Two Exercises For Artists From A Good Old Oil Painting Book

Head studies from a museum visit*

I have a small collection of old books about the practice and techniques of oil painting, watercolor, drawing and sketching. This morning, trying to figure out what to blog about today, I pulled “The Practice of Oil Painting-And of Drawing as Associated with it” by Solomon J. Solomon, R.A. (Royal Academy) off the shelf. I purchased it some years ago in England for the princely sum of six pounds, fifty pence. There is no copyright date, but a portrait of a young girl with short hair suggests that it was published in the 1920s to 1930s.

Opening the book randomly, I found some study advice that is as relevant now as it was then, so thought that I would share it.

It’s from Chapter XII, Hints on Arrangements-Solecisms in Composition:

“We do not get stronger by watching other men lift weights. Nor are weights lifted or pictures composed, either at the beginning or at any time, without effort. Good composition calls for a far higher mental capacity than mere painting (interesting observation), which is in itself difficult enough…

When in the course of your reading you come across a pictorial episode, visualize it and sketch the scene as it strikes you. There are, nowadays, so many beautiful illustrations to be seen (alas, those days are mostly gone); you may well learn, from some of them, how figures are grouped, and how accessories are placed to complete the pictorial arrangement. Such mental notes, added to your unceasing practice, will greatly increase the facility with which you will be enabled to arrange and compose artistically.

When visiting a picture or sculpture gallery, take a sketchbook with you. Your memory will not suffice to recall the results of your analysis of compositions. Study particularly the placing of heads, half and full length portraits and figures, and the main structural lines and colour massed of decorative designs. Mark the arrangement of light and shade (chiaroscuro) in Dutch and Spanish pictures, which have such fine technical qualities, and when anything strikes you as particularly beautiful, draw it, and in drawing it search for the secret of its beauty.”

My main takeaway from the studies above was a greater understanding of what it means to “work from lean to fat” and how many small, subtle touches of tone and color go into painting at the level of a Rembrandt or Hals. This is why it is so critical to see great original art. Reproductions just aren’t the same

From Tiepolo

* The images are from studies that I’ve done myself. All but the first and last were from a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, “Rembrandt, Not Rembrandt”. The Tiepolo was from an incredible show of his preliminary drawings for one of his ceiling “jobs”. I’ve never been able to find a book with more than a couple of ok reproductions of them.