Friday, December 4, 2015

Harold Speed, Chap. 3: Technique of Painting

Today we'll take a look at Chapter 3: "The Technique of Painting" 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.

Ada in Her Garden, by Henry Hensche,
an example of impressionistic vision.
1. "Few people realize how little they really see of the marvelous things happening on the retina of the eyes."
Several times in this chapter, Speed repeats a common logical fallacy. The idea is that we see the image on our retinas, as if there's a homunculus farther back in our heads watching the movie at the back of our eyes. This kicks the can farther down the road and doesn't really explain anything.

The retina is better understood as an extension of the brain. Basic visual processing such as edge detection begins happening at the retinal level, and higher-level visual processing occurs as the neural pathways travel back to the visual cortex. The image is processed even further as it moves to the outer cortical areas of the conscious brain.

Nevertheless, what he's saying at its core makes sense. Learning to see as a painter sees involves marshaling our awareness on many levels, and it doesn't come naturally.

Drawing by the sculptor Carpeaux
2. "Sight as a faculty is not so essential to our survival as some of our other senses, such as touch."
This assertion, which he develops throughout the chapter, puzzles me on its surface. How could touch be more essential to our survival than vision? How many things do average modern humans actually touch throughout an average day beyond doorknobs, keyboards, silverware, steering wheels, coffee cups, beer tabs, and the TV remote? Our eyes take in everything from oncoming cars to houses to trees to other people's facial expressions.

What he's trying to express, I think, is the idea that we form mental understandings of things that differ from the "impressionist" view of subjective appearances. Mr. Speed may be using touch as a kind of metaphor for a more Platonic "grasp" of objects that is symbolic and simplified, in the manner of cartoon drawings or Egyptian images.

Touch is an interesting sense compared to sight because it is view-independent, and also separate from any sense of color and light. It's fascinating to look at drawings by the great sculptors, such as Carpeaux, above, because the drawings show little concern for lighting, tone, and color, but rather are more concerned with structure and volume.

Last night Jeanette and I wanted to play with this idea, so we took turns putting an unfamiliar object in a paper bag and asked the other to recognize and describe the object without looking. This would be a fun art school assignment--get a bone or tool or sculpture, and put it in a black box with holes in the side and ask students to come up and feel the object, then go back to their seat and try to draw it. Doing so would require that they invent a POV and a light source and a color scheme. Very interesting challenge.

3. "...the surprise that greeted the first pictures of the impressionist movement."
The principles and practices of impressionism have been so thoroughly integrated into the contemporary academic movement that it's hard to imagine how revolutionary they must have seemed to a Royal Academician a century ago.

Chauvet cave art. Speed suggests that such art is an early example of impressionistic vision.
To my eye, they make a case for art informed by a sense of touch.
These were people who actually killed and dissected these animals,
and they would have known them inside out.
4. Parallel between developments in art history and the individual's development of the faculty of sight.
This is an example of "recapitulation theory," something Speed might have read in Freud. The technical development witnessed throughout art history he argues, develops from cartoon symbols to line to shading, to coloring, to impressionistic vision. Art students learning to paint follow the same course of development.

In this chapter, as with the last book on drawing, Speed is suggesting that all this development may not entirely be progress, and that artists shouldn't lose sight of the importance of line, touch, or the Platonic sense—whatever you want to call it.

5. "The extreme impressionists said there was no outline, and no use for line drawing."
Well, maybe the extreme impressionists such as Monet were using that argument as an excuse because they didn't know how to draw very well in the classical academic sense. There were plenty of great painters who achieved a synthesis between accurate drawing and impressionistic painting, such as Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, Krøyer, and Mucha, just to name a few.

We sometimes hear art teachers say "There are no lines in nature." I've always thought this was a bit of a silly saying because even if you're drawing with cut-out shapes, every shape has a boundary edge, which is a kind of line. And if you want to argue that there are no lines in nature, you might as well admit that there's nothing visual in nature. There's no color in nature either. What we see is created in our heads by our eyes and brains, and edge detection—the perceptual mechanism behind our sense of line—is a very important element of visual perception, as important as any other feature of perception.

Speed has set us up for a system of instruction where he takes us all the way from line—that is, form regarded view-independent, tone-independent, and color-independent—to the full music of subjective appearances.

Next week—Chapter 4: The Painter's Training
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.


A Colonel of Truth said...

Suggest undertaking study of General Semantics (not to be confused w/ Semantics) - a discipline founded by Alfred Korzybski that, in part, addresses how language influences human behavior (and that absolutely includes seeing). For to name and label things unconsciously shapes how we see. Good primers are Jonn Condon's 'Semantics and Communication' and S. I. Hayakawa's 'Language in Thought and Action.' For four decades I have been a student, practioner of, and advocate for GS. Thoughtful application thereof has taken my painting, more so life, in directions never imagined (nor possible w/o GS awareness).

Jim Douglas said...

"There's nothing visual in nature... What we see is created in our heads by our eyes and brains..."

I love that thought, Jim. Reading it made me pause and revel in being a sentient human being. Seeing is a creative act.

S. Stipick said...

S. Stipick said...

If anyone has a minute, Anthony Waichulis has a great piece of writing on his website about edges, the optical process behind them, and how they relate to painting. It would compliment this section of Speed's book and this post nicely.

Lou said...

Mr. Speed just about lost me with this chapter.

#2; "Everybody could describe a table by the feel of it, but few people could give you an accurate description of its visual appearance." I underlined that sentence and wrote in the margin 'huh?' I certainly might be able to describe the table using just feel but try capturing the color by feel only. And isn't that just about the primary reason we paint, to capture our impression of the color of things.

#5; Who is he referring to by his term "extreme impressionists?" I don't recall him mentioning Monet, but that would be the obvious assumption. Were Sargent and Zorn labeled impressionists in Speed's time?

James Gurney said...

Lou, Yeah, that sentence left me scratching my head, too. I suppose by extreme impressionists he means the usual suspects, including:
Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and the rest.

Thanks, Sean, for mentioning Anthony W's excellent post:

Thanks, Colonel, I'll check out G.S.

gyrusdentus said...

5.) edge-perception.
Excellent point. I also think that line-drawing is horribly underestimated. Intuitively ,every childs starts with outlines. That is not that bad if one recalls that a child (or drawer) must grasp the outline and reproduce it.
A nice way to hone one´s perceptual and craftman-skills.

Gavin said...

Although not exactly in the academic tradition I came across Monet's caricature drawings for the first time today, which he did around the age of 15. I was quite surprised by his drawing ability for someone still so young, and his complete turn around in subject matter and style in subsequent years.

I started Speed's book a few months ago, but only got about half-way, so it's great to backtrack and continue the journey through your blog.

James Gurney said...

Wow, those are by Monet? Thanks, Gavin, I'll have to recalibrate my thoughts about Monet.

Rich said...

5. "Monet didn't know how to draw very well"

Well, looking for instance at his "La Japonaise" figure, portrayed with such gorgeous detailed Kimono, and those precious fans in the background. I just can't imagine achieving such a painting without the skills of a well-drawn drawing background;-)

How outdated are Harold's remarks?
Most of them aren't, IMO.
One would just have to discern: Between the timeless ones and...


kev ferrara said...

I think those Monet caricatures are after Daumier.

Bob B. said...

I think it's interesting that even though Monet and the other impressionists didn't draw or paint extremely accurate contours and shapes like Sargent or Sorolla, they still painted incredibly beautiful paintings. They might not have been able to draw a perfect portrait or likeness of someone, but they could really make beautiful paintings.

Gregory Lee said...

On point #2, I heard recently on some documentary that fruit bearing plants and insects together evolved the system of distinguishing ripe from unripe fruit by the plants making the ripe fruit red so the insects could tell which fruit was ready to have its seeds dispersed. Then some larger animals, wanting to get in on that ripe fruit bounty, evolved the ability to distinguish red, including our own evolutionary predecessors. The redness of a raspberry is not really to provide a feast for the eyes -- that's not the point.

seadit said...

I think the Colonel is on to something with General Semantics, although GS in and of itself is a bit too out there for me. I think what Speed was getting at in his discussion on ‘touch’ is that from a very early age we use touch with sight to understand the world around us in terms of identifying and categorizing things so that we can move about and function essentially without doing ourselves harm (if you look at it from a child’s POV, you learn what things around you are good and bad, i.e. touching a hot stove). As we grow older we use those definitions of things in such a simple, set way that we miss out on the ‘more’ that’s there. In the case of a table, as Speed suggested almost all of us would agree that when looking at a table it is the same width at both ends; the same height all around (if well made), etc. But how many notice the craftsmanship and detail of a table, or the kind of surface one table has vs. another (how a wood table was finished - painted, stained, detailed, etc.), unless that particular person studies or deals in tables, in which case they would notice everything about most tables because that’s what they’re looking for and trained in, not because of the simple things they learned about ‘tables’ as a child through their senses. Also, from an artists POV, the table isn’t just rectangular, round or square unless you’re looking straight down on it or from such a distance that the distortion is almost imperceivable.

I also think his argument is that sight and feel are the most important to learning about our world generally, though I would argue that our hunting and gathering ancestors relied heavily on smell, taste and sound, particularly when hunting :)

What I have found over the past year in my return to drawing and painting is that I’m having to relearn the way I really see things. If you’re painting an orange with only the color orange, it’s just an orange circle, unless the lines or shape defining it include the detail of an uneven surface and the orange is positioned in such a way that the navel breaks the outer edge. ‘Painting’ an orange means more than must using Cadmium Yellow Medium or Light Red. If you really want it to look like an orange (impressionistically or realistically), it requires a great deal more colors and the correct application of those colors in order to reflect the kind of light it’s in and how that light changes the shape and color across its surface. Seeing those colors and then knowing how to mix and paint with them is incredibly challenging when you are not in the habit of observing them with anything more than what you learned as a child, and to Speeds credit, in this case while smell and taste inform you a great deal about the orange, seeing and feeling it are critical to really knowing everything about it as it relates to drawing or painting it.

OK, overstating the obvious, but reading other comments and restating this is helping me understand it better. Now I'm craving something citrusy...

Gavin said...

Hi James, here's another couple you might like, made around the ages of 15 :

Apparently he was well known in Le Havre for his caricatures, and used to make good money from it. He later reflected that had he continued with it he might have been a millionaire.

A Colonel of Truth said...

General Semantics is not a field of study for the faint of heart - Alfred Korzybski's groundbreaking 'Science & Sanity' (out of print) is indeed a challenging tome. But, it is worth the time to study; small chunks at a time. Such is why I offered the two primers that essentially translate Korzybski into more understandable, digestable, and applicable terms. As to direct application when painting, if nothing else apply; 1) the word nor symbol is the thing; 2) the map is not the territory; 3) you cannot see all there is to see (of anything); 4) all you do see you will not (necessarily) be able to describe nor paint; 5) avoid labels for doing so immediately restricts seeing to learned (assumed) models; etc. That's for starters. My entire adult life, including painting, has been devoted to applying GS principles striving to be, in the words of Korzybski, "not unsane." Your orange illustration is sanity - excellent!

James Gurney said...

Gavin, cool! Imagine the Alternate History of Art, where Monet becomes a millionaire by taking the caricature route, and instead of Modernism we get Mad Magazine mainstream and taking the place of the New Yorker.

Keith Patton said...

I think what Speed meant by "touch" was that we form symbolic mental images, and they relate to touch moreso than visual perception.

Ted Seth Jacobs talks about this a lot, particularly in his drawing book, and also relates the symbolic approach with touch.

When he says that most people can describe a table by the feel of it, but not by its visual appearance; I believe he's saying that most people could describe symbolically how it's put together. They could ascribe a flat plane with 4 legs coming out from the bottom. But the average person couldnt draw or describe an accurate visual representation of it. They wouldn't get past their symbolic mental image on order to see the shape of it-- the perspective, proportions, light and shade, etc.

The mentally symbolic approach comes naturally. It takes training and conscious effort to get past it and into the visual appearance of things. I'm pretty sure that's what Speed means by the touch vs visual approach.

And of course classicism and academic art was more of a combination of both symbolic and visual approaches, while impressionism was meant to be more purely visual. I think that "debate" also plays into Speed's thoughts...

James Gurney said...

Keith, you put that very well, more clearly than I could have. I think you've summarized exactly what Speed is saying. I suppose that among academic teachers these days there's a spectrum of approaches, with some being more pure visual appearance based and others more structurally based, where you look at the form the way a masseuse would, feeling the bones and muscles beneath the skin.

A Colonel of Truth said...

Not a table rather a thing that in English is labeled with the word "table." The words in Japanese, Swedish, and Russian are different. It is not an insignificant point. The "table" could be labeled or called anything. Words, symbols, and things are mutually exclusive and only through agreement is there association for (intelligent) discourse.

Lou said...

Reference my earlier comment (on point #5), I looked ahead a bit and on page 107 Speed says; "And this is very much what the extreme impressionists , of whom Claude Monet is the type, in reality did."

Keith's point about "symbolic mental images" intrigues me. I may have never concluded that on my own. It throws me that he could refer to "visual perception" so literally and in the same paragraphs refer to touch so symbolically. Them early 20th century authors were deep man.

António Araújo said...


I once had someone tell me "try not to draw so many lines. There are no lines in nature"

So I answered "But I haven't drawn any lines"

"Yes you did" - he insisted, pointing them out to me - "Here, here, and here..."

"But those things on my paper cannot be lines" - I answered - "since there are no lines in nature"


Fabio Porta said...

I agree with Keith Patton on his analysis of the meaning of touch (it recalls me his precious book), as well as with James on the extreme impressionists. It just seems like many of the "extreme" movements were born with a plethora of meaningless "new ways of expression" (notice I am not saying impressionism was meaningless) to justify their incapacity of producing really fine pictures.

I like how Speed describes the evolution of painting, and ultimately agree on the necessity to preserve some quality of the line, instead of losing it completely as some impressionists did. On this, I also agree with James.

Bob B. said...

For a long time in history it was kind of a mystery how vision worked exactly. Some people, including Leonardo Da Vinci I think, even thought that some form of "rays" projected out from the eyes and touched objects somehow. No one was completely sure how vision worked. But during Speed's time it was finally discovered how vision works, and how the experience of the sensation of sight is fundamentally a two dimensional image of light and color in the retina and brain, and I think that's why Speed was so fired up about it. John Ruskin wrote some interesting thoughts also about the discovery of that in his book on drawing. I think artists were really thrilled back then by the news that science had discovered how vision works. Especially since it also answered the puzzle of how it was possible to depict three dimensional space and objects on a two dimensional flat surface.

James Gurney said...

Good point, Bob. It helps to remember what a revelation the new science of vision represented to artists of Speed's time. Plus the advances in color printing with little pure dots of color mixing in the eye in the way of Pointillism.

Antonio, good way to respond to the "no lines" stuff. Fabio, it's interesting to read other contemporary writers and their reaction to impressionism. There's a biography of Brangwyn that is quite interesting, too.

seadit said...

Thank you Colonel. I've had several mentors tell me to stop trying to draw an arm, a nose, etc., just draw or render the shapes. If you do it right, everything is revealed in its proper form and place. Shading I can do just fine, but for whatever reason, as a graphic designer of over 25 years it's still challenging for me when simplifying a 3D form to graphically simplify graduated shadows - I'm not certain at times where to stop rendering the shadow to sufficiently represent the turning of the form, or which shapes to include when drawing with lines vs. shapes. One of the reasons I enjoy getting back into this is the opportunity to jump start the way I see or think of things. Old habits die hard.

A Colonel of Truth said...

To me your description (of shading troubles) sounds mechanistic not wholistic. And that, understandably, from graphics background. Get a bigger (literally) pencil. That is, a bigger tool of any old kind, hold as if brush, and work as if working in color (allowing shapes of color/value to define form) allowing value to define form - forego the tendency toward seamlessness. Some of Sargent's charcoal portraits germane.

Jim Serrett said...

I know I am a late on this post, but I just wanted add that I feel that Speed assumes that readers of this text are familiar with his first book The Practice and Science of Drawing, for in it he does a much better job of explaining what he means by “line” and the perception of it, how we distinguish objects and to learn to draw by the tactical “felt” idea of form expressed by line. Which certainly does not exist in nature outside of manmade things. And like any old text you have to keep it in context to the times in which they were written. I think Speed was well ahead of his time in his concepts of visual perception and how we conceptualize images.

Gregory Lee said...

Korzybski was a crackpot. After reading A.E. van Vogt's great sci-fi classic the World of Null-A, I read Science and Sanity and Hayakawa's book, a long time ago, thinking to find something great there. Nope. There's no slightest bit of evidence for anything in General Semantics beyond statements of the obvious in a fancified terminology. That's also the opinion of every other professional linguist who has looked at Korzybsky's stuff. Don't bother. Van Vogt also had an enthusiasm for the Bates method of improving vision with special eye exercises -- see van Vogt's Siege of the Unseen. More good science fiction, but crackpot science.

A Colonel of Truth said...

Huh! Some fools, for a long time, thought Pluto was a planet (long before he was a Disney toon).