Notebook, 1993-

Eastlake's Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters

Eastlake, Sir Charles Lock [One-time President of the Royal Academy], Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters [Formerly titled: Materials for a History of Oil Painting]. Vol. One. New York; Dover Publications, Inc. 1960 [Originally published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans in 1847]

Professional Essays - Colour, Light, Shade, Correggio, &c.

The agreeable impressions of Nature as addressing themselves principally to the senses are those which are most apparent, and the colours of objects, which seem to have no other use than to mark their differences, are thus intimately allied to the principle of beauty. The variety of colours, whether abruptly or imperceptibly expressed, is therefore their leading characteristic, and their office is to distinguish. The absence of colour, whether in light or shade, is, on the contrary, a common quality, its office is obviously to unite. That degree of light which represents the reflexion of its source is never admitted in the works of the colourists, except in polished or liquid surfaces; the office of light being to display the colours of objects, and not itself, such shining spots would not only be so much deducted from the real colour of the object, but, as they might occur in different substances, they would prevent their necessary distinction. The degree of light which is imitated in art is therefore that which displays the local hues of objects, that is, their differences, and thus the common and uniting quality is mainly reduced to shade alone .[1] The highest style of colour will thus be that which expresses most fully, consistent with possible nature, the general local hues of objects. The office of shade is directly opposed to that of colour; in aiding those representations of general Nature in which beauty resides, its end will be to display the forms of objects without unnecessarily concealing their hues. This may be considered its most abstract character, as freest from accident, but, as a vehicle of mystery in subjects which aim at sublimity or principally address the imagination, it is most independent and effective. The idea of the Sublime is, however, an exception to the general impression of Nature, and shade will be more accidental as it ceases to display form, or unduly conceals colour. The accidental effects of light and shade which do not convey ideas connected with the sublime, belong therefore to the [p. 299] lowest style. These accidental effects are infinite, and are all more or less opposed to the display of form and colour. Yet this very display is a relative term, and forms and hues are only apparent because others with which they are compared are less so. An unpleasant and untrue equality and want of gradation would be the consequence of neglecting this truth, and it follows that there is a point beyond which the display of local colour and the rejection of the accidents of light and shade would be untrue to the general impression of nature.

It was the opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds that, had the fine pictures of the Greeks been preserved to us, we should find them as well drawn as the Laocoon, and probably coloured like Titian; but he soon after concluded on good grounds that the same works would perhaps be deficient in the skilful management of the masses of chiaroscuro. The general character of ancient art seems to have been to do well on the permanent qualities of things in preference to their temporary and variable appearances, and hence the constant nature of the local hues of objects would be considered more worth of imitation than the mutable effects of light and shade. The ancient paintings which have been preserved exhibit the excess of this system, and the want of gradation is among their prominent imperfections. The Venetians, the great modern examples of colour, may be considered to have [p. 300] made the nearest approach to the theory of the ancients without falling into their defects, or violating the characteristic imitation of nature. Yet the Venetian school has not escaped the charge of deficiency in chiaroscuro, and although the example of Giorgione was followed by other men of eminence, the prevailing character of the school was local colour as opposed to light and shade. These rival qualities are admitted by the testimony of ages to have been united in Titian in such proportions as are most compatible with the perfection of art, and in him chiaroscuro is the subordinate quality. It would thus appear that the style in which colour predominates is the fittest for the display of beauty, and that the uncertainty of shade is adapted to ideas connected with the sublime. The quantity of shade employed by different schools seems at first sight to depend on the difference of climate, yet, in the works of Correggio, who formed his style under the same sun of Italy, both the colour and the forms are much less defined than in the works of the Venetians. His manner is in fact formed from the nature of shade; in his hands it is deprived of all its less pleasing attributes, and he has applied it almost uniformly to subjects of beauty. The extraordinary union of beauty with mystery, so contrary to the general idea of nature, is still true to some of her most important facts, to which indeed all ideas of beauty tend; and it is curious to observe that the same feeling which led [p. 301] Correggio to make beauty indistinct, also led him sometimes to treat a class of subjects which he alone could treat adequately. In considering beauty and love, or a feeling which resembles the latter, as cause and effect,[2] it appears that the definite nature of the first diminishes as the feeling [or blindness] of love or admiration to which it tends, increases, till the abstract idea of love dwells solely in the imagination, and is no longer measured by its cause. To produce an adequate object for this internal sense of beauty is the great end of the fine arts, and its triumphs consist in meeting it by definite representation. The style of Correggio, which is one of the wonders of human invention, owes its charm to the union of the cause and effect above mentioned. The palpable representation of beauty by him is more or less united with the indistinctness of view which characterizes the feeling it tends to create. The voluptuous impression produced by this union is doubly reprehensible in subjects of a certain description, but in scenes of a purer nature it produces a charm no other means can approach, and which no painter has embodied in an equal degree with Correggio.

The above remarks are necessary to show that although this great artist's style belongs, strictly speaking, neither to the definite idea of beauty, nor [p. 302] to the feeling of awe and fear which more or less accompanies the idea of the sublime, it is still true to very general ideas of nature, and if it were not so it would not be so fascinating as it is. The great distinction between the offices of colour and of shade admits in the nature of things of no other exception; the other great masters who have attempted to unite them, rather than to make shade the rule, differ widely from Correggio, and their styles are true to that view of nature which admits a certain quantity of accident. Such is the character of the Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch colourists; their styles are all to be ranged under the two great heads of agreeable or solemn impressions; they are often beautiful and often sublime, but the union of beauty and mystery occurs nowhere but in the works of Correggio. In the works of Rembrandt the very opposite motive appears; the effects of that great painter, even in ordinary subjects, approach the sublime, his shade is thus legitimately employed to conceal unpleasant forms or to excite idea of solemnity and grandeur. His colour, which is equal to Titian is, from the abundance of shade, less in quantity, but, in strict consonance with the nature of both, the accidental effects of shade are accompanied with proportionate ideas of solemnity, and his colour fascinates the eye with its richness and beauty. Thus, if the value which the scarcity of his light acquires is untrue to the general impression of nature in which [p. 303] is evident the qualities to be suppressed or dwelt on must always depend on the surrounding relations. The same practice is observable, particularly in the Venetian school, in all other qualities; softness and hardness, transparency and opacity are always more or less opposed to each other. It may be observed, once for all, as a general fact, that every quality in Nature is relative, and that the comparisons which exhibit the mutual differences of things are as essential as shade is to the display of light.

It has been already said that the degree of light which represents the reflexion of its source is suppressed or sparingly admitted by the colourists, except where such effects are constant. In shining surfaces light is a common quality, for the degree of brightness which represents it may recur in similar objects. In all other cases it is the colour of the object, however mixed, as we have said, with the light, which is reflected to our sight, and it will hence be always slightly different. The shining lights on skin are particularly suppressed by the masters of colour when the flesh happens to be near a brilliant surface, and on the same principles the softness of flesh or hair is more than ever dwelt on when opposed to a hard substance; the light in the eye even is not shown if near very white linen; the qualities would be similar, and in nature they are different. The degrees of these differences are not always possible or advisable in [p. 306] art, and Sir Joshua Reynolds objects to the practice of Rembrandt in painting flesh as much below the shine of armour as it is in nature; a difference to some extent is, however, indispensable in all cases where it is observable in nature, for a very small portion of absolute similarity, if it is visible as such, is enough to destroy relief. The relative effect of objects requires the expression of such only of their component details as assist, or, at least, do not weaken their general mutual difference; in other words the intrinsic qualities are to be expressed in subordination to their relative effect, and where the difference in the whole effect of objects is strong, the expression of their respective intrinsic qualities is least of all necessary. In opposition to the practice of the great colourists, the modern continental schools [German renaissance at Rome and elsewhere], however, hold that the relief and detail of black objects, such as hair, drapery, &c., should be as equally apparent as in lighter substances. If this could be done without destroying the relative character of the object, art would do too much, and dark hair, so executed, would attract our attention before the face; but in general the relative character [or value] is destroyed in the attempt, and complete failure in the real end of imitation [the impression of a whole] is the consequence of endeavouring to surpass the economy of nature. Whenever the characteristic quality of an object is that of strong opposition to [p. 307] everything near it, its whole effect appears to be more than ever necessary in imitation. Its chief impression is its relative effect; a property evidently in danger of being impaired by introducing too many of its own intrinsic qualities. It follows that in all such cases [where intrinsic qualities are introduced] the surface or colour so treated will be least like the object considered abstractedly. The effects of light on black substances are different from the colour of the mass, and thus materially weaken its relative effect. It will be found that in the works of the Venetian, Spanish, and Flemish colourists the gloss of black hair is in a great measure suppressed. In another colour the practice is less necessary, because the effects of light are not necessarily so different from the local hue of the object. The intrinsic or proper qualities of objects in detail thus appear admissible in proportion as their relative effect is weak. An object absolutely isolated would require to be absolutely imitated in all its parts, but as long as a comparision of any kind exists, the points of difference are the essential requisites.[3]

For the above reasons it appears [and the standards of excellence in this part of art justify the conclusion] that it would be false to correct an [p. 310] exaggeration of the qualities of an object [if nature had been at all kept in view] by adding more of the same quality near it. The contrary practice of giving it character by opposition will be attended with better success. If flesh, for instance, is never more glowing than when opposed to blue, never more pearly than when compared with red, never ruddier than in the neighbourhood of green, never fairer than when contrasted with black, nor richer or deeper than when opposed to white; these are obviously the contrasts such exaggerations respectively require, because they are the truest modes of accounting for them. To correct redness by red, or paleness by white is the opposite, and, as it would appear, the narrower and less effective method.[4]

It has been observed that shade is the common and uniting quality, for by whatever means the extreme degrees of it are represented, these appearances will occur, however varied in quantity, in every object seen at the same distance. With reflexion, the region of light and colours again begins, but the uniting principle of shade will of necessity soften the differences of hues in this case, and it is a well-known precept that the colours of [p. 309] objects, however different in the lights, should be of the same or nearly the same colour in the shades.[5] It follows from the foregoing observations that it would be false to the general and largest view of nature to unite by colour and to distinguish by light and shade. Both these truths, however, have their modifications. In all cases where distinction by colour is no longer sufficient, distinction by accidents of light and shade may be necessary. This happens in such distances where the colours, even of large masses, cannot be much distinguished; in which case the accidents of light and shade are employed with success. It is very common to see these effects in the backgrounds of Venetian pictures, although they are jealously excluded from the nearer objects.[6] In the background they remind us of the presence of light, which thus exhibits itself, while in the foreground it is only used to display, as usual, the objects of nature. It may be remarked that we are only reminded of the source and operation of the light when its effects are accidental and somewhat extraordinary; for, although light reflects itself in shining or liquid surfaces, those appearances are permanent in nature, and thus may belong to the highest style [p. 310] of imitation. Again, according to high authorities, the difference between near and distant objects is often expressed by accidental shades on one or the other; the distinction of near objects from each other by accidents of light and shade is the most direct infringement, and most needs circumspection. In large compositions where variety must necessarily accompany quantity and numbers, it can hardly be avoided, or that it would be false to avoid it, but it is opposed to the most abstract in the interpretation of nature.

The Venetians never seem to admit union by colour till the differences of hues are lost [as we have said] in distance, and accident necessarily begins, but other schools, such as the Dutch and Flemish, break and diffuse the local colours sometimes till they may be almost said to lose their locality and become common qualities. Sir Joshua Reynolds instances the Bolognese school and Ludovico Carracci in particular as the strongest example of this; in his works the colours are almost reduced to chiaroscuro, and lose, as it were, their nature. Such effects can be fit only for a particular class of subjects, and must be considered exceptions to that general idea of nature in which beauty resides, but the more moderate degree in which the Dutch and Flemish practised this system does not destroy joyous impressions, but only serves to mitigate the too pronounced integrity of the colours. In this question, perhaps much of the difficulty is to be solved [p. 311] by the influence of climate, yet even the northern critics acknowledge the pre-eminence of the Venetian school, and Rubens, one of the chief authorities for the union or breaking of colours, borrowed his style from the Venetians themselves, the great examples of the relative difference of hues.

The difference between the Venetians and Flemish schools is, after all, less than it appears, even in the paint under consideration. It must be remembered that the brightest tints we see [in the brightest scarlet stuffs for instance] are never pure, and it is as impossible to separate one colour from a ray of light by a dye which shall absorb all colours but that one, as it is to mix the whole seven into white, by artificial or material means. Yet these imperfect tints, for such they are, of the brightest draperies are far too splendid for the purposes of art, and need to be sparingly introduced, so that a picture may be insufferably crude and gaudy, and yet be composed of impure colours. It is known that the brightest and apparently the purest colour reflects a portion of many, if not of all the others, nor is there a tint used in painting, however bright, which is not in some degree broken by all the hues of the Prism. Nature is thus the remote as well as the immediate authority for this breaking and harmonizing system. We are accustomed to attach ideas of splendour and brilliancy to the Venetian school, yet their pictures exhibit a low, solemn harmony compared to many a work that might be [p. 312] instanced belonging to modern schools. It is needless to observe that this depth and harmony is greatly attributable to a certain breaking and toning of the colours; for the integrity and purity of the tints which are remarked as characteristic of the Venetian school are relative terms, and mean anything but unbroken colours. The difficulty of lowering, breaking, and warming the colours so as still to appear pure is precisely in what the difficulty of colouring consists, but it is indispensable to a just imitation of nature. It is perhaps impossible to determine, except by the testimony of that accumulated experience which settles the various claims of talent, to what degree the union of colours should be carried. That decision has been pronounced in favour of the Venetians as the highest in style, and the bad imitations of that school prove that it is very hazardous to attempt the integrity of colours further than they have done. The opposite system is undoubtedly safer, for the Flemish painters by breaking and repeating the colours still more than the Venetians, succeeded in forming a pleasing and harmonious, though a less elevated style. A still greater union such as we find in the Bolognese School, in Murillo, and in many of the Dutch painters has always been found to be agreeable, and has, in many cases, entitled the artist to the reputation of a colourist. It must not however be forgotten, that, to whatever degree this harmonizing system is carried, and however mingled [p. 313] the materials appear on a close inspection, a difference of some kind is absolutely necessary when the work is seen at its due distance. This is not difficult, for it is hardly possible [even if the artist intended it] to make two colours exactly alike on the breaking system. In like manner the repetition of colours which is so often recommended, does not mean an absolute repetition of the same tint; a slight variety of it is more pleasing, and is quite sufficient to appear a repetition. Thus in every school that pretends to colour it will be found that the great office of distinguishing and the great characteristic of variety always accompany the management of the colours; whatever may be the degree in which the principle is attended to. [pp. 298-314]

1. Although the best colorists never suffer the high lights to reflect the source of the light so strongly as to differ decidedly from the hue of the object, yet it is not consistent with nature or the practice of those colourists to reduce "the common quality to shade alone." The highest light on objects, without being a mirror of the source of light, is composed of the colour of the light and the colour of the object. The consequence of this will generally be that cold colours will have their lights warmer than the general hue, and warm colours will have their lights cooler. This approaches a common quality in the lights.

2. Burke says, "By beauty I understand a quality in things which creates the sentiment of love, or some feeling which resembles it."

3. On the same principle, Sir Joshua Reynolds observes that no single figure can properly make part of a group, nor any figure of a group stand alone; also elsewhere that a single figure requires contrast and details in its parts.

4. It may be observed that any cold colour in the neighbourhood of flesh must be in its mass darker than the flesh. Red may be either darker or lighter--the latter if the flesh is dark and cold. Flesh is best treated as a dark in the neighbourhood of yellow, the yellow can only be treated as a dark when the flesh is very glowing indeed.

5. Sir Joshua--notes on Du Fresnoy. The Venetians exhibit more of the differences of colour in shade than any other school.

6. Such, at least, is the general character of the school. Tintoret is an exception, but the Bassans, however dark in their effect are seldom accidental.



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