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