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By N. C. Wyeth, Jeff A. Menges
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
For Better Illustration
BY N. C. WYETH
ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN SCRIBNER'S MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 1919
While researching the broad scope of illustration work presented in this volume, this article surfaced among the imagery. Being written by N.C. Wyeth himself, on the subject at hand, it seemed more than fitting to include his voice on the topic.
MOST of us will agree, I presume, that American illustration, considering the remarkable opportunities that have been offered by the publishers, in the past twenty years, is not up to the standard of excellence which we have every right to expect, and the quality of production does not seem to grow more important as the time passes. Here and there we find admirable pictures no doubt, but considering the mass of drawings that are being made, the number of good works is almost negligible; and even the best too often lacks potentiality, that promise of growth into the broader field of painting and mural decoration which is the logical sequence to illustration.
Let us glance at present methods and circumstances which I think are interfering with the production of substantial illustrators, and then propose a few corrective suggestions which I believe to be fundamental.
The popular blame for the failure of the modern illustrator is, of course, laid upon the tremendous and enveloping spirit of commercialism, and unquestionably this does play a large part in his undoing. However, commercialism is a condition, and it must be met. But I feel by stopping here that we are missing the real issue and are not striking at the source of our failures.
There is a very depressing belief in artistic circles, particularly amongst the painters themselves, that illustration is not an art but a craft, that it is not conceived from inspirational sources, but is built and fashioned as a stage-setting would be around the theme of a story, or planned like an ingenious design. Now it happens that the painter's opinion in this matter has far-reaching and distressing results for the illustrator, as it is he who stands at the advisory head of our art training-schools and, consciously or unconsciously, establishes the standards, and shapes the policies and methods therein.
To my very definite knowledge, the painter's opinion of the illustrator's profession as compared to his own, is often very near that of contempt, and if it amounted only to this I would have nothing to say; but his influence in the art academies is really the fundamental cause of a very serious neglect in the courses of training meted out to the illustrators, and this in spite of the fact that the illustrating classes have become a popular and paying branch of these institutions.
It has been my experience in the past few years to discuss the plans and prospects of a considerable number of art students aspiring to illustration. Many of them have come to me fresh from the art schools with the ostensible purpose of carrying on their study to more practical ends. From these contacts I have learned from the truest source possible just what the illustrator is getting from the academies.
We all realize that the period of adolescence in the life of the young artist or poet, when he is awakening into dreams of artistic achievement, while he is enjoying the subtle but none the less definite thrills of an inner urge to express himself, is the most wonderful, the most illusive, and the most susceptible period of his life. Now, unless this young spirit is blest with understanding parents who recognize, and are willing to cherish and foster this tender dawning of a new vision with the right supplementary training in the home, there remains no other provision for the proper development of his talent but to send him to an art school. So, invariably he is taken from the discipline and the mildly philosophical influences of the public schools, and is thrust into a school where there is still less of these things.
His first experience is to be seated before a cast, and with a few elementary remarks on drawing from the instructor, his work is started for the term. Now, outside of the weekly or semiweekly returns of the instructor the boy is allowed almost complete freedom to work or not, according to his moods, with no steadying influences of an intellectual nature, no one to remind him that art and life are incorporate, that to grow in artistic power he must grow in character. On the contrary, the philosophic ideas which he picks up are gleaned from the other students, older students, indiscreet students, the product of their loose surroundings. He is plunged almost immediately into a whirlpool of shapeless, radical ideas (so abundant amongst art students). It is not long before he has lost complete sight of his early, inherent vision, and has accepted in its place the novel, more exciting schemes upon which to shape his destiny. This is so often the beginning of the end. Only rarely does a fortunate student happen upon a helpful mind, one sufficiently strong and sympathetic to help him back into the real light. Back in the golden days of art an air of great seriousness, of religious fervor, surrounded the training of the artist; the profession was closely linked with the church, and to a very great extent supported by it, so when one entered the field, it was done with becoming reverence and humility which preserved a most fertile condition of mind for spiritual as well as technical growth. But to-day we have not the church, nor have we supplied any substitute to invest the profession with these inspirational qualities.
Now to speak more specifically of the prevailing system of teaching. The great majority of the art schools mark a distinct division between the painting classes and the illustrating classes. This is a grave mistake. The training course for the illustrator should not be one whit different or less thorough, than that for the painter. But it is a fact that the course of study required of the illustrator is depressingly brief. He is fairly galloped through the antique, takes a "swipe" at still-life painting, and bounces in and out of the life class. And heaped upon this slovenly drilling are the highly distracting interests of composition. Apply this system of training to the young musician, allow him to compose before he knows the five-finger exercises. The cases are precisely parallel.
Why the fallacy of precipitating a young, undeveloped mind into the advanced courses of an illustrating class before he has had a chance to occupy his senses sufficiently with the truth, and nothing but the truth, to acquire a thorough working knowledge of nature in her simplest forms, before attempting to present her in the impressionistic dressings of his emotions, is more than I can comprehend. To destroy individuality, seems to be the main function of the illustrating classroom to-day.
To turn the embryo mind face to face with technical methods, style, and the restrictions of publishing processes which all figure so prominently in composition, before he is able to feel that divine urge which comes only from a sound initiation into nature's truths is, to my mind, the principal reason why such a tragic percentage of art students fail.
I know from experience what it means to answer that premature call for pictures. The second week I spent in an art school I was requested to do this as a part of the routine, and how I suffered for that entire year. I noted that cleverness was rewarded; stunty and affected methods got the applause; so naturally I concluded that my salvation in art lay in my ability to develop a new stunt. And how many hundreds of promising young men are making this same mistake in our art schools to-day! To be sure, the crafty ingenuity of a few survives to reach a popular level—they enjoy a vogue, but invariably such ability grows weaker as time goes by, and finally passes out altogether. There is no substance, no body to such work, it is a mere shell, and being solely dependent on superficial effect the light of inspiration soon burns out.
I will admit the commercial value of such craftsmanship, but it does not figure at all in the building up of important illustration, and that is what I am writing about.
Now this brings me to that dire need of philosophic influence in the art schools, a phase of study which should be made as important a part of the curriculum as drawing or painting.
One has but to talk with any of the majority of students to soon learn that they consider art something that they do rather than something they live. They are essentially dilettantes.
It seems to me that the first responsibility to be taught the young artist, along with sturdy technical study is this, that he must sense deeply of the fact and substance of the object he is drawing; he must learn to love that object for its own sake, not because it is picturesque, or odd, or striking, but simply because it is an object of form and substance revealed to him by the wonder of light that represents a phase of the great cosmic order of things.
My grandfather, who was associated with Louis Agassiz for many years, used to tell me that this was the very keystone to his power of teaching. He invested natural science with such a profound spirit of romance, and his thrilling appreciation of cosmic relationship was so strong, that he awakened the youngest of his listeners to the most enthusiastic appreciation of science. To the master this power to sense reality is an instinctive trait, of course, but how can this feeling ever live in a man who has never established stirring relations with the realities in the first place? The fact is the student is inclined and encouraged to look upon the phenomena of life as merely fit or unfit material with which to construct clever pictures. The result: they never reach the point where the creation of a picture becomes a constitutional necessity, but rather amounts to a mere intellectual attainment—the one vital, the other ephemeral. To unfold to the young mind the glory of all facts of existence should be the fundamental function of the art school, but in just this they are utterly deficient.
The view-point I have expressed, once established, the young artist will naturally become more interested in the common objects around him, and this is apt to save him that futile chase for ultra-picturesqueness in the shape of Dutch windmills, or South Sea Island cannibals, but instead he will derive his inspiration from the happenings in his own life, the virility of it passing without waste into his work. It was Thoreau who believed (and came as near to fulfilling his belief as any one ever did) that the action of doing a thing, and the writing about it should be so close that they amount to one and the same thing. And so with the picture-maker. But isn't it obviously clear how the very training we get in the art schools, and colleges too, tends to separate us from life, teaches us to work too much with our brains and too little with our hearts? Romain Rolland in "Jean Christophe" says: "Write the simple life of one of these simple men, write the peaceful epic of the days and nights following one like to another, and yet all different, all sons of the same mother, from the dawning of the first day in the life of the world.
Write it simply, as simple as its own unfolding. Waste no thought upon the word and the letter, and the subtle vain researches in which the force of the artists of to-day is turned to naught. You are addressing all men; use the language of all men. There are no words noble or vulgar; there is no style chaste or impure; there are only words and styles which say or do not say exactly what they have to say. Be sound and thorough in all you do; think just what you think, and feel just what you feel. Let the rhythm of your heart prevail in your writings; the style is the soul."
We cannot, in art, produce a fraction more than what we are. The strange and popularly accepted belief that great artists were invariably wayward, and are excused for it on the grounds of special privileges, is as false as it is impossible. No great artist ever thrived on such principles. If stories have been handed down to us of moral lapses in the lives of the masters, their work survives in spite of the mistakes, and not on account of them. No art justifies anything but honest, straightforward living. The moral superiority of Beethoven, the greatest of them all, comes to my mind while I write this.
Do we hear any of this in the art schools? Decidedly no.
To teach the young illustrator that his salvation lies within himself, that to be able to draw virile pictures means that he must live virilely; upon such stuff should the system of the art schools be built. And without it we cannot expect him to be of any permanent benefit to the upbuilding of American illustration.
Excerpted from Great Illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, Jeff A. Menges. Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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