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. 702-707

[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.]

XVIII.--Tableaux Vivants.

We have had in former papers some talks about the principles of composition, which, of course, apply to figures as well as to any other subject-matter. We noticed that the old, ancient meaning of the word "Art" was the joining or fitting together of the material supplied by nature into the form designed by man; and if in the mechanical arts this was still true, much more sure was it in the fine arts. The business of the painter is not only to represent, but, whether intentionally or unwittingly, to select and arrange his material so as to express the beauty of his subject (using the word beauty in its widest sense). Then we formulated seven principles which might guide us in our selection and arrangement, namely,--Contrast, Symmetry or Balance, Unity, Variety, Infinity, Principality and Repose. Now we have to see what use we can make of these principles in sketching our "Landscapes with Figures."

The diffidence which was expressed a little while ago, in proposing to our club-members to get models and draw from them, turned out unnecessary. They found little difficulty in persuading people to sit, and several sent in sketches from quite a variety of models. So it is perhaps not asking too much to set an exercise requiring several models at once. No doubt artists often compose a group of which the different members are drawn from the same model, variously posed and draped, but the first principle we have to bear in mind in this month's work is Contrast, and that can hardly be illustrated to its fullest extent without contrasting characters in the models we use, as well as contrasting attitudes and colours, It is also worth while to go to any amount of trouble in setting up the subject as a tableau vivant,--at any rate for the first studies of general effect, though the whole picture cannot always be painted from a permanently staged arrangement of many models. The best of the old masters took infinite pains in this preliminary stage-managing. Tintoret used to model his figures in wax and arrange them together under a fixed artificial light, in order to be sure of the way their shadows fell, and so forth. And even so great a man as Rafael, when at the end of his career he trusted to fancy, lost his way in the chiaroscuro. You can see that he never studied the lower group in the Transfiguration from a real group; the shadows could not have fallen as he painted them.

So in grouping figures, the student is wise in grouping his models as his betters have done, and still do. Much of the success of some of our best artists lies in the ingenuity with which they set up their picture, devising clever draperies and accessories, and building up a real scene to paint from. It is not only painting that makes the painter. The landscapist's experiences with wind and weather, insects, inquisitive cattle and mischievous boys, long tramps on the mountains or adventures at sea, all these are part of his business. The portrait-painter's tact with screaming cherubs and preoccupied dignitaries is even more important in general practice than his handling and draughtsmanship. Have you ever thought why Rafael could paint Madonnas, and Michelangelo could not? And what pretty tact and charming patience many of the revered Old Masters must have had with the babies in their studios? The young painter of "history" or "genre" has a new world to conquer, in practical picture-making, when he leaves the drawing-school and finds himself with his own model to pose, and four blank studio-walls to make into a background.

For our background, take the garden or any convenient bit of out-of-doors. For models, let us think first of Contrast, and secure it by engaging two or three differing types; never mind how commonplace the contrast may be: age and youth--how many pictures have been made out of that opposition; he and she--the old, old story illustrated on every wall of every gallery; dignity and impudence,--they still paint Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, just for the sake of the contrast. And even if you are confined to Rosalind and Celia, without either Touchstone or Orlando or the melancholy Jaques, let your two girls contrast in complexion, build, and costume.

In posing them we have to think of the purely artistic opposition of attitude and colour, by which a skilful painter often gets all the contrast he wants, scorning the more obvious method. "Art conceals art" they say; but we have first to get some art to conceal, and an amateur sometimes needs telling that if one of his figures is sitting on the grass the others need not all be sitting in the same position. Or, if there are several figures forming a series, in uniform colour or attitude, they are merely the groundwork of a strongly contrasting figure, relieved the more sharply by their monotony. A very little study of any picture-gallery, or, if you are away from pictures, of Punch, or the Illustrated News, or the Daily Graphic, will show you the universal habit of artists to lean upon a contrast of attitudes, and of light and dark, for their chief effect.

Of symmetry or balance there is less to say in grouping figures for landscape, because the group itself usually comes into the picture to balance the scene as a whole, and is therefore not a complete composition. And, again, of unity we need say little now, for when a sketch is made at one sitting on the spot, the circumstances remain more or less the same, and the feeling with which the artist works is not likely to change. It is when one returns to the subject that the difficulty of keeping up the unity begins to be felt, or worse still, not to be felt: when one has lost the first impression, and cannot regain it, but adds and alters, and all goes wrong. But these studies should be sketches done at one sitting, and then left to their fate.

Variety, in groups of figures, borders upon contrast; and yet it is a separate department. It reminds you that when you have made one figure lie at length on the grass, and the other stand upright, there is more to be done. You have then to see that the outlines are full of incident; that the relief against the background is not the same all along the edges; that the modelling of the figures and their drapery keeps up a perpetual play of change, sometimes sharper and sometimes more subdued, over all the space they occupy; and that their colour is interchanged and gradated, as all good colour must be. A good group is not a block, cut out and pasted into the picture, but a variegated bouquet growing within it, and giving point and life to it, as a cluster of blossoms in foliage or a well placed jewel. And this attribute of life and the gradation of colour and play of light on modelled surfaces leads on to the next department, which we called Infinity: that is to say, the expression of something beyond dead matter, the hint at a spirit in nature and man. What is called free and vigorous painting is that which shows the greater amount of suggestive curvature, subtle color-gradation and palpitating surface, the best we can do by art to give the sense of life and its mystery. And this comes when one paints with all one's energy and passion, and it goes when the mind is languid and the hand is slack: so that the only practical rule for its attainment is "Paint what you admire; and when you paint it, paint with all your might."

Principality. This is one more hint for arranging the group, and yet not of great importance, for the group itself, in a landscape, is only part of a whole. Still, see that one figure dominates the rest, either by standing well in front or by some higher note of colour or tone.

Repose, as we have noticed before, is not in its artistic sense Inaction, but rather the satisfaction which is felt in a well-arranged composition. There are pictures in which everybody is asleep, but the lines are uncomfortable; you want one of the sleepers to move this way or that: the colours are discordant, or something disturbs your sense of content in looking at the work. But in a good picture, though everything glitters, it is broad in effect; though everybody moves, the action is balanced; though the colour is full of variety, it is harmonious. That is repose; and half the work will be done in this, as in other requirements, by the thoughtful arrangement of your models before painting.

After all, the best groups are those that arrange themselves and are suddenly seen, and rapidly sketched on the spur of the moment. But we might as well command the sun to stand still as try to summon one of those chance arrangements back again, just as it was, with all the accidents that made it perfect. The best you can do will be to place your models on the grass, leaving much to them; for a model is never well-posed if he is uncomfortable. And by trying one point of view after another, find that which pleases.

I may warn you, perhaps, that there are two or three things which will easily spoil a group, though they may be remedied quite easily. Don't let the figures just touch, without overlapping. Get the heads distinctly relieved, light against dark or dark against light. Try to arrange the arms so that they are not all at right angles. When your sketch is half done, look at it from a distance and see whether the figures look like figures, without grotesque resemblance to faces in the fire or other unintended forms. Give full value to cast shadows; a group is a solid object and should look as though it stood out. Don't think that this solid effect can be got by any trick of loose painting with indistinct edges, as some people may tell you in accordance with the binocular fallacy.

This fallacy--that as we see with two eyes, and a slightly different view with each, we should paint both views at once on the same paper--became at one time the subject of some talk in our club. To illustrate the discussion I sent round in the portfolio a clever device, then newly imported from Switzerland, by which the stereoscopic effect was given in an extremely simple way. There is a pair of spectacles, and an incomprehensible and formless photograph. You look through the spectacles, and behold a startlingly stereoscopic view--vista of architecture or statuary that look as though you could touch it--quite a tableau vivant. You think there is magic in the spectacles and feel their glasses; but they are not lenses at all, only plain glass, red for one eye, blue for the other. The stammering photograph is really two prints superimposed, one in red and the other in blue. Through the spectacles your right eye sees only the red picture, because the blue glass kills the blue you are looking at; your left eye sees only the blue picture, all the red being taken out by the red glass. The effect is, of course, exactly like that of the common stereoscope; but the interesting point to us, as art students, is the hopeless blur that results when the two views, adapted to the two separate eyes, are printed on the same paper. If you really were to paint on the binocular theory your picture would be as hopeless a muddle as the double photographs sent round with this toy. But when you put the spectacles on, though there is the stereoscopic effect, the edges are all defined; not hard edges, but the clean forms which you see in nature until you confuse your common sense with sham science.

To get your group solid, then, see that your drawing is correct and your shadows true, without blurring the outline where it seems clear to unassisted vision. Paint what you see, and not what people tell you they think you ought to see.

Typed by Nicole Robinson, Oct. 2023; Proofread by LNL, Nov. 2023