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. 371-376

[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.]

XVI.--The Canon.

The first and greatest difficulty of the amateur figure-sketcher is to find a sitter. It is all very well for the art-student who lives in a large town, and can afford seven-and-sixpence a day, and luncheon, to hire a professional model who sits for an hour at a time in any attitude. But our pupils are mostly young people in the country, and their choice, for one reason and another, is very limited. Most of the people around them are too busy to give much time, and the sort of country-folk who might be supposed to be picturesque, and obtainable for a shilling, are often very bad sitters, and more worry than they are worth. It is not so easy to sit still, unless one is getting old, and is naturally indolent; there are reasons of domestic and political economy against introducing the more indolent type of cottager into the Hall or the Vicarage. The casual tramp or gipsy is picturesque enough, but not to be thought of, except by the artist whose studio is out of the house, and whose house is not worth burglarizing.

Still there must be one or two of the elderly people in any neighbourhood who are at leisure for a couple of hours in the day, and who could sit in an easy position, without torture; or, when we come to more rapid studies of attitude and movement, could stand for twenty minutes, or walk slowly round the garden. The objection you may raise to such models is that they are not pretty.

Now let me say at once that we are not going to paint lovely Greuzes and Greek goddesses just yet. We are going to aim at sketching the ordinary, contemporary human being, in its real character and its true proportions. When we can get arms and legs the right length for the body, hands the right size for the face, feet properly planted on the ground, and head poised on the shoulders, then we may try a pretty face. Meanwhile your pretty housemaid is the worst model you can choose. You will spend your rose madder on her cheeks and your cobalt on her eyes, and forget to notice where her elbows come, or how far it is between her chin and her apron. For this reason don't go down to the school to pick out the nicest of the children. Children are terribly hard to draw, though they sometimes sit very patiently, as long as they are shy; but the moment they begin to get a natural expression on their faces, they begin to be restless.

Once more: don't ask parents to sit. Mothers are much too busy; and fathers will sometimes say, "I'll sit, if I may read the paper"; which either brings the face down into a very difficult foreshortened position, and in the dark--the reader's back being toward the light; or else the paper gets into the way, and becomes the principal subject; which is all very well for a genre-picture, but not for this study. Besides, relatives have a way of saying, "Well, I didn't know I looked like that!" which is more discouraging than they mean to be.

Where two or three students live near each other, they can take turns to be artist and victim. That is perhaps the best way of all; for a friend is more willing, and a fellow-student is much more intelligent of the requirements of the case, less constrained and uncomfortable-looking, doesn't hope you have nearly done, while you are worrying about the outline.

Don't get out your colours for the first sitting but only a soft pencil, india-rubber, a hand looking-glass, and a plumb-line, which can easily be made by tying any trinket of about two ounces weight at the end of a thin string.

Ask your model to stand at the farther end of the room, while you work by the window. A room with two windows, both on the same side, is best, for then one window can light the model and the other lights the picture. Your model is to be in ordinary out-doors dress, not Sunday best, but working costume.

First, block out the main forms, just as though the model were a mere stone for a still-life study. Never mind the face, except to get the right size of it, and a touch or two giving the position of the features. Sketch the hand as a whole, indicating the fingers as if they were radiating cracks in the rock or sprays of moss, without attempting joints and nails. With the plumb held at arm's length you can see what comes vertically over the foot or elbow, or any fixed point, and with the pencil, similarly, you can measure the proportions, checking them off on the pencil-stick with your thumb as you hold it out between your eye and your model at arm's length. This is only a rough way of getting the proportions, though sometimes useful; but it is best to sketch in the whole figure without plumbing or measuring, to begin; then correct. Finally look at both your drawing and your model in the glass, and compare them critically.

The experience of the first trial-study of the figure proves, in most cases, that the proportions are a real difficulty, in spite of plumbing, and measuring, and taking one's comfortable time over the outline. It behoves a teacher, therefore, to give all possible helps; and, while repeating for ever the old saying that "drawing does it," to suggest crutches from lame drawing, and stimulants for lazy drawing. In a word, most sketchers seem to want means of self-criticism, other than the mirror. The mirror is a splendid critic, until the model moves; but then it is useless. How then are we to be sure that we have our proportions right?

The instrument we can apply is the Canon. That was the Greek name, and is still the technical name for a series of measurements of the human figure as it ought to be: and in the history of art many things are written about the origin and development of the Canon, or rather the various Canons from time to time in use. Fashion in figures has changed, like fashion in dress: and different ages and nations have preferred their people stout or slim, long-legged or short-legged, and so on, as the case may be; and the art critics of the time have always laboured to explain, on philosophical grounds, how entirely right the last new fashion has been. We, however, need not trouble ourselves with the history, nor with the theory of the Canon; but, discarding the very cumbersome apparatus of the professional figure-draughtsman, let us be every man his own Bonomi, and evolve our own Canons for ourselves.

They say the first difficulty is to find a unit; which means that it is no use measuring arms and legs with the two-foot rule, and in inches, because whether a man is five feet tall, or six, his proportions, if they are good, are practically the same. A "foot" was of course originally the length of one's shoe: but as the sketcher rarely sees the model's sole, it is useless to give the Canon in feet. The face is used in some Canons as unit: but, except in the common or studio model with shaven chin or hair that can be tied back, beards and fringes make it difficult to measure the face; for our sketching is of the ordinary figure as seen in daily life. The objection to taking the length of the head as unit is almost as great; for among other difficulties, hats of incalculable heights interfere. But when you remember that the eyes are half-way between the crown and the chin, you can generally ascertain the size of one-half the head from the other half. A head with a beard and a hat is an unknown quantity, and must remain so: but take off the hat, and you can tell at once that the chin should come as far below the eyes as the top of the head comes above them.

Sculptors and portrait-painters use wooden callipers or compasses to measure their models, because the ordinary sharp compasses might prick. You can make an efficient tool out of two brushes (or any sticks of about a foot in length) pinned together with a wire--say a red-hot hair pin run through. Measure the model from chin to crown, holding your compasses extended alongside of the head, not in front of it. Then twist the wire round, so as to hold the compasses firmly open at the right angle for the size of the head; and you have the unit of measurement for that figure if we accept the head as unit.

You don't need elaborate measurements, for our figures are to be on a small scale for landscape purposes: and it is not the nicety of statuesque proportions that will serve our turn, so much as the relative size of sleeves and trousers, blouse and skirt, and so forth. Besides, a long and detailed list would only burden the memory and confuse you in field work. Half-a-dozen simple formulae which you can remember and trust are worth a book full of fractions, when it comes to sketching people out of doors.

Roughly speaking, then, you will find that very tall figures are eight times as long as their heads; short people, about seven times. Your first sketch will probably have the head too large for the body, and the lower part of the face too large for the head. The eyes ought to come about half-way between chin and crown, but inexperienced sketchers usually place them too high. If you have got them pretty nearly right and the head as a whole not too big, it will show that your previous work has already taught you a great deal of accuracy.

Legs are usually, by the beginner, made too small. Indeed, in many models they are too small, but the inaccurate sketcher often makes them no bigger than arms, especially in sitting figures. Remember that Rob Roy was immensely long in the arms because he could tie his garters without stooping. Women's limbs are said to be normally shorter than men's, but in picturesque subjects the rules of academic proportion count for very little. You will find, roughly speaking, that when the arm is bent, as it will most often be, the shoulder-seam to the elbow measures fully one head and a half, the elbow to the end of the sleeve at the wrist between one head and one and a quarter. You do not often see the hand spread straight out, but when you put your wrist to your chin you can just touch your hair with the finger-tip; so that the hand is the length of the face, or three-quarters of a head.

Legs, in our sketching-code, mean trousers or skirt, measured from the waist to the heel. In tall figures you may find this to measure five heads, but it is less normally. When the knee is bent, from the top of the knee to the ankle is about two heads; from the front of the knee to the back, in a sitting figure seen in profile, is about two and a half heads or rather more, especially when the clothes make a little fulness round the figure. If your model sits bolt upright, from the chair-seat to the crown of the head is four heads: but as people rarely sit up, don't make it more. The waist in women is smaller than in men and of course they like that distinction; but if it is less than a head across you may suspect tight-lacing. The breadth of shoulders and other parts varies extremely with attitude and costume; but note the tapering of the limbs, and see that the feet in whatever foreshortened position are bigger than the hands.

Get these measurements for yourself from a number of different models, to see how they vary with men and women, tall and short, old and young. In children especially observe how a baby's head is enormous, compared with its limbs; make it put up its hands and see how little they can reach above its crown. You will then know how to criticize the children in early art, in which they are so often made like grown-up people on a reduced scale. And when you have noted a number of figures, writing the chief measurements under the sketch of the model in each case, pin up your studies on the wall and learn them by heart.

But when you go to nature, don't make an effort to apply the formulae. If you know your proportions in the right way they will serve to check your sketch, not to produce it. You will not have a rule of thumb for designing, but a trained eye for observing, and the power of decisive and rapid drawing. You want to be decisive, but only after deliberation. When you leap, do it like lightening; but first you must look.

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