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. 843-846

[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.]

XI.—A New Card Game.

Please look into the waste-paper basket, and find some scraps of paper; backs of used envelopes, slit round with a knife, will do. Or, better still, rob the card-tray of some less-valued—but not highly glazed—visiting cards. And then find a BB, or, at any rate, a soft pencil, with which you can rub in a rough, strong shading easily and rapidly.

This is to be a composition lesson in black and white; and it may be done of an evening by lamplight. It ought not to be more difficult than playing "snap"; indeed, it is so simple that I am only afraid the members of the club will think it beneath their artistic dignity.

Draw a line horizontally across the paper; and shade all the lower half. There you have Contrast, about which we talked in the paper on the "The Team of Phaethon." There is a black half and a white half. But you have not a picture yet, nor even the suggestion of a picture.

Now, with india-rubber, make a light patch in the dark half, and hold your drawing at arm's length, and think about it. I believe you will soon feel a sort of craving to dash in something dark in the light half. The longer you look, the more you will feel certain that, though the formless scribble means nothing at all, and does not resemble any scene or shape in the world—unless a heraldic shield in a fog—still, as a mere arrangement, it cries out, so to say, for Balance. The question is not "Shall I make a dark patch in the light half?"—that is decided; but, "What sort of a dark patch shall I make?"

Now, that depends. Suppose, first, that you have rubbed out the light patch just in the middle of the dark half. A corresponding dark patch in the middle of the light half will balance it; and your eye will be satisfied so far. (Better make a separate sketch of this and call it A.) It is balanced, but formal and stiff.

Now make another sketch, with the light patch on one side, say, in the right-hand part of the dark half, and put a dark patch just above it, and call this sketch B. The balance here is not complete. You want to do something with the left-hand side of the picture—for a picture it begins to be—though what it may be going to represent you can hardly guess.

Try another (C), in which, while keeping the light patch on the right-hand side, you put the dark patch on the left, diagonally opposite to it. Here, again, balance is restored.

But in C, while you have balance, you have not as much contrast as possible. There is contrast between the light and the dark halves of the sketch; but the contrast between the light and dark patches is only in their tone and position, whereas they might also be contrasted in another way. One might be concentrated, and the other diffused; one might be tall, and the other broad; one square, and the other round; and all this without losing balance of weight and general effect. You begin to see a number of variations to be made in this very simple plan of composition.

Try a diffused, half-tone light on the dark half in another sketch (D), and oppose it with one or two sharp black touches in the light field, diagonally over against the light patch. In E, reverse the conditions—a bright spot of light, and a broad cloudy dark.

Now look at all your sketches together. What do they suggest to you? I have let the cat out of the bag, as they say, with the word "cloudy," have I not? A few more touches will turn E into a landscape, with a cloud in the sky, and a white cottage against a dark moorland, or a white breaker in a dark sea, or a white goose on a dark common. D will stand for a dark bird—Noah's messenger, if you like—over a waste of waters with diffused reflection. By A the afternoon sun may be suggested, behind a cloud, throwing a bright dazzle beneath it into a lake; and so on. A great number of scenes can be made out of these simple arrangements; and by varying the position, size, shape, and relative tone of the opposing patches, you can suggest scores of different subjects, even without any further complications of these elementary patches, keeping to a horizontal division in the middle of the paper.

But as we have introduced the idea of contrasting the two patches in tone and shape—one being diffused and broad, and the other concentrated and sharp—so we can, if we like, vary the contrast of the two original halves of the first state of our sketch. The dividing line need not be straight and hard; it can go up into the sky on one side, if there is a corresponding depression on the other side. And so you get an irregular sky-line (F), which may represent a mount and valley; and by other varieties (G, H, and so on), you can get the outline of mountains, trees, houses, or what not. And at once you see the prospect of an infinite series of possibilities of picturesque composition, still preserving only two equal great masses, and only two opposing patches.

We might complicate matters still farther, as an artist would very soon be forced to do. But in this lesson it will be well to keep the idea simple. Try a series of new sketches with D and E adapted to varied sky-lines, and you will get a gallery of landscape compositions of a broad and powerful type, into which you can fit reminiscences of real scenes, or sketches of your own. And notice how they gain in picturesque effect by this breadth; how, instead of being weak, and scattered, and amateurish, they begin to suggest a masterliness which your sketches had not before. A few lines joining the detached lights and darks to the sky-line will turn some into Turneresque trees against the sky, or ships with dark sails, or castle towers; and the light patches will become boats or cottages, roads or figures, or, in opposition to the Turneresque tree, a Turneresque river or lake in the middle distance.

And next, if you care to try the game reversed—as, after playing with the white draughtsmen you change pieces and play with the black—you can turn your sketches all upside down, and see what they suggest. You have now something like a light table or ground, with a dark background. Against the darkness you see vaguely a bunch of flowers or a bird's nest; a few strokes underneath them may hint the glass they stand in, or the leaves under the nest; and the dark patch becomes the shadow they cast. You are on the way to a William Hunt! By adapting F, upside down, you get any sort of still life or portrait arrangement; or even a simple interior subject, with the light falling from the window to the floor, and interrupted by a chair or table. Your cards have become studies for pictures of all kinds, in permutations and combinations as endless as, they say, scientific whist can be.

I don't mean to suggest that you must always manufacture pictures in this way; but I think it useful to learn, once for all, how you may "treat" a difficult subject by a little rearrangement of shadows and a judicious placing of the movable lights and darks. After this, you will see the possibilities of breadth and effect, and you will be ready to seize them when you sketch from nature. It is quite true that artificial composition does not make great art, as Ruskin has said so often; and yet, as he says in his Elements of Drawing (p 192)—"Though no one can invent by rule, there are some simple laws of arrangement which it is well for you to know, because, though they will not enable you to produce a good picture, they will often assist you to set forth what goodness may be in your work in a more telling way than you could have done otherwise; and by tracing them in the work of good composers, you may better understand the grasp of their imagination, and the power it possesses over their materials."

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

In response to this article there were 125 drawings sent in—not all by different hands, of course. In some cases the drawing of the intended forms had been carried out so far that the general breadth and effect of the arrangement had been partly lost in a quantity of detail. In such a study we are trying to reduce pictures to their lowest terms, with a numerator of light and a denominator of dark; and the figures should be as simple as possible. But the great variety of subjects turned out made it plain that the card game was not difficult to play. We had seas with ships and clouds, birds and reflections; lakes with mountains and boats; riversides with poplars and willows; ruined abbeys and rustic cottages, with trees and other trimmings; bridges with a single arch or a row of arches; a bird's nest in a bough seen against the sky; and indeed most of the stock subjects of British art. The analysis of these, with illustrative sketches, make a rather long manuscript paper of criticisms, which cannot be reproduced without the illustrations; but this closed the series of lessons on composition.

During the second year of the Fesole Club, most of the time was spent in repeating the first year's lessons, with variations. This was needed in teaching unseen and unknown pupils who could give very little time to drawing; but it does not follow that so long as two years would be needed to go through these first dozen lessons (including the next) with success, given personal teaching and three or four hours a week of practice. The school-time or the holiday time of one year ought to be ample.

After these preparatory studies the landscape course closed with the next lesson; and then we proceeded to put animals and figures into our pictures, and finally to paint figures for their own sake, and portrait heads.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008