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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Fésole Club Papers.

by W. G. Collingwood.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 337-343


V. - THE ETHICS OF LEAF-LAND.

"First find your tree, and then paint it." In preparing the third lesson it never occurred to the writer that any members of the "Fésole Club" would have been unable to find a tree within a mile of their homes, nor that the inclement spring would have debarred others from sitting out of doors to draw the tree they found, invisible, as it happened, from their windows. But in July, let us hope that even in this climate, and even in the overbuilt and smoke-blasted districts of it, some bit of foliage, no matter of what kind, may be approachable without fatigue, with all the comfort and convenience which are necessary to careful study; for the art-student must go to work, like the stars, with "No blind hurry, no delay."

Our old friend of April, in his July dress, would be the best subject; but any fairly visible foliage will serve our turn; not diminished to a haycock in the far distance, nor so near that every leaf is separately visible. Large-leaved trees at about fifty paces distance are already quite far enough away; the leaves of birches and willows and bushes of thorn and so forth, at twenty paces, or even less, can hardly be discriminated: they must be suggested by some conventional manner of work, if anything more be required than the general outline and simple modelled mass which we have already mastered.

Something more is required, for at that distance foliage is distinctly visible as texture. The leaves have the effect of the hairs in a fur, or the threads in a coarse woollen drapery; they modify the surface without altering the shape and colour of the whole mass; they give a look of looseness and roughness, and yet they are not a mere chance assemblage of disconnected spots and dots. The hairs in a fur, or on a curly head, lie at random, you wouldld think; but when you look longer you see that they show a tendancy which makes for tidiness. When you try to follow out this tendancy you soon find that it is possible to get them too tidy; they become formal, they look like bristles, and you must finally express another tendency of theirs which makes for untidiness, and disguises the normal lines of curl and set of texture in a partial but quite necessary confusion.

So it is in the drawing of leaves; there they are, distinctly altering the appearance of the whole mass of the tree; they cannot be ignored. The young artist begins by dotting and scratching his tree all over anyhow, until it looks like Struwelpeter. He soon finds that some sort of regularity is discernible. He notes that the tree is made up of bunches of leaves growing on the branches which he has already drawn--obscuring them, but replacing their radiation by a new sort of radiation. And then he draws his tree over again, to express this law of growth, to assert it with all the emphasis of an original discovery, until his masses of leaves look like bunches of bananas, and his picture becomes a diagram. Something of this kind was actually done by the "Old Masters" of landscape of the Gaspar Poussin period, and it was thought to be severe and scientific. In its way it was right, just as it is right for a child to use proper language, strict grammar, formal composition in his school essays, to correct the chit-chat of the nursery. An accomplished writer or speaker uses words at his will, and nobody blames him, so long as he makes them convey the side-lights of thought and the picturesque blending of ideas which his fuller experience dictates. But it is not likely that anyone reaches this final stage without going through the drudgery of etymology and syntax. And in tree-painting the world had to go through this formal stage, and the student must not hope to evade it entirely, though it would be foolish to rest in it, contented with a cheap pedantry.

We agree then to leave behind us the nursery stage of art, in which boughs are drawn like piles of spellicans and leaves like a litter of crumbs; and we will try, after preliminary outlining of the whole tree and each separable mass, to suggest lightly with the pencil the radiation which we have observed in the clumps of foliage. We know that this radiation must be there because the leaves are set on the twigs like the spread fingers of an opened hand; and even if the leaves are too small to show it, as in the birch, the little wreaths of leaves on the twigs themselves radiate from the larger boughs. But without knowing anything about the structure, we cannot watch a tree for long before we perceive that this is the first condition of its aspect. Dwelling on this one idea we work until our whole tree seems to become rigid with spiky fingers, stiff banana-bunches, solid cabbage clumps, or curly radiating tufts like grass, or moss or waves, or hair, or anything but foliage.

It is time we stopped for this sitting. Next day we must look for another of the laws of growth. You know that men are all made after one pattern; and yet how different they are! The law of Unity underlies everything in nature, but overlying that there is the equally true law of Variety. When we think exclusively of one side of the question we go wrong. One first hasty glance at that assemblage of fluttering leaves, each intent on its own business, thrusting its neighbours aside to reach light and air, and to get its own place in the world--that hasty view led us to fancy that they were only accidentally held together by the branches; we thought of them as Individualistic politicians think of society, as a fortuitous complication of irreconcilable interests. And now that we have discovered the law of Unity that rules their growth, we want to regulate their waywardness, to simplify their structure, to rearrange the community into obvious co-operation, as some of our friends who are Socialists want to tidy-up and comb down this great Ygg-drasil of the world at large. But there is the tree! Its unity of growth is a fact; yet beyond that fact is the fact of its infinite variety.

We can express this variety at our second sitting by breaking up the simple lines of radiation. Most of the bunches of leaves are made up of smaller bunches; some overlapping others, some half-hidden, some advance foreshortened and some retreat; these are fuller of leaves, and those are sparse and scattered; here and there a hermit-leaf, sulking by itself, quits the ranks, or a lady-leaf dominates the group. And each of these--how like ourselves!--has its bright side and its dark side, and it reflects light or casts gloom around it. To-day's work will be to express this breaking up of the leaf community, by lines to indicate the extremities of these leaves; not now radiating from common centres, but roughly concentric to them; not harmoniously curved lines, but broken, irregular zig-zags, expressing, as in a kind of cursive, hurried writing, the outlines of many leaf-points laid close together. Though this kind of touch may be manufactured by the yard it must not be meaningless, like little children's make-believe letters; it must be the nearest attempt we can reach to the deliberate forming of the outlines of the leaves. Since we are still at outline and not shading the picture, the work must be done lightly in pencil, and when it is finished the tree is prepared for painting.

The colour of a tree is difficult and complicated because there are so many different tints closely interwoven, and yet distinguishable, in every mass of foliage. On a grey day, when no sun shines, there is (1) the rich warm green of the deeper darks, (2) the lighter green of the half tones, and (3) the grey lights. When the sun comes out, there are in addition (4) bright, warm, yellow lights, and often (5) almost pure white sparkles, and here and there (6) deep, rich yellow transmitted lights, where the sun shines through a leaf and you see the under side. In thin and transparent foliage, as in springtime, the deepest dark (No. 1) is destoryed by the pervading sunshine, but it is present in thick foliage even then. And to these must be added (7) the light, warm brown and (8) the purley-grey darks of the branches; or if there be no sunshine, at any rate the presence--felt rather than definitely seen--of innumerable brownish twigs and peeps of branches.

On a good outline these colours may be mosaically inlaid at one painting if we have the tints ready prepared and if we use different brushes for each, like oil-painters, with skilful manipulation of wet colour, and advantage taken of its partial drying to an edge. Then we get the fresh and bloomy effect of proper water-color execution, which we have seen to be so delightful in some of our studies, such as the primrose. But without practice and care this way of work may easily degenerate into the "blottesque." And one of the disadvantages of a course of study, such as we are now pursuing, is that a proper amount of practice can hardly be gained at the rate of one study a month, to qualify the learner for the advance which an impatient leader is tempted to hasten on. But many of the members of this club are not novices in drawing, and for them this experiment will be useful. Some, however, will prefer the more usual manner of tree-drawing, which has its beauties and its advantages not to be despised, for we have no right to become bigots even in our artistic creed.

The usual way of tree-painting is to lay one tint over another, always letting the wet paint dry before retouching, beginning with the lighest tint in every case, and carrying it over the whole space to be coloured, and then touching the next lightest over everything that is darker, and then the darkest of all upon the first two. For a tree in sunless daylight the lightest tint is grey, the greens to follow when the grey is dry. For a tree in sunshine, first the pale yellow or yellowish-green of the sunlit leaves (gamboge or aureolin, Indian yellow or yellow ochre, as the case may be; for it is diffcult to prescribe pigments with that cheerful confidence that medical books show in prescribing for common ailments), then the deep yellow transmitted lights touched where they fall (in raw sienna), next, for the parts that are lit only by the sky, their grey (of cobalt and light red) carried boldly over all the darker parts. Afterwards the greens, kept warm and rich, because nearly enough blue has already been laid; and to finish, the burnt sienna or light red of the stems, with their sharp, dark touches of deeper grey.

These tints cannot, of course, be laid down in great flat washes. The peculiarity of tree-texture is that leaves, or parts of them, stand out on a dark ground as light points. This was caught in the earliest Giottesque manner of tree-drawing, where the leaves are painted elaborately, few and far between, upon a dark ground in solid body-colour. But in our transparent water-colour you cannot do this; you must leave the lights and paint the darks, managing to express form by the spaces you leave more than by the spaces you colour. And this is done by making your tint with a zig-zag line, and then another laid roughly parallel to it, and then another; which represents, as in a kind of running-hand, the serrated ranks of a series of leaves with their points more or less one way; for between the zig-zags little irregular lights are left, showing the colour of the previous wash and representing the light catching upon outstanding leaves.

This is what is known as the "Tree-touch" in ordinary water-colour; by the clever management of which the characters of different leafage can be given. For example: if you are painting ash, the zigzag will be very slender and serrated at an acute angle; if oak, it will be a thicker line, with serrations at about sixty degrees; for birch, the touches will be tiny and dotty, or drawn with a dry brush, crumbling the paint on the paper; and for ivy, they will be a series of small square dots set at various angles to one another. Every kind of leaf can be suggested by some modification of the zigzag, which the student can discover for himself without any great effort of ingenuity, and apply without requiring the help of the least spark of genius. Sketching of this kind absolutely requires thought and care: every process has a reason, every touch represents something in nature; and the kind of touch and method of process can be determined by the common-sense of the artist if he takes the trouble to think it out. It is not a matter of mystery or trick.

For example: the succesive tints, laid upon and under tint, must not be so strong as they would be if laid on white paper, because part of their depth is already there. By neglecting this you get violence, and spottiness, and a frippery brilliancy, which sometimes has been considered picturesque, but which you, after your studies of tone, will rightly feel to be unnatural. The successive zigzags must be rapidly laid, because if one dries before the next is struck into it, the overlapping spaces will be twice as dark as the rest of the tint--for the zigzags are meant to form a flat tint with interstices left, not a confused muddle of unequal forms and tones. Small spaces of colour are to be laid over large ones because their edges would be lost, more or less, if they were disturbed by subsequent wet washes; and dark colour is to be put over light because its surface would be fouled and made less transparent by washing. For every rule there is a reason; and if you know the reason you are sure to go right; if you merely work by rules you are likely to forget some of them and go wrong. *

But while it needs no genious--only a little common-sense and practice--to paint trees with passable success, yet in this very exercise of reason and in the sympathetic study of the tree as a living community of leaves, ruled by unity and infinte variety--in this habit of mind and heart one is doing the very work which, more completely and habitually done, is the distinctive work of genius. You may never master the tree-touch like a real artist, but you may without knowing it become a real poet while you sit in the July sunshine and give all your heart to learning the ethics of Leaf-land.




* For July the drawing study is any piece of foliage attempted in either of the methods described; to be sent to the writer not later than July 21st at "Lanhead, Coniston, Lancashire" (note change of permanent address). Next month there will be no Fésole paper in the P.R. (the summer number), but members of the club, who will probably be taking their holidays in the country, at the seaside, or abroad, may send in any sketches they have done up to August 21.


Typed March 2013