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. 781-785

[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 Volumes 14 and 15.]

XIX. Tactics.

We have now called out quite a little army of landscape figures. We have dressed them and drilled them, so that they can take any position, perform any evolution and effect any combination. The last thing to learn is where to place them in the field of the picture, the Tactics of composition.

Now the whole art of Tactics consists in placing your men where they can kill without being killed. And that is just what you have to do in placing your figures in a landscape. For after all, the various geometrical arrangements pre-suppose a comparatively free hand on your part, as if the battle-field were always a plain. But, when you have your landscape fixed, it would give perhaps far more trouble than it is worth to adapt any pyramidal or semi-lunar scheme to the lines that are already on the paper. The old rule used to be to sketch an oval contained within the frame of your picture: then the figures of the landscape lie just within the oval. But even this is a rule that might lead, as such rules do now and then, to absurd results: the chief use of it is to prevent your placing the figures exactly in the middle, where they would stand in awkward self-consciousness, or putting them into the corners where they would be either hidden or obstreperous, like naughty children. Aim therefore at this rule of the oval, but interpret it with intelligence.

Let us ask, first, what it is that is fatal to landscape figures--what are the places they must avoid on penalty of being killed; and then we may go on to consider the kind of position in which they will stand with greatest effect.

In a picture, any small object that coincides with a larger one is killed by it. You know, perhaps, the game of thimble, --how difficult it is to see a brilliant shining silver thing when it is put upon any other brilliant shining thing. You see the thimble in an instant when it stands alone on the piano-top, but, when it is stood on one of the sconces it disappears as if by magic. Now, your figure in a landscape is always a small article, and the masses of the landscape, if the subject is as broad as it should be, are large. If the figure stands just on the edge of a mass, and coinciding with the edge, not cutting it, the figure is killed. Or, again, if it stands just underneath a tall mass, and continuing the lines, not contradicting them, it is lost. And it hardly need be added that if the figure stands in the middle of a mass which does not contrast with it in colour or tone, there is no change for it.

There are some positions which, if they do not entirely destroy the figure, inflict mortal wounds upon it. Arms, legs, or heads may be lost by being thrust into masses of their own tone and colour, while the rest of the body is left in contrast with its background. And there are some arrangements which are inglorious. You must not hang your figure from a horizontal line, just touching the top of his head, on the plan of a big Τ; nor must you put the sword of Damocles over his head, like a dot on an i; you must not let him stand thrust through, like the sign of plus (+); nor imprisoned in some defined mass, like the bar of a capital theta (Θ). But, on the other hand, he may cut the edge of the mass, and behave like the tail of a Q; or he may stand upon the horizontal, like the Τ upside down (⊥); or the dot of the i may be under his feet (!) in the form of reflections in the water, or what not. For, in all these cases, the figure dominates the background as something moving upon it, and not fixed into it.

This is, then, the first general suggestion we can make for the placing of figures. They must be on the landscape, as in fact, they really are; moving things separated from the background, and showing their separation by the fact that they cut the edges of masses, cross the lines, and contrast with the colours. The figures in a landscape are like the voice-part of a song in its relation to a well-written accompaniment; the notes do not coincide, but they harmonise, and sometimes the strongest effect is got when the instrument pauses and the voice sings on for a bar or so alone.

If, then, you have a part of your sketch which is comparatively blank, and the interest pauses there, you can get great effect by the insertion of a figure at the uninteresting space. But, in music, it would not do for the melody to end and then for the voice to begin alone for a complete passage--unless, of course, for some peculiar and unusual effect. So, in placing a figure in the dull part of a picture, your object is not to isolate the figure there, but to lead the interest into the void, and break it off there in sharp contrast. For instance, you have above your garden a mass of half-toned trees of little value: your figure rises out from among the flowers, and the head tells sharply against the background. Another instance: you have a stretch of level sand, a long, uninteresting line, which you break by a figure or two in the foreground, and others coming smaller and smaller as they lead the eye away into the distance, and carry the mind onward to the interesting part of your subject, the shipping, or the cliffs, or, perhaps, just the horizon far away. And as the most frequent difficulty of the amateur sketcher is the long level line in the foreground--wall or hedge, field or lake shore--it often makes a thoroughly bad subject into a thoroughly picturesque one to be able to sketch a figure or two in just the right positions.

We are studying figures with a view to bringing them into landscape. Now the effect of a figure in a landscape is quite different from the effect of a figure in a portrait or in a historical picture. In landscape the figure is one thing among many; it is not the subject, but only a part of the subject. It is a thing that moves, more actively than the trees and waves; or rests, more markedly than a rock. It is a space of tone, brighter than the dust on the road or crisper than the dark shadows of the trees. It is a spot of colour standing out from the hay-fields or the heather blossom. As part of the effect of the scene it is not a portrait of Farmer Smith or his pretty daughter, nor is it an actor in any rustic tragedy or comedy. You are not doing the special work of a landscape painter, though you illustrate the most thrilling of stories or paint the likenesses of all the neighbours, if your figures are not of a piece with the world they live in, and entirely at one with the spirit of the scene. You may perhaps, if you are skilful like a Frederick Walker and many a modern artist of the school deriving from him, add to your effect some sentiment or portraiture; but here we are dealing as usual with one thing at a time, namely the business of getting the look of the person in his place, blended with his surroundings,--his effect as a landscape figure.

Now, in the open air, we lose the strong shades and the solid modelling which are associated with figure-study indoors. A copy of a studio drawing, reduced in size, never makes a landscape figure; its scheme of light and shade and its colour are both different. Out-of-doors everything tells as a mass of colour, very unlike the cast and still more unlike a student's drawing from the cast. Take any flower from the garden and look at it indoors as if you were going to draw it, and then look out of the window at the rest of the flowers on the bush:--the effect on your eye and mind is quite another thing. Indoors you study the flower singly, looking for its petals and parts, seeing grey shadows among them that modify the colour and heighten the contrasts of tone. Out-of-doors you see a brilliant point in the green, grouped with other points; its form suggested rather than displayed, and its colour modified by grey skylight or yellow sunlight, no longer by the shades of the room.

In the same way we have to modify our notion of the figure when we get out-of-doors. We want a brighter and cleaner palette; we must give up all our darks under eyebrows and noses, and our high lights on foreheads. But the face is not flat, it is only more tenderly modelled, and its tone and colour in relation to the background have become more important, so that mere dots will stand now for eyes, nose and mouth. The dress, in the same way, becomes more self-coloured, so to speak. In our Fésole method we have always aimed at values, and avoided violent modelling in black, or indeed any shading in systematic grey; and in landscape this becomes imperative. The open air brings out local colour, and strong colourless darks are impossible.

This influence of the open air is curiously marked in the difference between various schools of ancient art. The Florentines and Venetians, who studied much from nature in their gardens and courtyards, seem to have seen masses of colour as a matter of course; while the later schools, studying from the cast to begin with, and working chiefly in studios with an artificially arranged light, developed the system of academic chiaroscuro, which was supposed to be a grander style the more it refused local colour. Titian got his early practice, I can hardly doubt, from watching the figures in his gondola, against the distant background of sea and sky, that sinks into a deep blue tone against the gold and russet of sunlit heads near by; but after his visit to Rome to see the great school of Michael Angelo, his backgrounds gloom over, and the rich distinctive contrast disappears into a brown obscurity of academic sombreness. His garden-workshop and Rembrandt's mill-studio, if they are myths, are still interesting as popular explanations of the fundamental difference between the two schools which these two great men head. It was only when our English water-colourists began to put old women in red cloaks into their landscapes, that artists ventured again to paint the open-air effect, and by slow degrees to allow themselves to give the real impression they received; and the steps of advance from [David?] Cox, who always put in his figures with his scene, to [Mariano] Fortuny who posed his models at the end of his long garden--and thence to the efforts of our best contemporaries, mark a progress to be proud of, among all the rest that may be regretted in modern art.

Typed by happi, Mar. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024