The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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

by W. G. Collingwood.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 303-307

[William Gershom Collingwood, 1854-1932, was an artist in the Lake District. He spent part of his life as John Ruskin's assistant, and became a family friend of Arthur Ransome, "who based his book Swallows and Amazons on his experiences of sailing with the Collingwoods' grandchildren" in Collingwood's boat, called Swallow. He loved Viking/Norse culture.]

IV.--Through the Window

A marvellously pleasant thing it is, and not unprofitable, to pack your sketch-book in one pocket and your paint-box in another, and take a ticket, about this time of year, to some foreign town for a few days' street-sketching. The sunshine and freshness of early summer, when as yet dust, and heat, and mosquitoes, and tourists have not appeared; only the blaze of light on crumbling walls and striped awnings, the breadth of gloom under heavy eaves and down deep lanes, the purple sheen of slates and roofing-shingles against deep blue and fresh, unsullied green; and at the windows, and up and down the pavement, such eddying glitter of populous life, lads and men all bronzed and bloused, women and children in gay and light attire, making holiday, you could think, for you know nothing of the dark side of their lives, in honour of midsummer.

Prout, the great master of that pen and tint method which we are studying, was one of our first artists in this kind. It was his work that, just fifty-eight years ago, enticed Ruskin to the domestic architecture of France and Germany, and started the great movement which has done so much for the beauty of our own towns. He was followed by a school of street-sketchers, a graft of Romanticism upon the English love of home-life. They had not the masterly arrangement nor the sense of tone which marks Prout's best work; but they developed other good qualities; and if you would see how far finished draughtsmanship and clear, luminous color can be carried, look for Mr. Rooke's drawings at the Old Watercolour Society.

But while you delight, as you are sure to do, in his rendering of the gay streets of Troyes, do not suppose that his pictures owe all their artistic value to the place where he painted them, to its particular picturesqueness; do not think that foreign towns have a monopoly of such subjects. If you think that, you will do a wrong to him, and to art, and to yourselves. To yourselves most of all; because you might then be tempted to believe that no other scenes are worth painting; you may fall a victim to the enchantments of foreign travel; and when you have indulged your fancy in the alleys of Laon or the steep streets of Blois, among the crowded roofs and quaint gables of Strasbourg and Cologne, along the wharves of Genoa, or round the ramparts of Lucca,--the veriest garden of a town with houses for its flowers,--thereafter all stay-at-home subjects will seem stale, flat, and unprofitable: and never a June will pass but you will sicken for your sketching-tour, with feverish and desperate desires, forbidden then, perhaps, by still dearer duties and deeper cares of life. And yet is there nothing for it, if you would draw, but to go abroad?

The unaccustomedness and movement of travelling, the necessity of making the most of time, are great incitements to effort; there is no doubt that every artist works with a tenfold energy when he is on a sketching-tour. But is it that he has no subjects at home? Often, when I have been standing at a street-corner, paint-box on thumb and sketch-book in hand, and the usual crowd of boys and idlers at my shoulder, I have been amused with their blank astonishment that I should choose a view, to them so utterly uninteresting. "What is it he does?" they say. "It is nothing; the street, the shops, the door of the cathedral. Ah, see the coal-cart; to paint a coal-cart! See there, the flowers at the window: and our Toinette--it is she! He! Toinette, one makes thy portrait!" And then comes out the shopkeeper, bland and patronising. "Very well done, sir; courage! But has monsieur seen our new museum? There's a fine building! What statues! What facade! That would make a magnificent subject!" Occasionally, indeed, as the work advances, the artist has the honour of drawing public attention to points of interest unnoticed before; and then he feels that he has not lived in vain. Sometimes--oh, flattering moment!--boys bring out pencil and paper, awakened to emulation; and once or twice, indeed, I have had quite a drawing-class on the kerbstone.

But this want of interest does not prove stupidity. We are usually just as careless of the picturesque possibilities of our own surroundings, as indeed we are often blind to the tragic import of our daily doings. When a foreign painter comes over, and turns our streets into pictures for us, we are amazed. Sometimes a genius, strayed from--heaven, I suppose, opens our eyes to the true romance, as Carlyle calls it, of reality; and well it is when we can learn the lesson, to husband our sensibilities and keep them brightly reflective, to guard our judgment and keep it keenly appreciative; lest, like vulgar minds, we be deceived by the desire of mere animal excitement and vicissitude into despising the pleasures that lie round about us.

The whole secret of art is to take an interest in something. The difference between a great painter and a commonplace one is that the great man sincerely loves his subject, and the commonplace man merely tries to be impressive. He may, indeed, impress us with accumulated picturesqueness and clever design; but when we have the picture at home, how soon it wearies us! Your great man shows his power in painting something that nobody else has thought worth painting, for nobody else has cared about it; and when the work is shown we feel--perhaps not all at once--its truth, and we become interested in it by this inevitable contagion of enthusiasm. And then everybody rushed to Clovelly or Whitby, invades the nursery or the dictionary of antiquities, because Hook and Hunt, Millais and Tadema, have found new subjects there; forgetting that it is not the scene that makes the picture, but the seer.

So, after all, the material of art is looking in at your window and beckoning your attention, while you are dreaming of the things you would do at Rome or Venice, at the Alps or the Alhambra. The houses over the way; the chimney-pots seen from an upper window; a tree in the garden, or a bed of flowers--any of these might be taken as sufficient subjects by one who has the supreme gift--the greatest thing in the world--of loving them. It is not given to all, in its fulness; but a share of it comes by close dealing with things. It does not make you fond of a person, simply to live with him; but work with him--and if you feel a true sympathy in the work, you soon find sympathy with the person. So it is that when you take your subject into partnership, not merely into service, not merely to see what you can "make of it," you gradually find its loveableness. Probably, in some occult way, your affection will show itself in your picture; at any rate, you will have been your poet; you will have opened your own eyes, and done one bit of work in the spirit of great art.

Sometimes we have to work with people whom, at first sight, we hardly care about as partners. But if we are wise we study them, and get to find their good points and their bad. It is our duty, then, to make the most of the good, and set that in the fairest light; not blinding ourselves to the bad, but helping them to put it out of the way. And so in painting, there is no object so beautiful but it has weak points, and our first business is to think them out, to determine the strongest point, and lean upon it. This is at the bottom of what critics call Composition; and the first law is Principality.

You are sitting at the window--whichever window you like best to look from,--and there is one object, one little thing--not a whole block of houses, but an opposite door or window, a chimney-stack, or distant building, or spire--on which your eyes rest. Perhaps it has a space of foliage near it, contrasting with the sharp-cut architecture. Why not take that for your subject? not the whole range of view, but that single feature. You have your little piece of paper (the size we may keep for convenient carriageable standard is, as before, one of these pages), and you hold it up at arm's length, and about the middle of it sketch that one feature just the size it seems, so that the outline at two feet or so from the eye is as large as the object appears. To be precise, take a small brush with Chinese white and trace the actual form at arm's length on the window-pane (or any piece of glass) as children draw on a "drawing-slate," and then measure it off on the paper with compasses or a ruler. You will be sure, then to get the perspective right, if there is any. It is as easy as two and two.

Then, having fixed the size to scale, spend an hour or more on the outline of that one feature; finally determining it with the pen, so that it looks like a delicate etched vignette in the middle of the paper. At the next sitting, fill in the rest of the scene in the same way, as far as the paper will admit. Every mass with be outlined carefully and "affectionately"; the foliage as well as the masonry. There is no fear that you will care less and less about your object as you go on, if you resolve to get it right, down to the smallest detail of cracks and crannies, with all the little turns that mark expression and individuality, that give a true portrait of the scene, and the spirit of it. The only fear is that you may think it does not matter whether you get it right or not; and that is fatal.

And then this outdoor view is to be coloured exactly as the lemon and the primrose were coloured. Take a slip of paper, and hold it up against the window at right angles to the glass, so that the light falls on it; and try one tint after another (mixing cobalt and light red and yellow ochre) until the natural colour of the building is matched, its light parts and its dark parts. You will find you cannot match the lightest parts of the sky because they are brighter than white paper--so, leave them white. And on a very sunny day all the sunlit walls and roads must be left white for the same reason, since this lesson is only preliminary; we are trying for truth now, and another time we may attempt effect. Consequently, it will be wise to colour this study when the sun is partly or wholly veiled by clouds; then the tones can be approximately matched; and the spaces painted of their true colour and depth. Do a little at a time, dwelling on each bit until it is done.

The house, or the chimney-tops, or whatever central architectural feature you choose, will not give very great trouble; but the bit of foliage, with all its little lights and variety of movement, how about that? We have learnt something of the draughtsmanship of trees; the next step is to attack their colour; one thing at a time. There are light masses and dark masses on the tree-two distinct colours which, especially if you half shut your eyes, will seem to model the foliage as a whole solid object, like the primrose-leaves of the last lesson. It will be enough to mix and match two tints of tree-colour, and treat the foliage as you treated the lemon, neglecting all texture and glitter and minor details, and painting as it were a soft cushion of green velvet. You cannot yet give the whole truth about the foliage, but you can be true as far as you go--in the accurate outline, and in the accurate depth and hue of colour.

When these tints are laid, it may be that a little retouching is necessary to trim the edges, to emphasise something dark or light, and perhaps to insert detail that you are not skilful against retouching, unless it be absolutely required. Broken colour with all its charm must be left for the present; the importance of true values and broad massing is far greater. It is of importance, also, that you should study to be neat without niggling, and to be decisive without slapdash. Is that too much to expect? yes, far too much in ordinary water-colour study; but when you have defined your contour and matched your tints with such care as the laws of Fesole demand, you will find yourself already over the Pons Asinorum, and on the high road to realising the ideal.

Typed by Whitney Townsend, November 2014