Hensche on Painting

Hensche on Painting

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by John W. Robichaux

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An artist for over seventy years and a teacher for more than sixty, painter Henry Hensche (1901–1992) placed great emphasis in his classes on Monet's Impressionist tradition of seeing and painting color under the influence of light. Hensche taught his students to "see the light, not the object," says his biographer John Robichaux. This book reveals the basic


An artist for over seventy years and a teacher for more than sixty, painter Henry Hensche (1901–1992) placed great emphasis in his classes on Monet's Impressionist tradition of seeing and painting color under the influence of light. Hensche taught his students to "see the light, not the object," says his biographer John Robichaux. This book reveals the basic painting philosophy and methodology of a great teacher, as expounded in his famous classes and workshops on Cape Cod.

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Hensche On Painting

By John W. Robichaux

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1997 John W. Robichaux
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31761-8


Making Sense

"Because it makes sense!" How many times did his students hear this expression? We would ignore it, as we do with any other cliché, had it not been for Hensche's ability to demonstrate through hard work the sense and order he so dearly loved. He believed in the sense he had learned and he wanted to teach it.

Hensche believed in the learner, too. Maurice Grosser, in his book The Painter's Eye, summed it up by writing, "Real painting is not done on talent. Real painting is the expression of visual ideas. Talent is only the grease that helps the wheel go round. But if the painter has somewhere to go, he can creak along perfectly well without it." Henry wanted to teach real painters to make sense.

The following words of Hensche are the "make sense" conclusions he resurrected time and again to drive home his points.

* * *

You want the language to be taught when you go to a contemporary "art" school. (The term is wrong. They should be called painting, drawing, and design schools, as the definition of art is something else.) What you do with the language in the selection of color shapes to express an idea comes from human experience. As Robert Frost, the poet, told me, "You can teach language, but what you say with it and how you say it cannot be taught." He also said, "Poetry is philosophy in verse."

* * *

The student of painting has to learn to express in color whatever comes to the retina as he distinguishes those objects by their color. Color relationships must be studied, then the proportions of the color, and then you study drawing.

* * *

Because of the way academia has treated the Impressionists in the apparent continued teaching of the tonal school of painting, they have relegated the findings of Monet as part of a dated art experimentation in history. They are, of course, wrong. We can go further than Monet.

We are now at the stage to have a painting system to fit all the nations of the world. Some societies were arrested in their development and others advanced. Some artists carried their progress over the limitations of their society as the societies collapsed back on themselves. If a society doesn't need a tool, it then disappears. It must be fed with science and knowledge to thrive. The Greeks are an example of this in the art of sculpture. They nurtured it because of the need of their society for the pagan images. Their gods were wonderfully developed with human attributes, like Zeus and Athena. Their gods were not philosophical beings, but they had human qualities. Because their gods had these human qualities, their sculptors were expected to give them glorious human forms.

Our societies have developed to the highest levels where we have the means to produce commodities of good and evil. The arts themselves have dealt with understanding these physical and realistic phenomena. Painting is the growth of this understanding. We have enough pigments today to create realistic illusions to match finer perceptions. Our eyes can't see the developments of our science. The attempt should be to make a language in art to understand each other, like Esperanto for the spoken language.

* * *

When doing studies, sense tells you that you are at the end of your ability. You must put the colors that express the essential truth. Indicate the light key and the aerial perspective. The time to make this advanced statement will not take much longer than the first cruder ones you struggled to make in the beginning. This makes you realize that it is not the time you spend on basic laying in of the essential masses, but rather the many studies you have made previously which increase your color sensitivity and ability. Perhaps you've tried to work a long time on a painting and think the longer you work on it the finer it will become. If you work too far beyond your ability on a study, you will make the color notes worse. Start a new study.

* * *

Aerial perspective was achieved by all painters prior to the Impressionist movement by varying the tone quality of a note to the lighter shade. The Impressionists, chiefly Monet, achieved aerial perspective by varying the color quality of a note.

* * *

The failure of cubism is the attempt of the painter to defy the physics of dimensions. Any attempt to demonstrate a third dimension by showing all sides of an object on a two-dimensional surface is as senseless as trying to sculpt in two dimensions. Even Picasso abandoned the effort.

* * *

Chemists, in about 1840, invented fine new colors for painters. If you call yourself a realistic painter and you don't use the finest and purest colors, then you are not a realistic painter since you are inventing color schemes of your own.

* * *

Some house painters are better painters than some "modern" artists.

* * *

People are losing their sense of inquiry. They aren't asking enough questions in the arts. They are accepting what they see. Challenge something even if you are wrong. Don't even believe me without question. Accept my visual truth only after you've questioned it and it makes sense to you. If you believe me without inquiry, then you are fooling yourself.

I've had to show people that much of what was produced in the 20th century was accepted without comprehension.

* * *

Art deals with the sensory development of man on a higher plane. An animal's sensory development is for survival. Man's is for self-development. It is really what separates us from the animals.

* * *

No great idea can develop at the speed of the many splintered movements of the 20th century. It took Darwin many years to develop the ideas in his Origin of Species. Physicists worked slowly to get to the scientific achievements of today. It only appears that things are happening rapidly. Einstein worked for many years on his theories. Truly great ideas take time to develop. So it is with painting. It takes years of study. Frivolous ideas, like most of those in the 20th century art world, are cheap and common. Truly new ideas of great worth are hard to obtain.

Hensche on the Landscape

When man first painted recognizable forms, the landscape form was simply the background against which figures were displayed. The backgrounds were like stilted stage settings for the action of human drama. During the Renaissance the compositional components were given equal emphasis and figures became part of the landscape rather than players before it. By the time of Corot, the figures were dominated by the landscape. This all follows the parallel developments of the philosophical thoughts of the Greeks and Western Christians.

[Henry Hensche warned repeatedly that landscape painting is probably the most difficult of all painting, although it does not appear so. Painting the landscape takes more skill than figure painting because the painter must, besides creating the form, create the illusion of greater space and atmosphere not as much demanded in the figure or the portrait. Space and atmosphere are indeed present in the near proximity of the figure or the portrait; variety, however, is essentially reduced. The irregular forms of nature, complex color notes, and the difficulty of discerning where light and shadow fall in a highly textured atmosphere make the landscape master over the painter.

* * *

Landscape painting, when you think of it, is probably the most difficult painting. A figure or head brings to mind all the knowledge of form from ancient times to the present. Form was the most important area to master and endless hours and years were devoted to its study. Any student who wanted to be an artist was put in cast class and learned to render the figure with proportional truth.

Parallel to the drawing of the figure from cast, anatomical knowledge was introduced to the art student. With all its complicated interlocking forms. And then they had to learn how they all functioned within the body. From this, the student graduated to the life class to learn the model in colors, in a value scheme, which was, more or less, a formula. The figure could be modeled in oil color and given the effect of light. All this took some time and was a formidable problem. When it was accomplished it was considered a great triumph and rightly so.

When pictures were first painted, figures were the dominant part and landscape forms were simply background against which the figures were displayed expressing human ideas. The background was like a theater curtain or setting for the action and ideas of humanity. You can think of Sasseta's works, the 15th-century Italian painter who painted Man, Jesus, and Joseph. There you will see the use of the landscape in its final stages. The forms are flat and simple, and expressed with their local color, as Renaissance painters could do, and would continue to do. It was the figure that was rounded, as it was of primary importance. But as time went on, the landscape background became of greater importance.

A skill was developed to make the forms more complete. Often the figures were diminished, and the landscape took up most of the painting, until finally, like Corot, the figures were merely incidental and the landscape forms became dominant. The idea was that man was the most important thing on earth, on every part of the globe.

In another part of the globe, the Buddhist religion taught that man was only a small part of the scheme of things, and they considered man as a minor subject, expressing man's relationship to the vast landscape forms around them. And the figures expressed their ideas through gestures.

It was the Eastern artists who concerned themselves with the landscape. They saw the atmospheric effects of nature that created the moods of man, their psychological side. As civilization progressed, they stayed in that art form until the opening of the new ideas of the Western world entered their society. While some Italian painters taught linear perspective, revolutionizing their visual experience, the "Old Masters" of Japan saw these Western ideas as a revolt of the young. This was comparable to the revolt of the Impressionists against the tonal painting of the day.

* * *

A painting teacher asked his students to paint morning landscapes and change canvases every two hours. This is is a hopeless assignment to develop the crude vision of beginners. His aim was correct, but the method was wrong. Its not the length of time of study that counts—the quality does. To develop a finer perception of color, you must teach descriptive color.

* * *

Always turn your study of the landscape into studied large masses until you've achieved the light key. This would be very few notes. Make them angular and then make the first divisions of color in each mass into a series of squares, rectangles, and triangles. This allows for easier study of colors as opposed to working the drawing too soon. If you don't do a study this way, you will sacrifice the color for the drawing.

* * *

Place a simple building in the scene. Treat it as just a block study with landscape around it.

* * *

Reduce the panorama of the landscape. We have a tendency to make trees too large. They will grow in your paintings anyway. Smaller trees will make your study of the larger color masses more effective.

* * *

In the beginning, you shouldn't try to paint a landscape that is completely lit in sunlight with almost no shade or shadow masses. This is too difficult for the student. Find a landscape with definite breaks between shadow and light.

* * *

All the young sculptors of Helenistic Greece saw the forms of the human body had rhythmic relationships that the archaic period sculptors did not perceive. So the forms became more real. The young men who discovered this, created the glory of Greek sculpture, like Praxiteles and others. They set the standard, which has not been surpassed.

The high point of the figure in Greece is equal to the discoveries of the Impressionists. The Impressionists reached similar perfection two thousand years later in the painting language.

Eastern civilizations did not make such progress, but they did give the first inkling of the importance of landscape and man's relation to it. The development of man's consciousness of what he was looking at, from using only the simple colors available to primitive minds, was the beginning. Gradually the forms were rendered more accurately, and the development of landscape forms was introduced, including leaves and flowers.

The more alert painting minds began to see the atmospheric effects. And they achieved this by varying the value of colors and created the illusion of distance. Parallel to this discovery, linear perspective was discovered. Now the landscapes were more real, or created that impression. If you look at this period of landscape painting, you will notice the first notation of great distance. In da Vinci's Mona Lisa you should notice the foreground to the middle distance—the distance is created by variations of earth colors. He saw more variations. And so, the modeling of landscape forms equaled the modeling of the figure. There was a consistency that others lacked.

When you look beyond the middle distance, however, da Vinci indicated the far distance with blues and greens. It was the first step in the growth of mans consciousness of noting great distances, and the objects seen in them were bluish and cold. From this first glimpse of understanding distance came the idea so often quoted, "that all you need to create distance is blue." It is not that simple. Though it may be and is generally a fact.

Another generality is the often-quoted, "All you need to know is that light planes are warm and shadow planes are cold." And after that, the student of art can flounder on and invent his own nebulous and confused vision.

Landscape finally became an independent art and, as it developed, it affected figure painting indoors and out. Figure painting, when it is understood, has been affected by landscape painting. Man became as involved in getting the forms in the landscape as he did in the figure, rendering them solidly and in detail. Gradually it was the landscape that brought the consciousness of atmosphere into the figure. So even figure painting had distances indicated through value and tonal gradations.

So figure and landscape painting affected each other. In landscape painting, first form was rendered, gradually by means of value variations of the same color. Usually the local color. This is seen nicely in Inness, Turner, and the figures of Rembrandt and Velazquez. Turner, however, at the end of his life, added another dimension. He created the understanding of the "light key" and my notion is, if he had had the colors at his disposal, he would have achieved earlier what Monet eventually did a generation later.

Landscape became an art form independent of figure painting and equal to it. Van Dyck classifies paintings from the Greek point of view. He considered man the most important creation. Therefore, Raphael's School of Athens made up of Greek scholars was more important to him than Chardin's little still lifes, yet many believe that the Chardins have finer tonality than Raphael's or Ingres' works. For instance, after figure painting with people as subjects, he considered the portrait important. Then landscape, then, finally, the lowly still life. No matter how poorly it was painted or composed, he thought the subject should be considered first in artistic value. John Ruskin had the same point of view and the lectures of Reynolds indicate the same trend of mind. So we ask ourselves, "What is the subject we like and want to paint?" In this case we have made up our mind that it is the landscape and need not apologize.

* * *

When you come down to it, landscape painting really takes more skill than figure painting, excepting anatomical knowledge. The landscape painter has to draw well, he has to know the character of forms, and it has to be modeled like the body. You have to compose as in figure painting, and so on. However, from my point of view, the creation of objects and the illusion of space is just as demanding as form knowledge of the figure. Despite its complicated and varied forms, a figure is easily seen in volume. Usually painted in distance, you can see the color mass of a torso easily enough. But, take a bunch of shrubbery, you find it is difficult to figure out where one form begins and another ends. Your mind has to perceive it like the hair on the head. Unless you understand the human skull, you cannot understand the masses of hair. Yet, landscape forms are basic and harder to find, where one begins and intertwines with another. All sorts of minor forms interfere.

And so the selection process of what form to pick first expresses the main mass, and then the minor forms that are related to the largest are more difficult. Most beginners realize this as they start. In a still life it is comparatively easy, and also in a human figure. In landscape, too, you have to know how one form flows into another, like the figure, to create the illusion of life. One must also learn proportional accuracy. You compose in-depth, as in the figure, and then you must add color key or atmospheric effect. This is the poetry of all painting. If you are interested in form—be a sculptor! Creation of form in the flat surface is not enough. It can be done in black and white easier because color is not needed.


Excerpted from Hensche On Painting by John W. Robichaux. Copyright © 1997 John W. Robichaux. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Hensche on Painting 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Artistwilson More than 1 year ago
"If you are looking for painting techniques you will not get it from me," and "If there IS a Hensche Method (and there isn't) it's simple - paint the large masses of light and dark to their colour relationships in the Light Key in which they are seen." Huh? "You don't paint what you see, you paint what you've been TAUGHT to see..." This slim book comprises words obtained through personal conversations and taped interviews (mostly in 1988) by John Robichaux who reveals the basic philosophy and methodolgy of Henry Hensche. Henry was big on Hawthorne who turns out to have been his teacher. Hensche was the studio assistant to Hawthorne. The author Robichaux gives fair warning: He says when you read the words of Henry Hensche "you will not understanding everything." Much emphasis has been placed on the Light Key which is the colours an artist sees in any setting, influenced of course by the prevailing light. "Obviously, you can't see an object except as it exists in the light in which it is seen." Got that? Well yeah...but what Ron Wilson really got out of these musings is Hensche's tip "give your viewers something more than decoration. Give them something that will raise their level of vision. let them see a new beauty through your eyes." That's more like it (Ron). Hensche: "Get the Light Key and the details will take care of themselves. They are not important and eventually you will see how they make your paintings look foolish. Your paintings will look like craft paintings." Here's the bit that Ron the Reader really likes "You cannot fully develop your vision by painting in a studio all of the time. You must get outside to learn to paint correctly." Hensche wanted Hawthorne's story to be told and seemed so frustrated with everyone's lack of understanding of what Hawthorne had accomplished. Sometimes Hawthorne made students use knives to paint so that they avoided lines in nature - only a colour note touching another colour note. OK ,so after reading Hensche and Hawthorne, Ron Wilson went outside one afternoon and studied the ambiant light (the Key Light) at Cattle Point, Vancouver Island. Ron avoided lines and concentrated on the actual relationships of one colour spot to another. Done is good.