Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Chopped Straw

Some painters of the nineteenth century had a way of building up tones with crosshatched strokes, which they referred to as "chopped straw."

John Henry Hill, "Plums," Watercolor
The technique gives a fuzzy effect reminiscent of engravings of the period. The term was coined by British art critic John Ruskin, an artist himself, whose advocacy of the patient study of nature inspired artists in both England and the USA. Ruskin wrote:
"If a colour is to be darkened by superimposed portions of another, it is, in many cases, better to lay the uppermost colour in rather vigorous small touches, like finely chopped straw, over the under one, than to lay it on as a tint, for two reasons : the first, that the play of the two colours together is pleasant to the eye ; the second, that much expression of form may be got by wise administration of the upper dark touches."
The Elements of Drawing, page 157

Henry Roderick Newman, "Wild Flowers," 1890, Watercolor, 15x10 inches.
Henry Roderick Newman (American, 1843-1917) admired Ruskin's writings and visited him in England. Newman liked to paint close-up views of flowers and plants in their natural setting. In this one, the textures gradate up to a delicate stippled tone at the top. The effect is quite different from what you would get with overlaid wet washes.

Painters used small overlaid strokes not only for grass-like textures, but for other textures as well. One of the strategies is to vary the color from one set of strokes to another. In this detail from a watercolor by William Trost Richards, the small strokes vary a bit from warm to cool, giving the surfaces some chromatic vibrancy.

Ruskin said, "The use of acquiring this habit of execution is that you may be able, when you begin to colour, to let one hue be seen in minute portions, gleaming between the touches of another." He advised his students to work slowly and delicately, using the point of the pencil or brush “as if you were drawing the down on a butterfly’s wing.”

Here's some real chopped straw as a point of reference. 

The look wasn't restricted to watercolor painters. Andrew Wyeth used a similar approach in some of his egg temperas. Aaron Draper Shattuck laid down a scrubby earth-toned underpainting in this detail of an oil painting, and then placed green strokes over it.
I learned about this term from the book The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites
Related post: "Small Touches"


Tom Hart said...

22Very informative post. I can't help but hasten to add the caution that there's a very fine line (no pun intended) between an effective use of this technique and an overly tight, fussy image -especially if the technique is used throughout the painting and not selectively, or at least in varying degrees (as Shattuck did). The correct balance is easily over-shot imho.

Karen Robinson said...

I don't think I would have the patience for this technique for an entire painting, but will definitely try it when the resulting texture is just what's wanted for eg grassy moorland and similar.
I have been reading the new edition of Solomon J Solomon that you wrote the introduction for and when I paused to read this post had just got to this point: "An obtrusive coarseness is now preferred to the velvety surface of the Dutch masters" and, next page, "why need we paint in imitation of Berlin wool needlework, put our colours down in marked variegated spots…" etc.
I fear Mr Solomon would not approve of chopped straw!

Marque Todd said...

A general comment - the use of cross-hatching (which is very similar to this) is used very frequently in egg tempera to build color because the paint dries and/or is absorbed to the ground almost immediately upon application. Since washes/blending are so difficult the technique of cross-hatching or this one are used to build an optically complex image and was used extensively in the earliest egg tempera paintings.

To Tom Hart: some of us like tight, fussy paintings with lots of small details, and I don't think something has to be painterly to be good art (Van Eyck, for example, had LOTS of tight fussy details)! As long as an artist understands what they are doing, I think anything goes if it produces the effect/painting that they want. Just my 2 cents! :-)

Tom Hart said...

Sorry, Marque, if it sounds as if I was criticizing an entire technique or tight work in general. I would never call Van Eyck fussy. I was only speaking to the fact that some - including myself - have been so enraptured of the satisfaction and effectiveness of cross hatching that they - we - have overdone the effect to the point of excess. I just thought it's a temptation worth mentioning.

Beth said...

I like it! Thank you.

Newt said...

This reminds me of the Faiyum mummy portraits. I think they were forced to use small strokes by the nature of the encaustic medium, rather than by artistic choice.