Monday, June 23, 2008


In any given plein-air painting of a few hours, you can probably only capture one percent of the detail that meets your eyes.

There have been some amazing attempts to capture more with extended periods of close observation. The PreRaphaelites tried to follow John Ruskin’s advice in his influential treatise Modern Painters in 1843. Ruskin suggested that artists should to “Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.”

In other words, go for the 100 percent.

Here’s a closeup of William Holman Hunt’s Hireling Shepherd (1851), where he lovingly painted the tiniest blades of grass. The level of detail creates a haunting, dreamlike quality, and everything is imbued with symbolic meaning.

Assuming that not many of us have the time or patience or desire for such infinite exactitude, the question is WHICH fraction—which one percent—of the immensity of Nature should we try to capture?

When Daniel Robinson set out to paint this beached sailing ship he had a hierarchy of interest. With the limited time he had to paint the scene, he had to “reject, select, and scorn” a lot of details. He scrubbed in the grass as a flat tone and did the same with the beach, the far mountain, and the sky.

Instead he lavished his attention on the ship’s standing and running rigging. He most likely used a small sable brush (either a round or a rigger brush) with his hand steadied with a mahl stick. He painted what interested him the most and simplified the rest.

It’s a completely different aesthetic from what Ruskin advocated. The point is to convey a feeling of completeness, selecting only the one percent that interests you.
For a deep analysis of Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd, check out the Victorian Web Book and the Wikipedia entry about the painting.

For Ruskin's quote in context, link.


Unknown said...

Interesting! From what I understand, the Impressionists were recognizing how the eye sees things. What we are looking at is in detail, while the things in our peripheral vision are blurry. Is a painting like this actually more naturalistic than lovingly painting each blade of grass?

Both approaches achieve interesting but different results. It depends on what you're going for, I guess.

Kristy Gordon said...

Love your blog James! Very informative! This post was really interesting! THANKS!!

Tom said...

Another great and helpful post James. Deciding what you are going to do and how much time you are going to give yourself, seems like it should always be the first priority. I wish I could remember that when I am in front of things. Here is a contemporary landscape artist that fits the Ruskin mode, Rackstraw Downes, you probably already know his work, here is a link, or just google his name. Of course you have to see the actual paintings, the reproductions only hint at what is there.

Shane White said...

Before the advent of photography, I bet Raskin's approach was well appreciated.

While I have my personal preference I can respect the level of dedication he took to his work.

I wonder if it was for the love painting the scene or the love of technical mastery that drove him to such endeavors. There's not a lot of "gut instinct" to something like this, ya know?


Unknown said...

And yet Ruskin considered Turner as the artist who most fit his own philosophies. And Ruskin's own work is surprisingly elegant. When you leave out stuff it creates such excitement for the viewer, it brings the viewer into the creation of the piece by requiring the use of their imagination. Having said that, my art teachers always complained I was way too finicky in my love of detail....

I love what Lisbeth Zwerger said about composition: it's knowing how to balance the detail with the emptiness.

Dianne Mize said...

In some ways Ruskin was a fool. Sometimes I think he was more self-entertained with pontificating than he was wise or even thoughtful.

Love your blog.

Unknown said...

I disagree heartily Diane. The man was a total genius who helped give birth to among other things Impressionism.

John P. Baumlin said...

While I admire the level of skill that goes into some hyper realistic paintings, I don't necessarily respond to them in the way I would like. It seems that good realism reveals more by dint of knowledgeable suggestion than by painting every hair or every blade of grass, and knowing what to leave out and what to include. Anders Zorn, Sargent, and Swedish wildlife painter Liljefors come to mind.

John P. Baumlin said...

Oh, and yes, the work of James Gurney comes to mind also!

Tom said...

To add to the Ruskin discussion, Sargent said of Ruskin, something to the effect of, "Stones damn silly stones." Any one who has read Ruskin's Elements of drawing will know what he was talking about

jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeff said...

'm sure Whistler had some fine things to about Ruskin.

In 1877, Ruskin published a letter describing an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery which included Whistler's work. He complained in particular about Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (shown in room 3): 'I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.' Whistler decided to sue Ruskin for libel.

Ruskin's legacy is complicated and my feelings for this man relate to the contradictory nature of his actions.

On the one hand he was a champion of Turner and on the other could not see what a good painter Whistler was. This was a very famous case in which the question of what is art was brought to the forefront. Whistler won but the case bankrupted him.

I have to say of the two examples the Daniel Robinson appeals to my ascetic more than William Holman Hunt. However Hunt was a good painter.