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 15, 1904, pg. 216-220

[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.]

XIV.--Feather and Fur.

For a year after the first publication of the article called "The Life School," our Club devoted itself to sketching animals. We began with the Feather, to make sure that the curvature of living forms and the gradation and softness of animal modelling and textures were not beyond our technical powers. The chief new difficulties were--first, that the models could not be expected to sit like still-life, which we overcame by starting upon the quieter creatures; and secondly, that the proportions of cows and horses, cats and dogs, are less easy to catch, and are of more importance to the result, than those of common landscape. But this too was got over by gradual approach, and by taking one thing at a time. I wrote no papers in the Parents' Review on these animal studies, but copious manuscript criticism and advice, or, I should say, advice rather than criticism; for it does not help a pupil to say, "You have done it wrong." The teacher's business is to prevent his doing it wrong.

A feather was a favourite subject of Mr. Ruskin's, and very charming little pictures he has left of bits of breast-down or quills from peacocks and other birds. Some of these have been engraved, but the best cannot possibly be reproduced. Even if their delicate tones could be represented by such plates as the aerial "Law of Evanescence" in Modern Painters, their colour would be wanting. Some experience in trying to get his work reproduced for publication has shown me that all our boasted improvements in processes fail in attempting really delicate work. There is still room in the world for the dainty art of water-colour.

This specialty of feather painting has been taken up by too few. At a recent exhibition in Coniston was shown a beautiful example by Ruskin's pupil and secretary, the late Laurence Jermyn Hilliard; and the work of Miss Murray must be known to many. But I wonder that more amateurs do not paint feathers, either as a decorative ornament to menu cards, calendars, and the various little things for which there is always a use, if only as presents; or to set, like one I know of Ruskin's, in a locket as a real jewel, as lovely as a cameo.

Of course, everything depends on the way you do it: and the charm of a painted feather lies in the taste and feeling of the artist. But there are a few points which, once made, would ensure at least creditable and interesting work; and feather painting does not make very great demands on the artist beyond taste and feeling. It is far easier to learn, by a few trials, than many kinds of art which amateurs attempt, though it gives opportunities in the way of graceful form and every sort of curious colouring enough to satisfy the virtuoso.

For our purpose, as leading to animal sketching, the chief object was to get the sweep of the rib and the swing of the enclosing contour, with sufficient expression of radiating structure--these practised first with a soft pencil until the lines can be easily struck, without blundering; and then the colour thrown freshly over the outline, blended where necessary while wet, and not stippled or overloaded. The beauty of Ruskin's best feathers as compared with those by most other people is in their wonderful combination of softly gradated and luminous colour with suggestions of detail. He did not so labour out the filaments as to turn the down into iron spikes, but he studied the structure first, until he knew it by heart and could afford to treat it lightly.

We made a point of painting the actual background, not leaving the feather in the middle of blank paper. Even if you set your model on a sheet of white card, you will find that the lights on it are brighter than the quiet surface of the background; and the shadows cast by it, though extremely tender and soft-edged, are by no means faint or weak. You will be surprised how much dark they need; and how very flat and very soft they are. But they give the feather its solidity and reality, and they relieve its contour so that it becomes a picture instead of a diagram. To get the contour true, it must be drawn as an outline, not left to chance. It need not be penned with a hard stroke; but even if it is penned (delicately and evenly) you will find that the colour, when put on frankly and to its full depth, overrides the outline which looked so strong upon the white paper; so that, however soft an edge is to be in the painting, you are safest in finding its form with the pencil first.

It may be necessary to use Chinese white to bring out the lights if you fail to take them out while the tint is wet, but try to do without it. Still more, deny yourself gum to strengthen the darks. If you ever find yourself hankering after gummy shine or strange mediums it means that you have lost the freshness of your water-colour: you had better take another paper and start a new drawing, in the resolve to get all the depth you need with one tint, and in the comfort of remembering that water-colour execution is a kind of conjuring; you can't expect to catch the egg or spin the plate without repeated trials and the skill won by practice.

Having painted a feather we went straight out into the fields, for it was April, and tried to draw sheep just as if they were feathers--four-legged feathers with the same problems of curvature, gradation, rounded surface, soft and sharp edges, and simple colour, seen on their green background. If you sit quietly down in a field where sheep are feeding they will soon get accustomed to you, and though some may come inquisitively to ask what you have brought them and see what you are doing, most will go on with their grazing. Sketch one in the middle of your paper; if he moves away, begin another; by-and-by you will find that you can complete your first from another model who has kindly got into the right position. At the distance needed for sketching them as "figures in landscape"--and that is what we want--they are pretty much alike. After a while you will perhaps get a chance to sketch their faces and learn to know one from another as the shepherds do; but that is beyond our present aim. It will be enough to know them from pigs, by observing that they have necks--which many sketchers are not quite sure about--and to match the blue-grey half-tone on their backs, and the warmer dark below, and to make certain of the shadows they cast on the grass, so that they live and move in the field of your picture, fairly proportioned and fairly real.

Then, to accustom ourselves to the difficulty of sketching action, we tried caterpillars, of which there were plenty to be found in summer. I got the members of the Club to catch woolly-bears and geometers, and let them crawl on a sheet of paper or a cabbage leaf. It was not so very hard to take snap-sketches of the various attitudes, noticing especially the furry edge of the woolly-bears and the pattern in soft material on some of their kind--good practice for cat painting later on. To prepare the eye and hand for the curve of tension in a rampant geometer I suggested making tiny longbows of twigs with a bit of cotton for the bowstring, and sketching them; and for contrast, throwing down an end of knitting wool upon the paper and sketching that, in its lifeless curls. The Club found it entertaining, and we had quite a menagerie of creeping things, such as I hardly think a drawing school had seen before.

Butterflies and moths were another month's lesson. The object of the study was not so much to make a scientific diagram of the pattern on the creature's wings, flattened out as they are in a collection, but to sketch the attitude as it stands with its wings open or shut. Some of the students kept their models for a day or two under a tumbler; some watched for them out of doors in the garden, and one or two lay in the grass and got capital snap-sketches of grasshoppers, not elaborately finished, but full of life.

As a preliminary drill I suggested sketching an open book or a letter, half unfolded as it comes out of the envelope. To get the perspective of the curved leaves and the pattern of writing on the page, giving no more than is seen in that position, prepares one for the difficulties of a butterfly's wing. With the portfolio of studies I sent round a Chinese book of butterfly pictures, not a little proud of the much more life-like and far less conventional insects we could show. This is another specialty which might become a delightful and valuable "minor art" in the hands of any amateur who might take it up on leisure afternoons of summer, and collect--not the mouldering corpses of our pretty little fellow-creatures--but their living portraits, taken in their homes and haunts, imperishably recorded.

One month's work was given to attempts at fish--gold-fish in a bowl or sticklebacks in an aquarium--any sort of fish (except shell-fish) that could be seen alive and swimming. This was intended as a study of movement and character. I set the subject in some fear that few would have the chance of trying it, or the perseverance to follow the elusive model with repeated pencil notes until the most frequent and typical attitudes were caught, and completed with colour. But we got a series of capital sketches, not elaborated like William Hunt's "Bloater," but not at all unlike some of Turner's rapid and brilliant memoranda of fish. The difficulty of the curves of action was overcome, simply by giving attention to the one point at a time, and the colour, necessarily thrown on without hesitation and labour, came out fresh and pure. What motives for decoration and what quaint bits of grotesque character came out in these studies can only be imagined by those who saw the portfolio, or those who will go and do likewise. There was one gold-fish with a sarcastic eye--it was worth a year's work to have painted him!

Of our two months at birds and fowls I have this pleasant little recollection. You bear in mind that our students were comparatively new to the art, and worked only in their leisure; to most of them, these subjects were quite unfamiliar. But being asked to lecture on water-colour painting to a large audience, I took with me what examples I could collect of exemplary work. Among them I put a number of sketches out of the Fésole Club portfolio; and I don't think it was only the teacher's quasi-parental pride, but some real touch of truth and nascent skill in the studies, that made me feel they stood undisgraced beside the work of real masters. I am sure many in the audience thought so too.

Typed by LovieWie, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023