Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Evolution of a Picture, Part 1: Compositional Studies

Although many artists studied in the 19th century ateliers, few of them published practical information about the actual methods used by masters of academic realism. 

In their books, authors like Harold Speed, Solomon Solomon, and Charles Bargue focus mostly on drawing and painting accurately when working from observation. It's much harder to find information about how academic artists developed their imaginative ideas. 

One exception is the following article from 1901 called Evolution of a Picture: A Chapter on Studies by Cabanel-trained Edgar Spier CameronThis stuff is gold. Because it's so useful, I present it to you in full in four installments.

Portrait of Édouard Detaille by Basile Lemeunier 
"Many people who consider themselves well informed upon matters of art have but the vaguest conceptions of the way in which a picture is made. An artist does not sit down with palette, brushes, and canvas and dash off a picture when an inspiration seizes him.

"A sketch may be made in this way for the mere pleasure of doing it, or in order that the data which are thus secured may be preserved for future use, but the process of making a picture is longer and much more elaborate.

The Single Effect
"The picture which expresses something, which has a raison d'être, is generally evolved with as much thought and care as a writer bestows on a serious article or a story and by somewhat similar processes. In a picture, whatever its subject may be, the "unities" are imposed by the means of expression.

"A picture cannot well represent more than one idea, one place, or one instant of time. All that the artist has to say must be concentrated into one single effect, and consequently all of his study must be in the direction of elimination from the multiplicity of suggestions which nature makes to him, the material for a picture.

By Jules-Elie Delaunay
"As some writers are able to complete the composition of their articles in their minds before they begin to put their thoughts on paper, there are artists who are able to see their pictures finished before they begin to paint, but they are rare exceptions.

Compositional study by Jean Leon Gérôme
Compositional studies
"For any important pictures requiring arrangement or composition, as is the case of nearly all figure subjects, most artists make numerous studies. The title "Study" applied to paintings shown in exhibitions is nearly always a misnomer. Such works are chiefly the work of students or painters who have more technique than ideas to paint, and were not painted as a study for something more important.

Sheet of studies by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

"When an artist has received his "inspiration," or found a motive and given the subject sufficient thought to have decided something of how it is to be treated, he generally makes a composition sketch, possibly several of them, before the arrangement of the picture is decided upon. These are almost always made "out of his head," without models, with only the memory of effects previously observed in nature to guide him.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Studies and Études
Sources and More Info
Evolution of a Picture: A Chapter on Studies by Edgar Cameron in Brush and Pencil Magazine
Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jun., 1901), pp. 121-133

The author is muralist and critic Edgar Spier Cameron (1862-1944) from Chicago. He studied at the Art Students League in New York and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His teachers were Dewing, Inness, Cabanel, Lefebvre, Boulanger, Laurens, and Benjamin-Constant.

You can find more about these methods in my book Imaginative Realism.


Susan Krzywicki said...

I remember readings somewhere, ages ago, that the author, Rex Stout, used to compose his entire novel in his head and typed straight through, rarely making a correction. It seems impossible to hold a puzzle in your head like that - and I think this is what Cameron is saying: most creatives will noodle around with an idea before laying out the final work.

If I am reading him correctly, he is saying that any work that we might do that doesn't have this level of premeditation is a study?

It seems like he is saying that the physical act of painting, even if the result is wonderful, is not the point. There must be a "single effect" behind it that is planned in advance.

I must admit that when I used to paint, it was always just about the act and the result, not about an idea. Or maybe in my mind they were intertwined and not defined in such a way. So, this is new to me.

rock995 said...

What a post with 3 more to come! Wow, don't know how you found this but in many
years, I've never been able to locate this focused statemnt a procedure on this important part of "the
Method". Thank you so much for your hard work!!

Garin Baker said...

Jim, in a recent conversation with the program administrator at the Art Students League your name come up in their interest to do a workshop about this very subject. Any interest on your part in teaching one there would be met with joyous jubilationon all our parts. Let me know if your interested beyond such a marvelous article and post. Thanks again Jim!

Keith Patton said...

James, this is probably going to be one of your best series of posts.

I find it interesting how he talks about building compositions vs quick paintings from life. It really sounds like he's talking about alla prima painters, and how their methods probably aren't ideal to build imaginative compositions. I find that interesting because most traditional painters today take that approach.

I also love what he said about making the imaginative sketch and the subsequent use of true "studies." A few months ago I had some discussions with artists who think of themselves as experts on renaissance drawing. One of them could draw all the anatomy, but he couldnt build much of a composition. The other could do a bit more, but claimed that these great artists were geniuses who did everything from imagination, constructing everything, and then only went to nature to fill in details.

I talked to an acquaintance of mine who was born and raised in Russia who studied at the Russian academies. He said the process taught there was just like this article: do your compositional sketch from imagination, but immediately go to nature and set it up as closely as possibLe to your sketch. Then work from nature and do your studies, get your reference, whatever, and then paint the painting. They didn't just work from imagination as much as possible and only get reference for the bits and pieces they couldn't figure out.