Look around and select a subject that you can see painted. That will paint itself. Do the obvious thing before you do the superhuman thing.
It may have been accidental, but you knew enough to let this alone. The good painter is always making use of accidents.
Never try to repeat a success.
Swing a bigger brush — you don’t know what fun you are missing.
For 31 years, Charles Hawthorne spoke in this manner to students of his famous Cape Cod School of Art. The essence of that instruction has been collected from students’ notes and captured in this book, retaining the personal feeling and the sense of on-the-spot inspiration of the original classroom. Even though Hawthorne is addressing himself to specific problems in specific paintings, his comments are so revealing that they will be found applicable a hundred times to your own work.
The book is divided into sections on the outdoor model, still life, landscape, the indoor model, and watercolor. Each section begins with a concise essay and continues with comments on basic elements: general character, color, form, seeing, posture, etc. It is in the matter of color that students will especially feel themselves in the presence of a master guide and critic. Hawthorne’s ability to see color and, more important, to make the student see color, is a lesson that will aid student painters and anyone else interested in any phase of art.
Although it does not pretend to be a comprehensive or closely ordered course, this book does have much to offer. It also represents the artistic insight of one of the finest painter-teachers of the twentieth century.
"An excellent introduction for laymen and students alike." — Time
"To read these notes and comments … is in itself an education. One cannot help but gain great help." — School Arts
Read an Excerpt
Hawthorne on Painting
By Charles W. Hawthorne
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1965 J. C. Hawthorne
All rights reserved.
My artist friends are surprised at my having the class paint a model out of doors, something which they consider extremely difficult. But I consider it the quickest way to get under your skin the idea of the way to paint everything—the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another, the fundamental thing.
We paint the model out of doors because it detaches itself from other things and is easily seen, obvious—it is still life one cannot escape. The figure stands up and is seen solemnly and very beautifully against the background; it is not part of the landscape. Just four or five principal things to do—it is an ideal problem. We paint problems in order to be able to paint pictures and if we are good we keep on doing problems all our lives and the more humbly we stick to that attitude the better we paint.
A word about choosing a subject: select the thing that is obvious in its paintership—look around and select a subject that you can see painted, that will paint itself. Do the obvious before you do the superhuman thing.
Paint things you can almost reach—make a veritable still life out of everything you do. Get up close to whatever you want to paint, don't look at it through a telescope. If you are painting a ship get down beside it and look up—the thing you are painting should fill your canvas. Paint objects close up so as to get their relations; do pieces of things. Stick to things that are easily seen.
It seems sometimes as if the figure painted out of doors is easier than the landscape. Landscape differences are more elusive and delicate—a figure in sunlight is more easily seen. The house may look like part of the landscape but the figure outdoors does not.
If the figure is against the sky, the water or the light sand, keep it as a silhouette against its background—it is surprising how violent things are up against the light. Keep the separation of figure from background out of doors.
Have the courage to set down the colors you see there—overdo in color rather than be weak. See brilliant color, then paint it a little more brilliant than you see it. Working out of doors your eye will be brought up to color—it has the effect of shaking off the shackles of your mind, showing you that you can do anything you please, making you dare. It is the most direct way of learning to see color. You will gain great delicacy and strength painting out of doors.
Problems of sunny days are more easily solved because then solid relationships are easier to see. A mass either stays with the lights or else it falls into the range of the darks, and by half squinting the eyes you can tell to which it belongs. Remember, the eye takes in all your big lights against all your big darks.
The sun is no respecter of persons—it cuts them into two great passages of light and shadow. Consider the thing as a flat silhouette, not as something round—pretend that you are copying a painting. I wish I could get you all to realize how imperative it is for your eye to travel across the form. Think of the model as already being done—as a map already painted—think of color instead of sand—think of color instead of clothes. Color first and house after, not house first and color after.
A thing beautiful indoors is entirely different outdoors. The big point is that you notice and set down decidedly on your canvas what all your light makes in relation to all your shadow— the sun does the same thing to a face as to a pole. Get the shock as shadow comes against light.
Make your canvas drip with sunlight. You cannot reproduce nature out of doors for it is impossible to do what you see; you have to approximate by a convention, to invent one. Exaggerate to give the impression inside that you feel outside. Key your work higher than nature really seems to be, and when you take it indoors and hang it upon the wall, it will come nearer to the truth or to the way you want it to appear indoors. You may have two pictures, one by an impressionist and one by George Innes; hang them on either side of a window and one will be just as brilliant as the other, for you can't compete with light. You have only paint to deal with—that is to say, you have to take liberties sometimes. Paint is limited in its range as nature is not, therefore keep the lights (the sky, the water, and the sand, the top of the parasol or anything in sunlight) as near the same value as possible. Keep the mass that is in shadow, always in shadow, and make differences by gradations of color.
Everything in painting is a matter of silhouettes. Hold light against shadow, not light against light.
The model out of doors ceases to be the same human being that she is inside—in a head on the beach the features show as reflections, are not drawn as in an indoor head. It is amusing how little one needs features for likeness—think of color notes; spots, not planes, when doing the face out of doors.
Draw as little as is compatible with your conscience—put down spots of color. Seeing things as silhouettes is drawing—the outline of your subject against the background, the outline and size of each spot of color against every other spot of color it touches, is the only kind of drawing you need bother about. If you do that faithfully you will be surprised at the result. Think in color, think in color volume. The majority of painters don't realize what it is all about—they believe in reproducing nature instead of expressing themselves in beautiful spots of color. Let color make form—do not make form and color it. Forget about drawing; let your drawing in the painting be unconscious so you won't get into the habit of making things brown and making them dark to make them go round.
I don't care about the roundness of the head. That takes care of itself if your color is right as it comes against the background. I don't agree with those who insist you must think of the air between the head and your background. You are painting on a flat canvas—it's the relation of one color as it comes against another that you must see correctly. If it's flesh make it live.
Do not put in the features. The right spots of color will tell more about the appearance, the likeness of a person, than features or good drawing. Make it so that I could recognize the subject from the color alone, for color also is a likeness. Remember no amount of good drawing will pull you out if your colors are not true. The spot of color that a model makes against the landscape has much more to do with his character than you imagine. Do that and you have something to work with. Our tool of trade is our ability to see the big spots.
Starting with a note of truth in a picture is the important thing —the first color you put down influences you right straight through. Do not put things down approximately—you will take a wrong thing and unconsciously key everything to it, making all false.
Don't be afraid of flesh, think of it as a note of color. See the greener note in the flesh, the solemnity that flesh has out of doors. Get it out of your mind that you are doing flesh out of doors, you're doing nature out of doors.
Go out like a savage, as if paint has just been invented. Put it on with a putty knife or even fingers and you get something fresh—water is wet, sky has air, you can walk into the canvas. If you go out with brushes you do it subconsciously in the way imbedded by old custom in the mind of the human race.
What I want you to do is to make many palette knife sketches, small, simple, of three tones only if possible, showing the time of day and the weather conditions.
Don't spend all morning on a beach study; if it's a bad one you can do all you know in twenty minutes. Start a new one. I don't want you to work one minute after you don't know what you're doing—better to start again and carry it further; don't work after you've stopped seeing logically.
Don't paint thinly as a student—later you will, but there will be something lacking unless you first learn to paint with more pigment. Paint with freedom, it gives you more mastery of the nature of paint. Make a lot of starts; wait till later to try to finish things. Do three or four of these studies every day, and leave the picture making to those who call themselves artists. First become the painter and the artist will take care of itself. Paint with a broad firm brush, loaded with color, noting values frankly. The feeling for color will come and grow. Swing a bigger brush; you don't know what fun you are missing.
Let's not be so precious with ourselves. You are at an age when you are supposed to make mistakes. If you are healthy you will make them. Have enthusiasms—it helps your work if you have a good time. Don't be afraid of being young. Now that you're young and fresh have the strength to try and use it. We must train ourselves to keep and preserve our fresh and youthful vision along with all the experience of maturity. If we do we'll be great artists—if we don't we'll be academicians. We are training to make ourselves big people—learn something today to put in practice to morrow, and then you will arrive at old age still fresh. I believe in so training yourself that there will be no end, that by a long life of serious effort we may do something more beautiful than nature.
I want to see that background more brilliant and that head a silhouette against it— the figure does not make the hole in the canvas that it did in nature. That should stand up there so much more decided—it is surprising how violent things are up against the light. I would like to see it blaze a little more against the background—that startling brilliancy of heads against a background outdoors. Yours is too much sand and water, not enough a blaze of light. If you had kept your eye on the figure you would have seen the sand and sky much lighter.
* * *
Just try a section of flesh against a section of background. I want to see a little more quality in the note of the flesh—there ought to be more of an ugly kind of beauty in all these darks in the face. It is really surprising how dark things come out of doors.
* * *
Don't be afraid of mixing your colors. Some of the most beautiful colors in a canvas are nothing but mud when taken away from their combination. To see a beautiful flesh tone against brilliant sand and to be able to recognize that a piece of mud color from the palette put against a brilliant yellow on the canvas will give the illusion of flesh on the beach—that takes an understanding which comes as a result of study.
* * *
That's an understatement of the thing— nature's much more frank than you have been. Don't be too reasonable, get a little bit excited, give a little more truth of impression—say, "Oh how ugly that is, I want to paint it." Suppose music were all a little thin piping without anything hoary and grisly that reached down to the emotions. This canvas does not show the joy, the glory of creation, the thrill of seeing the thing for the first time. Show a little more pleasure in putting down surprising things that you want to tell the world about.
* * *
Each time, I feel like saying—forget drawing!—only that adds to my already bad reputation. There's a big kind of drawing that has its relation to the big silhouettes, instead of to round common eyes, noses, and things as they are. I can see you struggling with making a thing: let it make itself. You'll be surprised to see how little drawing you need if you make the spot of color and approximate the shape—then the drawing is more real and you won't need the kind you learn indoors.
Try painting a simple still life on the beach, if the model outdoors is too difficult for you.
* * *
You don't need to cover your board with paint clear to the edges. The tones that come against each other are the important things. My imagination can finish the thing far better than you can paint it. Wait till later to try to finish things—make a lot of starts.
* * *
Pictures are more legible than the printed page, more credible than oratory—there's one thing you can't fool me on—I can read oil painting. I can tell you more what you were thinking about than you yourself knew at the time. Keep your mind clean— what you put on your canvas is an index to your thoughts and I can tell your character by the way you paint. Have an inquiring mind, don't get into a way of doing things. If you do, something stops; you don't grow, you get a fixed habit of mind.
* * *
Don't paint so much from memory, from what you've seen someone else do. Just put down what you see.
* * *
This little head on the beach comes near being very well—not a feature in it but so true that the same thing happens when you look at a man talking to you, you only get the spot.
* * *
I often see a screen full of studies with not a feature indicated, but I know those children! I don't need eyes and noses to tell me who they are if you've done your job well with the color tones as they come against one another.
* * *
That wharf there back of the head! You didn't try to make it a wharf, you didn't worry about the distance between you and it, nor the atmosphere between—you painted the color as you saw it against the head; and it's right. It goes back into the distance because the color is right.
* * *
Don't have the yellow in the sand the same yellow as in the hair with white added to it. Nothing cheapens a canvas so much as the same color running through everything. Harmony and vitality come from the use of different colors, not using one color throughout in its variations.
When you think sand is hot look at it in comparison to a hot note of flesh. A little blue on the sand would make it something away from the head.
* * *
When the background is changing, such as wet sand and water, watch very carefully the big note of the head in shadow.
When painting the color of the water in back of a figure, don't try to paint the color of the entire Atlantic ocean. Paint only that part of the water which is directly in back of your figure.
* * *
Make background and figures represent the same kind of day—think of your work as the portrait of a day rather than of a model. The sunny effect could have been made more true, could have been made to blaze up by some stronger contrasts—keep the figure and the big blond background more greatly separated.
* * *
When you go outdoors, different conditions obtain—make the color note of the face, and the nose will take care of itself. In this study you shut out everything but your preconceived indoor knowledge. Remember that your eyes are just seeing machines. Telling the truth is looking out and giving a snap judgment without any preconceived notions; in other words, telling exactly what you feel about it. Look only for the spots and establish them and they will be trees, background, flesh; and when you come to make features, you'll have the tools to work with, the tools being your ability to see spots of color. Let's see you shout some tones together and have some fun.
Always remember that anything you can do outside to make it more like the thing when taken indoors is the thing to be desired—you study more when you exaggerate more.
* * *
You must get the vitality of out of doors—the thing to be kept in mind is the beauty of the spot of color that the thing makes. Get a dance of light, the gaiety of sunlight—let me feel the sun.
* * *
My! but this is outdoors—it just drips with sunlight. You like things of this kind the way you like a straightforward person— it talks to you, so frank, so serious. This attitude is beautiful.
* * *
We must all teach ourselves to be fine, to be poets. Spend a lifetime in hard work with a humble mind. In his attempt to develop the beauty he sees, the artist develops himself.
* * *
The layman does not know how the picture ought to be painted—you have got to show him. When you can do this you will have an audience.
* * *
Try coping with different sized canvases. There is a certain influence that the big area of canvas gives you—it makes you see things larger. There is one thing of which you may be sure, being able to paint large canvases does you no harm when you come to paint a small one. Take out large canvases—when I say a little one I mean a 16? x 20?.
* * *
Color may be subtle on a gray day, but the spots insist as much as on a sunny day.
* * *
Simply graying won't do—in nature it is more than that. If you have done your job well, anyone can tell if it is morning or afternoon light by the color you use.
* * *
Get excited about it. I don't mean getting out and tearing your hair—but paint the thing that makes you all a-tremble with its beauty.
* * *
Don't model little blue hats in an outdoor portrait—you saw this too much as a hat and not enough as a spot of color. Look at some positive dark to get the value of water behind the head —hold up the black handle of your palette knife to compare it with the darks in the subject.
* * *
Hats always go in circles.
Remember that in doing a head with a hat on, there is one economical dark that means drawing as though nature were making the most of one or two accents; she is economical in accents, she doesn't spatter them all over.
Excerpted from Hawthorne on Painting by Charles W. Hawthorne. Copyright © 1965 J. C. Hawthorne. 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.
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Table of ContentsINTRODUCTION TO DOVER EDITION BY EDWIN DICKINSON
HAWTHORNE - THE PAINTER AN APPRECIATION BY HANS HOFMANN
CHARLES WEBSTER HAWTHORNE BY JOSEPH HAWTHORNE