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 - Facility of Execution

The spontaneous and effortless freedom of some painters, no doubt, belonged to their general character. The "mocking at toil," the "sprezzatura" of Giorgione--the "judicious strokes that supersede labour," are the surest test of genius and of the fit temperament for a painter; for such a power necessarily supposes the comprehension of a whole, a habit of viewing things in their largest relations. The idea of power is always conveyed when we have an impression that the actor, whatever he may be doing, can or could do more than he actually does--that the strength shown is only a part of the strength that might be shown. This is true, even literally, in the wielding of the brush; the line should be part of a larger line; the direction and impetus of the hand should not be limited to the form or touch actually produced, but should have a larger sway. There can be no doubt that the evidence of this liberty and range of hand, eye, and mind [for all go together in legitimate freedom] is charming to the spectator. And this is not all, it [p. 381] is really more imitative; the cramped and bonded is not nature.

The rules of art can go far to correct that spiritless stiffness which arises from equality of shapes and masses, from parallelism of lines and monotony of hues, indeed, if it were not so, tolerable works of art would be much rarer than they are. The question here proposed is how far mere freedom of hand, which is often a source of variety, especially in surface and in sharpness and softness, can be, and has sometimes been, assisted by judicious methods, and attainable in short by study.

In painting, as in writing, it is undoubtedly true that the appearance of facility itself may be the result of labour. In writing, indeed, it is scarcely an object of ambition to have it believed that the work cost little time and trouble. Few writers are seen to compose their works; the labour of months may be read in an hour, and may yet appear to have been produced by some powerful mind in as short a time. But when Addison was gently reproved for writing a long answer to a letter, he replied, "I had not time to write a short one." The appearance of power and facility would have cost him more trouble. To a greater extent it is the same in painting. It is the condition of the art to require a certain method.

Let us examine the ordinary process of Rubens--one of the greatest masters of facility the world has seen. In order to secure the possibility of executing [p. 382] his work with apparent rapidity, and without torturing the colours as it is called, he defined everything in a coloured sketch, from which, as is well-known, his scholars "got in" the large picture. If it be asked what preceded his masterly sketch, it is replied designs on paper, studies from nature, and a careful outline rarely departed from, even in that sketch. There was nothing of what is called Invention in is large picture. Not only the composition, but the masses of light and dark and colour were all determined, and the details of the drapery, architecture, &c., all sufficiently defined. There remained literally little but execution to think of: the labour of covering the canvas with colours fitted for his ultimate effects was performed by others; he was thus set free from the necessity of labour partly by the assistance of others, but chiefly by his own well directed previous labour. If there was genius in such a man, it must be admitted that there was also admirable judgment, and that his judgment was shown in making the fairest occasions and freest scope for the display of his genius. "Divide, et impera," the motto of the Hero of the Nile, was exemplified in every picture by his hand. To invent, compose, draw, give gradations of light, and clothe with true colours, all at once, might have been done, if by any man, by Rubens. He adopted, however, the more cautious mode of giving his energies to each in turn, though each was prophetically viewed in [p. 383] relation to its neighbour quality. The whole effect was indeed already planned and embodied--gradually even then--in the sketch. Nothing remained for the last operation, but to think of beauties of execution and harmony. Had he laboured his work after all the previous steps [it matters not whether we consider the freest operations of the picture or the freest of the sketch, for both were results], there would have been no consistent principle in his processes: the object of the first labour was that there might be a finer labour--rather delight--in the completion. Without this evidence of liberty and joy the plant which had crept to its fullness by the successive aid of every ministering energy would have been without its "consummate flower." "Quem mulcent auræ, firmat sol, educat imber."

Facility is therefore secured by labour. It is quite conceivable, and experience constantly shows that what is first done in careful and laborious succession may at last be done by a strong effort of attention at once. The previous labour here resides in the previous life. The well-known answer of Reynolds to one who complained that his price was high for he work of an hour is here applicable.

But the sense here intended by the expression "facility is secured by labour" requires, for the purpose in view, to be explained. It is understood with reference to the efficacy of the processes which precede the exercise of freedom. That ultimate freedom may be called another kind of [p. 384] labour, for most certainly it is not to be exercised carelessly, though sometimes apparently so. The lesson which Rubens gives, in short, may be useful in an humbler form for those who, from whatever cause, are wont to take refuge in labour of a mechanical kind, instead of doing everything with apparent will. The greater the timidity or the less the amount of that instinctive energy which gives soul to trifles, the more the workman requires to calculate his previous labour so as to enable him to attain the desired facility at last; to place it, in short, as completely in his power as possible. Van Mander says of Van Eyck that his dead colouring, or preparations, were more careful than the finished works of other painters. This is quite possible, and may have been the case even with Rubens' pictures as prepared by his scholars or even by himself. The preparations of the Florentine painters, Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto especially, were also more careful than their finished works. A judicious economy would on every account suggest this; the appearance of freedom is, we have assumed, an excellence--it is specious, winning, fascinating--it is not the quality to bury under subsequent and more laboured operations; it should be the consequence and not the forerunner of labour.

What is called dead coloring is any stage of a picture short of its ultimate vivacity and intended completeness. The appearance of freedom after [p. 385] most careful study might be given in the very last stage. The preparation, however advanced, should be calculated accordingly. If, for instance, a cutting edge of ploughed pigment next a form be intended, it would be necessary to keep the previous surface flat and thin; to repeat a ridge of paint or a raised touch is an evidence of failure. Sometimes this cannot be avoided, but it is best avoided by care in the previous preparation, and by a fixed intention which is supposed to be justified by the effect of the sketch.

The preparation of the groundwork, in every sense of the term, which is to receive the free painting, has been hitherto dwelt on, that stage which precedes the thin washes and glazings that complete and harmonize a picture. The preparation of the pigment itself for the final work, is equally essential. It by no means follows that the apparently brisk execution of fine pictures was really done in haste; a false colour in a light is a greater defect than a wrong direction of its form, [for the outline at least may be correct]. Not only the tint as such, but in sufficient quantity, should be duly prepared; there can be no facility without abundance of colour: the brush even requires to be loaded with care, and not at random--then the "sprezzatura" or "bravura" of the hand will accomplish its task without hesitation. In some cases a single touch is absolutely requisite, and therefore requires to be in all respects right, [p. 386] but "right" does not mean formal, nor even neat; an accidental "abandon" is the [apparent] quality to aim at, the object still being to conceal labour. In other cases touches may be repeated, but only for the sake of more impasto, for better modelling. In such instances all that is requisite is that the last and most visible work should be quite free.

The preparation of the tints in due quantity leads to the consideration of the sometimes disputed general question respecting mixing tints. Sir George Beaumont used to tell a story of Wilson, who, after visiting the landscape painter, George Lambert, complained that he could see on Lambert's palette "the cow, and the grass she was going to eat." Some portrait painters [see Bouvier's Manual ] mix an infinity of tints for flesh. All this has been condemned, but the opposite extreme is equally unadvisable. Time, labour, and attention, are dissipated in constantly mixing tints with the brush from the pure colours on the palette; brushes are used soft, there are unequal proportions of oil in the colours, and the palette may be said to receive more attention than the picture. The tints, a few at least, should therefore be prepared for the work of the moment. This is more especially necessary [though not at first seen to be so] in the final retouchings. There should be colour enough and to spare, and each tint, whether for high lights or anything else, should be accurately prepared. The [p. 387] advanced work easily furnishes a key for the tones, and trials, to make all sure, are quite possible, for as the surface is assumed to be dry a tint may be tried and wiped off again.

Finally, it may be repeated, the appearance of dexterity and rapidity, the sweep of the brush, the sparkle of the touch are not only graces but necessities in painting. When a work lacks these, it should rather be carefully hard than carefully soft, for hardness, however objectionable, is allied to determination and exertion, softness to weakness and indolence. [pp. 381-388]



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