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.

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.

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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