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

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.

Paul Ingbretson

Paul Ingbretson,  Red Teapot

Paul Ingbretson, Red Teapot