Friday, December 11, 2015

Harold Speed, Chapter 4: The Painter's Training [feedly]

Harold Speed, Chapter 4: The Painter's Training
// Gurney Journey

Today we'll take a look at Chapter 4: "The Painter's Training" from Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.

I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by comments of my own. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.

1. The traditional way of teaching painting is to teach Drawing first, then Painting. It's better to divide the problem into three interrelated elements: Form, Tone, and Color.

By Form I think he means both outline and modeling of 3D bulk. By Tone he means light or dark value, both tone as a function of design and tone as a function of defining 3D. Color presumably means both hue and saturation, but Speed points out it can't be seen separately from tone. Speed suggests that in the French academic schools, tone was overemphasized.

I'm still a little confused by this. I don't see how Form and Tone can really be separated.In Speed's scheme, then, when does the student make the switch to painting, and what are they doing exactly at each stage? I haven't reviewed the chapters ahead yet, but I suppose this will become clearer.

Lilian Braithwaite by Harold Speed

2. Systematic training isn't much help for design (or composition).

This comment, made in passing, struck me as an important one, and it's why I resist the idea of writing a book with any kind of authoritative tone on composition. Unlike the fields of color and light, which are full of verifiable facts, composition is elusive. Speed says it's unteachable, and not a subject for hard drilling. Still, I think it can be addressed in a classroom setting on an individual and a picture-by-picture basis by a mentor figure, the way Howard Pyle did.

The minute someone says that here are "The Five Laws of Composition" or "The 20 Don'ts of Design," I start thinking of masterworks that are exceptions to those laws. Composition by statute leads to sterile, conventional, and forgettable pictures.

Morelli, Temptation of St. Anthony

3. "Before you can express anything you must feel something to express."

Here's another comment made in passing that is essential to the study of picture-making. Speed criticizes work that is solely an excuse for an "unimpassioned rendering of the appearance of things." The works that stick in our minds are the ones that are both deeply felt and masterfully painted, and as a result the feelings transmit to the viewer.

4. "The English language is not very rich in terms that express aesthetic things."

So true, and a good reason why painters have had to learn foreign vocabularies for words like effet, which were so central to foreign training. French and Italian languages have a great many words that have now been adopted in many painting ateliers, but that's another topic for a blog post.

5. "The heightened effect that there is in all artistic work, and which is in a way a departure from cold accuracy, must not be made the excuse for careless and slovenly work."

I've noticed that the words "creative" and "expressive" are often used nowadays as code words for sloppy work, but they shouldn't be.

6. Western art is more concerned with naturalistic outward appearances than Eastern art, but in the great Western works, there are "variations from strict accuracy."

And Speed points out that these subtle expressive enhancements and aesthetic choices in realist painting have escaped critics. That's more true now than ever because most mainstream art critics are so visually unaware. As Speed says, realism makes the work "persuasive to the beholder" but it's only the first objective in doing something with lasting meaning. The expressive quality is more valuable, and he reminds us that a strongly expressive work that is executed with some rough technical edges may be preferable to a technically polished work that is empty of feeling.

7. "Nature is not one of those who disclose their best to a shallow observer; she only reveals herself fully to those who seek her reverently."

This is because it takes a lifetime to learn to see. And it's not just a matter of seeing optically with the eyes. It's about apprehending with compassion and insight. One has to perceive what is fine in a subject and bring that out. Speed reminds us that we need to call up from memory the fine things one has seen in art and nature and bring that out in what one is painting.

8. "If you cannot paint what you see, you will find yourself handicapped in trying to paint what you imagine."

This is why it's so important for fantasy artists and concept artists to paint outdoors. What you can paint from your imagination will only be 75% as convincing as what you can paint from nature.

"Vast themes seem to demand simple language for their expression."

You can insert any Rembrandt painting here.

Speed finishes the chapter with more thoughts about Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, but hopefully we covered that ground in the last few sessions.

Next week—Chapter 5: Tone Values
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials," and there's also a Kindle edition.


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