shape and colour of the whole mass; they give a look of looseness and roughness, and yet they are not a mere chance assemblage of disconnected spots and dots. The hairs in a fur, or on a curly head, lie at random, you would think; but when you look longer you see that they show a tendency which makes for tidiness. When you try to follow out this tendency you soon find that it is possible to get them too tidy; they become formal, they look like bristles, and you must finally express another tendency of theirs which makes for untidiness, and disguises the normal lines of curl and set of texture in a partial but quite necessary confusion.

So it is in the drawing of leaves; there they are, distinctly altering the appearance of the whole mass of the tree; they cannot be ignored. The young artist begins by dotting and scratching his tree all over anyhow, until it looks like Struwelpeter [Shaggy Peter]. He soon finds that some sort of regularity is discernible. He notes that the tree is made up of bunches of leaves growing on the branches which he has already drawn—obscuring them, but replacing their radiation by a new sort of radiation. And then he draws his tree over again, to express this law of growth, to assert it with all the emphasis of an original discover, until his masses of leaves look like bunches of bananas, and his picture becomes a diagram. Something of this kind was actually done by the "Old Masters" of landscape in the Gaspar Poussin period, and it was thought to be severe and scientific. In its way it was right, just as it is right for a child to use proper language, strict grammar, formal composition in his school essays, to correct the chit-chat of the nursery. An accomplished writer or speaker uses words at his will, and nobody blames him, so long as he makes them convey the side-lights of thought and the picturesque blending of ideas which his fuller experience dictates. But it is not likely that anyone reaches this final stage without going through the drudgery of etymology and syntax. So in tree-painting the world had to go through this formal stage, and the student must not hope to evade it entirely, though it would be foolish to rest in it, contented with a cheap pedantry.

We agree then to leave behind us the nursery stage of art, in which boughs are drawn like piles of spellicans and leaves like a litter of crumbs; and we will try, after preliminary outlining of the whole tree and each separable mass, to suggest lightly with the pencil the radiation which we have observed in the clumps of foliage. We know that this radiation must be there, because the leaves are set on the twigs like the spread fingers of an opened hand; and even if the leaves are too small to show it, as in the birch, the little wreaths of leaves on the twigs themselves radiate from the larger boughs. But without knowing anything about the structure, we cannot watch a tree for long before we perceive that this is the first condition of its aspect. Dwelling on this one idea, we work until our whole tree seems to become rigid with spiky fingers, solid cabbage clumps, or curly radiating tufts like grass, or moss, or waves, or hair, or anything but foliage.

It will be enough for the first sitting to study out the tree in the banana style. Taking this diagrammatic plan of the lines of growth as a basis, the leafy, confused character of the foliage we can express at our second sitting by breaking up the simple lines of radiation. Most of the bunches of leaves are made up of smaller bunches; some overlapping others, some half hidden; some advance foreshortened and some retreat; these are fuller of leaves, and those are sparse and scattered; here and there a hermit leaf, sulking by itself, quits the ranks, or a lady-leaf dominates the group. And each of these has its bright side and its dark side, and it reflects light or casts gloom around it. To-day's work will be to express this breaking up of the leaf community, by lines to indicate the extremities of these leaves; not now radiating from common centres, but roughly concentric to them; not harmoniously curved lines, but broken, irregular zig-zags, expressing the outlines of many leaf-points laid close together. Though this kind of touch may be manufactured by the yard it must not be meaningless, like little children's make-believe letters; it must be the nearest attempt we can reach to the deliberate forming of the outlines of the leaves. Since we are still at outline and not shading the picture, the work must be done lightly in pencil; and when the main forms are fixed with the pen, cleaned and finished, the tree is prepared for painting.

The colour of a tree is difficult and complicated because there are so many different tints closely interwoven, and yet distinguishable, in every mass of foliage. On a grey day, when no sun shines, there is (1) the rich warm green of the deeper darks, (2) the lighter green of the half-tones, and (3) the grey lights. When the sun comes out, there are in addition (4) bright, warm, yellow lights, and often (5) almost pure white sparkles, and here and there (6) deep, rich yellow transmitted lights, where the sun shines through a leaf and you see the under side. In thin and transparent foliage, as in springtime, the deepest dark (No. 1) is destroyed by the pervading sunshine, but it is present in thick foliage even then. And to these must be added (7) the light warm brown and (8) the purply-grey darks of the branches; or if there be no sunshine, at any rate the presence—felt rather than definitely seen—of innumerable brownish twigs and peeps of branches.

On a good outline, the larger masses of these colours may be mosaically inlaid at on painting if we have the tints ready prepared and if we use different brushes for each, as in oil-painting, with skillful manipulation of wet colour, and advantage taken of its partial drying to an edge. Then we get the fresh and bloomy effect of proper water-colour execution, which we have seen to be so delightful in some of our studies, such as the primrose. But without practice and care, this way of work may easily degenerate into the "bottesque," that is to say, formless and textureless daubing. For which reason it will be necessary to add a few words about the way in which the tints may be laid.

The peculiarity of tree-texture is that leaves, or parts of them, stand out on a dark ground as light points. This was caught in the earliest Giottesque manner of tree-drawing, where the leaves are painted elaborately, few and far between, in solid body-colour upon a dark ground. But in our transparent water-colour you cannot do this; you must leave the lights and paint the darks, managing to express form by the spaces you leave more than by the spaces you colour. And this is done by making your tint with a zig-zag line, and then another laid roughly parallel to it, and then another; which represents, as in a kind of running-hand, the serrated ranks of a series of leaves with their points more or less one way; for between the zig-zags little irregular lights are left, showing the colour of the previous wash and representing the light catching upon outstanding leaves.

This is what is known as the "Tree-touch" in ordinary water-colour; by the clever management of which the characters of different leafage can be given. For example: if you are painting ash, the zig-zag will be very slender and serrated at an acute angle; if oak, it will be a thicker line, with serrations at about sixty degrees; for birch, the touches will be tiny and dotty, or drawn with a dry brush, crumbling the paint on the paper; and for ivy, they will be a series of small square dots set at various angles to one another. Every kind of leaf can be suggested by some modification of the touch, which the student can discover for himself without any great effort of ingenuity, and apply without requiring the help of the least spark of genius. Sketching of this kind absolutely requires thought and care: every process has a reason, every touch represents something in nature; and the kind of touch and method of process can be determined by the common-sense of the artist if he takes the trouble to think it out. It is not a matter of mystery or trick, and the moment it is done as a sort of dodge, by rule-of-thumb, it is overdone. The sketcher is so pleased to show that he knows "the way to do trees" that he paints them all zigzags and flourishes and sparkles, and thinks it brilliant. On which account many teachers object to the bare idea of introducing texture into the tins; and indeed, though trees are not flat green spaces in a landscape, it is better to make them too flat than to make them too florid.

But no progress is possible if you are always thinking with terror of Scylla and Charybdis. Fix your mind on the right way; study the tree first in pencil and pen, and you will know what to do with the colour when you come to it. You need no genius—only a little common-sense and practice—to paint trees with passable success, yet in this very exercise of reason and in the sympathetic study of the tree as a living community of leaves, ruled by unity and infinite variety—in this habit of mind and heart one is doing the same work which, more completely and habitually done, is the distinctive work of genius. You may never master the tree-touch like a real artist, but you may without knowing it become a real poet while you sit in the sunshine and give all your heart to learning the ethics of Leaf-land.

Before trying to lay the tints on a tree-study, it is well to practise them on a separate bit of paper, as you make a rough copy of difficult exercises or sums in arithmetic. Failure is often the result of fear; and one ought to be afraid if one doesn't know what one is doing. Try a little bit of the tree-tint on another leaf in the sketch-book, or on a loose sheet, to see whether the colours you have chosen are right,—whether the brushes do what you mean them to do,—and whether the paper takes the paint as you expect. if the first experiment fails, try again; there is really no time wasted in making sure. For the larger masses of dark let the colour be quite wet; you can paint into it with other and dryer colours before it dries, and still keep it fresh and soft. For the strongly lighted, flickering parts, let the colour in the brush be rather dry, and drag it over the paper, so that it gives a crumbling texture. The edge of the tree against the sky should be painted with a rather dry brush, or it will look coarse and blotty.

Take notice whether the sun is shining or not, when you begin to paint; and don't go on if the light changes.

The suggestions for foliage will serve also for grass, which young painters often try to represent with a coarse spiky row of green strokes, each really representing a leaf as broad as your hand. If you paint grass in this wet way, putting in all the variety and gradation before the paint dries, there is little risk that it will look like a bed of cactus.

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In the original series of these papers, the next month being August, the Fesole Club was left to its own devices to choose subjects. A great variety, from sea-shores to tomatoes, resulted; and to meet the difficulties found in arrangement of such scenes, the following papers were written: the next being a lecture on "Foregrounds," and subsequent articles trying to give hints on choosing a subject and making a picture.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008