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. 852-856

[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.]

XX. Ears.

When I was a youngster it was deeply impressed upon me--whether by the teaching of my betters I know not, or whether by my own misconception--that I ought never to draw heads until I had learnt how to draw heads. And so there was always a sweet sense of truancy in the attempt to vary the "copy" and the "sketch" with secret experiments in ideal face-making. They were ghastly failures: they were as flat as plates and as crooked as reflections in a spoon; but all that I took for matter of course, until somebody should teach me the grand secret; meanwhile I perpetrated fancy things that make me blush to recollect.

Then I went to a drawing school, expecting initiation into the mysteries. But day after day passes and nobody said, "Now, look here: this is the trick!" On the contrary, all I heard was, "Go on. Copy the model." By-and-by it dawned on me that THIS was the grand secret:--"Go on. Copy the model."

But it is strange, is it not, to think that in the painting of human faces, with their glow of cheek and gleam of eye, their delicate ripple and evanescent shadowing of mouth and brow,--in this wonderful craft of Portraiture that reveals heart and soul to the bodily gaze, and makes the dead live again as in the wizard's mirror,--in all this there is no magical trick after all, no incantation needed, no open sesame to burst the door of the fairy mountain? It is just the old plodding of our pilgrim's progress, though on higher ground at last, and with glimpses of delectable mountains to beckon us on.

For, be assured, you must paint a head just as you paint a pebble, or a flower, or a landscape. You round its mass as you round a pebble--with light, shade, and reflection. You refine its curves and gradations, like the delicacies of rose leaves; and as you weigh and value and map out the aerial tones of a landscape, so you adjust the soft shadowiness and the spaces of light that make visible the features and render them expressive and animated. It is the same art exactly, only in more complicated working. To use our old metaphor--there are more horses to drive. But by now your eye has grown surer and your hand firmer to guide the chariot team, if you have followed out our Fésole practice from the lemon upwards.

[The first Fésole lesson studied a lemon.]

Our method has always been to take the difficulties singly. Let us then begin with the easiest part of the head, which is the ear; not because it is the easiest to represent conventionally, in a few strokes of the pencil, but because it depends less on movement and expression than do the other features of the face.

As we took a chair for preliminary practice, before drawing animated quadrupeds, we may get much good by trying a bit of still life in a subject which is not unlike an ear, depending on its curves and the rise and fall of its modelling. Take your soft pencil and draw a shell; by preference one of those soft-curved, tender-tinted shells to which the poets liken the daintiest human ears. But if your shell be only one of those rugged, sea-mossy creatures of the beach, that are rather like the "reasonable good ear" of Bottom, the weaver, than Titania's, it is no matter; so long as you spend your strength upon it, to get what curves it has in true perspective, and the body of it rounded, and the rough coating of it in contrast with it's "delicate spire and whorl" on the inner side. For in any shell we may find for the seeking "a miracle of design."

Try the shell with soft pencil on white paper, and then with white chalk on brown paper or a bit of straw-board such as it used for packing. You will find that by sketching in white on a dark ground, you get a different idea; you look at your subject for its lights and not for its darks; and by putting on the lights and leaving the brown or yellow ground to serve for darks, you avoid the stringy look of your first sketch.

Now ask your model to sit for the ear. It is to be drawn life-size, and to do that well it is best to stand to the work, often walking back to see both your drawing and your subject, set side by side, and sometimes comparing them together in the mirror. To see them both together in the hand looking-glass, hold it up close to your face, turn half away from the two things you want to see until you catch their reflection, and imagine yourself looking through the mirror; it will be too close to your eye for you to attempt looking at its surface. Then you will be able to see both model and picture simultaneously and steadily, and the mirror will show you whether your drawing tallied with your subject, far better than you could tell without its help. That is why Leonardo da Vinci called the mirror "The master of artists."

Your picture will be on an easel, or on a chair placed on a table, just on the level of the ear you are drawing. Pose the head first in profile. If your model won't be patient without reading, arrange the book or paper on a high stand or an easel, so that the face may not be looking downwards into the lap, and that the profile may come pretty level: that is to say, with the head set on the shoulders as when one is walking, the chin neither elevated nor depressed. Your light, you remember, is to come over your left shoulder; your sitter therefore had better show the right ear, otherwise the book will be in the dark, and the model's eyes will be tired. Then of course the model will object, or ought to object, to sitting.

With the chalk anybody can draw an ear. You put a squarish white patch, the lobe, as it were the root-mass of a little seedling plant; one tendril of which shoots up, and curves round, and forks at the end of it into two tiny branches; and the other tendril, starting independently from the lobe, curls right round the first shoot, fork and all, and ends with a little leaf handing down so as just to touch with its point the top of the lobe from whose opposite side it sprang. All ears are built on the same plan; their difference is merely in the relations of the parts. In some the lobe is bigger in proportion: in some the long encompassing ridge is more or less prominent, thicker or thinner, as compared with the inner ridge: and in some, the inner ridge becomes forked sooner than in other cases, or encloses a greater or a smaller hollow for the sound to go through into your head. It doesn't matter a bit what they call these ridges and holes in anatomical books, nor what the use of them may be. What we have to learn is the look of them (1), in different people; (2), in different positions; (3), in different lights; and then we know all we want as artists.

So now let us take another bit of brown paper, and stand so that we get the face of our model nearly full, and draw the ear again. You see it is just like drawing the penny in perspective, only that the variety of surface makes the perspective a little more complicated. Try once more a similar rough sketch of the ear seen from behind. Then, for you find by now you can strike these few white lines very rapidly, ask the model to stop reading and move a little, so that they light falls differently upon the ear, and make a note or two of the effect. You see that however the light comes, you have always there three parts to account for,--the lobe at the base; the outer ridge with its leaf-like broadening just before it meets the lobe again; and the inner ridge with its little fork. And if you can get one or two other people to sit for a moment to let you compare the difference, you will learn your alphabet of ears once and for all before you have done your day's sketching.

There is one model whom you had better not ask to sit, and that is yourself. One of our early portrait painters, two hundred years ago, complained to his sitter--some duchess or princess--that he so rarely had the privilege of drawing a perfect ear. "And pray, sir," said the lady, hoping, I fancy, for a compliment, "what do you call a perfect ear?" "This," said the painter, pulling up his cap and showing his own. The folly of the man, however, was only in being conscious of a standard of beauty which most people accept unconsciously. Leonardo da Vinci advises the young artist to take note of his personal imperfections for fear he should reproduce them in the figures he draws. And I think that some malevolent art critic might write a very amusing paper illustrated with the portraits of artists and studies of their favourite types of faces. He would not have much difficulty in showing that in a great many cases their ideals of divinity are little more than flattered portraits of themselves. The best art--at any rate, the best for students--is strict portraiture, and the foundation of that is accurate drawing.

After these chalk sketches it will not be difficult to paint an ear. From a distance and with the glass, you will soon see that it won't do to represent the ridges of the ear as hard, white lines of equal brightness throughout, nor the hollows as pits of bottomless black. You will see how full of gradation are both the lines of light and the spaces of shade; the play of surface, as in the true model of a mountain land or a beautiful bas-relief, will force itself upon you without much trouble on your part, so long as you don't sit over your work, niggling and poring into the detail. "Art is athletic," says Mr. Ruskin, and this is a case in point.

In painting, after laying in your first wash, and taking out the light, you will of course find that more retouching is needed than usually in our studies, both in the matter of adding darks and in taking out lights. It is impossible, I think, to give any very precise rules as to the amount of retouching. Remember, however, that in adding darks you should add colour, and not go on shading with black or neutral tint. In taking out lights, as they are to be soft and delicate, wash with the brush-point cautiously, and don't scratch with a knife or scrub with a rag, until you have painted a good many dozen of ears. And always walk back, comparing your model and your drawing at a distance. Do not forget to put in the background, so to speak--the hair behind and above the ear, and a bit of the colour of the cheek beside it; for this will keep your tone and colour in balance. In a word, paint this study as if you are painting a flower, with the grace of a lily and the blush of a rose.

Typed by Nicole Robinson, Feb. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024