Regarding Technical Questions: A Painter's Guide
For painters and others requesting technical information. This is a full guide, it is how, self taught, I learned to paint over the last twenty two years. I hope it helps you. For serious thinkers interested in the technical aspects underpinning the tradition of realism, please understand that there is no substitute for work. There's no special painting elixir which can compensate for lack of ability. There aren't any Secrets of the Ages, so please don't contact me if you believe otherwise. Though if you are convinced that there is a hidden secret then please read Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters by Sir Charles Eastlake.
To begin with a common first question that I'm asked; 'I'd like to paint well but I don't know how to?' A simple question requiring a detailed answer. First it is important to appreciate that technical knowledge is an internalised skill set, not an intellectual exercise. It isn't possible to transmit skills through the use of words or by visual demonstration. For instance, a pianist can show you a piano, tell you about scales and musical notation, etc. A person could sit at his or her feet for years and know everything that there is know about playing the piano, (intellectually), but unless you have sat at the piano and put in the hours you won't be able to play very well, or at all. Why? Because the real hands on skills are lacking.
How then to acquire the skills that you seek? There are two factors required to become good at anything. First, a natural aptitude, second daily practice...by yourself. First it is imperative to learn good draftsmanship. Draw often. As Michelangelo said 'draw Antonio, draw Antonio, draw and don't waste time.' What did the Master mean? When you have a day off use it all for drawing, draw your reflection, draw people while you sit on a park bench, draw until your fingers cramp. Eventually, when you close your eyes, the images of your day's work will flash before them like indelible imprints. That's a natural outcome of intensive training. Read Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses on Art. Read The Lives of The Artists by Vasari.
What to start drawing with? Draw with charcoal and graphite, then when your lines are true and sure move onto pen and ink. For this use a quill, a twig, a brush, use your fingers, see what works for you. The more you draw, the better an artist you will be. Why? It is because if you want to paint like a master you must be able to place colour, tone, and line, accurately which depends on drawing. If you're not any good in your own estimation then keep going, expect plenty of failures before you attain success, no one else can be blamed for your lack of ability or thanked for its presence, it all depends on you.
This can be a heavy responsibility for some people who are used to the modern world of quick fixes. But remember, the Old Masters came from a different age, an age of individualists, of hard graft, where plagues and wars were plenty and life was brief. They had no safety net, no second chances, it was sink or swim. Such pressures no doubt had a way of focusing their attention on working and working hard. No internet, no t.v, no phone calls, no time wasting, that is if your intention is to paint well.
I don't know how many hours an Old Master put in, but if you look at Raphael's work at the V&A, his mammoth cartoons will give you an idea of his labours. He died at 37 years of age. It has been suggested that his premature death was from overwork, which if it was not the main cause it is likely to have acted as a contributory factor. Speaking for myself, I paint and draw for at least 60 hours a week every week including weekends. I'm certain that Raphael painted for longer. This doesn't mean that such long hours are always necessary when you're starting out though.
Most of us lack time to do anything other than work for our employer, for the money needed for food and shelter. This is the reality of the world in which we find ourselves. The good news is that it can be worked around. I too didn't have access to the privileges enjoyed by some of the more well to do. i.e no scholarships, private tuition or a place at an elite university. If you're serious about art and employed then don't let lack of time concern you. If you're fortunate to able to work conventional hours then keep in mind that there are about 96 days a year off in weekends (13 weeks) plus 4 weeks of statutory holiday. That's 4 whole months of the year or 1/3 of the calendar year off. So think positively.
Even if you feel worn out, you'll find that a few hours of focus on a painting or drawing can rejuvenate a tired mind. Consistency is the key. Don't feel disheartened and don't throw tantrums. If you have a few spare hours in the evening then use them. If you have a whole Sunday then utilise that. Avoid distractions during your free time so that you can focus all of your attention on the task at hand. Turn off the computer, phone and television. You might decide to dispose of the television altogether, as you become aware of lost time. If you're commuting then use that time to read the titles presented in this article. In this way, even with limited spare time, you will notice your abilities improve. It's not necessary to launch into a 60 hour week of pure art.
If you're just starting out then start slow or you may become discouraged and give up. The long hours described above are a guide for those who are engaged in Art on a professional basis. Perhaps during this time you will know of others with less ability who have access to seemingly wonderful options, while you must persevere alone and in obscurity, again don't be discouraged. If you're any good then you'll probably get noticed in the end. What counts is whether your work is any good or not in your own estimation, is it the best work that you can contribute to society? People can be a poor sounding board because there are those who will praise your work merely to flatter you or to be polite, when the work isn't accomplished, and conversely, there will be those that will dismiss good work out of various motivations, yes such people do exist. Just remember that the strongest steel is tempered through repeated exposure to fire and blows of the hammer, so too is the artist's breadth of skill developed in adverse conditions. The easy path isn't always the best.
It may well be a hard path. Don't expect a pat on the back while you're training, and don't seek praise, why? Because for some years the product of your efforts are going to be subpar and won't impress anyone. Success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan. Lack of praise is good as it will help you to keep a level head. Praise can cause a person to stagnate because they will feel content with their current achievements instead of challenging themselves to improve. Praise is at one end of the spectrum, at the other end, which is predominant, is the post modern approach to education based on something called 'critical theory.' I'd encourage you to do your own research on this topic if an academic option appeals to you. From my observations, critical theory tends to dishearten and demotivate the student.
So now that you appreciate the importance of having a strong work ethic, and you feel content with your drawing ability, begin to paint with watercolours, gouache and chalks. This initial period (first drawing and then painting with chalks and liquid media) will take about three to four years in my own experience, it may take longer or less time for you. Either way, dedicate yourself and don't skip stages and expect to be a great oil painter, that's just wishful thinking. A pianist or martial artist can only reach the highest grade through long hours of dedicated practice, starting at the basics and slowly working their way up, it's the same for the painter.
There will be frustrations along the way. The first of which is found in the naysayer. How to identify them? Occasional constructive criticism from a well meaning person is natural, especially when it is balanced with positive comments that highlight your current strengths. This can help you to develop and such people are a healthy influence. But a naysayer is a different breed. Their eyes are clouded. They may berate, admonish and even ridicule you. In their view your proverbial glass is forever half empty. These sorts will focus on perceived faults while remaining conspicuously silent about your strengths. You'd be unlikely to receive constructive advice from such people and you'd do well to ignore them. It's important to know this, because if you wish to really succeed as a painter then you must avoid sources of discouragement that may result in you giving up.
The main frustration, however, is in the struggle to make the image you create with your hand accord with your aesthetic intention. Expect this to be a constant companion, it's the best of teachers. Frustrations are nothing more than an artist's growing pains. These are a natural part of learning, work through them with patience and effort knowing that you will gain a new skill for each frustration you overcome. How many times did you fall off your bike and graze your knees before you could ride? It's the same with art, expect to wobble, expect to fall off course over and over again.
Remain humble while you work yet confident. Much that is accomplished in the material plane depends on mind set. Avoid the extremes of conceit and dejection. If you're conceited then you won't develop as a painter, because you'll be too puffed up with pride and get stuck in the rut of your present attainments. A good antidote to this is to take a walk around a museum containing Old Master works, then you'll realise just how far you have left to develop. On the other hand, if you're dejected then you won't even pick up the brush. The solution to this is to remind yourself that, if you possess aptitude or natural talent, then you're similar to the Old Masters, they too were flesh and blood people with a human mind and observed the same natural environment through an optic nerve, so what's the difference? They had to start off by drawing and painting poorly before they honed their natural ability.
So find that balance, this in itself is something that takes time. Most importantly you've got to love what you're doing. If art is just a mechanical exercise then when it comes time to paint you'll find it very difficult to sit still for ten hours at a time. There's a danger that you will begin to loathe what you're doing and succumb to anger. Impatience is a sure path to failure. So love art. Love of art coupled with technical prowess are two wings of the same bird. Just remember that a bird with a broken wing cannot fly and technique without love of art is barren. With each technical problem you overcome - through practice, patience and love of what you're doing- the closer you will come to realising your aesthetic goal. Remember Leonardo may have had innate artistic potential but he needed to practice everyday from dawn 'til dusk for years. There's really no substitute for taking the materials into your own hand, trying them and seeing what they can do.
Go to museums, if possible, and look at 15th - 18th century master works. It's best to go to a museum in person but if you can't then take a virtual tour online. Choose just one painting at the museum and ignore the others. Draw from it, look closely at it, inspect it up close for about twenty minutes. Then leave the museum. This will provide you with a strong memory to recall when you are painting your own work. It will guide you with regard to lighting and modelling of form etc. Use your own intelligence and you will gain more skills, because you earned them, and in earning them for yourself you will then come to appreciate their value.
What mediums to use? The Old Masters used poppy oil or linseed. Linseed is best. This is what I use. There are modern mediums, I've tried them, but I don't like them. Linseed and stand oil are best. Use canvas or an archival quality wood which is resistant to warping. The Old Masters used seasoned Oak. It's up to you to find your materials and to do your own leg work. Buy a range of mediums and give them a try if you like, but as I mentioned, linseed oil is all that's needed really. Begin with canvas, stretching your own is best. Prime it well using either traditional rabbit skin size with chalk or an acrylic gesso. For more read The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer.
My schedule doesn't allow time for me to teach. I taught myself and so can you if you put your mind to it. I'm generously explaining in this guide how I developed as a painter and the methods and resources I utilised. Beyond this, there is nothing more that I can add. However, complete strangers have contacted me with poor manners who appear to believe that I owe them something, they are labouring under a misconception. If I did decide to tutor students one day, if I had the time, then I would select those with a patient temperament. There are endless people who wish to learn to paint, so a teacher can pick and choose, just as a university does in its selection process. Grown adults who throw temper tantrums would be at the bottom of the list.
Please bear in mind, I currently have no plans to be teacher because I'm not convinced that art can be taught. But if you want to learn in a way that is not independent and you feel that you need a guide then I would encourage you to carefully seek out a good teacher, either privately or at a university, though limit your expectations. When seeking a competent teacher it's best to ask to see their work and then determine if what they can do is something that you would like to do. On this basis ask whether the teacher will guide you in the methods that he or she uses to achieve the desired result, that is if you still believe that art can be taught.
Asking the prospective teacher such a question is necessary, because although the teacher may be able to paint in a certain way, they will be constrained by the curriculum provided by the institution that employs them. So if the university emphasises a more theoretical and post modern approach, then this, in all probability, will be all that you can expect to receive from the teacher. One advantage of going privately however, is that payment of the teacher on a weekly basis incentivizes them to give you their undivided attention. Whereas at a university, the faculty are paid upfront regardless of performance.
If deciding that university is your best option then please visit the university in person and speak to the students directly. Look at their work to get a taste for what is being taught. Try to avoid Open Days and don't enroll until you are certain that you will receive value for money. If you are unable to afford tuition, then you'll have to do as I did and read the books mentioned earlier coupled with practice. This, in my view, is the best way, perhaps the only way to really learn.
As I mentioned, I don't believe that art can be taught. Creativity certainly can't be taught. There is a spirit that underpins art for which words are poor shadows. A true artist knows that they've got to feel a certain sense of the transcendent in order to imbue a work with vision. This is the very spirit of art, its life breath. A dead vision produces dead art. Perception of the transcendent can be with an artist in their youth and leave them in old age, or vice versa, or intermittently. In each instance, mere technical know how is second to the spirit that directs and governs the artist's vision, without which, mere technique is impotent in its efforts to create. This is a subtle topic.
Lastly, this is something that I'm often asked, "how does an artist achieve smooth transitions of colour and tone in their painting?" The answer to this is simple. Blend carefully, blend patiently, if the paint isn't yielding to the brush then add linseed oil. It will take a lot of practice, which won't be an issue if you have followed my guide up to this point. But if you have skipped ahead then expect to fail. A building needs a strong foundation. Also, remember what was written earlier, that success in anything depends on the combination of aptitude and practice. So if you've put in years of practice but are still unable to achieve your aesthetic goals, then it may be that you lack the natural aptitude. That's something you'll just have to accept.
For instance, I'm hopeless at playing chess, it doesn't matter how long I may play for, I still won't succeed. A child could beat me. This is because I lack the aptitude, whereas the child doesn't. I recognise this fact and moved on to something that I do have an aptitude for. Achieving smooth transitions of colour and tone is a challenge even for a seasoned painter. It's not an easy task, though it may appear to be. As Joshua Reynolds states in his Discourses, "Old Master works seem to have been struck out with ease, seemingly at one blow," but Reynolds goes onto explain that this is a fallacy.
The smooth perfection and seeming ease of one finished work is misleading. It belies the manifold technical difficulties that were overcome through thousands of hours of painstaking effort. To date I have spent over 40,000 hours on painting and drawing. How a painting is made can only be understood by having developed the ability and this requires a lot of time. No artist can describe to you how it is done beyond saying "get your oil paint, mix your colours accurately, apply it to a suitably prepared ground, keeping to the principle of fat over lean."
As demonstrated in the last but one paragraph below, the materials are really secondary. But to be comprehensive, from a material point of view it is necessary to use soft brushes and add small amounts of linseed oil to tube paints, working "fat over lean." The Old Masters had their pigments ground for them, but for the modern painter Michael Harding or Old Holland provide the best alternative. However, the price can be prohibitive. Winsor and Newton artist's quality oil paints are a very close second and are more affordable. Why are these all good paints? It's to do with pigment density, quality and absence of fillers. For further information please do your own research.
You can paint alla prima or in layers or use both in different areas of the painting. If working in layers then wait for however long it takes for a layer to dry before proceeding to the next layer. You can determine if the work is dry in two ways, by odour and by touch...if the smell of oil paint as gone and or the surface is not tacky to the touch, then the layer is dry enough to work on. When you are happy with the finished work you will need to wait a minimum of four months for the painting to dry and then apply a varnish. If your paint layers are thick then you'll need to wait at least 6 to 12 months. Again this knowledge comes through practice....through your own initiative, through reading widely.
Personally, I use mainly synthetic brushes with oils to make my work, I don't use driers or adulterants. I don't have any special paint or hidden secrets. A child can take up a piece of charcoal and make a mess, while a master can take that same piece of charcoal and make a masterpiece...the difference isn't in the material, it's in the experience. Conversely, two masters can use exactly the same oil paint but produce different styles of painting, see Leonardo's painting versus Titian's, or Michelangelo's versus Rembrandt's. So again there's no secret in the material, but how skilfully it is used.
As Emile Zola said, "art is a corner of the world seen through a temperament," what this means is that each artist perceives the world through the filter of an individual consciousness. This accounts, for what is then recorded, differing from one individual to the next, even from one master to the next. For this reason no one can paint like Leonardo, because they don't have his consciousness, or Michelangelo's consciousness etc. Therefore, and I don't mean to put myself in the category of such titans, but you can't expect to paint like me because you don't have my consciousness. You only have the filter of your own mind and through this filter you will produce different art work. Even if you strive for perfect realism, it is going to look different from another artist's realism. That's a good thing, imagine what a sorry state art would be in if we all painted the same!
This concludes my technical guide. Please use it as a basis for your own further learning and I ask you to address your questions to other sources. If in doubt I humbly request you to read this article from the beginning, once again. There will be no need for questions if you have read all of Sir Joshua Reynolds' discourses, the whole of Ralph Mayer's book and Sir Charles Eastlake's book and have followed the above guide. To artists, love what you're doing and practice hard. With aptitude, instinct, reading and practice you will succeed. To the curious scholar or collector there's nothing more that I can add. If any secrets do exist, they are all contained in this article.
Love and light
The first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, delivered fifteen Discourses over a period of 18 years to the Academy's student body and faculty members. Orated in 1769 at the opening of the Royal Academy, the first Discourse introduces progressive advice on the subject of Art. The totality of Reynolds Discourses encapsulate the comprehension of an adept in his field. Rich with useful insights and poignant analogies, it is clear that he possessed an intellect of the first order with which he described the practical mechanics of painting. Upon analysis the lectures have great relevance for today's artists and to that end a careful synopsis of all discourse will clarify and elucidate its key points.
The first Discourse is structured around the theme of diligence. Reynolds opens with words of praise to the reigning monarch and illustrates the need of the British Empire to have, "an ornament suitable to its greatness", that is to say, an Academy of Art. With the customary platitudes fulfilled, Reynolds moves on to define his notion of the Academies purpose, namely to, "furnish able men to direct the student", and to be, "a repository for the great examples of the Art." These statements exemplify Reynolds' conception of the primary function of the Academy, its means and its ends. Lamenting the loss to Britain of potential artists of noteworthy talent, Reynolds reasons that it was due, in part, to the lack of an Academy and the works of Art which such an Academy would be the repository for. He elaborates with a beautiful soliloquise placing the emphasis for artistic instruction primarily on the tangible examples of great Art in preference to tutorial direction. Reynolds adds;
"How many men of great natural abilities have been lost to this nation for want of these advantages! They never had an opportunity of seeing those masterly efforts of genius, which at once kindle the whole soul. Raffaelle, it is true had not the advantage of studying in an Academy; but all Rome and the works of Michael Angelo in particular were to him an Academy. On the sight of the Capella Sistina, he immediately from a dry, Gothic, and even insipid manner,..assumed that grand style of painting, which improves partial representation by general and invariable ideas of nature."
Sir Joshua resolves his position explaining that an Academy should not thrust a foreign attitude upon the student, because such a forceful attempt will have the opposite effect, namely in deterring the student from adopting a view that they are not ready to accept. On the contrary, in Reynolds' view, an Academy should be an environment within which a student can adopt the particular views and practices that are amenable to his or her own particular outlook and aptitude. Speaking on the subject he remarks;
"Every seminary of learning may be said to be surrounded with an atmosphere of floating knowledge where every mind may imbibe somewhat congenial to its own original conceptions. Knowledge, thus obtained, has always something more popular and useful than that which is forced upon the mind by a private precepts."
With this said Sir Joshua delivers a cautionary aside. Observing the fact that Continental Academies had by his time collapsed, Reynolds outlines the London Academies distinguishing quality and its saving grace adding;
"As these Institutions have so often failed in other nations; and it is natural to think with regret, how much might have been done, I must take leave to offer a few hints, by which those errors may be rectified... The Professors and Visitors may reject or adopt as they shall think proper" (namely) "It will not be as it has been in other schools where he that traveled fastest only wandered farthest from the right way."
What exactly was Reynolds' idea of the right way? This he defined as an adherence to the "Rules of Art as established by the practice of the Old Masters." On this basis he entreats the students of the Royal Academy to regard the works of the Old Masters to be the very acme of Art instruction, advising that they should use; "those models as perfect and infallible guides; as subjects for their imitation." Continuing the subject of "the right way", Sir Joshua had some very strong things to say in defense of the Rules of Art, in effect consigning those unversed in the procedure of The Rules, to the wastes of mediocrity. In this capacity Reynolds was a zealous advocate of the need for careful and disciplined practice along lines parallel to those of the Old Masters. Sir Joshua regarded this as the touchstone of Art instruction, adding;
"Every opportunity... should be taken to discountenance that false and vulgar opinion, that Rules are the fetters of genius; they are fetters only to men of no genius; as armour which upon the strong is an ornament and a defense, upon the weak... becomes a load, and cripples the body which it was made to protect."
When fully acquired Reynolds adds that such, "Rules may possibly be dispensed with. But let us not destroy the scaffold until we have raised the building." This analogy implies that before a student can advance towards a level concordant with that of the Old Masters they must first acquire a thorough understanding of the "Rules of Art". The remainder of Reynolds' first discourse centers on his warning which cited that, it was due to wandering from the, "right way," by failing to properly observe the "Rules of Art", that resulted in the collapse of academies in other nations. In this vein Sir Joshua advises the Academies teaching faculty to remain vigilant against its young students tendency to seek a short cut to excellence. The expedient to which he refers to is that of bypassing hard and careful craftsmanship due to the deterrent of the great effort involved in its regular maintenance and pursuit. Reynolds explains further that the student is;
"Terrified at the prospect before them, of the toil required to attain exactness. The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires... to find some shorter path to excellence, and hope to obtain the reward of eminence by other means than those, which the indispensable rules of art have prescribed... there is no easy method of becoming a good painter."
Reynolds defines the students short cut as the desire to acquire; "a lively handling of the chalk or pencil" which "they will find no great labour in attaining" and "after much time spent in these frivolous pursuits, the difficulty will be to retreat; but it will be then too late and there is scarce an instance of return to scrupulous labour after the mind has been debauched and deceived by this fallacious mastery." There is an obvious touch of irony in Reynolds use of the word "mastery" in this context. As a fitting contrast to those students who would seek mastery through less assiduous means, Sir Joshua proceeds to delineate the difference between the short path and the intensive labour exerted by the Old Masters in the production of their Art.
"When we read the lives of the most eminent Painters, every page informs us, that no part of their time was spent in dissipation. When they conceived a subject, they first made a finished drawing of the whole; after that a more correct drawing of every separate part, - heads, hands, feet, and pieces of drapery; they then painted the picture, and after all retouched it from the life."
Reynolds goes on to explain how the effect of all this labour underpins a result that simply appears to be effortless in the finished painting. This appearance of ease serves to conceal the great exertions applied by the Old Masters to the task of painting, and deceives the eye and the intellect of the student into believing that a quick path will obtain an equal result. This, Sir Joshua explained, is an erroneous conclusion, one which seduces the student into following a route that fails to reach is intended destination. Sir Joshua observes; "The pictures thus wrought with such pains now appear like the effects of enchantment,... as if some mighty genius had struck them off at a blow." Recall that this current precaution links back to Reynolds' desire to avoid the source of other Academies failure. Driving the point home still further Sir Joshua entreats his students to avoid what he considered to be the main defect of; "the methods of education pursued in all the Academies." Reynolds proposes that a student should first learn to draw exactly what he perceives, because otherwise he will risk repeating the errors of students in the failed academies. Such students, Reynolds claims, added extraneous artifacts to the subjects at hand, artifacts which being supplied by imagination served to distort the true structure of the visual form. Putting his case with eloquence, Reynolds states;
"The error is that the students never draw exactly from the living models they have before them. They change the form according to their vague and uncertain ideas of beauty, and make a drawing rather of what they think the figure ought to be, than of what it appears... grace and beauty... was not acquired by the ancients, but by an attentive and well compared study of the human form."
Sir Joshua advances the pre-eminence of drawing, with an eye for precision, by giving as an example a particular drawing made by Raphael, entitled, 'The Dispute of the Sacrament'. In this drawing Reynolds points out that in rendering the form of a hat upon the heads of different figures, Raphael does not deviate from the path of correct draftsmanship; "even at a time when he was allowed to be at his highest pitch of excellence." Elaborating on the theme of precision and faithful observation, Reynolds begins to conclude his seminal discourse to the Royal Academy. Beseeching its audience, in the most delicate and unassuming manner, to regard the importance of diligent application to the task of acquiring the skills of true and precise draftsmanship. This, as has been demonstrated, was Reynolds' conception of the basis of successful painting, one which he formulated into a "Rule of Art", which he envisioned to be the principle that would save the Royal Academy from deterioration. Reynolds explains that;
"This scrupulous exactness is so contrary to the practice of the Academies, that it is not without great deference, that I beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the Visitors; and submit to them, whether the neglect of this method is one of the reasons why students so often disappoint expectation and being more than boys at sixteen become less than men at thirty"
As a final testament to the great and obvious concern expressed by Reynolds for the welfare of his students and Art in general, Sir Joshua finishes his first Discourse by expressing a moving personal sentiment. This being Reynolds' final recorded word in a lecture on the subject of Art for almost a year, Sir Joshua considers the future course of the Academy, envisioning its potential to aid the development of civilization toward a new Renaissance, he states;
"Permit me to indulge my wishes and to express my hope that this institution may vie in Arts with that of Leo the Tenth; and that the dignity of the dying Art... may be revived."
With these poignant words, Reynolds concludes his first Discourse to the Students of the Royal Academy.
Sir Joshua delivered the second installment of his 15 discourses a little over eleven months after his first on December the 11th 1769. He opens by praising the students for their current accomplishments and then proceeds to discuss his theory of Art. The purpose of his theoretical model of Art was to aid the students in their primary objective, which was namely directed at closing the gap between their current level of proficiency and, 'how much yet remains to attain perfection.' The central theme of the Second Discourse examines the nature of the independence of the student from the direction of the teaching establishment. To this end Reynolds emphasizes the importance of hands on methodological practices above mere ideology. Thus, building upon the basis of his First Discourse Sir Joshua divides his methodological theory into three inter-related aspects and three periods of study. He explains;
"I shall address you as having passed through the first of them, which is confined to the rudiments... of drawing any object that presents itself... the management of colours, and an acquaintance with the most simple and obvious rules of composition... The power of drawing, modelling, and using colours, is very properly called the language of art... when the artist is once enabled to express himself with some degree of correctness he must then endeavour to collect subjects for expression; to amass a stock of ideas... he is now in the second phase of his study."
The 'second period of study' pertains to the second aspect of theory which Reynolds refers to in the discourses preamble. This period of study involves viewing the Art of the Old Masters in its entirety wherein the student should, 'consider the Art itself as his master.' Here Reynolds is careful to warn the student of Art against,'admiration of a single master', because it would, in his opinion, impede the development of a students imagination with, 'narrowness and poverty of conception.' Reynolds instead advises the student of Art to, 'not resign blindly to any single authority, when he may have the advantage of consulting many.' Reynolds' second aspect of Art theory, is to view the Art of the Old Masters without preference, and this aspect merges subtly into his third aspect of the theory. Sir Joshua explains the third aspect as not dependent or beholden to any of the Old Masters but places the student in a position of complete autonomy. Reynolds explains;
"The third and last period which emancipates the student from subjection to any authority, but what he shall himself judge to be supported by reason. Confiding now in his own judgement... He is from this time to regards himself as holding the same rank with those masters whom he before obeyed as teachers; and as exercising a sort of sovereignty over those Rules which have hitherto restrained him."
Continuing, Reynolds explains that through a period of intensive practise, a painter begins to develop the necessary artistic skills and knowledge base by emulating the work of the Old Masters. However, this knowledge base is, in Reynolds' view, a foundation which the artist is to eventually transcend. What is the student of Art to progress toward after having reached a level of competence equivalent to that of the Old Masters? Sir Joshua explains that the next level to utilise for artistic instruction are the works of Nature itself. The artist is henceforth to become second only to Nature, and it is Nature that must become his constant guide and companion, and act as the measure by which the success or failure of a painters efforts can be evaluated. Reynolds states this succinctly;
"The habitual dignity which long converse with the greatest minds has imparted to him, will display itself in all his attempts; and he will stand among his instructors, not as an imitator, but a rival... comparing no longer the performances of Art with each other, but examining the Art itself by the standards of nature."
Having defined the three aspects of his theory to the students, Reynolds notes that this general outline lay in advance of the students current level of artistic proficiency. Recall that the Second Discourse was delivered following an awards ceremony at the Royal Academy. The awards that were dispensed were the Academies mark of esteem, bestowed upon those of its students, who at this time had passed through the first level of instruction in accordance with Reynolds' first aspect of theory. The students were now poised to acquire the insights of the second aspect of theory, but were unaware of the procedure for doing so. This is the reason why Reynolds offered an early description of the complete path of learning, namely to assist the student of Art to understand his ultimate objective and the means of attaining it. However, in order to prevent the over-eager student from bypassing training in the second aspect of theory and rushing ahead to the third aspect, Reynolds encourages the student to develop a thorough understanding of the methods and works of the Old Masters. He explains;
"The more extensive your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention... Who shall show him the path that leads to excellence? The answer is obvious: those great masters who have travelled the same road with success are the most likely to conduct others. The works of those who have stood the test of ages, have a claim to that respect and veneration to which no modern can pretend."
While progressing along the second aspect of theory, Reynolds cautions against the tendency to copy the work of the Old Masters without exercising ones powers of invention, because as he suggests, it numbs the imagination and an artist, 'sleeps over his work', so to speak. Reynolds adds that the only saving grace of pure copying is its use as a tool in leaning how to use the coloured pigments of ones palette to the best advantage. He adds;
"By close inspection and minute examination you will discover the manner of handling, the artifices of contrast, glazing and other expedients by which good colourists have raised the value of their tints... by which nature has been so happily imitated."
Sir Joshua proceeds to reiterate the primacy of utilising the natural world as the ultimate model for the artists eventual imitation and instruction, stating, 'you cannot do better than have recourse to nature herself... in comparison to whose splendour the best coloured pictures are but faint and feeble.' Reynolds explains that the purpose of studying the work of the Old Masters is necessarily a means to perfect the students inner vision, rather than as a definite end in and of itself. In this respect, Sir Joshua advises the student to paint an original work in the spirit of an Old Master and then to physically hold the resulting painting up beside that of the Old Master. This act of contrast is an effective device for revealing the students areas of deficiency, and is a method which Reynold explains, is superior to verbal instruction in directing the student toward improvement. Reynolds uses the analogy of a competition to illustrate his point;
"You should enter into a kind of competition, by painting a similar subject, and making a companion to any picture that you consider as a model... place it near the model, and compare them carefully together. You will then not only see, but feel your own deficiencies more sensibly than by precepts... and sinking deep into the mind, will be not only more just, but more lasting than those presented to you by precepts only."
Sir Joshua explains that the above practice is difficult for those who lack the humility to accept the evidence of their failings. He comforts the students of Art however by reminding them that of those who have, 'the ambition to be a real master..few have been taught to any purpose, who have not been their own teachers.' Again Reynolds cautions the student to avoid absolute independence of thought while they are engaged in the practice of the second aspect of theory. He suggests that the models that the student of Art should choose for preliminary imitation should be, 'of established reputation,' and that this should be in preference to following, 'your own fancy.' In this respect Sir Joshua personally recommends the student to observe the work of Cavacci and suggests that they should avoid teachers who would offer, ' expedients... by which the toil of study might be saved.' He explains further that a student absorbed in the lessons appropriate to the second aspect of theory has to rely on hard work to realise their goal of equalling the abilities of the Old Masters. Reynolds adds;
"Excellence is never granted to man, but as the reward of labour... I need not, therefore, enforce by many words the necessity of continual application."
Reynolds explains that one important facet of the Old Masters abilities was their capacity for drawing accurately from memory with, as Reynolds says, 'as little effort of the mind as is required to trace with a pen the letters of the alphabet.' This, Reynolds suggests, was the result of the same constant efforts which he has been urging the students of the Royal Academy to adopt. Reynolds praises constancy in drawing as, 'the instrument by which', the student, 'must hope to obtain eminence.' However, after pointing out the fact that various schools belonging to the history of Art followed disparate methods of drawing, Reynolds is careful to add almost as a kind of disclaimer that he had given his advice;
"From my own experience, but as the deviate widely from received opinions, I offer them with diffidence, and when better is suggested, shall retract them."
With this said, Reynolds goes on to defend his central theme, namely, that ability can only be developed through tough and prolonged practice, and he resolutely refuses to retract statements of this nature adding the justification that only, 'the vain, the ignorant, and the idle,' would oppose him in this regard. Hereafter Reynolds launches a campaign to promote the significance of constant and unwavering practice even when, a man cannot at all times, and in all places, paint and draw.' Sir Joshua suggests that the student of Art is enabled to practice perpetually by filling his mind with constant exercises upon the thought of Art, explaining his meaning thus;
"Every object that presents itself, is to him a lesson. He regards all Nature with a view to his profession... the Artist who has his mind thus filled with ideas... works with ease and readiness, whilst he who would have you believe he is waiting for the inspiration of Genius, is in reality at a loss how to begin."
Reynolds concludes his second discourse by reducing the essence of his remarks to the central theme that there are no secrets bestowed upon the artist by divine providence, no arcane mystery, which once resolved guarantees great accomplishments. There is according to Reynolds no path toward excellence except that of hard work and hard work alone. He surmises;
"He makes no pretensions to secrets except those of closer inspection... He is contented that all shall be as great as himself, who have undergone the same fatigue."
Sir Joshua Reynolds presented his third of fifteen discourses to the Royal Academy of Art on December the 14th 1770. He opens with a brief synopsis of his previous two lectures by saying that foremost an aspiring painter must master the rudiments of his or her art by learning to draw, compose and colour his work. Upon this basis the student is then advised to thoroughly study the, 'work of those who have stood the test of ages,' namely the Old Masters of antiquity and in addition the forms of nature. Sir Joshua now explains that the latter study of nature must not become an end in itself, because it would risk producing an art which is unimaginative and mechanical. In Reynolds' teaching, Nature, can be malformed and subject to 'error, therefore he instructs his students to learn how to improve upon nature itself.
How can one achieve this? What follows is a subtle topic and one which it must be remembered is directed at the student of art during the 18th century, and as such the close study of visual objects is expected, much as a scientist would approach his or her study of the world today. Sir Joshua teaches that it is possible to internalise in one's mind the 'ideal' of beauty. This ideal is what enables 'all the arts to receive their perfection, superior to what is to be found in individual nature.' Speaking further on this point Sir Joshua contrasts the limited painters of his day with the favourite artist of antiquity, Phidias, he adds;
"Who takes such forms as Nature produces and confines himself to an exact imitation of them will never attain to what is perfectly beautiful, for the works of nature are full of disproportion and fall very short of the true standard of beauty."
The French express the 'ideal' of beauty as the 'beau ideal' whereas the Italians call it 'gusto grande.' Speaking to his students at the Royal Academy and by extension to the reader some two hundred and forty seven years later, Reynolds empathises with intermediate level painters. He understood 'that divine inspiration' which is so apparent in the great works of antiquity is very difficult to acquire. For those painters who believe that attaining to such heights is beyond their capability and seek to be taught by any authority Sir Joshua wryly comments, "could we teach taste or genius by rules they would no longer be taste and genius."
However he offers solace to his audience with some practical instruction. In order to transcend the defects of Nature and reach the 'ideal' beauty, which is the province of true genius, he teaches that "one must discover what is deformed in Nature" and then repeatedly compare all objects that display blemishes with those that are considered to be beautiful. In this manner a painter is not beholden to copying nature but following long years of scrutinising the differences between beautiful and ugly forms, an artist learns to internalise the archetype in common with all beautiful forms. Using this archetype, the artist will be able to portray beautiful forms from imagination and correct ugly forms in nature; a process in some ways similar to how a plastic surgeon can alter the disproportion of a face to appear more pleasing to the eye. As Sir Joshua puts it;
"It is not every eye that perceives blemishes. It must be an eye long used to the contemplation and comparison of, (beautiful and ugly, forms; and which by a long habit of observing what any set of objects of the same kind have in common, has acquired the power of discerning what each wants in particular... By this means he acquires a just idea of beautiful forms, he corrects nature, her imperfect state by her more perfect."
As the previous two discourses explain, a painter has by now developed all of the skills and techniques which enable him or her to copy nature, the artist has also thoroughly absorbed the works of the Old Masters and the secrets of composition contained within them. Now the painter is beholden to no authority and seeks his own way to portray the world, his own vision of it. Caravaggio, Titian or Rembrandt could paint the same theme and feature the same objects, though produce very different works. It is by virtue of their individual vision that they spontaneously create a world resembling our own, but at the same time variously individual. To pick up a pencil or brush and manifest something perfectly beautiful and harmonious, a face, a hand, a group of figures in a landscape, this is the genius that Sir Joshua is attempting to help the aspiring student to appreciate and to develop. Not mere slavish copying of the world around them. Sir Joshua adds;
"This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the ideal beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of genius are conducted... and which seems to have a right to the epithet of divine as it seems to preside... over all the productions of nature."
If it is a fact and not merely classroom speculation that artists can develop an ability to manifest the 'ideal' beauty, then where is the best evidence of it to be found in Art? To this question Sir Joshua refers to the works of the ancient sculptors who "being indefatigable in the school of nature, have left models of that perfect form behind them." The display of perfect beauty within the sculpture of antiquity is repeatable, as has been shown in countless of their works. Therefore this must result from some sort of principle, otherwise such beauty would not be possible to repeat. What principle could this be, Reynolds asks, but from the thorough comparison between beautiful and ugly forms? Comprehension of such perfect or 'ideal' beauty is something that Sir Joshua believed is not inborn but is acquired only from the study of nature; "if felicity is meant anything of chance or something born with a man and not earned, I cannot agree." Is this entirely true? Perhaps a more moderate outlook would be to say that some people are born with a greater aptitude for grasping the 'ideal' beauty and that therefore such people would require less study of nature to internalise the archetype.
Moving on, Sir Joshua has demonstrated that to reach the archetype of beauty one must contrast many beautiful and ugly forms, but he now shows that a further impediment to reaching this archetype is ones own upbringing in society and the fashions of ones day, which can so condition our way of looking at the world that we can no longer see nature purely but mixed with human tastes and inventions. Reynolds contrasts the simplicity of nature, which is devoid of contrivance and is to be emulated, with forms adulterated by the fashions of a particular time period, which are to be avoided. He advises the aspiring painter to;
"Disregard all local and temporary ornaments and look only on those general habits which are every where and always the same... The prejudices in favor of the fashions and customs that we have been used to and which are justly called second nature, make it too often difficult to distinguish that which is natural from that which is the result of education."
How then is a painter to separate from the fashions of the day? Sir Joshua explains that it is again by studying the 'Ancients,' because their work is true to the "real simplicity of nature." Simplicity points toward the 'ideal' beauty and together these two constitute the mark of a great painter. Sir Joshua explains; "Beauty and simplicity have so great a share in the composition of a great style, that he who has acquired them has little else to learn." As he approaches the conclusion of his third discourse, Reynolds explains that a painter of greatness is not concerned with merely deceiving the eye by the preciseness of a depiction but is more interested with the grandeur of his or her subject, with its meaning and the power that such a work possesses to move the viewer deeply, in this way ranking art as a sister of poetry.
Having said that, Sir Joshua finishes by advising his students to remember the lessons of the previous two discourses and not to disdain the ability to draw and represent the world realistically, otherwise an artist would risk becoming sloppy and therefore become unable to justly represent the beau ideal in a simple way. In conclusion the third discourse advises students of art to not be slaves to what they perceive, but through the study of antiquity and analysis of the distinguishing features which separate beautiful and ugly forms, to internalise beauty's archetype and render it at will with due care to maintain simplicity and technical prowess.
The first article is for people interested in technical information.
The others combine theory and technique within an ongoing project that analyses the 15 discourses of the first president of the Royal Academy of Art London.
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The Path to Success; Sir Joshua Reynolds' Fourth Discourse to the Royal Academy of Art.
The winter auditorium echoed with the steady footfall of its approaching speaker. December the 10th 1771 would mark the presentation of Sir Joshua Reynolds' fourth discourse to the Royal Academy of Art. Expectantly, an eager audience watched on as the painter/president took up the podium. Their rousing applause hushed as Reynolds began to speak. He opened his thesis by distinguishing high art from mere decorative art, reflecting;
“Gentlemen, the value and rank of every art is in proportion to the mental labour employed in it. In the hands of one man it is addressed to the highest faculties. In those of another it is reduced to a mere matter of ornament; and the painter but furnishes our apartments”.
On the basis of this assertion, Sir Joshua forms a road map to success, suggesting to his listeners what subject would,“strike upon the public sympathy.” Reynolds considered that the most popular and well known events are foremost from Greek and Roman myth/history and subjects from the Bible which, “early education and the usual course of reading have made familiar and interesting to all Europe.” Though addressed to an 18th century audience, the modern reader can still find useful advise.
Ancient histories, while not widely known today, are still of interest to the modern mind. Observe visitors crowd before paintings of the Old Masters and recognise that human interest in great narrative work remains an enduring reality. Whether or not they would furnish today's painters with engaging subjects is a matter open to question. However, if presented with imagination, skill and originality, it is conceivable that the modern viewer would be no less interested in a modern depiction of ancient events. Sir Joshua continues;
“Whenever a story is related, every man forms a picture in his mind of the action and expressions of the persons employed. The power of representing this mental picture on canvas is what we call invention in a painter.”
Reynolds explains that to record an image a painter must focus on the general idea of the forms present and not become too entrenched in minor details. In his opinion, no one remembers the small details of a scene, they merely recall to mind its generic image. Therefore;
“The great end of art is to strike the imagination. The painter is to make no ostentation of the means by which this is done; the spectator is only to feel the result in his bosom.”
However, how does an artist present great characters in history that were known to be ugly? Sir Joshua looks to the cartoons of Raphael to furnish the answer. In these works, Raphael presents the image of the Apostles with dignity, and yet Reynolds points out;“we are expressly told in Scripture that they had no such respectable appearance.” Even Alexander the Great is said to have been of low stature and Agesilaus was;“low lame and of a mean appearance.” Reynolds informs his students that they are not to show such defects if the subject is the hero.
Sir Joshua refers to this kind of art History painting as “poetical” and defends his call to misrepresentation by asking his audience to conceive of representing the form of a great mind. How is this done when the mind is intangible? Greatness of mind can only be represented visually, Reynolds claims, through the medium of a beautiful and noble body, whether or not the individual appeared that way. He elaborates;
“The painter has no other means of giving an idea of the dignity of the (subject's) mind, but by that external appearance which grandeur of thought does generally, though not always, impress on the countenance.”
While this is a valid point, one wonders whether this idea wasn't formed in part by the nature of Reynolds' profession. As a much sought after painter by the fashion conscious nobility, Reynolds would need to ensure that his commissions were pleasing to the eye in order to receive payment. In eighteenth century England patrons would often request a commission around a certain theme, but payment would fail to materialise if they felt dissatisfied with the outcome. Perhaps an element of pragmatism framed his advise to 'pretty up' his subjects, one which Reynolds couldn't reveal without condemning the elite circles in which he moved and relied on.
Next, Sir Joshua teaches his listeners how best to capture the viewers' attention. This, Reynolds explains, is achieved by grandeur of effect produced initially through two seemingly contradictory ways. The first method is to reduce the painting's clolour to little more than chiaroscuro, while the latter is to make the colours very “distinct and forcible” like the red, yellow and blue draperies of the Roman and Florentine school. While on the topic of draperies Sir Joshua advises;
“The art of disposing the foldings of the drapery makes a very considerable part of the painter's study. It requires (good) judgement to dispose the drapery so that the folds shall have an easy communication, and gracefully follow each other, with such negligence as to look like the effect of chance, and at the same time show the figure under it to the utmost advantage.”
When reading Reynolds' fourth discourse it becomes clear that he was something of a purist and a harsh judge of anything that deviated from what he considered to belong to the “grand vision.” Frivolity, jest, and domestic realism were, in his view, inferior subjects to depict, and he doesn't shy away from expressing his conviction in the most concrete of terms. For him, the Roman school of painting was regarded as the highest ideal to emulate, while in contrast the Venetian and Dutch schools were generally perceived as second rate, with rare exceptions such as Titian.
Why is this? Reynolds explains that it is because artists from Rome conveyed the sublime, grand, vast, eternal, big vision, in a sober, reserved and unostentatious manner. They did not prostitute their skills before the gawking crowd, whereas painters from the Venetian school such as Tintoret and Veronese;
“seem to have painted with no other purpose than to be admired for their skill and expertness in the mechanism of painting, and to make a parade of that which the higher style requires its followers to conceal.”
Did Reynolds regard his own work as above that of the Venetian, Flemish and Dutch schools which he places in “this inferior class?” and which he aspired to transcend? Is there a consensus with Reynolds' view among credible art historians? The author identifies this as speculation, but did Sir Joshua succumb to the conceit that can so often skew the judgement of those in positions of power and prestige?
As the first president of the Royal Academy, was it not possible that his view was, in his own instance, distorted by the intoxicating influence that great acclaim and admiration can induce? I will leave the reader to speculate on this point. Sir Joshua continues;
“If we compare the quietness and chastity of the Bolognese pencil to the bustle and tumult that fills every part of a Venetian picture, without the least attempt to interest the passions, their boasted art will appear a mere struggle without effect...The sublime impresses the mind at once with one great idea; in a single blow.”
Returning to the topic of colour, Sir Joshua explains that he regards the Venetian colouring to be too brilliant and oddly “too harmonious.” Simple and grave colours are favourable in Reynolds' view. In support of this position Sir Joshua relates the story of Michaelangelo who upon seeing a painting by Titian said that he liked his colours but not his drawing, by which he meant Titian's rendering of form. Such approval, by the great Michelangelo, of the colouring ability of a Venetian painter seems to contradict Reynolds' view rather than support it. However, Titian is excused by Reynolds from his piers in the Venetian school due to the nobleness and simplicity of his work. He elaborates on Michelangelo's observation, stating;
“By this is appears that the principal attention of the Venetian painters, in the opinion of Michael Angelo, seemed to be engrossed by the study of colours to the neglect of the ideal beauty of form. If general censure was given to Titian how much more heavily would the censure fall on Paul Veronese.”
Continuing to build on this theme Reynolds censures any student who wishes to dazzle the spectator like the Venetians and cautions them to not be tempted to imitate what will eventually lead them away from a more meaningful vision. Painting, Reynolds explains, is not a mere gratification of sight. He therefore condemns the Venetians who used gentlemen and boors for the models of patriarchs and prophets and the Dutch school who used themselves, their houses and locality as the models for great historic events. Neither of these approaches belongs to the grand vision.
In Reynolds' opinion, an artist should paint man generically and not realistically as an artist would approach a personal portrait. Why is this? It is because the generic face will be devoid of defects, whereas living models would exhibit defects.
It is interesting to trace the beginnings of the reactive art movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Impressionism, against the very views espoused by Sir Joshua..In a sense, it could be argued that Reynolds was their unwitting godfather. His admonitions provided the basis for new ways of painting through simple contradiction. Sober colour becomes Monet's bold colour, flawless generic characters turn into Schiele's prostitutes, grand vision becomes Cezzane's geometric patchwork which in turn would spawn Cubism.
Reynolds continues his guide for success by asking; how does a painter create a generic picture? To answer this Reynolds cites the example of Claude Lorrain, Correggio and Parmengiono. These artists would reject small visual elements that existed in reality but which spoiled the harmony of the overall composition. Lorrain, for instance, would fuse various views into one broad, vast, harmonious and sublime vision, regardless of whether or not the overall image existed in reality. Therefore;
“If a portrait painter is desirous to raise and improve his subject, he has no other means than by approaching it to a general idea. He leaves out all the minute breaks and peculiarities in the face and changes the dress from a temporary fashion to one more permanent.”
In summation, Sir Joshua asks some important questions. How does a painter ensure that his work will stand the test of time? How does a painter portray beauty without affectation? How should a painter avoid falling into the pitfall of forgetting the goal of attaining to the grand vision? In considering these questions Reynolds answers;
“On the whole it seems to me that there is but one presiding principle which regulates and gives stability to every art. The works, whether of poets, painters, moralists, or historians, which are built upon general nature, live forever; while those which depend for their existence on particular customs and habits, a particular view of nature, or the fluctuations of fashion, can only be coeval with that which first raised them from obscurity. Present time and future may be considered as rivals and he who solicits the one must be expected to be discouraged by the other.”
A high ideal but perhaps one that is rarely attained, and then only by the greatest of artistic genius. Though Reynolds aspired to reach the heights of timelessness, the modern viewer can readily identify many of his own paintings as belonging to the era in which lived. With a few exceptions, Reynolds' voluminous contribution to painting appears dated, perhaps more so than the works of Michaelangelo and Raphael some two centuries before.
If we look, for instance, at Reynolds' famous self portrait we can recognise the piece as belonging to the eighteenth century. Sir Joshua depicts himself shading his eyes from the glare of the timeless light, but this light had been filtered through the gauze of his perception and was transcribed within an eighteenth century context. It's a work of his time and many others appear to fall short of Reynolds' high ideals.
It is a good lesson for artists today. Sir Joshua proves how elusive an ideal can be to realise. This doesn't invalidate his discourse but serves as a sobering insight. Can an artist today create a work that will not appear to date? Though a painter may try, with all sincerity, to create a work that will stand the test of time, he may fall very short. How easily are we caught up in the limitations of our own aesthetic judgements?
Perhaps what contributed to the dating of Reynolds' work was his paradoxical desire to eliminate the faults of nature. To render nature as she is conceived to exist in the perfect form, an artist must unwittingly add some unnatural artefact in the appearance produced by the overall edit. Perhaps such artefacts are responsible for a work falling short of the timeless ideal. This is however an open question and not a definitive answer. The path to lasting success, in Reynolds' view, must be paved with high ideals, but in the final analysis, it is a question of whether you have what it takes to realise them.