Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Part 2: Abbey's Advice to a Young Artist

In 1892, Edwin Austin Abbey received a letter from a young artist traveling through England on his way across to Paris. He wanted advice from the famous illustrator. Here was Abbey's response:

"The great trouble," he wrote, "with the vast majority of our artists at home is that they cease to be students too soon. They spend a couple of years—even three or four years— in Paris, or some other place where students congregate, and, bored by the drudgery of the serious atelier and seeing certain easy-going pictures attracting a certain amount of attention and having also a certain amount of merit, they throw over the opportunity (which, mind you,never comes again) to make themselves as perfect as they may be with the aid of all the facilities a far-seeing body of eminent artists have, during many years, accumulated for their benefit, and dash into paint with a confidence bred entirely of ignorance and intolerance of the training that they, at that ill-informed and blind period of their lives, do not see the need of."

Abbey continued: "Go to the Louvre constantly (on Sunday mornings you will have the place to yourself, or nearly so). Look at the designs and drawings by the great masters and reflect that they thought it necessary to take all that pains before they began their painting, and that they did not rely upon genius or talent to carry them through. Remember that you are pretty blind at present. I don't remember ever before having seen an art student of your age absolutely without a sketch-book. You should be sketching always, always. Draw anything. Draw the dishes on the table while you are waiting for your breakfast. Draw the people in the station while you are waiting for your train. Look at everything. It is all part of your world. You are going to be one of a profession to which everything on this earth means something. Keep every faculty you have been blessed with wide awake. The older you get the more full your life will be getting." 

Hudson River Rats looking at one of Abbey's sketchbooks at the Yale Art Gallery.

E.V. Lucas, Abbey's biographer, said, "The sketch-books which Abbey himself filled, all of which are preserved, and with which I have spent delightful hours, are proof that he practised what he preached. But probably of no artist of any time can it more truly be said that he was always learning—always preparing to be ready to begin." 

Lucas continues: "The tendency of so many young artists to dispense with drudgery was much on Abbey's mind, and there are other references to it in his letters. Among various unfinished fragments of correspondence are the following remarks to the late Charles Eliot Norton. 'In the first place I am convinced that it should be impressed upon this amiable legion, that is to say, the unprepared and usually insufficiently endowed students sent by the charitably disposed to study art abroad, that for a long time the aesthetic part of art instruction should be held in abeyance, that the science of the profession, or calling, should be acquired as patiently and as thoroughly as possible. When I say as possible, I do not mean to place any limit of time or means. This science is taught in many continental schools and at the Royal Academy; perhaps in its highest form, aside from these aesthetic questions, at the' Ecole des Beaux Arts '-and after the hand has learned to obey the eye, then the aesthetic part of the education should begin—years of it, not months. . . . The majority return to their native land full of the latest fad in pictures; and I speak now of America—in the absence, as a rule, of the inspiration derived from American students in Paris the environment of great works of art, they feed for the balance of their days upon a fashion which may have become obsolete on this side of the ocean almost before they have set up their American studios.'"


krystal said...

LOVE this Post! I agree! I'm currently reading Virgil Elliott's "Traditional Oil Painting" book and he says "It was once understood that an artist should be capable of painting ANY subject with mastery. An education in art did not neglect one subject in favour of another. One's specialty was decided after the general art education was complete, and the choice was made on the basis of interest, not of limitation."
I asked months ago where all these people who want to be illustrators/concept artists were in my life drawing classes/ workshops around town. I was also told not to regard the fine artists of the past so highly in a class I walked out of. So thankful that I had my head screwed on correctly. I would LOVE to live in a world where everyone observes from life, draws from life and creates. The mindset of continuous study and visiting various museums should be encouraged and not seen as 'old hat'. Also the understanding that all of this takes time. People are in such a hurry (maybe it's a reflection of our culture today?) I believe it was Leffel who said that he believes that we get the art that we (as a culture) deserve (in terms of sophistication and quality).

krystal said...

He says it best here: "As the saying goes, 'Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains." So it is, and so it should be. Avoid shortcuts. Avoid the frame of mind that urges people to seek them. The quality of the work, the degree of satisfaction derived from it, the sense of accomplishment, and the respect of one's peers are all diminished in direct proportion to the degree to which one has resorted to shortcuts. Art is a field that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution, and it has always depended on extreme degrees of dedication, mental discipline, and great pains in the creation of its finest examples. This is the only legitimate reason it is so highly prized. No one who truly cares about art would risk cheapening it. No one who would cheapen it deserves to be an artist"-Virgil Elliott

John Fleck said...

Great post.
Are there images from Abbey's sketchbooks available for online viewing? (I love how the Fogg Museum at Harvard has a lot of Sargent's sketchbook drawings avail. online)

Margo said...

good advice to all today whether they are studying in an atelier or art school or just enamored of their sketchbooks. If you don't have a sketchbook in your pocket or your bag, what is wrong with this picture!

David King said...

I keep a sketchbook in my car, but don't use it often enough. I always take a sketchbook with me when I go for a walk or on a hike, but again that's not often enough. I will commit myself to sketch more often!

Robert J. Simone said...

The thing I appreciate most about the blog, James, is that you constantly highlight sketching and the cultivation of the sketching habit. I honestly think that not sketching, for an artist, is a vice. Not that I am as devoted as I should be. But you are having an evangelistic effect on me.

This post also highlights for me a pervading attitude I find all too often, which is that principles and skills will only inhibit creativity. The truth is, as Abby brings out, that principles and skills, once learned and maintained actually release creativity.

Tom Hart said...

I love this post, this series of posts. Thanks for it - especially considering that a modern-day book with high quality reproductions on Abbey is yet to be produced.

What especially resonated with me about these quotes is that it represents a very (and sadly) apt critique of the way art is taught at most colleges and universities, in my experience at least. That is, putting a discussion and focus on aesthetics before a mastery of tools and technique.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everyone.

John, many Abbey images from Yale Art Gallery's collection are scanned and available online, but I don't think they've gotten to the sketchbooks yet. You can visit them and see the originals if you give them enough warning in the Prints and Drawings room.

Tom, I think you're right, the craft and skills should be at the foundation, especially when the aesthetic rationales are constructed to justify a poorly equipped practitioner.

Margo, David, and Simone, thanks, glad you're sketching a lot.

Though Simone, I'm not much of an evangelist--more of a pilgrim perhaps. I need to be inspired by the greats like Abbey and Sargent as much as anyone does.

Krystal, thanks for those great quotes from Virgil Elliott. I had a chance to meet and talk with him at the Portrait convention, and he's a nice guy and an amazing artist.

Judy P. said...

I'm late to this, but great post and comments. I was diligently filling 5x7 sketchbooks, then read how larger ones are less limiting, but couldn't make carrying that 9x12 a regular habit. Better small sketchbooks than none at all!
Thanks James for being a stellar Pilgrim.