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. 294-298

[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.]

XV.--Field and Fireside.

In the autumn and winter of our year of animal-studies we became more venturesome. Most of the earlier work, though intended to lead up to such animal-sketching as would be useful in landscape, had been rather of the nature of exercises in preparation. We had indeed tried sheep, and the fowls would serve at any time in cottage subjects; but there remained the more difficult and important animals, cows and horses, cats and dogs. I put them in that order merely because we were coming to the period when out-door sketching was less practicable; you can ask your pupil to go into the field in October, and even in November, on fair days; but as Christmas comes on we must find subjects indoors and victimize the cat and the dog as models--as well as some younger brother or sister, home for the holidays, to help in keeping the sitter awake and in position.

Absurd though it seems, I think a quadruped's four legs are the greatest difficulty to a beginner--the four legs all touching the same plane but all at different angles--not to teach a conventional way of sketching a horse or a cow, which can be drawn from memory and inserted to order; but what we want is the power of sketching the animal we see, with its own action and character.

To make sure my pupils could profit by the attempt to draw a complicated and unrestful quadruped, I asked them to draw that more sober quadruped, a kitchen chair. The ordinary wooden article, with hollowed seat, curved back and divergent legs, can't be very easily ruled in, without elaborate perspective diagram; but anyone accustomed to sketching at sight ought to make it look right without scientific helps. Get it quite at the other side of the room, a dozen feet away, so that the floor it stands upon is not so much beneath the eye as to look slanting in your picture; rough the shape out with no reference to what you may have learnt of perspective, but doing all you know of downright drawing; ask anybody if it looks as though the seat were level and the legs all firm on the floor; then paint it with the grey shine on the dully polished wood, shadows from the legs and seat, and background as seen; and you are ready to attempt horses or cows, and likely to succeed as far as our aims go at present. We shall not be cattle-painters, but sketchers of tolerable figures to hold their places in landscape.

"I asked him," says the critic in the story of Mr. Baker's famous picture of George Washington, "why he put a guinea-pig in the foreground, and why that guinea-pig had horns. And he said it was not in the foreground but in the background, and it was not a guinea-pig but a cow!" There are plenty of landscapes spoilt for want of a little separate practice in the figures and animals, in which the men might be copied from scarecrows and the cows from guinea-pigs. In some, the figures are far too much detailed, looking as if they had been separately elaborated from models close at hand indoors, and not of a piece with the picture. The landscape figure or animal--seen at a distance and in relation to its surroundings--is a creation apart, not to be learnt from the cast or the studio model, but easily enough learnt by special practice out of doors. And though of course one may paint landscapes without figures, as many do for fear of spoiling their picture, the fact remains that most views--streets, cottages, bridges, fields, fishing-rivers, shooting-moors, and a great variety of subjects--cry out for an explanatory figure or for a point in the composition: and one ought not to be forced to omit it for want of a little practice.

When you sit by the fence, with your model well away in the middle of the field--for it is not to our purpose to make large studies in the stable or the shippon--you will notice that what you chiefly want is a good plain silhouette of the animal, its outline standing distinct and showing its character without much trusting to details. The shape, however bold, will be greatly obscured by local colours--the dappling of the cow or the shine on the horse--as well as by the light and dark. So don't begin upon a subject that is sitting down all in a heap, or turning its head away; take a normal and recognizable position: and as in studying the sheep, when one moves off, try another, aiming at a strong, squarely-drawn outline.

There is always a sort of little quarrel going on about "square drawing," and no doubt it is easy to overdo it as a trick of manner; for which reason, many good teachers discourage it and bid their pupils strike the curves of the figure at once. Any curve can be located and suggested by a series of straight dashes, tangents to the curve, and these, roughly sketched, can be whittled down into the flowing line. When you treat curves in this way you soon find that a series of straight lines, all equal and at equal angles to one another, make an arc of a circle; but the more varied and spirited is the curve. "Square drawing" is a great help to a beginner whose curves are limp and timid, but like all mannerisms it soon becomes a nuisance in drawing the studio-figure. And yet in sketching figures for landscape, when the chief object is to get their proportions on a small scale, you can't begin by trying to get the curve of the cow's back fully drawn with all its undulations. Indeed, you hardly see these details. You want to make sure of the height and length of the cow's back, before it moves away and prevents you from adding four strokes to fix the place and proportion of its legs. So for this purpose, square drawing is the right thing in the right place, and can be practiced on the kitchen chair. If you can suggest the retiring curve of the chair's back in three or four straight lines, you can make sure of your cow when you meet it. Get its body first, add the head and the legs, all squarely blocked in, and you are safe. The further working out of the silhouette is only a matter of tidying and refining; fix the outline with the pen; and clean with india-rubber.

By this time your model will have gone. Try another outline, and another, on the same paper--don't let the figures be all in a line or equally distant from one another, nor one on the top of its neighbour's head. Remember that the cow which comes higher up in the paper (unless the field is extremely hilly) is going to be farther off in your picture, and draw it smaller. This seems a childish rule, but when the paper is filled, it may as well be a real picture, and not a mere heraldic field of cows passant and regardant, drawn and quartered.

Though none have come into position yet for finishing, you can paint the background, keeping an eye upon your models for effect of tone. The field and trees behind will set the key for the little note of colour which, when the opportunity comes, you can rapidly strike over the white and outlined space, blending dark and light, black and tan, while wet; and your study is made.

Perhaps your cow has no eye. Are you sure you can see its eye without special investigation? What is more to be feared is that your cow has no light on the top of its head and along its back, and no dark, with green reflected into it, beneath. There is time yet to take out the light, and reinforce the darks, and to see that the shadow it casts on the grass is not forgotten nor misplaced. Otherwise you have still the heraldic cow, a ghost, instead of a solid creature in the real world. Seen far away, details disappear, but modelling remains. When all drawable form is lost in distance, the proportions are still there and the sense of solidity, however delicate, the grey half-tone where the light slips round the creature's back, fading into the real shade beneath.

To get this delicacy without niggling, and this ready strength of drawing and colour without coarseness, is in itself a great lesson in art. Plenty of amateurs learn to sketch boldly, but crudely; their work has no distance, no texture and no charm. Others can work up the details, but the life of the form and the freshness of the colour disappear as they overload their lines and tints. But by working for a while in our way you will at least learn the value of your materials, white paper and pure water-colours; and you will know good painting when you see it, which alone is an acquisition.

When we came to cats and dogs, we found that cats were much the hardest to study. They won't sit up, but hump themselves by preference into furry footstools. Ask somebody to help you by keeping your model amused on a table or on the sofa; not lower, because you can make nothing of a bird's eye view of a cat's back. Try as before for a good characteristic silhouette; never mind spoiling a few bits of paper, and when the general attitude is to your mind and the background painted, devote yourself to the head. The bright, slanting eyes, and the dainty Roman nose, and the little prick ears you will be able to draw and paint; don't think about the furry back yet. Then, remembering that the fur is only a cloak to four legs and a body, and that you know all about fur after painting the woolly-bear, put it in wet, over your firm lines of proportion, with quick strong colour, softening the edges as you go on, and blending stripe with stripe. Take out the grey lights and look for the rounding of the body and head and legs; but don't try to draw the hairs with spiky strokes. Half-a-dozen hard lines will never represent as many hundred delicate hairs, each with its own varied relief of light and dark. You will be tempted to put them in because you know they are there; but that is always the besetting temptation of the infant in art.

The dogs, dear things, will sit as you bid them--usually. I will not presume to come between you and your friend, or dictate advice on his portrait. Here, more than ever, sympathy is better than skill. Carpaccio could not paint fur like Landseer, and yet was there ever a better dog than St. Jerome's? You know the picture, or at least the Arundel print of it. The old saint and scholar, writing at his table and looking up vaguely through the window for inspiration, he has been too long at work. The little white pet jumps up from the floor, alert and hopeful, for he knows that it is quite time to leave those books. It will do them both good to go out.

[The St. Augustine picture "is a part of three canvases that narrate important scenes from the life of St. Jerome" by Carpaccio. Here's a close up of the little dog, a German Spitz.]

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