“...[Y]ou don't look at things with their large aspects of light and shade. As a design, not as objects. If you do this, you will get the objects afterwards. No one who was not born with the ability to do this can achieve it without a constant effort of will.”
- Frank Benson in advising his daughter.
In direct and light effect - driven painting from life, the visual order for which the artist strives is also his modus operandi. The young student who observed of Sargent's demonstration that it looked as if the lights were slowly coming on is a variation on the Boston School dictum, “Paint as if you were coming out of a fog.” In all my training and reading related to the Boston School impressionist's order of business, it is the only one which describes seeing and doing first-this and then-that. Bringing down ones eyelids almost totally reduces the vision to seeing only the major, the strong, value contrasts. All details vanish. They are subsumed by the general value, what Sargent called the middle value of the areas, leaving the artist to work on only the important areas of contrast, the chief effects. Benson specifically told his daughter: “You must be entirely absorbed by the light and shade. You must turn right away from what has been most important up to now - drawing -and put down merely what the eye can see....You have got to give up what is easy and attractive (and natural, too) to do, and simply try to see the relations of values. A skillful man will seem to be making things at the same time, but really if he is good he will be only painting 'the relations of things.' You think you do, but you have got to do it entirely differently if you are to get a real effect. Careful drawing of shapes is not making things.” When Degas says: “It's all silhouettes,” it's clear he wasn't saying “It's all outlines.” I like to reference Abbot and Costello's “Who's on First” skit to help make the point.
Part of the reason for this shows up long before the impressionist, in drawing strategies. Working with Paxton, Gammell said he was directed to establishing the important, the major proportions and angles for example, with an isolated, “floating” line saying, very Boston School like, “Anyone can fill in the rest.” Even so, further examination will show that the Boston School approach in painting from life is a complete rethinking of the academic approach and entirely different from and, frankly, incompatible with that of the 19th Century European imaginative realism taken by some as the be all and end all of art. It is not, however, incompatible with Velasquez' approach or that of either Chardin or Vermeer; it is absolutely in sync with them, even an extension of their ideas.
Gammell once warned me pointedly that “lost and found” was just a gimmick. However, the aphorism he taught, that the direct painter must paint as if he were coming out of a fog, suggests a critical need for the idea of “lost and found” right from the start. When in a fog many values contrasts cannot be observed – only the strongest. When laying in a canvas the direct painter works from the greater to the lesser, from larger generalized units to smaller and more defined ones, but also from the stronger to the weaker. The Boston School direct painter from life also wants to maintain visual order at all times. To accomplish this he acquires the habit of blurring the eye to see which silhouette to draw next to maintain visual order – which are the strongest. Nothing visually weak – lost to the blurred eye - is expressed before something stronger – found, even when eyes are blurred. Far from being a gimmick, this is not a negotiable behavior. Like so many others, it is incorporated in a unique way into the general habits of the Boston School approach to painting.