Brush Work And Drawing
( Originally Published 1913 )
Now that we have come to an end of our talk upon color, I must say a little about brush work. I hope to show you that a good painter may use his brush in such a way that there is quality and expression in the actual strokes.
I say a good " painter," because I am thinking of that distinction I pointed out to you, between artists who are really painters or colorists, and those who are, more strictly speaking, draughtsmen. The latter, you will remember, pay particular attention to the lines of their figures, and then in spreading the paint, are careful that it shall not interfere with the outlines. On the other hand, the man who is, strictly speaking, a painter, sees his figures as colored masses.
I tried to show you that each method is right from its separate point of view. But at the time we talked about this, we had not studied the meaning of quality and expression. So I put off telling you about the possibilities of quality and expression in line. We will talk about it now, and then return to the brushwork.
Remember, what we are to think of now is a drawing of a figure or object, represented simply in outline, with no added strokes to suggest light and shade. It may have been done with a pencil or brush, or in one of many other ways ; but it is only outline. Now many people think the only purpose of the outline is to enclose the figure, so that we may see what the figure is. They may think the figure is beautiful, because it represents something of which they are fond; the plump body of a baby, for instance. But suppose the figure represents an old worn-out beggar, with long scraggy arms and bare, misshapen feet. Would they see any beauty in it ? I expect not.
Yet, although there may be no beauty in the figure, there may be a great deal in the lines which enclose it. If so, the beauty of line, of which we are now talking, must be an abstract beauty; due to something in the line itself, independently of the figure with which it is associated.
Suppose you draw a line on a piece of paper. What is the result? The line has taken a certain direction, and it is of a certain kind. It is thick or thin, or it begins thin, grows thicker and then diminishes in width, or vice versa. It may be faint or distinct; firm or wavering, and so on. Which ever kind it is it will be so, either because you wished it to be of that kind, or because you couldn't make it otherwise. In either case, it is you that have made the line what it is. If you have enough skill, you can make the line exactly what you wish.
Again, the direction of the line is the result of a movement of your hand and arm. Very likely you moved uncertainly: you were not even sure in what direction it was moving. But, if you were a skilful and practised draughtsman, don't you sup-pose you could so regulate the movement of your hand and arm, that the line would take the exact direction you desired? Yes, you, would have as much control over the direction and character of the line, as a musician has over the keys of a piano, over which his hands move in various directions, sounding the various notes.
But is the skill in doing this all that makes a good musician ? You know that he must also play, as we say, with feeling. This means, first, that he must be able to feel the beauty of the music; secondly, that he knows how to move his arms and touch the notes so as to draw forth from them just the quality of sound that the feeling demands, and to make the whole body of sounds render an expression of the feeling.
Now, just as the feeling passes from the brain of the musician into the tips of his fingers, so it does with an artist. You will see him, as he tries to tell you about the beauty of something, circling his hand in the air, meanwhile curving his fingers and thumb, as if he were trying to grasp the beauty. It is an instinctive movement, due to his habit of expressing his conception with his hand. A sculptor will do much the same thing, only he is more apt to close his fingers and express his meaning with his thumb —the part of his hand that he uses most in modeling.
One of the most beautiful examples of feeling in the hand is illustrated in the modeling of a vase. The potter stands before a "wheel," or table, the top of which revolves. There is a spike in it that holds in place the lump of clay. But while we watch, it has ceased to be a lump. It has grown up under the potter's hands and is a hollow vessel, every moment changing its shape slightly, as with his fingers or the palm of his hand he brings it nearer and nearer to the design that is in his brain. He stops for a moment, and we think that he has finished. But, no, he is only criticising it. It is not yet quite as he feels it should be; and again the wheel revolves and the hand,—oh ! so tenderly—coaxes the clay to receive exactly the line of beauty that he feels.
And from the potter we may gain another insight into the beauty of an artist's line. I said that the clay grew up into the required form. And certainly if you have seen the operation, you will say that growth is just the word. Now in the line of all beautiful drawings there is the feeling of growth. Not in a metaphorical way, but most literally, the line grows under the artist's hand, impelled by the feeling in him that he is trying to express.
Let me tell you a little experience of my own. Though I am not an artist, I have often made drawings. One day I was enlarging a piece of ornament, in which there were scrolls of acanthus leaves; big cabbagy sort of leaves, with a curving spine and crinkly edges. The chief point was to get fine winding lines into the curves. For a long time I imitated the copy as well as I could, when suddenly I seemed to feel within me just how the curve should go. It was not a matter of seeing the copy, but of feeling the actual growth in my brain. And lo! a miracle, for one moment my hand was able to do what my brain prompted. That leaf actually grew under my hand. I could feel it growing. And of course that was the best bit of the whole drawing. The rest was mechanical; this bit really lived. Well, in my case that was a miracle and has never been repeated. But in that moment I learned two things—firstly, what must be the joy of an artist in the act of creation; and, secondly, that an artist's line may be a living growth ; and, in the case of really fine draughtsmen, always is.
Since then I have watched the growth of trees and plants, and discovered, as you may for your-self, the separate beauty and character that belong to the lines of growth of each separate plant and tree. And, when you have done so, you will come back to the study of line in drawing, convinced that the beauty of line consists in its expression of life and character. Not only the life and character of the object represented, but the life and character of feeling in the artist.
Now perhaps you will realise how a drawing, though it represents only an ugly old beggarman, may be beautiful. Life, in all its forms is wonderful, even if sometimes horrible. And the expression of it by a thing so slight as a line is beautiful, be-cause we need not trouble about the object represented, but be satisfied to enjoy only the life and character that the line expresses.
It will also help you to understand and appreciate the abstract quality of line, if you study Japanese drawings and prints. For their way of representing figures and objects is not the same as ours, nor do we always know what the subject of the picture is about. Therefore we are better able to enjoy the line in an abstract way, apart from all consideration of the things that are represented.
After this little talk on line, we may now pass to brushwork. It is no longer the thin edge that we are to keep in mind, but the mass, great or small, as the case may be; the mass of a gown, for ex-ample, or the mass of one of its folds.
I need not tell you that an artist's hands may be alive with feeling when he holds a brush, just as when he has a pencil in them. In fact, what we have said about feeling and expression in line may be applied to brushwork. In the case of a man who is not merely a filler in of spaces with paint, but is by instinct a painter, the brushwork grows into life beneath his hand. Sometimes he lays aside his brush and takes a palette-knife, with which to spread the paint on the surface or to scrape the part already painted. Sometimes he uses no tool at all, but kneads the paint with his thumb. Whether he employs these or other methods, is a matter of comparative unimportance. The main thing for us to realise is that, whatever means he employs, it is because he is giving expression to some feeling in his mind. There is a passage of feeling from his mind through his arm to his hand, and thence to the canvas.
The swifter the passage is, the more vitality, as a rule, will there be in the brushwork. The reason is, that in such a case the artist is sure of himself. The feeling in his mind is so clearly comprehended; he so thoroughly feels what he wishes to express, and is so sure of the way to render it, that there is no hesitation or sign of fumbling in the result. It has grown freely and naturally and the result gives us that keen and direct pleasure that we derive from what is brimful of life.
You know how stimulating it is to listen to a speaker, whose words flow from his thoughts with-out any humming and hawing; and whose words naturally and exactly express the thought. In such a man's talk there is a living growth of thought. As you proceed in your study of painting you will learn to feel in brushwork either the presence or absence of such living growth.
You will find sometimes, however, that the brush-work, which at first seems very much alive, is not really a living growth. It is more like the clever tricks that you perform with your bodies in a gymnasium. It is merely an exhibition of vigor. I may liken this to the oratory of another sort of speaker, who has a great gift of the gab but very few ideas. He pours out of his mouth a stream of vigorous, showy, fine-sounding words; and fascinates you for a few minutes with the " exuberance of his verbosity." But presently, when you come to think it over, you discover how pretentious and slip-shod the whole speech was. He was exhorting to patriot-ism; but, where Lincoln would have left us with a few choice thoughts, so perfectly expressed that they will remain for ever in the memory, this man has only bedecked his generalities with a confusion of words. His speech is not golden, but cheap tinsel.
Well ! you will find that there are painters also, so much in love with the exuberance of their own cleverness, that they are satisfied to do nothing but make a gymnastic display of it.
You will find too, that there are others, to whom the mere manual dexterity is so objectionable, that they deliberately try to make you lose sight of any brushwork in their pictures. Whistler was one of these. He used to say that a picture is finished, when the artist has completely disguised the means by which it has been produced. He wished the expression of his feeling to reach our imagination immediately and fully, without any other consideration blocking the way or interfering with our appreciation.
His method of painting was deliberate; a little added to-day, something more another day; the whole process extending, frequently, over several years. For the feeling which he wished to express was a very subtle one, so the living growth of it, as of many things in nature, was slow. On the other hand, most of the great painters seem to have been swift workers; or at any rate their final result gives one the impression of having been executed in the vigor and glow of a swiftly working mind.
The best way to learn to appreciate brushwork is to stand close to a picture, and observe the various kinds of strokes and dabs and streaks. They seem to have no meaning. But step back. Then all or most of the separate brush marks will have disappeared. They are merged into one another and their meaning becomes clear. Then, after having thoroughly studied the effect which the artist has produced, you may again step close up to the canvas and examine the means by which he has attained it.
If it is a landscape you are studying, you will find, possibly, that the sky, which from a distance seems to be grey, is really composed of streaks of blue and pink and grey. It is, in the first place, by these streaks of the brush, and, secondly, by the infusion of several colors, that the artist has succeeded in making his sky have the appearance of atmosphere, extending far and far back. Then, if you examine the trees, you may possibly find the strokes short and stubby, so as to bring out the character of the foliage; while, what from a distance gave the impression of being simply green, is also found on closer inspection to contain many spots of other colors. It is in this way that the action of light upon the foliage has been suggested; so that the trees from a distance do not seem hard and heavy but penetrated with light and atmosphere.
In this way, stepping nearer to and further from the picture, and continually asking yourself : What is the impression that the artist wished to convey and why has he done so and so? you will soon find that you are getting an insight into the quality and expression of brushwork.
Now one word more. A little while ago I alluded to " finish." What is " finish "? Most people think it means that every part of a picture should be brought up to a uniform degree of polish and precision. It should be sleek and shiny, like our shoes, when the man has finished shining them.
Certainly you will see many pictures that seem to justify this explanation. But as a rule they will not be examples of good painting. You remember our talk on texture. Well, only some textures are sleek and shiny and polished. So, if this whole picture is of that character, some of the textures must have suffered. Then again, life is not uniform, it does not show itself in all people and things in the same way. Therefore it is very likely that the uniform polish and precision of this picture has interfered with its expression of life. The whole thing is mechanical rather than vital.
No, you must be prepared to find in well painted pictures, all sorts of conditions of not seeming to be finished; all kinds of different styles, coarse, refined, bold, dashing, reticent, and tender, brilliant, and modest; almost as many different styles and conditions as there are painters. For a painter's use of the brush is an expression of his own individuality and life, as well as of the life and character of the subjects be represents.
I have already told you Whistler's definition of " finished." It is perhaps too much a product of his own personality to be of general service. One more applicable to all kinds of painters and pictures is the following. An artist has finished his picture, when he has succeeded in making it express the feeling that inspired it. This will include Whistler's definition, and also the practice of a Titian, a Rubens, or a Velasquez, whose brush strokes are visible to this day, as witnesses of the living growth of their conceptions.
Further it will include many pictures that to your eyes seem unfinished. They look like sketches, and, therefore, you think, cannot be considered as a finished picture. But go slowly with a thought of that sort. As you advance in appreciation you will find that many a drawing of a few lines only, and many a little picture, composed of a few touches of color, have in them more of the living growth of feeling, more of the charm of abstract beauty than thousands of so called finished pictures, in which the original feeling, if there were any, has been submerged in an ocean of trivialities.