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 14, 1903, pgs. 451-455

[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.]

IV.—Through the Window.

A marvellously pleasant thing it is, and not unprofitable, to pack your sketch book in one pocket and your paint-box in another, and take ticket, in early summer, to some foreign town for a little street-sketching. The sunshine is at its best, when as yet dust, and heat, and mosquitoes, and tourists, have not appeared; only the blaze of light on crumbling walls and striped awnings, the breadth of gloom under heavy eaves and down deep lanes, the purple sheen of slates and roofing-shingles against deep blue and fresh, unsullied green; and at the windows, and along the pavement, such eddying glitter of populous life, lads and men bronzed and bloused, women and children in gay and light attire, all making holiday, you could think (for you know nothing of the darker side of their lives), in honour of midsummer.

The unaccustomedness and movement of travelling, the necessity of making the most of time, are great incitements to effort; there is no doubt that every artist works with a tenfold energy when he is on a sketching-tour. But it is because he has no subjects at home? Often, when I have been standing at a street-corner, paint-box on thumb and sketch-book in hand, and the usual crowd of boys and idlers at my shoulder, I have been amused with their blank astonishment that I should choose a view, to them so utterly uninteresting. "What is it he does?" they say. "It is nothing; the street, the shops, the door of the cathedral. Ah, see the coal-cart; to paint a coal-cart! See there, the flowers at the window: and our Toinette—it is she! He! Toinette, one makes thy portrait!" And then comes out the shopkeeper, bland and patronising. "Very well done, sir; courage! But has monsieur seen our new museum? There's a fine building! What statutes! What a façade! That would make a magnificent subject!" Occasionally, indeed, as the work advances, the artist has the honour of drawing public attention to points of interest unnoticed before; and then he feels he has not lived in vain. Sometimes—oh, flattering moment!—boys bring out pencil and paper, awakened to emulation; and once or twice, indeed, I have had quite a drawing-class on the kerbstone.

But his want of interest does not prove stupidity. We are usually just as careless of the picturesque possibilities of our won surroundings. When a foreign painter comes over, and turns our streets into pictures for us, we are amazed. Sometimes a genius opens our eyes to the true romance, as Carlyle calls it, of reality; as well it is when we can learn the lesson, to husband our sensibilities and keep them brightly reflective, to guard our judgement and keep it keenly appreciative; lest we be deceived by the desire of mere animal excitement and vicissitude into despising the pleasures that lie around us. Your great man shows his power in painting something that nobody else has thought worth painting, for nobody else has cared about it; and when the work is shown, we feel—perhaps not all at once—its truth, and we become interested in it by this inevitable contagion of enthusiasm. And then everybody rushes to paint the new subject; forgetting that it is not the scene that makes the picture, but the seer.

So, after all, the material of art is looking in at your window and beckoning your attention, while you are dreaming of the things you would do at Rome or Venice, at the Alps or the Alhambra. The houses over the way; the chimney-pots seen from an upper window; a tree in the garden, or a bed of flowers—any of these might be taken as sufficient subjects by one who has the gift of appreciating them. It is not given to all, in its fulness; but a share of it comes by close dealing with things. It does not make you fond of a person, simply to live with him—and if you feel a true sympathy in the work, you will find sympathy with the person. So it is that when you take your subject into partnership, not merely into service, not merely to see what you can "make of it," you gradually find its loveableness. Probably, in some occult way, your affection will show itself in your picture; at any rate you will have been your own poet; you will have opened your own eyes, and done one bit of work in the spirit of great art.

Sometimes, in the various businesses of life, we have to work with people whom, at first sight, we hardly care about as partners. But, if we are wise, we study them, and get to find their good points and their bad. It is our duty, then, to make the most of the good, and set that in the fairest light; not blinding ourselves to the bad, but helping them to put it out of the way. And so in painting, there is no object so beautiful but it has weak points, and our first business is to think them out, to determine the strongest point, and lean upon it. This is at the bottom of what critics call Composition; and its first law is Principality.

You are sitting at the window—whichever window you like best to look from,— and there is one object, one little thing—not a whole block of houses, but an opposite door or window, a chimney-stack, or distant building, or spire—on which your eyes rest. Perhaps it has a space of foliage near it, contrasting with the sharp-cut architecture. Why not take that for your subject? Not the whole rang of view, but that single feature. For first attempt, take a brush with Chinese white and trace the actual form at arm's length on the window-pane (or any piece of glass) as children draw on a "drawing slate," and then measure it off on the paper with compasses or a ruler. You will be sure, then, to get the perspective right, if there is any. It is as easy as two and two if you look squarely through the glass and straight at the model.

Then, having fixed the size to scale, spend half an hour or more on the outline of that one feature; finally determining it with the pen, so that it looks like a delicate etched vignette in the middle of the paper. At the next sitting, fill in the rest of the scene in the same way, as far as the paper will admit. Every mass will be outlined carefully and "affectionately"; the foliage as well as the masonry. There is no fear that you will care less and less about your subject as you go on, if you resolve to get it right, down to the correct placing of the smallest detail of cracks and crannies, with all the little turns that mark expression and individuality, giving a true portrait of the scene, and the spirit of it. The only fear is that you may think it does not matter whether you get it right or not; and that is fatal to your own interest.

This outdoor view is to be coloured exactly as the lemon and the primrose were coloured. Take a slip of paper, and hold it up against the window at right angles to the glass, so that the light falls on it; and try one tint after another (mixing cobalt and light red and yellow ochre) until the natural colour of the building matches, its light parts and its dark parts. You will find you cannot match the lightest parts of the sky because they are brighter than white paper—so, leave them white. And on a very sunny day half the picture must be left white for the same reason. Consequently, it will be wise to colour this study when the sun is partly or wholly veiled by clouds; then the tones can be approximately matched; and the spaces painted of their true colour and depth. Do a little at a time, dwelling on each bit until it is done.

The house, or the chimney-tops, or whatever central architectural feature you choose, will not give very great trouble; but the bit of foliage, with all its little lights and variety of movement, how about that? We have learnt something of the draughtsmanship of trees; the next step is to attack their colour; one thing at a time. There are light masses and dark masses on the tree—two distinct colours which, especially if you half shut your eyes, will seem to model the foliage as a whole solid object, like the primrose-leaves of the last lesson. It will be enough to mix and match two tints of tree-colour, and treat the foliage as you treated the lemon, neglecting all texture and glitter and minor details, and painting as it were a soft cushion of green velvet. You cannot yet give the whole truth about the foliage, but you can be true as far as you go—in the accurate outline, and in the accurate depth and hue of colour. When these tints are laid, it may be that a little retouching is necessary to trim the edges, to emphasise something dark or light, and perhaps to insert detail that you are not skillful enough to express with the first wet painting. But the rule is against retouching, unless it be absolutely required. Broken colour with all its charm must be left for the present; the importance of true values and broad massing is far greater. It is of importance, also, that you should study to be neat without niggling, and to be decisive without slapdash. Is that too much to expect?

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

In this paper I was getting on too fast for some of my pupils. I began to find the difficulty of directing unknown correspondents, which is quite another thing from criticising them, as usually done in sketching clubs. I wanted to tell them how to do it, not merely to give praise and blame to their efforts; and I thought the directions here given were simple and easy to follow, quite forgetting that I should not be there to explain myself. "Whichever window you like best to look from," said I; and one, taking it literally, tried to paint a shrubbery without form and void. "Sure to get the perspective right" by marking the lines on the window pane! It was quite beyond some to observe the facts, even with the help (if they used it) of the pane of glass. A little later I gave the following suggestions, which was found useful:—Say,

"Level lines above me go down as they go away: (Hold your pencil high, with its point down.)
Level lines below my eye go up as they go away: (Hold your pencil low, with its point up.)
And the level line at my eye's level, a level line must stay.
I wonder if I've remembered this, in all I've drawn to-day?
Take this line—and this line . . . "

and so on, until you have checked all the lines in your sketch. If you go through this while you are drawing from nature, and check your lines with the real lines before your eyes, you are not likely to go very far wrong. You will soon notice that different lines have a different slope, but by holding your pencil level across them (or if that is not easy, making a plumbline with a bit of string and any little weight, and so getting the true vertical) you will see how much they slope. No more is needed to get the perspective right.

But what is the use of perspective as it is taught with T-square and compasses? To get a correct drawing of something you don't see. The object of these lessons is to encourage observation of things you can see: and with such a habit of observation, theoretical perspective is not really necessary to practical sketching. It is a valuable and interesting study, but an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory. Many people are discouraged from sketching because they are told that they can't expect to get their lines right unless they have gone through a course of perspective; this is true if they "draw out of their heads"; but if they draw only what they see, and check the lines as I have suggested, their perspective will be as good as that of nine pictures out of ten by more experienced artists.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008