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. 450-455


The first figure-drawings showed that our members found no great difficulty in sketching a quiet mode, in spite of some apprehensions. A very good drawing-master used to say, "You can learn to draw anything, if you will give your mind to it"; by which he meant, "Attack each difficulty separately, and resolutely." So, we found confidence enough to try a new difficulty.

This difficulty is Attitude; and to and to those who have never faced it, a terrible one. You see now and then street-scenes by artists who can paint the houses beautifully, who could, if they gave their minds to it, paint the people too; but for want of special study of attitude, their figures are so many sticks, pegged into the pavements. It is useless to tell a sketcher that he should have taken more care over any one picture. He has usually to work at speed, and to dot in his figures without elaborate preparation. But if he has already studied attitude, the result of his study will show itself in the almost unconscious arrangement of every blot and line. It is not by making an effort that one does good things; it is by having made efforts, until the difficulty has vanished.

Among the old masters of water-colour, [Samuel] Prout was perhaps the cleverest at what they called "inserting figures." The people in his streets, though lightly drawn, and slenderly coloured, seem to move in picturesque groups, to circulate in the market-places, to congregate at the church doors, full of life and variety; hardly ever depending, as Turner's figures do, on incident and symbolical meaning, still less on palpable artifices and theatrical arrangement, but managed with perfect freedom and harmonious ease. Perhaps it was a "gift" of Prout's; but the multitudinous sketches of attitude in his "Microcosm" [book of lithographs] show how he earned the gift. "Attitude is everything," says an old proverb. In figure-drawing it is much, if not all; but let it be "everything" in the study for this month. Let the drawings be as rough as they must, get the attitude. Let legs and arms be in any proportion or disproportion (after previous practice they should be fairly correct without much attention--the having made efforts will tell), let heads be like turnips, and eyes and noses wanting, but get the attitude. A fresh mind, for this cannot be done without undivided attention,--a fresh mind and a soft pencil will do the work. Throw the colour over your lines freely, before your model tires, and let well alone.

A variety of attitudes may be tried, of which a few are suggested; the choice will depend upon the available model.

1. Reading. Note the inclination of the head, and the firm resting of the elbows on the arms of the chair. Let the model have time to become interested in the book, before you try the attitude; for which purpose spend twenty minutes in drawing the chair first. Models always take a little while to get comfortable in the position, and until they have "found themselves" it is wise to begin with background and surroundings.

2. Writing. Put the model at a small table on the other side of the room, so that you can see the lower part of the figure; get the head nearly in profile, to give the stoop of the back.

3. Sketching,--a useful pose for a landscape figure, and one which will be conveniently arranged where two members are working together.

4. Carrying a large basket (it need not be heavy) with both hands; the body leaning back a little to keep the balance.

5. Carrying the basket on the head, with one or both arms up.

6. Carrying the baby, if the models can be got, is always a good incident to have in stock.

7. Picking flowers, or what not, from the ground; one hand holding up the apron to receive the flowers (or what not), one foot a little advanced, and the balance of the figure properly kept.

8. Lying down--one of the most natural attitudes in a summer landscape, but not the easiest to draw.

All these--and they are only specimens--illustrate quiet attitudes, not depending upon quick movement. In studies of Attitude we have to draw figures which, on the whole, are in repose; in studies of Action we have to draw figures which will not stay still, to be measured and plumbed.

But how are we to learn the expression of such action? We have only to deal with the draped figure, drawn on a small scale, and suitable to landscape work. This relieves us of all anatomy, but we have still the drapery to conquer. We have, practically, to suggest action with the help of attitude plus drapery. What rules can be given for drapery drawings?

Many years ago a young student, who was ambitious in this line, and had tried most of the tricks, such as dressing a clay model in wet muslin, and arranging his flying scrolls upon the floor to be drawn with a combination of mirrors, and so forth; this young person asked our foremost drapery-painter for his trick. "Well," said Burne-Jones, "for this picture' --pointing to the Hesperides dancing round their golden apple tree--"I made a young lady run round the garden, and tried to sketch her." That was not his whole secret, but it was the root of the matter.

Observation and diligent sketching are indeed the only tricks, in this as in other lines of art work. The instantaneous photograph is little or no use, for we have to paint the appearance, the effect on the eye and mind, not the separate elements of fact that go to make up that effect. A stormy lake and swaying trees, seen by a lightning-flash, seem to be immovable: our impression of movement comes from a combination of attitudes, just as our impression of any scene comes from a combination of incidents. In landscape painting it is not any one section of the panorama that, however carefully painted, makes a great painter's subject, but his impression of the scene as a whole. So in the action of a figure, it is not the attitude at any given moment, but the net result of the series of attitudes, that expresses action, as you see in the biograph.

Watch, for example, a knitter's hands. They take a series of positions, which they go through over and over again. In some of the positions their action is hardly explained; some of the fingers are hidden, others look awkward; sometimes the needles disappear, or are foreshortened so that they could not be known if they were faithfully drawn. You will find that the look of knitting is best given by a combined attitude, in which all the fingers and needles are shown, even though this may not be the actual fact at any given instant.

What is, then, this typical attitude, and how may we be guided in looking for it? You know how deaf people read the lips? You can practise the art by talking to yourself in the looking glass; and you will observe that many of the positions of the lips, if photographed instantaneously, would hardly show that you were talking. Your mouth will shut when you say B, P or M; when you say F or V the lower lip will be oddly drawn up. On the whole it is the vowels that give the form of the mouth. There is a picture by [Ernest] Meissonier of a man singing to a guitar [Soldier Playing the Theorbo]; you can tell he is saying, "Oh!" and the effect, though not comic, is rather humorous. Say or sing "You!" to the glass, and it looks almost like whistling; sing "He" and there is a tendency to a grin. But the normal vowel "Ah!" you know at once that the face is a singer's. So in regulated, rhythmic action, the moment of most intense energy is that which is most typical. In throwing a ball, in digging or mowing, it is toward the end of the stroke that one gets the speed or strength on and overcomes resistance most completely; so you naturally paint a bowler just before he lets the ball go. In rowing or threshing, or hewing with an axe, or hay-raking, it is near the beginning of the stroke; and accordingly that is the most paintable point in the series of positions. A mower could, of course, be painted at the beginning of his stroke, and a woodcutter with his axe in the tree, but neither would give such an impression of energy; and if we had a group of workmen to draw, each might be in a different attitude; but the principal figure would naturally illustrate the typical and most energetic position.

In more continuous action, such as ploughing or running, there is less contrast of the separate limbs, but more evidence of the whole figure in movement, especially as shown by the resistance of the air to the drapery. When you watch a runner carefully it is surprising how like a Greek sculpture the whole figure becomes, in spite of modern costume. The figure shows out in the direction in which it is moving, and the drapery flies back in those undulating folds which we admire in ancient marble. The dominant lines are no longer those of trimming and fashionable detail, but the swinging curves of action, which are the same now as in the age of Pericles. In all energetic movement watched carefully, you will see no less transforming power; and perhaps you will feel that Frederick Walker's figures have not, after all, more grace and Greek spirit than belongs of right to any active peasant. You remember how the Disagreeable Man (in Ships that pass in the Night) tried to photograph a Swiss girl with her finery on and her charm off:--"For goodness' sake look as though were baking the bread," he asked her. And you must have felt how picturesque the lass or labourer looks at work in the field or at the farm--the very girl or man whom you thought so awkward in Sunday clothes, trying to do nothing. Partly that is because working clothes take the lines of action, and even men's coats and trousers get creases in harmony with their customary energetic use, like the cracks of tree-trunks or the weathering of rocks; but the beauty of the active figure is chiefly because you see the figure more and the clothes less,--the humanity more and the disguise less.

When this exercise was set to the Fésole Club, it was surprising how readily it was taken up, and how quickly the apparent difficulties vanished. We had tennis-players, gardeners, haymakers, sawyers, children playing games and skipping, and so forth in great variety; and one sketch which showed capital action of a housemaid running to catch the post with the letters in her hand and her cap-strings flying like the chlamys of a Greek nymph. I forget whether her face was drawn at all; but it should be added that in attempts to express vigorous action one should beware of trying to work up the face from a model in repose. A face in excitement needs study of the most difficult kind; and for landscape-sketching purposes the best plan is to leave it without too much detail, just noting the bright eyes under something like a frown, and the mouth (in spite of all advice to keep it shut) usually more or less open.

Not only instantaneous photographs, but the sketches which are made from them in illustrated papers are unsafe "copies" for young beginners. They are often immensely clever and interesting; but these dignitaries in procession, fixed in the attitude of goose-step, are not like life, and the struggle for new and exciting attitudes in football-players, however true to momentary strain, is not a good school for the weaker pencils of amateurs. There is always something real to draw; and if you must copy, copy the best masters who will teach you to see in Action, not its frenzy, but its grace.

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