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Drawing

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Drawing is the grammar of art. As grammar is the framework on which all good literature is built, so drawing is the foundation of all good painting. It is no more possible to imagine a great picture with crude and incompetent drawing than it is to think of a great sonnet whose grammar should be uncouth and halting. Like grammar, also, drawing is not a virtue to be ex-tolled in a picture, but an essential to be demanded.

Fortunately, both grammar and drawing may be learned by any one of good average intelligence. In reference to drawing, however, this statement applies only to that kind of good, sound, commonplace drawing which serves to uphold a picture in which color and sentiment are the main things ; but not, of course, to the truly great drawing which is beautiful in and by itself, and which is one of the rarest qualities in all art—so rare indeed that the great draughtsmen of the world can be counted upon the fingers of one hand. Of these probably Holbein and Leonardo were the most eminent examples. In the work of these two men the sense of refined and tender line was so exquisite that we should almost prefer to have it without color; and indeed when color was used to secure the added beauty of modelling, as in the "Mona Lisa," it was always flat and conventional. It would be impossible, for in-stance, to imagine a Holbein painted in the impressionist manner of the present day. The grace of line which is this master's chief distinction would be destroyed by the modern method of applying the pigment: and this shows once again the futility of the frequent demand that a single picture shall contain in itself all of the manifold qualities of art.

In landscape, of course, drawing is of secondary importance; color, refraction, and vibration ranking first; but no landscapist must imagine that for this reason a sound knowledge of drawing can be dispensed with. The character of his tree, his stream, his mountain outline is as important as the character of an eye or a mouth in a drawing of the human face. Moreover, a good knowledge of drawing is essential to good workmanship. The charm of a picture often lies in the freshness, the brilliancy, and alacrity of the brush work; and this kind of stroke can only be secured when it is backed by a sure knowledge of the underlying form. The poor and uncertain draughtsman fumbling for form loses all "quality."

Turn the pages of any exhibition catalogue, and you will find it difficult to place your finger on the name of a really fine landscape painter who is not also a fine draughtsman. And I think that inquiry will disclose the fact that the best of them have devoted at least four or five years pretty exclusively to the study of drawing. This is none too much. But the best place to acquire this knowledge, even for a landscape painter, is not out of doors before nature; because it is so much easier to study drawing in-doors from the nude.

In art, as in the other affairs of life, those go fastest and furthest who follow the line of least resistance. In the open, therefore, our attention should be concentrated on the study of color, vibration, refraction, and the mystery of atmosphere—on those qualities in fact which can be studied nowhere else to the same advantage. But if a class of students in drawing should plant themselves down in the woods, using the oaks, the elms and the beeches for models, their progress toward an exact and synthetic knowledge of form would be slow indeed. The tree forms would permit them too much latitude. The articulation of a limb upon the trunk of an oak, for instance, might start a foot higher up or a foot lower down and still be in character, but the articulation of a knee joint, an elbow, or a shoulder of the human figure must be true to the inch. In fact, nowhere else can the sense of form be so perfectly trained as in following the exquisite and subtle lines of the most beautiful, the most perfect thing in nature—the nude human figure. Therefore, although we take it for granted that the drawing of a landscape shall be good., it is not in the drawing of landscape itself that landscape drawing can best be learned. When the eye is once trained to see and feel the infinite delicacies of the human form, it will find no difficulties in any of the other forms of nature. A landscapist should, of course, familiarize himself with the character of the trees, the hills, the turn of winding streams and of hillside roads by making frequent pencil drawings from nature, but he should first of all learn to draw.

Hence, when the student brings in badly drawn landscape studies, the only thing to do is to send him back to town; or, if he happens to be a capable draughtsman, erring through carelessness, to tell him to spend more time with the charcoal and less with the brush. It has been suggested that in order to keep the eye of the student always keyed up in drawing, it might be well to have a class in outdoor figure painting connected with every school of landscape art. This idea gained numerous adherents at the time of the wonderful exhibition in New York of the Spanish painter, Sorolla y Bastida. Nor was this to be wondered at; for these brilliant and exquisite studies of outdoor Spanish life, the figures throbbing with vitality, and the very air palpitating with the gay southern sunshine, might well excite the enthusiasm of all lovers of art; and their astounding realism, coupled as it was with a true sense of beauty, was the very thing that would be sure to fascinate the younger painters. Nevertheless nothing, in my opinion, could be less intelligent than the above suggestion. For the student who aims to go far in art the golden rule is, one thing at a time.

If you consider for a moment, you will perceive that painting the figure in the open involves a simultaneous attack on nearly every problem in the wide domain of art. You have first of all the out-door questions of atmospheric vibration and refraction, and the consideration of the color-scale and value-scale ; then, in addition to these, you have practically all the indoor problems, which include figure-composition and arrangement, in addition to the usual problems of drawing and modelling—the latter presented in a reversed and unfamiliar form, owing to the new and unexpected color-reflections from the sky and the surrounding sunlit landscape. Of course, if this kind of study were regarded as merely a form of dissipation, a little spree as it were, to vary the dull monotony of landscape routine, it might have its good points. Change is a great tonic; and it does no harm occasionally to shoot arrows at the stars even if you know that they will not carry. But for students seriously to shoulder all these problems at once, shows both courage and naivete, but little discretion. Did they know that Sorolla himself worked for twenty-five years at the problem before he painted his first successful outdoor canvas, they would perhaps attack it with less enthusiasm. But courage is an admirable thing, and it seems a shame to put obstacles in its path.

I have said that Holbein and Leonardo da Vinci were probably two of the greatest draughtsmen the world has ever seen, stating at the same time that the character of their work precluded the possibility of really good painting as we moderns conceive it. Depending as it does for its distinction upon extreme delicacy and finesse of line, free and vibrant brush-work was of course not possible. There, fortunately, is another and larger manner of drawing which is peculiarly fitted for the true painter's use. This is drawing by mass, as it is seen in the work of J. F. Millet, Winslow Homer, and the French landscapist Harpignies. As landscape art in its highest expression is a synthetic grouping of masses of delicate and beautiful color, this kind of drawing is that which is made for the landscape painter's special needs. It allows full scope for the true rendering of character in all the principal forms, and at the same time it lends itself to the large and noble vision—for, even in drawing, the true painter must always see big. Here, as elsewhere, he must "grab the essential" and cast the little and the inessential behind him.



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