Sunday, October 26, 2008

Square Brushes

Painters of the Newlyn School, a group of 19th century plein-air painters in southwestern England, were known for their “consistent squareness of touch.”

“A Street in Brittany” by Stanhope Forbes shows the characteristic look achieved by brushes that we would call brights or flats. Forbes once wrote home to his mother asking her to bring a “flat sable brush” when she came to visit.

Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) was also known for his square brush technique, which the British critics identified with French juste-milieu painters like Bastien-Lepage, with whom some of the Newlyn artists studied.

The purpose of the method was not just to get that chunky feeling, but to blur outlines and capture an atmospheric envelope. The critic Garstin wrote: “We seek to represent not only the man but, as it were, his very atmosphere, and not only his surroundings, but his surroundings under certain specific conditions.”

Other artists indentified with a square touch are Arthur Streeton, Frank Brangwyn, and Dean Cornwell.
Reference for quotes: Artists of the Newlyn School, 1880-1900, by Caroline Fox, 1979, link.
Images from FreeParking's Flickr stream, link.


innisart said...


I've always liked Stanhope Forbes and other artists like William Logsdail whose paintings had that similar look to the paint application. I can't seem to paint this way, however. Is it just a matter of laying paint down as if you were making a mosaic? One or two squares per brush load, with only visual mixing, and not actual blending of edges between the "squares"? I can't help but to "lick" the paint; maybe it's just a matter of temperament. Wonderful posts, as always.


Michael Dooney said...

This is one of those examples of how the tool can effect the general look of artwork. That chiseled Dean Cornwell look owes a lot to using bristle flats and brights and laying down the strokes and leaving them alone.

Mark Vander Vinne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Vander Vinne said...

The timing of this blog is uncanny. An artist friend and I were discussing brushes just the other day. He mentioned some famous artist (can't remember who) that said brights are a worthless brush. I use them almost exclusively in my work. With flats being my second choice. I love them. And it's surprising just how many different looks you can get with them by using the varying sides, points, corners and of course the regular way.

James Gurney said...

Mark, you raise a good point. If you have only one brush to do a painting, a flat is probably the most versatile because of the range of strokes you can get with it.

Innis, I think you've got it: the key to the approach is to put a stroke down and leave it. But there should still be plenty of soft and dragged edges. It probably shouldn't be all sharp like a mosaic if you want to get that atmospheric look.

Michael Pieczonka said...

Funny you should post this.. last night I was reading my new Waterhouse book, and there is a section that talks about how he learned some of the flatbrush technique from William Logsdail.

James Gurney said...

Michael, thanks for that insight about Waterhouse and Logsdail. Didn't they also share neighboring studios at Rose Hill?

Chris Jouan said...

Wow! A bachelor's degree in Graphic design, years of painting classes and more than a decade of freelance work and FINALLY I have more than an just intuitive understanding of flats! Thank You!

innisart said...

Waterhouse and Logsdail were close friends, and had studios near each other in the little artist community around Primrose Hill. There's a nice little portrait of Waterhouse done by Logsdail in the Waterhouse monogrpah by Peter Trippi (2002).

I wish it were easier to find examples of Logsdail's work. A couple of years ago I saw a nice Orientalist piece by him at auction at Sotheby's. It was one of the highlights in the show for me.

FYI- The catalog for the upcoming Waterhouse retrospective is now available for pre-order at


James Gurney said...

Thanks so much, ChrisJouan for those kind words.
Innisart, I appreciate your insights into Logsdail. And thanks for the tip on the Waterhouse exhibition. That sounds like it's worth a trip to Montreal in 2009.

JVR said...

the skin on Clausen's girl looks so smooth and soft. Any idea how he did that?