The Problem of Sight-Size and Construction Drawing

        When working from life one may align the canvas with nature, so as to have the general sizes of objects (once laid in) appear the same size as the actual objects. That is sight-size as Sargent knew it, and at its least problematic. Some believe it to be a very useful canvas placement for beginners. That is the first consideration when thinking about point one.
        Secondly, all shapes as they appear in two dimensions consist of a great many angles. The obvious ones are, say, the angles associated with the shapes making up the sides and roof of a house. However, there are others innumerable - consisting of all points in relation to other points. The point of the roof to the corner of the door, or a treetop to a flower. Construction drawing sets out these angle groups to a greater or lesser degree as the underpinning of the start, or, in fact, as the start itself. Drawing from life cannot be accurate without a review for accuracy of all such angles.
        The problem today is that these two things, these two ideas  - both of which I have been a student of -  have become methods in and of themselves. They have overtaken the notion of learning to 'draw with the eyes,' as Stevenson describes the way of Velasquez. Sight-size is problematical in that it implies one needn't learn to see, but instead simply become a transfer agent for sizes and angles in and of themselves: The sum of every little factoid of size brings you to the whole. The problem of construction drawing is that its generalizations of angles are non-specific, visually putting off until later the need to draw the seen. In both cases mechanical constructs precede the actual look of nature - something not found in the great drawing of the past. Mechanics replace the seen.
        In both cases you exhaust your energies before getting to the point. The axiomatic advice of the Boston School, attributed to Bonnat that you 'make it as like as you can the first time' appears not to apply in these methods by which the look of nature is unnecessarily deferred.
        Degas believed it was a mistake to allow anyone to work side by side with the subject, as the chief concern is the relational. The reason in smallest part, being that all we do is a transposition rather than an actual copy in the first place. The larger reason concerns painting's mission, which is to find the music, the harmonies, in the relationships of things visual. Therefore his recommendation was to - if only gradually - separate the painter as much as possible from the temptation to manufacture a mere facsimile of nature by placing the model five floors away from the draughtsman.
        For Degas, nature - what you see factually, literally, in front of you - is merely the data, the setting, the field from which one works. It's not the end of painterly activity. Yes, a student must learn to draw accurately. But by using one's eyes, not obviating the use of them through non-visual strategies. Nature, as Ingres puts it, is 'la source.' Not the end. Visual beauty is the means, as well as the end.
       (By the way, neither is the primary mission of painting the expression of someone's philosophy or any other narrative. But the discussion of the relevance of subject is another entire blog post.)

 Degas,  Lying Nude

Degas, Lying Nude

 Degas,  Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Degas, Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages

 Degas,  Scene of War in the Middle Ages

Degas, Scene of War in the Middle Ages

THE COMPLEAT PAINTER

The disproved axiom that "drawing is everything," or the equally destructive “well drawn is well enough colored” are two great errors promoted in modern realist ateliers. The discovery of a far better way of expressing the whole truth when painting from nature led painters to abandon principles of the “cult of the integrity of the outline,” as Degas commentator, Paul Valery once called it. Though he saw this new way of working all around him (presumably in such artists as Sargent and Sorolla among many others), Degas never surrendered to it as his method. I would suggest that he accommodated some of its beneficial effects in his own way, as referenced in the poet's essay “Degas Dance Drawing”:

As soon as a painter no longer conceives of color as local quality active in itself by contrast with other colors but as a local effect of all the light in a space, shared by all the forms it contains; as soon as he attempts to perceive this subtler repercussion, and use it give his work a certain unity different from that of composition, his conception of Form is entirely changed. Followed to the limit he arrives at impressionism.”*

In his book on Vermeer, Boston School Painter Philip Hale makes the point that rather than being merely the outline or contour( and what happens within it) drawing is, well ... everything, inclusively:

The trouble with trying for merely light and shade, merely for colour, merely for drawing, is not only that we miss all the other qualities but even that which we try for we distort ... a man who modestly tries to make the drawing, the values, the colour as they appear is apt if he has ability to do all three well. You cannot get really accurately modeled drawing without true colour. Indeed, if by some miracle one were able to paint each color right in tone, shape and shift the drawing would come by itself. They are simply other names for colour. The truest drawing is a melange of light and shade. The moment a man searches for one quality alone he does, by the very act, strip it of some of its most important attributes. We too often forget that all things are made manifest to us through the action of light. “Light and shade” cannot truly be rendered unless it includes colour and form. Form, as it appears to us, cannot be rightly indicated without the aid of colour and of chiaroscuro. Colour, true colour, cannot be well suggested unless the shapes are right and the modulation; in other words the drawing and values.

The reason Vermeeer made his drawing so just, his values so true, was because he cared so much about colour. His drawing in his best things came right because the chiaroscuro, the edges and the colour were rightly observed. He loved light and shade, he was a master of it, and the only way he could render its beauty as he saw it was by getting his drawing and his subtle colour shifts just right.

By bringing such thinking into actual practice, bringing all the elements, all the horses, into the exercise from the beginning and not just the outlines of objects, Boston School painters achieve greater unity in rendering nature. In doing so, they encompass more actual content than ever before, altering forever the very idea of unity itself. The complete painter understands this.

Paul Ingbretson, October 2017

*In a future post I hope to follow up with a finer analysis of the “unity different from that of composition” point which is unlikely to mean anything at all to the object outline painter not initiated in the way of working referred to here.

 Degas, "Portrait de Marguerite Degas," 1859.

Degas, "Portrait de Marguerite Degas," 1859.

 Ingres, "Madame Gonse," 1852

Ingres, "Madame Gonse," 1852

 DeCamp, "Blue Veil," c. 1913.

DeCamp, "Blue Veil," c. 1913.

Velasquez and the Boston School, or Some Disjointed Facts of Nature

In his book, The Boston Painters, R. H. Ives Gammell makes the following statement:

“In short, a painter may properly be called an impressionist to just the extent that he renders aspects of nature as he saw them with unflinching honesty...”

On the surface that would seem to be a reasonably summary definition of an impressionist. Yet it leaves us with the question of whether any painter might be called "impressionist" who renders honestly this or that aspect of nature – something painters have always done. Thus he seems to suggest painters can be relatively impressionistic raising the implicit question as to whether there ought to be any such denomination. After all, all are impressionistic to one degree or another. He then goes on to say

“Given its most complete expression in the art of Velasquez, who is still its greatest exemplar, its (impressionism's) aim has ever been to convey on canvas the impression made on the painter by the subject he elects to depict.”

Gammell unintentionally leaves his readers potentially wondering about the very word “impression” itself, with its implied subjective interpretation when combined with the words, “made on the painter by the subject.”

On the first point Gammell is really following Monet, who says, “All great painters are more or less impressionists.” This somewhat defensive comment by Monet we can only take to mean that, of course, all of them tried to some degree to paint what they saw as it really appeared with relative degrees of success in achieving a truthfulness to nature.

However, when discussing where “impressionism was first fully made manifest [ie] in the work of ...Velasquez,“ his biographer, the painter/writer R. A. M. Stevenson, claims that his was a kind of painting based on recording not just some aspects for use in his pictures but whose modus operandi was to reproduce

“...a truth of general aspect. The whole effect of the canvas conveys a definite idea which has ordered every element of drawing, colour, and definition.... He wished any scene that he looked at in nature to be so treated in art as to express the quality and the distribution of the attention it had received from him in real life.”

... and not, to be clear, some subjective interpretation of it. Furthermore, quoting Stevenson,

“When you fail to grasp the ensemble of a Velasquez, when you miss its profound and touching truth, you can fall back on little else save a few disjointed facts of common realism. The art of the thing escapes you as the art of a Beethoven symphony escapes the man who only catches hold of occasional tag-ends of tunes hanging out of a preposterous and tangled coil of sound.”

Note the expression, “a few disjointed facts of common realism,” and try to grasp the essential difference between work that incorporates some truth and full-bodied, wholistic impressionism. Imagine, if you can, the inevitable differences in the practices required to attain what Gammell called their “mutually incompatible” goals. Velasquez's impressionism cannot be successfully made by the common strategies of academic painting but requires something considerably more like the subsequent and connected approach of the Boston School.

 Tarbell, Edmund.  Portrait of Judge Hammond,  ca. 1910

Tarbell, Edmund. Portrait of Judge Hammond, ca. 1910

 Velazquez,  Las Hilanderas . 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas. 1657

Secrets of Boston School Direct Painting

        What is the content of an impressionist rendering? Little more than value masses and their joints. It can't be put more simply than that. We see, we perceive the world, in value-produced effects. Rendering value-effects as they occur before our eyes produces visual likenesses of anything or any group of things we see. Value-effects exist in degrees of value, contrast, and abruptness of edge, and thereby produce varying effects. To create a likeness, all we have to do is collate the values and effects of any ensemble of such units accurately in the correct order of their strengths, sizes, and locations on the picture plane. Having done so, we will observe that we have not only created the appearance of objects, but the illusion of three dimensional space and the atmosphere of that space - every bit as critical to the complete and wholistic expression of the visual appearance.

        To accomplish such, it is of foremost importance to jettison the outlining of objects – what Stevenson terms “primitive drawing” in his essay on Velasquez. As painters seeking mastery of the whole truth we must let go of that that seemingly "precious" tool. In clutching on to it, we block and mangle too many other visual realities. In our addiction to outline, we fail to discover the better way to bring the visual world into being.  Instead we must endeavor to follow advice like Sargent's: to reproduce effects, spots, or points of contrast - and pursue their associated angles in relation to one another. Similarly when working in color-values, search out the color of the spots. Do this in willful obliviousness to any connection between them and any apparent, delimited "object." We also find ourselves perfecting the points of effect by the more or less simultaneous incorporation of color.

        In this new and more complete paradigm, the painter must be expert in the observation of the relationships between these effects - effects considered not only in terms of their strength and intensity, but in their size and location as well. We must become adept in perceiving ways to render the “thing as a whole,” seeing and rendering systems or sets of smaller groupings by color, by value, or by effect -  and the shapes created by their relative locations. For anyone dedicated to “realism” this will admittedly require a leap of faith. Yet as Gammell liked to point out, “you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

        At no point is Velasquez in the included illustration painting a cat. He paints visual effects and visual relationships, visual impressions. The successful result reveals a cat - and more. The basic mastery for successful Boston School painting is over that which makes up the “look of nature,” its appearances, which may be effectively rendered as paint on canvas - nature and canvas having nothing in common except that which might emerge from a tube of color. As opposed to actual realities, we employ visual, and thereby paintable, phenomena - and more importantly, their relationships. The basis of the Boston School way is therefore applied mastery in the reproduction of these phenomena in paint. We must be good at rendering form by the gradation of values; of color notes with their value, hue and chroma; edges or what happens when values meet. We must acquire proficiency at producing true proportions and other relationships as they pertain to these things as they occupy the picture plane. We must acquire fluency in the relationships of colors to each other. Forms to each other. Angles to each other, light effects to each other, sizes, values and so on. And leaving off trying to make the shape of “things,” we must expand the shape concept to include not only the shapes of darks and lights -  but that of the “figure created by the leading lines of the composition” and much much more indeed.

        Though they exist wherever we look, we leave off trying to find out how to make things-as-objects, and don't even wonder how. We find that this "wondering how" drives us back into our heads in fruitless pursuit of a priori generalized information, rather than into our eyes in search of a world that is far too unpredictable to fit that box. "How to paint an apple" or "how to paint a portrait" would undermine our primary activity, the authoritative rendering of paintable visual phenomena and any internal or external relationships in terms of their size, location and effect as seen in a world reduced to a picture plane. Ultimately the person who can best paint from their head is the one with the greatest experience painting truthfully what their eyes see, comprised of the color notes first, and following that, their placement and other related visual concepts. We want to be able to paint what we see with our own eyes - not with our ears, what we may have learned in books or what people have told us - and to articulate this on its own terms and in ways  most efficient at getting the job done. That is simply a matter of color-values and what happens when and where they meet.

 Velazquez,  Las Hilanderas , 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

A Lock Or A Key?

        When introducing painting students to the ideas of the Boston School, I often ask myself: “Are you giving them a key or are you locking them in?” As youth is wont to do, I recall decisively rejecting closed box methods. “This is how we do this and this is how we do that” almost inevitably felt like a trap to me; something which, rather than empower me, would make me a clone or a seconder of another’s personal predilections in painting. All manner of pastiche painters exist in the world today n the persons of individuals imitating Sargent, Bougeureau or other Academic painters, the Hudson River School, Barbizon painters, Impressionism, or even the Boston School itself.

        The preoccupation of all students of painting should be first the mastery of nature, not the mastery of somebody else's technique, methods, or look. Those latter are merely necessary vehicles or starting points, but inevitably dangerous to full expression of truth (notice I didn't say “self expression” although it potentially affects that too) regarding the visible or rather visual world. Rather, the teacher’s task is to provide the names of the known elements of the visual world and the best, most effective, most efficient approach they themselves have acquired for their articulation. Unless that teacher is training apprentices to work in their own shop and thus purposely in their singular manner, success should not be measured by the attainment of the look of that approach, that manner, but by the truth of such work to the look of nature itself.

        As Ingres and any sane master will indicate, nature is “la source” and not art itself. When an art becomes preoccupied with itself as it has in what were once the great art schools of the West, it inevitably faces decline and eventual erosion. That is no less true today. For example, dedication to outline appears as a method common among the numerous mannerisms of today's ateliers. Working from outlines has been referred to as a convention which is another word for manner. It has an inherent, non-visual, self defeating falseness based on a preoccupation with objects rather than the wholistic look of nature. Yet virtually every teacher in America employs it today.

        Among the causes of their limited focus is a rejection of Boston School impressionism, a way of painting dedicated to the fullest - and the most efficient - expression of the look of nature. R. H. Ives Gammell himself referred to it as the greatest evolution of impressionism whose greatest antecedent was Velasquez himself. As I said, the Boston School's own approach is similarly fraught with pitfalls, should the student become attached to its manner rather than mastery of truth. In fact, the reason for the rejection of impressionism is simply its failures to address significant visual truths that the new academics since at least the sixties have set about reincorporating.

        The modern student of representational painting needn't be a victim of the mannerisms of their times. Yet the only way to get past the locks and chains of today is to introduce oneself to a full understanding of the methods and thinking of the advanced impressionist - while at the same time approaching the best values and training associated with the academics. The Boston School thinking, rather than the academic Gammellized version of it underlying much of today's training, offers the key. Their logically combined mastery of both color and drawing provides a sound model for precise articulation of the whole look of nature, the foundation and base of our visual language, and therefore a truly greater means of personal self expression.

Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 12.37.14 AM.png

A Relational Reply to "Ask the Experts: Two Methods for Accurate Drawing, The Artist's Magazine, March 2017"

THE ARTIST'S MAGAZINE
March 2017

To the Editor:

Re: Ask the Experts: Two Methods for Accurate Drawing

    After reviewing the article cited above I felt that as a teacher of “relational” drawing I should respond to various presumptions about our methods. Since there are various exponents of non-sight-size drawing out there working in as many ways I can only speak for relational - what is inadequately referred to as “comparative” - drawing, as we apply it. (The article conveys the impression that there are only two kinds of “accurate” drawing, sight-size being the opposite of any and all others, hence my interest in responding to the broad brush approach.) However, there are so many false assumptions presented here about what presumes to constitute this approach at large, and the level of confusion it generates is so great not to mention damaging, that it is important for the neophyte familiar with the problems inherent in sight-size to hear another point of view.
    The article seems in general to be a celebration of sight-size and wholly confusing and dismissive of relational drawing, if only by the inadequate and misleading way it presents it. One of the great draftsmen of all time, Degas, believed sight-size was so problematical that he created in his mind a teaching studio where it would be impossible to practice it after the first year. This was because he knew that ours is primarily an art of relations. Those dedicated to the gods of neo-realism believe something quite different. Here is a list of a number of the key errors in the text of the article, as it relates to traditional relational teaching and working, followed by a short discussion referencing the numbered points.

1. “Working from the inside out”
2. “Structural drawing”
3. “The artist generally stands or sits directly behind the easel.”
4. “Small shifts in the contour of the pose will not...undermine anything essential.”
5. “Straight rods and skewers are often used for siting angles and measurements.”
6. “A certain understanding of anatomy [bone structure, musculature] often comes into play allowing artists to inform what they see with what they know.”
7. “Unique record of an artists opinion”
8. “Form drawing is often based nearly as much on an intellectual understanding of the subject as it is on direct observation from life.”
9. “Piecemeal.”

    First, starting with point seven (7), relational drawing from life is not the expression of an opinion. Its entire purpose is the accurate rendering of the truth before the artist and, for a student, critical for instruction and correction. As such, it is wholly ineffective when based on some “intellectual understanding” (8) rather than immediately observed and compared visual truth. The same applies to the totally non-visual “structural drawing” so common to college courses. No amount of understanding of anatomy (6) or anything else is even slightly helpful for training the eye, but frankly a stumbling block - except, as with any other method, to check results. Measuring beforehand (5) is totally frowned upon and any devices are only used to check expressed observations. “Small shifts in the contour of the pose” (4) always undermine the progress of the honest articulation of the truth since the same accuracy applies to relational as to any other kind of life study per se. Since the method involves working from the greater to the lesser, we naturally and regularly work from the outside in and not the inside out (1) although we often involve other strong visual elements early to the extent they may assist in visually establishing major shapes, etc. We never work by standing immediately behind the easel (3) unless doing a very small picture, period. Anyone who cares about seeing the thing as a whole remains far away from both model and image to see them as a whole. Piecemeal (9) working is far more likely to be a problem for a sight-size method painter since they continually reference local information as though it were true in itself, rather than a function of other data. In other words: Unlike sight-size as a method, since the relational is the only truth in nature that is useful, there is little if any use for any isolated local truth having a one-to-one relationship with our canvas.
    As a student of R. H. Ives Gammell, I can assure the reader that these are not haphazard conclusions. They are the product of a lifetime of study and practice of methods not just of Gammell himself, but the Boston School as well - whose way of working was neither Gammell's, nor sight-size as practiced today. I invite the reader to consider again the problems associated with sight-size as a method, rather than what it should be: Just a place on the studio floor, and revisit the all-important world of visual relationships, the ultimate source of visual music. Anyone interested in further discussions are welcome to my time.

Respectfully,
Paul Ingbretson

 Paul Ingbretson,  Red Teapot

Paul Ingbretson, Red Teapot

Book Excerpt: Chapter VI Wholistic Rendering By Effects

CHAPTER VI

WHOLISTIC RENDERING BY EFFECTS

        “At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where the light and shadow meet, not the place where the head meets the background)”
        Evan Charteris

        “But he [DeCamp] was thoroughly alert to everything which related directly to picture painting. As he could draw quite correctly when he arrived he was better prepared than his classmates to assimilate Duveneck's rare faculty for expressing form with paint, something very different from coloring a carefully established drawing and which presupposes a power of discernment not many painters ever attain. All his life DeCamp considered this essentially painterly quality to be a major asset of the painter's self expression."
        R. H. Ives Gammell

        "Don't draw lines around things—make them by rendering the light and shadow...You are still thinking of things in terms of objects rather than in terms of areas of light."
        Frank Benson

        "Comparison of the definitions and gradations of a fine Velasquez with those of an ordinary picture is, perhaps, the most ready way to perceive the vulgarity of the cheap method which exaggerates outlines, and replaces tone and gradation by false explanatory definition. To draw a silly line in a mouth, eye, or nose, where no line should be, merely because you have been taught painting by means of chalk-drawing, implies a gross violation of the lighting of a portrait, just as putting toy boats and cows in the distance implies a contradiction of perspective.”
        R. A. M. Stevenson

        “Literary critics have praised his interiors for their 'atmosphere,' but practically speaking there is no atmosphere in an interior! The distance between the foreground and the background is so slight that the intervening air does not modify it at all. What the unwary call 'atmosphere' in an interior is really its colouristic light and shade, its chromatic chiaroscuro. This clair-obscur, as the French translate it, seems to the layman such an obvious condition of things that he hardly realizes how necessary it is for the painter to learn to compare rightly the obscurity of forms in the shadow with their emergence in the half-tone and in the light.”
        Philip L. Hale

        “His [Chardin's]manner of painting is singular. He places his colors along side of each other almost without mixing them, so that the work looks like mosaic or patchwork, or like that hand-made tapestry called 'pointcarre.' "                                                                                                               A contemporary (attribution unknown)

        “The only justification for such a rough and unpolished manner of painting was a thorough knowledge of the effect that colors produce upon one another.”                                                                Charles Normand

        Among other problems associated (for some of us) with Gammell's teaching, many of the aphorisms from the Boston School with which he was thankfully well stocked didn't apply to his own work or what he had us doing in ours. Typical of the imaginative painter, his entire way of starting a picture was non-visual, and non-impressionistic. Rather than having us draw by the spots referred to by Hale, we drew around each every object as he mentions int he above quote, carefully establishing the drawing. Though he explicitly stated we were drawing not the actual but the visual, his own approach said otherwise in significant parts. His approach was based on visual observations, but lacked the axiomatic all-over-the-place-at-once, as-if-coming-out-of-a-fog, and from-the-spots look of the Boston School start. From the looks of their starts, both Gammell and his student Richard Lack demonstrate a different approach to painting. Even Paxton's wonderful start at the MFA, though essentially in order visually, shows him to have a slight inclination toward object massing over the visual value spots. As I've indicated, when looking at the body of his finished work, this definitely differentiates him from others.                                                                                                                                         In his correspondence, Delacroix discusses those who see beauty only in lines, and thereby refuse to believe others may receive a different kind of impression. In truth, the academic model to which he referred (and which was common even in the schools headed up by Boston men) was based on outlining, and then modeling objects. It was the norm coming out of the academies and most of the ateliers. My first impressionist training, however, disparagingly informed us we were not doing colored drawings; we were painting.                                                                                                                             In his drive to clean up art education and return to would-be representational painters their full and rightful heritage and base, Gammell managed to effectively throw out the Boston School baby with the bathwater. Although he acknowledged the twin heritage of the DaVinci-to-Bougeureau model as opposed to the Velasquez-to-the-Boston School model, his teaching reinforced only one: The one he himself found especially useful for himself, and his imaginative inclinations. To his credit, it was the one he considered the best underpinning for painting of any kind, including the one best enabling even the Velasquez model. After all hadn't DeCamp's advice to the young Gammell been to first learn to paint like the early outline-based Velasquez? DeCamp, at other times, discusses the ease with which one might understand the later way of Velasquez (essentially the "Boston School" version) but how difficult it is to execute it. According to Gammell, the remarkable difficulties one faces when attempting to become skilled in the latter approach inheres in the methods themselves. Even if true, (which it may be since it appears so counterintuitive at first and certainly isn't what most of us have ever heard) I believe the difficulties are increased if not even caused by initiating a way of thinking using outlines - with its many logical implications for the overall painting craft - and then trying to graft the impressionist approach to light and color post hoc and by less effective means. (See the phonics conversation in another part of this essay.)
        In his book on Vermeer describing the impressionist process, Hale says we don't paint the outline of the leopard and add spots, we start with the spots. He refers to allowing the visually strong place to lead the way over any other facts regarding the object, including specifically, its outline. Says Benson: “Don't paint anything but the effect of light. Don't paint things," Everyone tries to get an effect by carefully describing an object. That's not the way it's done. "You are still thinking of things in terms of objects rather than in terms of areas of light."                                                                                         Boston School painters typically began their lay-ins by indicating the arabesque - the figure created by the strongest effects of the general ensemble taken together - something unavailable until much later (if at all) to the older imaginative painters in their necessarily piecemeal and object-driven world. My personal teaching goal is to inculcate a unified approach which includes all the drawing skills, but using a Boston School visual model. It is based on the belief that drawing outlines of objects is not the only way of drawing, even when the eventual goal is the rendering of the object. Form articulation is so multi layered, so comprehensive, any assumption that only drawing, particularly in outline, will suffice to render the object is not only incomplete, but will leave you facing a problem of persistently false relationships from the very start. Stevenson actually refers to it as "primitive," which, by the standards of impressionism (even the all inclusive definition Gammell uses) it truly is.
        Form drawing, for the Boston School painter, isn't merely the articulation of a muscle on an arm; it includes the distance between the arm and the chest, the chest and the wall behind it. The manner in which these distances are accomplished in nature before our eyes is most accurately revealed and reproduced in the comprehensive impressionist approach. No formularized approach is an adequate substitute for the experience of wholistic truth, one which may be had only on its own terms and in its own timing. Nothing but learning to work from the look of nature, the visual world before one at that very moment, in all its ramifications, can prepare one for the eventualities of the impressionist experience - eventualities which include new formulae like drawing from effects rather than outlines of objects per se. Hale expresses the gist of this thinking, this wholistic visual approach in stating that:         

“The man who modestly tries to make the drawing, the values, and the colour is apt if he has ability to do all three well. You cannot get really accurately modelled drawing without true colour. Indeed, if by some miracle one were able to paint each colour right in tone, shape and shift the drawing would come by itself. And so with light and shade and tone values or relations. They are simply other names for colour ...The truest drawing is a melange of light and shade. The moment a man searches one quality for itself alone, he does, by that very act, strip it of some of its most important attributes. We too often forget that all things are made manifest to us through the action of light....
[Light and shade] "cannot truly be rendered unless it includes colour and form. Form, as it appears to us, cannot be rightly indicated without the aid of colour and chiaroscuro. Colour, true colour, cannot be well suggested unless the shapes are right and the modulation; in other words, the drawing and values. The reason Vermeer made his drawing so just, his values so true, was because he cared so much about colour. His drawing in his best things came right because the chiaroscuro, the edges and the colour were rightly observed. He loved light and shade, he was a master of it, and the only way he could render its beauty as he saw it was by getting his drawing and his subtle colour shifts just right... Vermeer, then, did not strive to paint right because 'tis naughty to do wrong' but because the infinitely beautiful subtleties of light he saw about him could not really be rendered without true drawing and colour.”

        One of the most alarming expressions in Western art once one has seen the impressionist light is a plausible old one,  “Well drawn is well enough colored.” To the extent it was widespread, this incredible disdain for searching out the concomitant truth of color as part of the expression of a subject may well be part of the reason Western art lagged so long in this area. Titian's deep fascination with color harmony and color truth as an essential part of a good picture is appreciated, but in practice not always shared. Due to Gammell's dedication to what he calls his personal vision rather than to the beauty of the visual world, color has been too often thought of among some of his followers as simply a way of enhancing the subject. Unfortunately, and mostly for the same reasons (plus an incapacity by training) much of today's realist efforts short change a major component of visual expression and beauty itself; one which is a factor in drawing by any Boston School accounting. This may be explained in part by the simple failure to realize that color is a factor in drawing. I know I support the thinking of the Boston School when I make the argument to my students that drawing is so important as, like the arrival of the king, a great deal of preparation must first be underway. We turn on the lights, we roll out the red carpet, and only then are we ready to introduce drawing. Even then, at the outset of the lay-in, it is primarily for the purpose of effect-relationships and placement that we are Boston School, and not simply for object making per se. Yet as indicated by Hale above, color plays an obvious role in creating the sense of three dimensional space in a painting. Ordering light effects inclusive of the color component, and creating atmosphere by similar means, both produce a greater sense of volume and space-  important expressions in drawing, and often neglected. Just because value, the first element of color, is the most important doesn't mean the problem of drawing can be left to it alone. The Boston School teaches an all encompassing method incorporating color from the start like (some at points exactly like) the mature Monet model. It does it by means of the direct searching out process inherent to the French Impressionist system, and is not satisfied by gluing color on at the end as some mere bonus enhancement, having studied the picture in all its truthful features and effects right from the start of the painting. This is crucial to understanding the changes in the very approach to painting which define the Boston School. Stevenson offers the following about the relevant issues in the overtly Velasquez-based view of his and Sargent's teacher:

“Duran set himself to teach art less on the venerable principles of outline drawing than on a method adapted to his own fashion of looking at nature by masses and by constructive planes. Of course, Duran taught drawing, but likely enough his method was not suitable to every kind of talent, for he separated drawing from modelling with the brush as little as possible. According to him the whole art of expressing form should progress together and should consist in expressing it, as we see it, by light. He regarded drawing as the art of placing things rightly in depth as well as in length and breadth; and for this purpose he would call attention to various aspects of form the intersection and prolongation of imaginary lines, the shape of inclosed spaces, the interior contents of masses, the inclination of planes to light, and the expression or characteristic tendency of any visible markings.”

        Due to their investment in expressing a more complete truth of nature, Velasquez and those such as the Boston School following in his steps, developed an approach which evolved on far more wholistic lines than had previously been seen, one that brings into play all-the-horses-at-once, in a very literal way.

 

 R.H Ives Gammell,  The Garden of Persephone , 1938

R.H Ives Gammell, The Garden of Persephone, 1938

 Velazquez,  Mars Resting , 1640

Velazquez, Mars Resting, 1640

Boston School Painting: Direct or Indirect?

        It's a moot question how many of the Old Masters made use of process, how many of direct painting, and no one knows exactly the methods of those who appear to have painted by process. But at any rate the artists who have renewed the practice of painting in this century have sought to render what they saw without passing through preliminary or intermediary stages, during which the picture bears no comparison with nature, and looks wholly unlike its final and completed appearance. Modern men aimed at directness in two ways, one of which I cannot but think a mistake. The English innovators worked on a detailed drawing, made upon the bare white canvas, painting each inch with a careful and minute elaboration intended to be left as final in the picture. They, no less than the painters by process, claimed the sanction of tradition; but it was to the primitive practice of the pre-Raphaelites, chiefly painters of fresco, that they appealed, and not to the work of culminating schools and the true masters of oil-paint. The modern Frenchmen who also laid their colours directly on the canvas followed a different method. They first indicated the drawing very slightly in charcoal; when they took up the brush they made no attempt to finish bit by bit; they tried rather, while the paint was wet to cover the whole with a general lay-in of the broad masses in their main values of colour. At this stage they searched out and determined the relations between the large elements of effect; and not until they had made sure of the important divisions would they load them with subdivisions and place upon them the delineation of detail, the fineness of modelling, or the refinements of colour. They studied the truth of the whole before that of the part, thus seeming to contradict Leonardo, who advised students of drawing to study the part before the whole. Leonardo was not speaking of painting a picture but of acquiring a knowledge of facts. Unquestionably the habits of the Frenchmen led to a different style from that of the Englishmen to a better generalized and better ordered kind of truth, to a larger and suaver aspect of canvas, to a more logical study of atmosphere and real lighting, to a finer perception of plane, to a broader, more evident and intentional touch, and above all to that much praised power of perception, which in truth means a perception of the value of details and their agreement or disagreement of the ensemble of a picture. The Frenchmen also appealed in support of their innovation to the example of old masters; they maintained that Velasquez and Hals always painted directly; Rembrandt for the most part; Leonardo, Titian, and other Italians, very much more frequently than had been supposed.
         R. A. M. Stevenson, Raeburn

        English teaching has been contrary to impressionism, and Velasquez has not been sufficiently, or at any rate rightly, admired. Many painters and writers of influence have condemned impressionism in a manner which showed that they neither knew nor cared anything about it. Whatever has been gained in England in this direction lately has been gained at the bayonet point of abuse and strong language. The English schools never taught one to "place" a figure or cast on the canvas. They would not permit of blocking in either squarely or roundly. They expected you to begin a thing by finishing. They accustomed the student from the outset of his career to overlook subtle differences of large planes, to miss the broader sweep of a line for the sake of tight detailed modelling, and the exaggerated indenting of small bays in an outline. They gave gold medals to chalk drawings in which every little muscle was modelled up to a high light, whilst an important change of plane, such as the set-back of the chest, was shown by a wrong general value. It is not wonderful that people so taught saw only one side of the art of Velasquez, and that their system of teaching is now abandoned for one which has been, to a large extent, based on the practice of the great Spanish impressionist.
        R. A. M. Stevenson, Velasquez

        Any discussion of the Boston School necessarily includes the issue of directness versus indirectness, or what Stevenson calls painting by process. In the recent past the work of Maxfield Parrish, a painter Gammell actually consulted to discover alternate ways to make his imaginative pictures, is probably the prime example of the indirect approach in the U.S. He does the drawing for his pictures as finished silhouettes in one process which he seals with varnish so he doesn't lose it. Then he lays over that a very articulate blue underpainting of the values only called a grisaille which he lets dry and seals. He then glazes reds and yellows over that, in two distinct processes to complete the color. Even when working directly from live models with an intent to simply make it like including a likeness of the light-effect, a painter may use an entirely indirect process. The preliminary work for Ingres' Le Grande Odalisque provides prime examples of the processes of that method when used in its most typical application: the imaginative picture.
        When Richard Lack discusses his “impressionist” method he is actually describing an older method of indirect painting, one that had been discarded by the Boston School painters in their personal work. They didn't practice or teach under-painting, they taught hitting the note you see “as like as you can the first time.” The French called it “au premier coup” meaning at the first blow, or straight off. As with Sargent this method was not done in a single sitting but over many days, often over dry paint. Yet it was a single process, in which each wet-into-wet layer attempted to be as like as possible until completion. “Put down a note and leave it,” referring to the color notes, further characterizes the directness they practiced: they didn't do that over a grisaille lay-in. Among other clear indicators, the relative rarity of serious preliminary studies and their starts themselves both indicate no such general practice. As in the case of the drawing for The Blue Cup, it is obvious DeCamp was merely searching quickly for the main effects in order to determine if he had a composition he liked and perhaps to secure its rough framing and placement, but certainly not as a template for the painting.
        Properly speaking these are usually concept sketches rather than studies, and by no means under-work. Sargent, whose process is similar, would sometimes throw down a few pencil lines on a small piece of paper and then circumscribe them with a frame to assess his composition. At times, in portraiture, this might be done to enable the client to approve the rough idea before proceeding. I do that very thing, usually in full color and executed in an hour, to discuss my proposed composition with my client. Boston School painters were masters of direct painting from life, and their work proves that the direct methods were as good as any indirect ones for most purposes, and far better than any for exploring color-based light and drawing simultaneously. Although it is strongly implied by some that these were men of lesser intellect, I have found that those of greater scholarly erudition, sometimes taken as intelligence, are often incapable of successfully executing pictures as they did even though they tried mightily.
        So while one may call anything painted from life with the intent of simply making a likeness “impressionism” - since, after all, it doesn't fit under the “imaginative” category - it still isn't Boston School impressionism. It is as simple as that: the method is the school.

 Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,  Odalisque in Grisaille , ca. 1824–34

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Odalisque in Grisaille, ca. 1824–34

 William MacGregor Paxton,  Nude , 1915

William MacGregor Paxton, Nude, 1915

Reflections on a Boston School Impressionist Education and the Absoluteness of Relatives in Art

        A similar relativity must be maintained in the degrees of sharpness whereby the apparent shapes in the field of vision are defined. Even a slight error of judgment in either of these areas may jeopardize the truth conveyed in a painting. The entire operation calls for a very perceptive eye, consummate draftsmanship and, above all, a firm intellectual grasp of the problem involved....comparatively few painters have carried it through even passably well.
                                     R. H. Ives Gammell


        It is essentially characteristic of the perceptual form that each single factor in the perception should have its meaning only in relation to all other factors; that all sizes. relationship of all lights and shades, all colors, etc., have only relative values. Everything depends on reciprocal relationships; everything influences the value of everything else. When we speak, therefore, of a total impression, we refer to the effect produced by the co-operation of all the factors in the perceptual form. Since the visual projection makes possible this conception of factors co-operating to form a unity, it follows that the single parts of which it is made up can have no meaning in themselves alone, but gain their significance only through that peculiar connection which constitutes their total unity. Accordingly, whenever in tracing the effect of a certain total appearance we are able to conceive the form of the object, it is because of the relationships existing between the various factors of the appearance. Hence if we try to represent pictorially our idea of form with the hope of producing a satisfactory total appearance we cannot succeed by translating kinesthetic ideas, piece by piece, into visual factors and then adding them together into one total appearance. In such a process we should not be considering at all the effects of the single factors as conditioned by their relations to the whole, but should be working, rather, as though each factor were perceived as isolated. We do not here deny the power of the spectator or of the artist as spectator to see at a glance everything represented on one canvas. We wish, rather, to emphasize the necessity of properly relating the parts of a picture in the process of composition.
                                     Adolf Hildebrand

        It has been observed that you can't pick your relatives and it is no less true in impressionism. For example, in laying in a painting you have a few initial anchoring points you may pick: Locations for top and bottom, or the extents of the lightest light and darkest dark. But after that, like it or not, you are their servants. After that, everything is relative to those choices and, of course, to all others in their turn.
        Of the more troubling conversations arising out of the anti-impressionist mindset presently troubling representational painting are allegations that impressionism a) led to, or encouraged poor education and b) led to, or encouraged the "moral relativism" of the age. The latter is a direct condemnation of impressionism originally expressed by Tolstoy. The former, sadly, may be attributed to Gammell himself. By indicting impressionism as a whole he indirectly implicates the men of the Boston School, his own teachers. To me this is a staggering misapprehension of the situation on both counts.
        In simple terms, Boston School impressionism requires more and not less education and discipline than run-of-the-mill photographic object painting. The Boston teachers, even by Gammell's own admission, provided as good a basic education as anyone anywhere in his day. The fact that there were so few practitioners of the kind of painting he wanted to do does nothing to diminish their commitment to teaching the traditional solid basics of drawing, painting and composition.
        The paucity of artists alive and running independent ateliers that could transmit the 'secrets' of salon paintings attests to to a loss of favor for that kind of work at the time. Put simply, it had run its course for the time being. Maybe it was, ironically, the photographic look of it that drained it of its magic as much as anything. For the moment the world was electrified by the more life-like impressions of certain artist' sunlit realities, more so than the stilted and over-stylized portrayals of ancient myths which meant nothing to them. The fact that the ignorant public couldn't differentiate between skilled impressionist craftsmen and hack imitators doesn't implicate either the craftsmen or their vision.
        Furthermore, indictments of a perceived moral relativism couldn’t be more misguided. For that matter, moral and religious language are much more easily lent to Impressionism’s defense than its condemnation. DeCamp’s entreaty that his students "paint straight and true like a Christian” wasn't any less an expression of his sincere love for all aspects of visual truth than it was a reflection of his religious background. The two could hardly have been thought to be in conflict. The particulars of one's religious faith aside, to be an impressionist is to be held spellbound before the light of the natural world and to endeavor to render it with the faith and honesty such love requires. This was a mindset shared as much by Gammell as any student of realism today. (Funny the irritation at the focus on light among apparently Christian moralizers. Didn't God Himself call forth light on the very first day?)
        However, the idea that in a painting all is in some sense "relative" is old news. Very old indeed, as it forms the very foundation of all aspects of good painting. I have in my studio a photographic enlargement of a note Gammell wrote and handed to me, stating that we paint visual facts not actual ones. The only visual facts are the apparent color, angles, proportions in relation to each other when reduced to two dimensions. When DaVinci talks about aerial perspective, he is demonstrating a relative truth: that the distant objects to our eyes appear less colored and less contrasty compared to things right before us. That is relative truth, as is all visual truth. That things appear smaller in perspective than similar things closer to the viewer demonstrates the relative nature of size to the viewer. To what does the word "relationship" attest but the apparent sizes, the sizes as they appear to this eye as they relate to other sizes?
        In fact the only absolute in painting is that everything is relative. Once you have settled on what is brightest in value or chroma, every value and chroma you make must be right in relation to that. Even when painting life size portraits in sight-size settings, the only actual size is the one which lies on the picture plane itself. Everything behind it will appear, and will therefore be drawn, smaller than actual. And all in front will appear larger to the eye. In other words, everything is subject to the relative size things appear to take in relation to each other from your viewing point.
        To cite another instance: consider the issue of relative values to actual values when doing a cast drawing. Thinking that by using the actual value of the white of the cast and its silhouetting dark note one can actually paint comparable effects of light, even in a classic studio setting, is demonstrably silly. It is ludicrously so under the open sky (as the wisdom that “one must be able paint the sun with the yolk of an egg” serves to remind.) 
        Where, then, is there room for moral condemnation of impressionism among people today, when it is merely the extension of the immutable laws of vision adduced and verified for centuries? I am afraid the reason for all this is to justify salon style painting techniques or - even more foolishly, the unfortunate use of absolutist based sight-size methods - as the only legitimate ways for representing reality truthfully. All others lead to perdition or modernism which is apparently, far worse.
        If you must have a fall guy for the chaotic state of representational art, instead of looking at artists who create truth out of color relations, like Monet, you might look at those who actually chose to randomize it: to bring chance into the equation. Acknowledged as the father of modern painting, Wassily Kandinsky, who was born to a wealthy Odessa family within a couple years of Benson and Tarbell, shared a common interest with Gammell in using painting to express non-visual ideas. He has far more in common with Gammell type imaginative painting than he has with impressionism and its love of the visual world for its own beauty. His drawing skills in any classic sense are non-existent, while his pernicious influence on the education of the artist is everywhere. And everyone agrees that he is the father of modern art. Rather than impressionism then, and I say this in only a partially tongue-in-cheek manner, perhaps it's reasonable to wonder whether, or to what extent, imaginative painting should be held responsible for modern art.

 Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911

 Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) 1890-1891

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) 1890-1891

The Realism That Is Impressionism

        All great painters are more or less impressionists

                                                                                  Monet

        In short, a painter may properly be called an impressionist to just the extent that he renders aspects of nature as he saw them with unflinching honesty.

        Given its most complete expression in the art of Velasquez, who is still its greatest exemplar, its (impressionism's) aim has ever been to convey on canvas the impression made on the painter by the subject he elects to depict.”

                                                                                  R. H. Ives Gammell

       

[Velasquez' painting is a] "realism of general aspect."

                                                                                  Stevenson

        The realistic or truthful-as-possible depiction of people and things for use in paintings has pretty much always been a goal of representational painters. Pictorial subject matter depicting life as it is lived in reality, rather than its idealized, fantasized, or otherwise altered variant has 'always' been around as well. Romanticism in subject matter, no matter how realistic the drawing and stylization in the work's treatment of objects and people, falls outside the definition of realism.

         By the 1600's, the Dutch painters were not only known for their realistic depiction of daily life on the streets, but for actually painting peopled interiors directly from life. Even when depicting historical subject-matter such as Christ healing the sick, Rembrandt had done so realistically (even including a defecating dog in the foreground.) However, it's in Vermeer that we have the Dutch model for the modern impressionist - realist, one who sets up in their studio an entire scene of life just as it might have happened, and then painting it more or less exactly as they see it.

        Well, it's not quite that simple, because well before Vermeer something like this form of realism was already being practiced in Spain. Velasquez was raised on it, as evidenced by his early kitchen pictures. Yet from there, it was the direction in which he took this approach which had the greatest early impact on the emergence of realism in the 1800s -  particularly with Las Hilanderas and Las Meninas. His fluid, direct-painterly methods and the sense of life they conveyed stood him stand apart from the more typical, hard outlined and carefully modeled works, including his own, leading up to that time. So great was his influence in Boston that recipients of the traveling award at Boston's Museum School were sent to Madrid to copy in the Prado. Their inevitable painting choice, if not their actual assignment, was Velasquez' figure of a woman spinning in the right corner of Las Hilanderas.

                In that same Museum School training, directed as it was by Antwerp trained painter, Otto Grundman, Dutch painters were also extolled as examples for emulation. Typically great Dutch craftsmanship would be pointed out, yet with the advent of a new emphasis on light and color following the advent of Monet. The master of light, Jan Vermeer, became a painter of particular interest to those who would subsequently lead the Boston School. It isn't surprising that Museum School trained (and eventual teacher there) Philip Hale, would select Vermeer as the subject for a book. Hale's thesis, not only a singular written presentation of Vermeer's art, does a remarkable job in also introducing key tenets of Boston School impressionism. It should be read by anyone wishing to understand them. Paxton, who collaborated in Hale's research and analysis, is reported to have extolled Vermeer as his ideal of good painting - something Gammell clearly bought into as well. At times Paxton seems to be almost self-consciously imitating his work. As with Velasquez, graduates of the Museum School often copied Vermeer in Antwerp or elsewhere to complete their training

        As indicated, many of the Dutch were occupied with the idea of painting things just as seen; in the room, or on the table, before them. Still lifes, interiors, or genre scenes were most often set up and copied accurately, granting further impetus to the observation of visual truths. With some exceptions (Rembrandt being the most notable) conventions related to painting remained fairly uniform - dominated by the idea of drawing the figure or object pre-eminent, with its outlines executed first, and then its interior surface modeled with mid-tones rather like a modern day coloring book. With their finely articulated two-dimensional accuracy, and their continuous lines, Holbein's drawings often look as if traced on a glass. When Vermeer paints interiors, as in The Astronomer, he outlines each object in the same way. Even he is clearly operating from object outlines.

        Yet in Velasquez, who is obviously more interested in the larger visual impression for its own sake than Rembrandt, we see a real shift in the approach from the old way of painting. Velasquez's goal is to articulate the visual world as it appears, on its own terms, even when it includes an entire ensemble of people, and a variety of spaces. To execute such a complicated picture in a life-like way, he found new efficiencies: ways of getting more quickly to the point, and to the collection of relationships making up the big visual impression as we would call it today. His orientation is similar in certain ways to that of a French still-life artist named Jean Simeon Chardin, the other painter of key interest to Tarbell and the Boston school.

        Carolus-Duran and Dannat (the latter of which would have a major influence on Tarbell and Benson) as well as numerous others of their generation had found Velasquez' later approach well suited to their realist/impressionist ambitions. In the 1800's, some say as a result of the French Revolution of 1848 or even earlier, a realism understood as getting back to the depiction of life as it really is, began to dominate the visual arts. Sargent, who had adopted Carolus-Duran's approach almost exactly, had spent time in Spain working out his version of Velasquez' impressionism. Meanwhile Sorolla, Zorn, and our friends which made up the Boston School among many others dropped, for example, indirect and outline-first academic painting even when making imaginative pictures. Sargent's Oyster Gatherers of Calais and Smoke of Ambergris are examples.

        Yet even before that particular "French Revolution," the Dutch had already been developing painting along similar lines. Eventually, or one is tempted to say inevitably given their strong background in painting directly from life, landscape painting on location came to be attempted there. By the early 1800s, it was spreading south. At sixteen years of age, Monet is said to have found a Dutch trained painter, Boudin, painting on the beach. He put himself under his mentorship, eventually working with the artist's teacher, Jongkind - all in pursuit of the fascinating art of plein aire painting. Their approach to painting was also nearly outline free. By the time we get to Monet in particular, as he digs deeper into the study of the color of light directly before nature, it is clear that ever more effective and efficient processes for execution finally became de rigeur. At that point the methods of painting from life changed decidedly. And those of the Boston School were one of the more impressive in achieving all impressionism could hope for, what Gammell would go on to call the 'greatest evolution of impressionism.”

 Velazquez, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, 1618-22

Velazquez, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, 1618-22

 Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Velazquez, Las Hilanderas, 1657

Representational Painting's Two Models

    “It cannot be too frequently pointed out to students of the period that both academicians and impressionists were justified in their respective aesthetic aims and that it is absurd to hold one type of painting to be a higher form than the other.   

    “...[T]hese objectives (of academic Lefevbre and the others) are alien to the impressionist endeavor which, as we have noted previously, aims to report the immediate impact of something seen and observed by the painter in its envelopment of light and atmosphere. Both ideals have suscitated great works of art, but each should be judged by its own criteria with the painter’s specific intent in mind .... a painter is obviously free to choose between these two mutually incompatible goals and his preference is usually determined by his native inclination.       

       “The word, 'impressionism' admirably suggests this purpose and differentiates it from a realism which seeks to imitate appearances rather than convey an artists reactions to those appearances...Indifferent to the world of the imagination they were deeply stirred by the world they saw about them.”                                                                                                                   R. H. Ives Gammell

    The evidence clearly supports the idea that representational pictures are of two basic sorts: imaginative, or pictures first seen in the mind and then pieced together like fiction writing in literature, and impressionistic, or pictures of the world as seen before the artist at the moment; a kind of "journalism of the senses" (though such an analogy may not entirely suffice.) For the purposes of this discussion, since it revolves around the teachings of Gammell, it is the key differentiation.

     Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, David's Oath of the Horatii, Leighton's Cymon and Iphigenia and most of the works of Gammell, are examples of the former. The creation of such works require many levels of preparation. The poses and groupings of the actors are drawn up as thumbnail sketches which are then most often worked up in detailed studies from live models. Clothing is studied in separate drawings, perhaps with the use of a manikin. Architecture is drawn out in some detail, often with three-dimensional models put to use. In Poussin's case, detailed dioramas were constructed which featured clay figures sculpted to scale. Elaborate layouts of all the elements are drawn onto paper, and traced or squared up onto the canvas or wall. Detailed grisaille studies of the parts and/or the whole are typically painted onto the surface before any color is added. The work proceeds in this complicated, indirect, and procedural vein ... ultimately leading to the final full color covering of paint for which many, if not all the parts, had been pre-painted as color studies. This form of the picture making craft is mechanically very complex, and has produced amazing results for those inclined to a work of the imagination. Creating a work in this way is a time consuming, and usually a very expensive proposition. The sort of work a wealthy government or church might have commissioned or promote in its institutions of art, but which a poor or middle income painter would have been hard pressed to endeavor. The Prix de Rome and a chance to study with masters of such painting in Rome was awarded by the government of France in specially designed competitions to young men who proved adept in its production.

    The word 'impressionism' was put to use by Gammell as the label for any paintings done from nature essentially just as the artist sees it before them, or as a reasonably proximal interpretation of what they see. Yet Monet and others of his plein air landscape painting circle were those first associated with the appellation. Speaking to the term's use as a descriptive for work done directly from life, R. A. M. Stevenson considers it understandable that “...[I]mpressionism was first fully made manifest in the work of a portrait painter.” Specifically Velasquez, (for whom his book is named and his inquiry prompted.) Still-lifes and interiors - like those of Chardin, Vermeer, or Velasquez - were initially set up, then painted on the spot as wholly pre-designed subjects. As their subjects stood before them as a gestalt, their process of execution was more direct and far more efficient than those of the imaginative painter. To paint a still-life, the impressionist will select and arrange the objects, select a lighting and vantage-point, decide the picture's size and proportions, stretch a canvas, and simply go to work. With figurative subjects, the model will be placed in a pre-arranged setting and assigned a pose which they will hold like a potato on a plate for as long as needed. The human model may be absent from the setting while the artist works on other elements, but ideally the ensemble is always together and apiece.

    The outdoor landscape is even less complicated, with the artist doing very little arranging - little more than looking around, finding a scene through their viewfinder, and setting canvas on easel. The only preliminary may be a small thumbnail drawing or a color study for initial review. From that point forward and without further ado, the impressionist directly renders what they sees before them with as much grace and efficiency as possible.

    Less direct methods may be used by some impressionists who will enact preliminary drawings of the scene or set-tup before them. The Gammell method for students included full value preliminary drawings of the whole, to be sized up and traced onto canvas, which is then laid in and subsequently finished one area at a time. This outline based method differs decidedly from that of the Boston School referred to by Gammell as the greatest evolution of impressionism. It is more closely tied to an older way, similar to that involved in producing Velasquez' early bodegónes; ways ultimately dropped by him in his quest for a more vivid expression of the visual effect, ways more commonly used by the imaginative painter.

    One final version of painting that would have to be considered 'impressionism' under Gammell's definition is the trompe l'oeil painting. It is treated historically as a deformity or a curiosity by comparison with the rest of impressionism, owing to its intentional exaggeration of detail and a tendency to reward a localized "looking in," rather than emphasize the truth of the larger impression. Having had to figure most things out for themselves, thanks to our widespread disconnect from the wisdom of the past, many of today's representational painters use curious combinations of any number of ways of handling visual truth even when working, as it were, "impressionistically."

    The fact that impressionist painting could be fairly readily undertaken by those without much financial support contributed to an increase in the number of those aspiring to be painters in the first place. A major onslaught of truly bad painting naturally accompanied this trend, as fewer and fewer acquired even a modicum of the necessary underlying skills. The destruction of the drawing base in our educational institutions, along with the failure of individual artists with skill to personally take responsibility for the success of the next generation are equally to blame in the damage done to representational art in the last hundred years. These realities in no way diminish the brilliance of impressionism's “greatest practitioners” in the Boston School, especially given the notion, as affirmed by Joseph Decamp, that it is the method “easiest to understand but hardest to do.” 

    Although imaginative artists have found that a key to their strength is in the ability to create a visually plausible scene, neither their operation nor their results would be usefully labeled impressionistic. They are not simply responding to the seen world as it is, but creating one of their own out of whole cloth. And although in that effort an understanding of perspective and chiaroscuro, the anatomies of plants, animals and people, interior and exterior architecture and even how they relate in the settings are very helpful to them, the impressionist painter finds thinking of these things can be an actual hindrance to their success; success which is significantly measured by truth to the look of nature. At best this kind of knowledge is primarily (and ought to be used as) a resource for checking one's work.

    Apart from accuracy of shape making and form interpretation, some compositional universals and, of course, skill in the oil medium, little of the complex technical craft of the imaginative painter is of use to the impressionist. It is inevitably piecemeal and object-based and would, if used by an impressionist, impair the hallmark unity of the visual whole. On the other hand, there is no question that the training undergone by the student of impressionism to see and accurately render the world before themselves visually would clearly benefit the imaginative painter in their quest for visual plausibility. All painters of stature speaking on the subject emphasize, before and all other considerations, the central importance of the mastery of the look of nature: key to understanding “la source” of art.

 Gammel, The Predicament ,1958

Gammel, The Predicament ,1958

 DeCamp, The Blue Cup, 1909

DeCamp, The Blue Cup, 1909

 Jules Joseph LeFebvre, Judith, 1892

Jules Joseph LeFebvre, Judith, 1892

Short Review of the MFA's 2016-17 William Merrit Chase Exhibit

        William Merrit Chase was a year younger than his fellow Munich trained painter Frank Duveneck, and almost ten years older than Joseph DeCamp who followed them to Germany's Royal Academy for training. Any number of his pictures were painted alongside Duveneck with whom he shared models and, for a time, aesthetic inclinations. Chase remains an American Painter of the second rank, and this is something of a quick discussion of what keeps him there.
        For good or not so good, Chase's outstanding characteristic was in presenting many artistic faces: something of an artistic chameleon. After sharing the Duveneck look and approach to painting early on, he appears to have taken on the look and ideas of the naturalists, Bastien LePage perhaps, or the Newlyn School in numerous subsequent pictures. Later, he shares an aesthetic with Whistler and the tonalists, borrowing with them the flat patterning and diminished depth of values of Japanese prints. At other times his brushwork and light-effect production using dramatic blacks emulate Sargent, especially in his fish still-lifes and certain portraits. His full color interiors of later on and some of his outdoor subjects strongly reflect the Boston School painters, with whom he showed as one of the Ten American Painters. Finally, the body of outdoor work - mostly landscapes from Long Island - appear to be some mix of naturalism and understated impressionism, usually in very shallow value ranges.
        He expressed a regretful belief that he would probably be best remembered for the still-lifes with fishes that clearly show him at his strongest, and most individual. As is typical of those who emulate other painters, hopping from one style to another (perhaps in an attempt to follow market trends) can rarely achieve their model's level of quality. His Whistler/tonalist visitations while decidedly flat, lack the distinctive tastefulness of Whistler and numerous others who are clearly better at it. The attending tendency to flatten, which seemed his relentless goal, inhibited the truth of his light effects and left his pictures -except the still-lifes - decidedly ineffective with regard to edge, value, and chroma ranges.
        Although he was at times somewhat up to the task of 'doing it with the brush' a la Sargent or Duveneck, he seldom truly maintains the unity of that approach throughout - again with the possible exception of the fish pictures. Unlike Sargent, his work also typically fails to carry from across the room. Perhaps as a result of exhibiting with the impressionist oriented men of Boston, he suddenly and dramatically ups his chromal range from the doldrums of the Newlyn naturalism, yet he never achieves Boston School impressionistic sunlight effects, atmosphere, or even the inherent suggestions of depth characteristic of those who work from the effects of light. Instead, like so many who attempt impressionist light, his relentless grip on the outline of objects, and the false evens of his edge relationships held him back. His large busy interior start, despite its reasonable color-values, is a model of outline chaos at the expense of the visual unity which is the objective of Boston impressionist painting from start to finish. To give him credit, the color schemes of numerous pictures (especially when working tonalistically) though shallow, are sometimes distinguished and good. His drawing appears consistently accurate though seldom actually inspired or expressive.
        When my students and I visited the Boston wing of the MFA following our tour of the Chase exhibit, the first picture to greet us was the bare shouldered woman seated on a couch playing a guitar by Joseph DeCamp. They were stunned by the almost unbelievable strength of this work compared with anything by Chase. One of them was led to comment, “Its a good thing we didn't come to the Boston rooms first.” What was clear was that the elevated attention to the truth in the painting by DeCamp gave his work a far more impressive, but also more individual beauty than those of Chase. Instead of working humbly under DeCamp's assumption that the sometimes elevated poetry we call impressionist art is the result of the deep pursuit of visual truth, Chase appears to injure himself by a too persistent chase... after art.

 

 Chase, Still Life- Fish ca.1900

Chase, Still Life- Fish ca.1900

 Chase, Studio Interior ca. 1882

Chase, Studio Interior ca. 1882

 DeCamp, The Guitar Player, 1908

DeCamp, The Guitar Player, 1908

The Method is the School

THE BOSTON SCHOOL (An incomplete essay by Paul Ingbretson)

Introduction: The Method is the School

        “To discard the working methods evolved by the impressionist masters is to greatly reduce the scope of painting as an art.” - R. H. Ives Gammell

        “No great man is separable from his technique, and the difference between two great men lies largely in a difference of technique, for technique is truly the language of the eye... If this be granted, then technique is as important to an art as the body to man. Both of them appear and act for two hidden questionable partners, sentiment and soul...Technique, then, is the indivisible organic body of a man's conceptions, and cannot be rightly apprehended when studied in fragments.” - From Velasquez by R. A. M. Stevenson

        Numerous things have been written in the past thirty or so years referencing the Boston School. It has been credited with being the progenitor of the modern atelier movement of realist painting, while it is also darkly associated with the advent of bad education and “Modernism.” Strangely, it is arguably responsible for neither. As with the Boston School, the atelier movement training is based on the observation of nature. That training does not appear to differ much, in theory at least, from what Tarbell et al underwent at the old Boston Museum School within the first couple years of their study there, or what was being taught at Cowles, or the Pennsylvania Academy, or Art Student's League. The Boston School leadership of the Museum School (and the works of their students Gertrude Page, Gretchen Rogers and Leslie Thompson alongside them) suggests the same simple realist painting training that might have come from almost anywhere at the time, if better than most.
        Whatever they taught at the Museum School, the approach of its teachers to making paintings in their own studios could hardly have been more different from my own teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell's. Their definition of impressionism, presumably at least as broad as his, encompassed solid drawing as well as color-value based light effects. Yet Gammell's way of working was not impressionistic in the Boston School sense at all. In this writer's opinion, he simply sought to work the better qualities of impressionist color into a French academic way of working.
        Many will ask, “Isn't that exactly what they were doing? Isn't that what makes the Boston School so special?” Well, yes and no. While they did combine their good basic drawing training with impressionist light and color they did not do it Gammell's way. Rather than putting their new wine into an old wineskin they saw, as did other well-known painters of the day, that the successful combination of impressionist color and light with drawing and painting wet-into-wet would require rethinking the entire approach; an approach that found them working more like Velasquez or Chardin than Gerome or Bougeureau or their previous teachers at the Museum School or the Academe Julian. In their search for the new unity of approach necessary to their ambition they found, almost in concert, the Boston School approach. It is far closer to the way of Carolus-Duran as described in Kenyon Cox's Concerning Painting than the later outline based approach of Gammell.
        When Gammell said to me, “All I ever wanted was to paint one like Tarbell” it was clear that he meant the look and the magic of a Tarbell painting which is part and parcel of the Boston School approach. (By the way, in my humble opinion anyone today claiming the "Boston School" label should not only be teaching academic drawing and impressionist color, but the unified approach of its practitioners, Boston School painting understood as a process.) In the interest of full disclosure, anything else should be called "Gammell School" or "the new realism," or something else entirely. I should add that even though Gammell studied very briefly with the main exponents of the Boston School, it is clear that that education could not possibly have reached the point where he would have been given in a useful or understandable way the working methods of Tarbell or Benson. Unlike these men, Paxton, with whom Gammell did study at great length, is simply not the main actor. It is their work and not his that defined the Boston School.
        Among my purposes in writing about the Boston School is to bring awareness to categorical differences between simple realism (or what Stevenson in his Velasquez called "primitive realism" and primitive drawing) and Boston School, or truly impression-based painting and drawing. I would like thereby to encourage representational artists and students of painting not to overlook the real contribution of the school itself, its special value, and to offer those who love its orientation a chance to explore it more deeply. Theirs is truly a deep well, not to be overlooked by the wise. At the very least, a better understanding of it will help artists understand their own chosen approach better.
        Of course, I honestly believe that the ability to render what you see before your eyes - not just the drawing of proportion and gesture and form, but the light effects, the color relations, and the visual impression as a whole on its own orderly terms - is the basis of a sound education in the arts, period. No systematic teaching is as comprehensive as that of the Boston School when incorporated with the logic of its approach, its method, which  Gammell reminds is essential to its way of thinking. Unfortunately Gammell's overly broad definition of impressionism necessitates the inclusion of all methods ever used to articulate visual truth, without allowing for the dramatically different methods of different times and the necessary differences in their results. The work of Da Vinci or Bouguereau, considered impressionistic as being based on observations from life, are wrongly implied to share common methodologies with those of the Boston School itself.
        Though Boston School painters considered the information offered in a Boston Museum School education to be crucial to the success of any painter, their own personal working methods were simply not those of their school years, not those of the academies in which they studied in several particulars, and certainly not those of Da Vinci or Bouguereau. Further along in this essay we will focus on their work. We'll consider their working maxims and other conversations, and in particular the lay-in of their pictures, in an attempt to clarify the sound reasons for working as they did. We'll also differentiate their approach from other representational, or even what Gammell might have called “impressionist” painters. We will then demonstrate and discuss the advantages of their way of working from life, particularly for any painters who share their interests and goals.
        These considerations are based on almost 50 years of living around, looking at, and copying the actual work of Tarbell, Benson, DeCamp, and even Paxton, exploring in practice their approach. The conclusions are also a product of directly working with R. H. Ives Gammell in the Fenway Studios and having been involved in his discussions about the Boston School. My intention is not to sell the work of the Boston School per se, but simply to aid an understanding of it.


 

 RH Ives Gammell, The Seamstress, 1923.

RH Ives Gammell, The Seamstress, 1923.

 Edmund Tarbell, Woman Mending a Glove, 1935

Edmund Tarbell, Woman Mending a Glove, 1935

Purple Cows or True Success?

I was just forwarded a contribution on how to succeed in the arts from an apparent marketing genius named Weiss, quoting with approval another genius of our times, Seth Godin. From his "popular" book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable. Amazon summarizes Godin's message: "Cows, after you've seen one or two or ten, are boring. A Purple Cow, though ... now that would be something. Godin defines a Purple Cow as anything phenomenal, counterintuitive, exciting ... remarkable. Every day, consumers ignore a lot of brown cows, but you can bet they won't ignore a Purple Cow." We can find this idea in the arts without too much difficulty, Picasso and friends over at RISD. Obviously a little short of impressive for those of us who have had to overcome their nonsense from student days. Strangely the wisdom with which the 19th century and most great eras in the arts are imbued, is just the opposite. "Shock your grandmother" is an old term, derogatorily summarizing cheap attempts to stand out and draw the limelight at the Salon. It is the motto, if any, of Modern Art, and we the public, have been its victims for long enough. The purpose of art isn't your cheap personal success in making money, but the uplifting of the general public. Would you go to a rich doctor, or one known for their ability to bring people back to health? There are purple cows around every corner now thanks to this kind of low advice. What isn't there enough of? People doing the right thing for the right reasons, and damn the financial rewards. There simply isn't enough - and never will be - of goodness and truth and there isn't enough beauty in the great sense of that word. Don't let yourself be sidetracked, as Picasso was, into being an "Artiste." Remember Kinkade's late conversations of regret. Think deeply about the nature of the real thing. Work hard and work wisely at your craft and, without becoming a joker and with minimal marketing, you will have your heart's desire. Unless it's instant gratification at the bank. I suggest you watch the movie, "The Big Short," if you still wonder what I'm talking about. Instead of Godin, quote Solomon: "Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men."

 

Actual vs Apparent: The "Phonetic" Code of Painting

Another classic problem for the uninitiated in rendering the visual world before them is to begin by looking at the objects  per se, rather than their visible and paintable abstractions. I have noticed students making the assumption that if you can just see or feel the "appleness" of the apple on the table, you can draw or paint it. With that in mind, they begin their effort to make the apple shape. However, as noted again by Gammell, “We are not drawing the actual but the apparent shapes.” In fact, shapes are painted because that is all a canvas contains: shapes produced by values, in contrast to nature before you. In fact, knowing what an object "is" in its actuality interferes with one's ability to see what it is visually. The mind fills up with presumptions and assumptions of all kinds based on non-visual experiences. So, to restate, one realizes that one sees with values primarily and therefore what one must learn to see is not units of things but units of value. Ultimately, all that drawing from life entails is the accurate rendering of the relative values of the different areas of the ensemble of value units before the eye ... and not the objects themselves. The exception being when one simply isolates an object of one value in a space of a different value without any context. Then drawing around the object is all you have to work with. Yet the normal use of line in painting, rather than being mindlessly used for the delineation of objects, becomes the way of indicating seen shapes. Of course since what we wanted to do was draw "the apple," many of us were hard pressed to buy into that idea until we had suffered sufficient failure. Realize again that I am talking about the training of the eye to render accurately the visual ensemble before the viewer. The way any aspect of nature must be seen is as value, color, and size, because that is all you can accomplish with paint. All you have to work with are pigments whose only characteristics are value, hue and chroma. Returning to our quote by Joseph Decamp, “It's just the right value, the right color in the right place.”

 Joseph DeCamp, "Sally," 1907

Joseph DeCamp, "Sally," 1907

Red Carpets for Drawing

A recent viewing "The Sound of Music" (one of the high water marks in American cinema) reminded me of the dramatic difference that had occurred in thinking about how to approach painting from life. During the song "Farewell, Goodnight" the youngest child asks why she always had to be last. Maria, the governess, made Gretel smile when she said: "Because you're the most important." As I've pointed out, there was a time when it was said of painting that "well drawn is well enough colored." Before Monet woke us up, truth in color was frequently treated as an afterthought - or primarily a product of formula, but not part of one's first considerations either in the work or the training. In fact, I agree regarding the importance of drawing. And that is precisely why I put color first. For a direct painting, drawing is so important that color must be well in hand in order that drawing possesses the materials to confidently work its magic. And if color is important enough to lead the way, perhaps more of us might consider an honest inclusion of the incredibly important lessons of Monet when we teach this new generation. Mastery of the color of nature is as critical and basic a skill as any other for a complete representational skill-set.

 Claude Monet, Haystacks, (Sunset)  1890-1891.

Claude Monet, Haystacks, (Sunset)  1890-1891.

 Martin Johnson Heade, Haystacks, ca. 1871-1875

Martin Johnson Heade, Haystacks, ca. 1871-1875

Paradigm Shifts For Success in Drawing and Painting: "Knowing" vs. Seeing

An Ongoing Conversation ...
By Paul Ingbretson

When critiquing the work of students of direct representational painting, I am frequently reminded of the numerous shifts in thinking and behavior I had to go through to achieve routinely good results. The neophyte comes into the studio with many assumptions and behaviors that are ineffectual, counterproductive, and often actually disastrous. In other words he comes in with a paradigm or model in his mind of how to paint. It's a fairly fuzzy one,  received from a partial understanding of the thinking of another painter, and it works barely adequately. The gradual realization that his model delivers inferior and/or irregular results typically causes him to try different approaches, forcing the renovation of his previous model. The following blogs will review one painter's progress toward better models, discussing his newly adopted paradigms which enabled greater success in painting from life. At the time you read this, the 'shifts' are rather random. Yet taken together, they will serve for now. Our first example is in the area of "Knowing vs Seeing." Gammell once said to a young student: "You don't see with your eyes what is in front of you, but with your ears what people have told you.” It is a common assumption that one can think one's way into an accurate painting or drawing, that one must know about things and apply knowledge learned elsewhere to get good results when working from nature. Schools are built around such presumptions. Typical of this category are knowledge of anatomy or of perspective which are, of course, useful in certain ways - but often a hindrance to a beginner in becoming masters of the true visual likeness. Names of colors or even of objects themselves are such hindrances. How many times have I awakened in the morning to astonishing color outside my window only to have its beauty vanish when I discover what it actually "is." The reality for the painter of the world as it is before them is different indeed. In fact it is axiomatic that “you must be out of your mind to be a painter,” free of all the assumptions associated with what you think you know. More to the point: You must be in your eyes. Notice this next time you find yourself standing before the model, looking for answers entirely in your head and trying to figure it out, rather than seeing what is occurring visually before you. Catch yourself. The shift from "head knowledge" to direction by visual observation of the general impression is a classic mental shift which must occur for maximum success in mastering the look of nature.

  "You don't see with your eyes what is in front of you but with your ears what people have told you.” - RH Ives Gammell

"You don't see with your eyes what is in front of you but with your ears what people have told you.”
- RH Ives Gammell

The Golden Thread

As a student in New York, I remember engaging in discussions with fellow ignoramuses on the subject of “It:” Whether and which paintings at the Met had “It,” or whether any of our teachers' work had “It.” Later, as students in the R. H. Ives Gammell atelier, we were asked to name the top five painters of all time; a daunting exercise in analysis for anyone, but especially for a novice still in doubt about the very elements of painting itself. (Gammell quoted one of his mentors to the effect that “When you're old, it's Titian” - a position getting easier and easier to concur with.) Yet among my personal conclusions on thinking this question through was that while there are a handful of great masters, the works of these individuals were simply not all masterpieces. Ogden Pleissner, an Art Students' League of NY painter friend of Gammell's (whose oeuvre contains some of the finest compositions in the annals of American art) said something like: “We paint our pictures, and sometimes are fortunate enough to actually produce a masterpiece.” To the developing neophyte, the question of what constitutes a masterpiece is a far more critical question than who is the greatest artist. Instead of idolizing individuals, the wise student of painting will search out the greatest paintings they can find, using comparisons to continually and intuitively improve their grasp, and think about forming their artistic character along lines common to them all. They need to set themselves on the quest for the very definition of art, and what makes the real thing lasting in value, and timeless in worth. In short, they need to remember what it was that inspired them to paint in the first place and reconnect with their every fiber to the qualities in the works that manage to maintain their “It"- ness, no matter how old one gets and no matter how much one has experienced. What one wants to do with one's painting life, in short, is to search out and understand the nature of one's art, the nature of all that has earned the name “art,” tracking the golden thread that runs through it all, and trying one's best to deliver works of similarly lasting merit.

For the good, the beautiful and the true,
Paul

 "The Entombment of Christ," Titian,  1520

"The Entombment of Christ," Titian, 1520

 

 

"Just the right color, the right value, in the right place: Easy to understand, Hard to do."

Just the right color, the right value, in the right place: Easy to understand, Hard to do.

            Attributed to Joseph Decamp.

            The science of impressionism as we know it begins with Leonardo Da Vinci. More than any other Renaissance painter, it is from several of his observations that we begin to make progress toward an objectively truthful depiction of the visual world per se - finding its culmination in the color of Monet. At minimum, today's representational painter must be master of the visual impression with all that implies - if they wish to claim mastery of their craft. Not anatomy, not perspective, not sight-size or the golden mean or glazing, but the rendering of the colors and values of the scene before them in true relation to one other in each and every aspect ... is all aspects. It is the essential grammar, the spelling, the phonics necessary to our art. The demo image on this blog entry is made from a Vermeer. It demonstrates - and I name for the student - virtually all you need to know to successfully articulate everything in that painting. Just as the forty four sounds of the alphabet in phonics enables you to read anything in the English language so this training of the eye assures that you can successfully render anything nature can throw your way. So simple - and yet so difficult that most students of realism today look for a different road.