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Observation And Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

To whatever art we look, in the degree in which a work rises toward the highest rank, it continues to train our powers of observation. One difference between the great poet, for instance, and the little poet is in those single words and phrases that indicate accuracy in the work of ear or eye, or of logical or analogical inference. Recall Tennyson's references to the "gouty oak," the "shock-head willow," the "wet-shod alder." . . . Now can you tell me any study for the young that will cultivate accuracy of observation, that will begin to do this, as can be done by setting them tasks in drawing, coloring, carving, or, if we apply the same principle to the ear as well as to the eye, in elocution and music?—Essay on Art and Education.


When a fire threatens several places in a street, when a ship seems about to strike another in a storm or fog, when a general is about to meet an enemy upon land on which there are a few knolls or houses, then that man is apt to be the most efficient who, in the briefest glance, can perceive most clearly the largest number of conditions and possibilities. So in the scientific world, the successful botanist is he who notices with most accuracy every turn of line or color that distinguishes one leaf or limb from another; the successful physician is he who is keen enough not to leave out of his diagnosis a single one of the small and, apparently, insignificant symptoms that separate one disease from other diseases. To be able to observe is equally important in less serious circumstances. I once had a servant in my house who apparently never failed to hear anything said in no matter how low a tone, or to see anything left in no matter how hidden a place. All the members of the household were inclined to feel that, with her about, they were leading rather too conspicuous a life. But when she gave way to another servant, who apparently could hear or see nothing, a cry for help seemed constantly going up that the help for which we were paying never supplied. . . . Hundreds of similar instances might be cited, all illustrating the importance of cultivating, when deficient, habits of observation. All habits, as we know, are cultivated best in childhood. Nothing tends to cultivate accuracy in the perception of every phase of form, as does the effort to draw or to color it. —Essay on Teaching in Drawing.


Though induction, as a philosophic method, was not formulated till the time of Bacon, it has been practised ever since the origin of the human mind; and in every period of high attainment it has been practised extensively. Nor does the history of art furnish any exception to this statement, though, at many different periods, certain works have been produced in large numbers on the supposition that mere theories of form, originally derived, of course, from nature, but finally held independently of it, could be substituted for continued and careful observation. We find such works among the remains of the arts of Egypt and Assyria, as well as of Greece prior to the time of Daedalus. We find them in the painting and sculpture of the primitive Christians, and of the Middle Ages. We find them in the conventional flowers and leaves wrought into the decorations of the earlier Gothic cathedrals. We find them in many of the figures and landscapes of the arts of China and Japan; and we find them in designs for illustrations of books and for ornamentations on walls, even in elaborately wrought products of the decorative and what is termed the decadent art of our own day; but we find them in the foremost products of no age or style in which art is acknowledged to have been at its best. Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, VII.


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