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. 538-543

[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.]

VII.—The Team of Phaethon

As we go on with our painting lessons, we find that there are a good many things to attend to at once. You begin with mere presentation—form, colour, light and shade; and then are beset with choice of subject, composition, harmony, and the rest. It is something like the Esquimaux [Eskimos] driving we read of, with about a dozen dogs, each harnessed separately to the sledge by a single thong of walrus hide; no reins to guide the animals; nothing but another 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 Exquimaux 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.

Our only chance in painting is to take one difficulty at a time. We have learnt various preliminary means of representing the simpler facts of Nature; and now we find that these alone do not enable us to paint a picture. 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, bewildering infinitely, 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 savage 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 mere 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, 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 [utter confusion] can be conceived—formless and void chaos, of mud crystallised, matter unorganised, 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 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 the 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 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, they began to find beauty; and when, in more modern times, they saw even in "horrid crags" and "savage forests" examples of law and order, then there grew up landscape art parallel with physical science.

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 makes beauty—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.

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 things 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.

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 forth 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, whatever name you give him.

VII. And the seventh was Repose.

You may feel these analogies to be fanciful, and yet they help us to our rudimentary laws of composition or picture-creating, which may be stated otherwise, but hardly in simpler terms; 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! As if it were not enough to have the responsibility of the plough-team you have laboured to tame to your hand—Outline, Shading and Colour—here are seven steeds ready to spurn the common earth and their plodding companions, and to carry you away, unless you keep strong rein upon them, and a cooler head than Phaëthon.

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 be named as yet; 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 often find pictures 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.

There are other contrasts besides 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. 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 come 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 keep it under a glass shade or dish-cover when you are not actually painting, 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 nor 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. Properly peeled, of course!

"An apple, an egg, and a nut
You may eat after a sl—,"

says the old rhyme; and the suggestion need not, as some of my readers feared, mean anything insanitary.

[The 1906 book High School English by Keeler and Adams includes this comment: "There is its absolute purity from external stain, since that thin barrier remains impassable until the whole is in ruins,—a purity recognized in the household proverb of 'An apple, an egg, and a nut.'" In other words, no matter who handles those objects, they're still clean enough to eat because of their protective outer covering.]

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

With this paper, the Fesole Club settled down to a new lease on life. Some of the less energetic members dropped off, and one or two new pupils joined, bringing with them talent and patience, which made the portfolios a monthly pleasure and interest.

The chief criticism I find in the notes on this study was with regard to the blackness of the shaded sides. I ought to have warned them in the paper that in a dull light (for such drawings are usually made on wet days, when young people have time to spare from out-of-doors employments), and in an ordinarily furnished room, there is very little light reflected into the dark sides of things. In that case, put up a sheet of drawing paper, propped with books, etc., on the side of your model farthest from the window, so as to reflect light into the darks. Only remember that, however bright the reflected lights are, they can never be nearly as bright as the direct lights from the window. Also, remember to set up your model in the same place and in the same light at every sitting. Make up your mind which way the light is coming (from the right hand to the left, etc.), and stick to that arrangement.

In subjects like this there is often a plate or a pot, which involves drawing a circle in perspective. This is not easy to do without carefully facing the task, once for all. Put a small plate on the table and draw the flattened circle of its rim. Being a good deal below your eye, it will be a very open curve, swinging boldly round to right and left. Now raise the plate on several books, and you will see the curve begin to shut up. But still, where it goes round the sharp bend, to right and left, it does not make an angle. Raise it higher still, and until it is foreshortened to a horizontal line you will find it always makes an oval line, with no more point at its sharpest part that an egg has.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008