The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fésole Club Papers.
by W. G. Collingwood.
[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.]
XII.--The Complete Landscape Sketcher.
An Irish friend of mine tells of a Gaelic proverb which fits the case of many an amateur sketcher:--"Seldom on horseback forgets the spurs." When you go out painting only once in a way, the first thing to do is to be sure you have your materials in good condition. Even if you keep a sketching satchel, the contents are apt to stray; so let us overhaul it before starting.
Mr. Ruskin had a curious dislike of blocks; he preferred a sketch-book, and said that nobody who knew his business used a block. [Probably a pad of paper glued on all four sides.] Let us be content to confess meekly that we don't know our business very thoroughly yet--and take a block if we like it. All the same, don't forget the sketch-book. When you are drawing on a block, the natural economy of all well-regulated minds makes one want to complete a good picture before taking off the sheet, which can never be stretched on the block again; but with a sketch-book one is tempted to make notes without pledging oneself to completion, and sometimes these notes are encouraging and lead to finishing the subject. Also, a block can't be put into the satchel in a hurry when it is wet, and when your friends think you have kept them waiting long enough. For this purpose the old pin-board with its frame is most useful, if you slip it into a portfolio in the satchel, where the wet paper will dry by the time you come to your next subject. To stretch the paper for the pin-board, damp it with a sponge all over, especially the edges; let the wet dry off the surface, and then damp the other side; let the wet dry off again, and press the paper on the pins. Two or three pieces of paper can be stretched overnight, ready for the next day's work, and during the night they will dry slowly, as tight as a drum; and the surface which has been damped will take the colour nicely.
Clean your colour-box. Don't have an elaborate gimcrack for a colour-box, but something with plenty of palette space, and long enough to hold a pencil, a pen, and two or three brushes, which will save carrying a separate brush case. Keep brushes carefully, or they will get curled up and lose their points. Use the brushes you like best, but not tiny ones. I have seen oil painter's hog-hairs used for a miniature on ivory, and children's camel-hairs in quill used for a big picture; but good sables are worth the money they cost, if kept with care.
Carry your india-rubber in your pocket; if it gets cold, it will smear and not clean the paper. Don't forget your knife, and a clean paint-rag; an old handkerchief is best.
Colours in pans, not often used, dry up. Take half-tubes, and squeeze a little as required, keeping the tubes in a bag or separate box (a match-box will serve). Don't run short of paints; have duplicates of those you use most. Ten or a dozen kinds are enough; you want--
1) A transparent blue-- such as cyanine, Leitch's Prussian, or Antwerp;
Also Chinese white, which now first appears in our list.
To hold your water, take a small jam-pot; you want plenty of water to dip into, and a clean, steady vessel to hold it. Carry also a flask or bottle, and fill it with water at the start; refill when you pass a stream, or you will lose time at critical moments. This completes the satchel.
A camp-stool, umbrella and easel are needed if you do work too large to hold in your hand; but a small block or book can be held along with your colour-box, and a pad to put on a stone or bank, and sit upon, will save carrying a stool. To make a light easel for the pin-board, get three sticks (garden canes a yard long) and drill holes near one end of each; pin them together with stout wire (a hairpin). Get also a screw ring such as pictures are hung by, and screw it into the back of your board. Hang the ring on the projecting end of the middle stick when they are set up, gipsy-kettle fashion. Tie a stout string to the top of this tripod, and hang a big stone from it, to steady your easel. With an india-rubber umbrella ring you can hold the three canes together and make a walking-stick.
The equipment is now complete. We must find the subject.
I don't know anything more miserable than looking for a subject, unless it be the growing conviction that the view you are trying to paint is unpaintable. But these miseries happen when one is "out of sorts," or in circumstances which upset one's judgment and limit one's powers; such as, among mountains, a cloudless, garish day when every bit of detail stands out with cruel insistence; or, in pastoral and cottage scenery, the too rapid alternations of sun and shade, which change the whole effect every five minus; or, in any scenery, requireful company; or even, at times, any company. Finding a subject means seeing something that has a strong personal appeal to you; it may not be the least interesting to your friends, and their want of appreciation may discourage you, or at least it may make you feel that you are keeping them waiting. Best go sketching along, or with somebody who really means to accompany, not to lead you. I remember a pleasant summer in Switzerland with a medical student who had no views on art, but liked Alps; whenever I saw my subject, out came his Quain's Anatomy, and he read up the bones until my sketch was finished--both of us quite happy.
Whenever you see a subject that will do, accept it without going further and faring worse. Don't start off with the intention of reaching any pre-determined point of view; for when you get there, the effect that made it paintable when you saw it before, or when it was seen by the person who recommended it, may have changed; and with bitter disappointment you will wish you had sketched the lovely peep you saw on the way. It is not the highest peak, or the grandest ruin, or the noblest park, that makes the best subject; but whatever at the moment calls out to you to paint it.
But when you see your subject, look twice. Ask yourself--Is this a paintable scene, or only an attractive one? It may be very beautiful, and yet its beauty may lie in something that you can't paint--such as a fleeting, momentary effect of sunshine or cloud, rainbow or lake-reflection; and by the time you get to work, the especial beauty may be gone. In that event, you will have lost no time by getting out your sketch-book and jotting down the general idea of the view; this will fix it in your mind if you have time to go on and make a more complete picture; or if you can't, it will be an interesting note in itself. As you make this rough sketch you will find out whether the thing is paintable as it stands, from your point of view, or whether you must move to a better point; whether you are taking in too much or too little; what you must fix upon is principal; where the chief contrasts are to come; what little lights and darks are to be swamped in order to get the masses broad; and so forth. Such a rough note need not take more than five or ten minutes, but in those minutes you will be planning your attack; and if you feel more drawn to the subject, get out your block or board and set to work. Sometimes the principality and contrast, the natural composition of the scene, are obvious and no preliminary sketch is needed; but it requires a good deal of experience to know this, and the best artist works better for making sure of his arrangement before starting upon his picture.
Should you sit or stand to paint? Stand, if you are strong enough, and if there is standing-room. Sit, if it tires you to stand. Don't get tired more than you can help. Nobody who does not paint knows how fatiguing it is, and how important to make everything as comfortable as possible. It is no excuse for a bad drawing to tell people that it was done under difficulties. Wind and sun, midges and flies, cold and heat, sometimes a long walk, and perhaps even hunger, combine to add difficulties to the already difficult task; so be sensible, and make things as easy as you can for yourself--you want all your strength for the picture.
How long have you at your disposal? More than an hour, I hope, for less is not enough to give you the chance of working with quiet steadiness. Few people can go on for more than two hours at a stretch, labouring with real vigour on one subject; and in two hours the sun gets round, off the trees that were light when you began, on to walls that were dark in your first sketch, altering even the forms of the distant hills. Say an hour and a half, and give yourself a little margin; there may be a note to make on your way home to lunch or tea. Talk out your watch and plan your work as if you were in for an examination with so many questions to answer in a given time.
The first question to answer is the arrangement of the subject on the paper--the composition. I am not now giving advice to artists in general, still less laying down the law about the proper way to paint; I am talking to the Fésole Club student who began with the lemon less than a year ago, and now, for the first time, after a certain course of training, is face to face with the complicated business of representing a view straight from nature. I often think of a battle-scene in one of the old Napoleonic novels of Erckmann-Chatrian, where the conscript hears, amid the din of battle--thunder of guns, rattle of drums, cries of excitement and agony--the voice of the sergeant, as calm as on parade, "Serrez les rangs!" ["Cose ranks!"] Now, in the excitement and agony of this eventful moment, mind your drill. Don't rush wildly into experiments, hoping to knock off a complete sketch by beginning at the wrong end; but answer first the first question by getting a good arrangement, lightly sweeping the masses into shape with the soft side--not the point--of the pencil. This may take a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes; when time is up, consider that question done.
Then the second question is--what are the forms? Go over the lines, already arranged as to general placing, and get facts stated with the point. You can't lay clean tints until you know where they are to stop, and you have learnt by experience how quickly the coloring is done when you know exactly what you want. If you have a cottage to draw, get its ins and outs of broken slates; if a tree, its true shape and swing of foliage and branches; if a lake, the steady horizontal of its farther shore, and the curve of its nearer bay, so that it looks flat. If this doesn't look right in pencil, it won't look right in the paint. Another quarter of an hour or even twenty-five minutes; and even then there will be only important forms fixed. You don't want more, but you must be sure of these.
Must you put these in with the pen? If the sketch is much scribbled over and dirty, do so. You can't use a pen at an easel; the ink or colour in the pen runs the wrong way; but if you work with the block in your hand or on your knee, you can use the pen. Its use is merely to define and clear up the shapes, and to express the enjoyment taken in abstract form. If this is sufficiently attained in pencil, the pen is not by any means necessary; though at first I think it is wise to follow the regular method to which you have been accustomed. In course of time you will get to sketch without even pencil outline; you will find yourself doing it one day, unawares, as you found you could do the outside edge in skating, after wondering if such attainments were possible. But most people would get some nasty falls if they tried the outside edge the first time they wore skates.
How does the time go? Don't be alarmed if you find you have spent an hour already. You have not only answered the two most important questions in the examination paper, but you have the hints for the rest, which are tone and colour. You have seen the requirements of tone in making your first scribble, and still more in laying out the picture with an eye to principality and contrast. The limits of the colour-masses are fixed, and you know, more or less, what colours they require. The colour and tone are given simultaneously in our method of tinting, each mass laid in wet, and reinforced with lights and darks before it dries. The fewer such masses the broader the picture, and the quicker the work.
What paints to use? You can't have been painting for nearly a year without knowing more or less. What was the drill? To try to tint on a slip of paper, holding it up at arm's length against the model. Sunlit spaces and sky will look light and luminous against any tint you can prepare, but go as near as you can; some darks will be darker than Prussian blue and crimson or burnt sienna (or all three together), but get the colour if you can't get the depth. If I tried to give a list of recipes, I hope you would forget it; for we don't want to work by recipe, but by observation.
In half an hour you will have the masses of colour laid in. Now set up the picture (on the easel, or prop it up on your camp-stool or against a stone), and get away from it a little to compare it with the real scene. You may find that some parts want a little more dark or a little change of colour; do no more than you can help to them. Retouching is an evil, but sometimes a necessary evil. Some lights may want to be picked out; at last there is a chance for your Chinese white, which may be mixed with colour and touched on where absolutely required; but, generally speaking, the Chinese white tube should be like the good little boy's bright half-crown--kept to look at, and only used on emergency. There is a way of painting with Chinese white in the tints throughout the picture, and to this we may come; but hitherto we have worked in transparent colour, and this is not the moment for venturing on new methods.
I hope this last look will not cost you many minutes; but we had a margin over the hour and a half. The less done now the better; you have at least a fresh bit of painting; your forms are right; there is no niggling, but everything is as broad as can be, and nothing is overdone. I think you may say, or somebody may say it for you, as Ruskin wrote of his own summer's sketching--"It isn't Turner--and it isn't Correggio--it isn't even Prout--but it isn't bad."
Typed by Blossom Barden, Feb, 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023
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