Friday, December 11, 2015

Harold Speed, Chapter 4: The Painter's Training

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.


Lou said...

#2; Mr. Speed's comments on design baffled me. "The student must be left free to develop for himself." Another instance where I wrote 'huh?' in the margin. I do believe design and composition can be taught and in fact had a semester each on 2D and 3D design at college that were very helpful. Granted hard-fast rules are elusive but for me parts of tone (value) and color study have been as intimidating.

#3, #5 and #7, were the most valuable takeaways of this chapter for me and I underlined those points for future reference.

Having read a few chapters now I'm finding that I must re-read many of Speed's assertions several times and even then I'm still mystified by some of his statements. The last paragraphs on page 51 and the first on page 52 discussing tone and colour for example. I've read them several times and I think I get it, but I'm not certain. I've concluded that it's a combination of my denseness, the writing style of his time and his unique way of expressing himself. Is anyone else running into this?

Rubysboy said...

With regard to point #5:
sloppy, slovenly, careless.....OR freely, expressively, creatively..
meticulous, accurate, incisive,..... OR tight, overworked, obvious

Just as one can be well-dressed in a formal style or well-dressed in a casual style, painters can do great paintings meticulously and terrible paintings meticulously OR great paintings freely and terrible paintings freely. Is the important matter the expressive success of the work - how it makes us feel- or its technical success -- how well it shows off the artist's skill?

Speed seems to want both bravura technique and expressive power but it's a rare dresser (Rembrandt?) who can combine tuxedo and sweatshirt stylishly.

In my opinion, why choose? Admire both when they're well done.

Rubysboy said...

Can composition be taught?
People use the word 'composition' differently. One use is as the disposition of the formal elements in a work -- the big spots of color, the accents, the eye path, etc. Surely people can be taught to notice these and to incorporate them into their work. Another use of the word composition is to refer to the total effect of a painting, the way all the elements work together. Since this is unique to each work, it's hard (impossible?) to generalize. Imagine each painting is an intricate machine -- one a watch, one a clock, another a toy robot, another a vacuum cleaner, and so on. It would be possible to teach about how to make and use gears, bearings, motors, etc., and also how to make a certain kind of pendulum clock, for example, but it's not clear that one could teach 'machine-making.' This is how I understand the comment that composition cannot be taught.

Unknown said...

I like the idea of concepts that can be discovered from within rather than taught such as design. It relates to my thoughts that art effects people equally, i believe it aims too, regardless of educational background. I think a good picture can grab anyone's attention art student or not. Therefore I think there is an innate human capacity for the expression that can be discovered, because a picture in itself can function on such a natural human level. I do believe grasping those artistic powers certainly takes a concerted effort, but to me it makes sense that it can be readily found within oneself as it is found when viewing a canvas.

Rubysboy said...

"Before you can express anything you must feel something to express."
This is an old, old debate. Does Shakespeare have to feel hate in order to write the speeches of Richard III? Does feeling hate help him to write those speeches? Can these feelings persist through many revisions that may take place over months? How can being carried away by emotion be reconciled with craft? Sure, the artist must have felt the emotion at some point, but then who hasn't? Seems to me the hard part about expression is finding a form that carries the feeling to the viewer, not having the feeling. Singling out a feeling to express and identifying what shapes, colors, paint surfaces, etc. arranged in what patterns will evoke that feeling is the problem, and all that this requires is having once felt the feeling and recalled it. Frenzy may or may not accompany the creative act. Cold calculation is almost certain to figure in somewhere.

Jessica Kirby said...

#3 is a very good point/topic. I've painted with people who paint a subject because they think the subject matter sells well or will get them attention, not because they have any particular passion for it. Looking at their work you can easily tell what they're passionate about and what they're painting simply to try and sell. You could write a book/hold a week long debate on this one topic alone.

seadit said...

Rubysboy - I think what Speed is getting at is that to be an artist you must first feel and that feeling has to be strong enough to carry one through expressing it. Art isn't about the mechanical or technical, though Speed does profess the importance of those, but I don't think you can create any kind of great (or even good) art - painting, drawing, sculpture, music, etc. - without first being inspired, and inspiration is a feeling. A rather deep and profound one at that. Personally I don't think Shakespeare could have written so powerfully about hate without experiencing it himself, and not just a one time or brief encounter. Book learning can't replace empathy gained from a powerful personal experience.

James Gurney said...

Seadit, and Jessica you took the words out of my mouth. A genuine feeling needs to be driving the work at some level, and that experience of emotion may be removed from the technical execution of the work. There are stories of Beethoven simultaneously writing the stark Fifth Symphony at the same time he was writing the lyrical Sixth, but I presume he was able to do the technical execution at some remove from the emotions that drove him while sketching out the themes.

Sometimes the reverse happens: a work starts out in sketch stage sort of neutral and formal, and it's only after lots of refinement that the emotion becomes clear. Pixar's story team often reports this phenomenon. The characters are often 'cardboardy' in the first storyboards, and only after lots of iteration that they start to convey genuine feeling. With something as technically complex as an animated film, a symphony, or a play, the creator has a lot of complex execution to get through to achieve something that even starts to make sense.

seadit said...

On a related note, I think the hardest part in executing an idea that came from what felt like strong inspiration is when you've lost or no longer can strongly feel it, or once you start the work the expression from that feeling isn't showing up in what you're doing. Inspiration can be so fleeting at times. I think the best or most successful are those who have the focus, determination and trust (belief?) in themselves to get through that. I recall an article about several successful artists - what they all had in common was a scheduled, consistent approach to their work. It wasn't here and there, or whenever they felt like it, every day was scheduled for quality time in their work. I think it's a myth to think that great artists only work when they feel so inspired. You'd never get anything finished!

seadit said...

Interesting point James. Something to be said for discovering inspiration and its emotion (or visa versa) through hard work, experimentation and refinement vs. searching it out and/or waiting for it to happen. I suspect in the example of Pixar that once the emotion became clear everything changed about what they were doing - it came to life and with it a continued stream of more inspiration. It's hard to explain but it feels something like inspiration moving into enlightenment, a spark turning into a big light where suddenly so much more is seen or understood.

Unknown said...
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Fabio said...

Interesting one on #5. The sad thing is that nowadays it's not only an excuse, but often "creativeness" and "realism" are opposed by those who do not possess enough skill to be real artists, and pretend their work to be "creative" and super-expressive. I've heard people arguing academical paintings lack creativeness and "are all the same" and "just copy nature", and again "boring". But we talked about this topic when dealing with Mr Speed's previous book on the academical and unconventional.

#8 so true. I decided to focus on painting from life when I stumbled across my own limits in trying to render things out of my imagination (and felt extremely frustrated)

jimserrettstudio said...

#3 to 8 - Throughout this chapter I could not help but think of and compare it to Robert Henri’s book, The Art Spirit, that concept that art is a reflection of the inner spirit and a life that is lived and experienced reflects in the work. I think Speed was eluding to this some 40 odd years before Henri’s book. That there are parts of expression that cannot be taught but must be experienced, that is why great artists like say John Singer Sargent or Rembrandt (they already had all of the technical skill) just seemed to get better.

Lou - The last paragraphs on page 51 and the first on page 52 is hard to follow. And yes I am also re –reading several paragraphs also to see if I understand the content. There is a quote, which goes something like – painting is nothing more than placing the right value, right color and right shape on the canvas one stroke at a time -and only if that was that easy. Speed is advocating the study of Form-Tone-Color separately but pointing out in the end we as painters will deal with them as one. I think today we would just refer to this as a color note. That’s is just my thoughts on it.

Nice video summary on Robert Henri and the Art Spirit

Mark Martel said...

For #1, perhaps he's talking about Form in a more sculptural way. Sometimes to define things you might shade or outline simply to define planes and volumes. Think architectural drawings, some Michelangelo drawings. In comics sometimes they draw thick outlines up front, thinner as they recede but independent of light source. That used to puzzle me because there'd be dark thick outlines even on lit top edges yet it somehow 'read' ok. In my life drawing group a sculptor approaches things in a sort of hybrid, classical way showing lighting but also emphasizing form.

With a purely tonal way it seems you can usually define things purely in darks against lights if you look closely enough and sometimes push the contrast like an Ansel Adams photo or classical Chiaroscuro. For comics think noir like Frank Miller's Sin City. There's something really engaging when its pushed so far that outlines are absent and the mind has to put together the broken pieces of shadow.

I haven't read the book; does this relate?

Unknown said...

form maybe ='s shape [circular, square, triangular, etc.]

rghirardi said...

On page 51, Speed writes, "The word tone is here used to express solely the degree of lightness or darkness, not changes of hue in the colour. My basic design instructor in the sixties defined tone as a gray added to a color. Thus, you have tint, shade, and tone. He may have used tone in the sense that some use chroma? I wasn't aware of the Munsell system back then, however, we made countless color charts applying versions of tint, shade, and tone. Looking at the Munsell system today, to the best of my understanding, I believe we experimented with the same concepts, although labeled differently.

Unknown said...

/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?/

In his "The Science and Practice of Drawing" he goes into two types of drawing, line drawing and mass drawing. He explicitly states that mass drawing is particularly applicable to painting. However, much like line drawing, if the initial observation and measurements of the subjects are incorrect, everything that follows falls apart. When he refers to "form" I believe that he is referring to the flat dimensional positioning of the piece - getting every element to formalize itself in unity (with a touch of variety) in a cohesive rhythm. [As he states].

He goes further to elaborate that when doing mass drawing the Tone is the key for making better harmony when setting something down, but never separated from its structure as a line drawing.

I am currently studying him (and yourself) and many other teachers and masters for an MPhil proposal on the reformation of elementary and high school art education and regarding what Speed states (on the particular topic of interrelated elements for the creation of a piece), the process of working and learning would go from Space (Dots, Lines, Forms) to Light (Tone and Color). A drawing and painting with a sound spatial logic behind it (ie. a thought of composition following a particular diagonal scheme) will always work (even without and Tone or Color). However the same piece without logical "Form" can still have its Tone and Color correct, but wont work as well (at least in the mind of the artist).

A representation of this separation can be seen clearly in the majority of "anime girls" artists on DrawCrowd, who get their tones and colors so well and so detailed that for the average eye, the flaws in the Form become irrelevant.

I'd guess the bigger question would be how well can these factors stand up on their own, which is answered by people like Mondrian and Rhotko ;).

Unknown said...

PS. It's very interesting how he refers to cold-blooded vs feeling-full work. The "unimpassioned rendering of the appearance of things" is what is needed to accurately represent a subject in a piece. However, the same must have something that he calls "dither", in which there is only the suggestion of emotion (expressed through the movement unity vs variety) and it is left out to the observer to fill in the blanks. This is when the piece itself becomes alive.

Lou said...

You are correct James, subsequent chapters do make it clearer, particularly when he starts the exercises (especially he better defines how form and tone(value) relate).

Robert J. Simone said...

James, THANK YOU for saying that "expressive" and "creative" are used as code words for sloppy work. Too many unscrupulous, ahem, instructors have made whole businesses out of teaching abstract "expressionism" and helping their students to explore their "creativity". It can lead to the idea that "art" just flows out of us and that "realism" or "representation" is a product of an inferior intellect.

Unknown said...

#7. "It takes a lifetime to learn to see". Since beginning to draw two years ago after a 40 year hiatus, and beginning to paint one year ago, I find that I observe nature - light, color, pleasing combinations of natural features - in a heightened way. There is much to learn, but it begins with the seeing.