Palette and Bench, “On Still-Life Painting” by Emil Carlsen, October, 1908, Volume 1, Issue 1, pg. 6-8.
On Still-Life Painting
Emil Carlsen, Instructor at the National Academy of Design Schools
from Palette and Bench 1,1 (Oct. 1908),pp.6-8
To achieve success in painting it is necessary to thoroughly understand the craft, to be absolute master of the material, to draw correctly and with facility. It is a task to learn these preliminaries, but it can be made easier and interesting, if simplified.
It is well worth advocating the study of still life painting for the serious student, to prove its value in the search for beauty in arrangement, color, light, atmosphere and values.
Still life painting is considered of small importance in the Art schools, both here and abroad, the usual course being drawing from the antique, the nude, and painting from the draped figure and from the nude. This covers everything for the artists in the growing, but little stress is put upon the student’s individuality. It is routine work from the beginning to end, and often made a bore to the pupil, instead of a delight.
Then why should the earnest student overlook the simplest and most thorough way of acquiring all the knowledge of the craft of painting and drawing, the studying of inanimate objects, still life painting, the very surest road to absolute mastery over all technical difficulties. Once learned it applies to all painting, all drawing, and then is the time to study from the nude, and last of all from the Greek masterpieces.
If a student is thrown entirely upon his own resources; if for some reason, he cannot attend any art school, it is still possible to pursue an intelligent and thorough course of study. To the greatest master, as to the beginner, there is one problem to be met in every study, simple or elaborate,- that is the study of values. This technical phrase means the amount of light and shadow in the object drawn or painted, and the amount of light and shade against its background, simple enough to understand and solve in a drawing of a white cast against a white background, difficult in objects containing local color.
Never losing track of this vital question, the study of still life should be made interesting from the beginning; the objects selected for beauty of line and color; and here let me advise the choice of white, grey and black as much as possible, only fine blacks, fine whites and grays. Some of the best pictures of Chardin, the very greatest still life painter, are limited in their color schemes, but the colors are of the choicest quality.
In all painting, judgment is needed before the picture is commenced and the key must be settled upon. A piece of polished metal, for example, can be translated in a high or low key. Artists like Vollon, Chase, Bail, prefer to render the glitter of metal, highly glazed earthenware, wet fish, etc. to the modeling of the surfaces, and therefore emphasize the brilliance of the high lights, choosing a low key. Kalf and Chardin chose to subordinate the glitter to the surfaces and therefore painted in a higher key.
This may to a beginner seem strange, that facts are not facts, but all painting is a translation. Certain problems must be translated. The sun’s reflection on moving water cannot be painted except as a suggestion. The polished surface of a copper pot can be painted, but the painter must choose his key and subordinate either surface or high light.
The arrangement well spaced, the objects good in color and form, the background simple and neutral, the key chosen, and half of the work is done. Avoid perishable objects, flowers, game, vegetables and fish are not for the beginner; figured draperies, ornamented china etc., should not be chosen.
Now select the panel or canvas and have it absolutely white. It is fatal for the longevity of a picture to put the color on a dark ground or an old painting, however dry. All pictures painted in oil darken somewhat. Only on a perfect white panel will they retain their light, and the slight toning of time will not seriously affect them. Use simple colors. A very good palette for students is as follows, Zinc White, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Light Red, Burnt Sienna, Ivory Black and Permanent Blue, to which later can added Vermilion, Madder Lake, Light and Orange Cadmium and Verte Emeraude. The first seven colors are enough for most studies and it is a very good plan to finish a few paintings strictly with these; if the values are observed the picture will be in harmony.
The canvas may be cleaned with a potato or onion cut in two. The juice rubbed over the panel or canvas removes any grease and permits the painter to outline the drawing in a water color outline. This is of great value, as oil and turpentine can be washed over the drawing without effacing the outline, -a piece of unsuccessful work can be wiped off, the outline remaining.
In laying in the shadows, keep them colorful and warm. In nearly all indoor studies the shadows are full of reflected warm color. Paint them thinly in commencing work and use the palette-knife freely to remove unnecessary loading of paint. Never be in a hurry, the pots and jugs will stay where they are put, and can be studied at leisure, -to a finish. Don’t worry over time, one complete and carried study is worth a dozen starts, and intelligent thoughtful labor is never wasted. The facts learned in still life painting can be applied to figure and landscape. The process is always the same.
After the shadows have been washed in and the background indicated with a thin wash somewhat richer and warmer than nature, commence to model the lights. Here the student can load pigments with more freedom and must try to subordinate the local color to the light surfaces. The richest color is found where the light melts into the shadow, the tangent between light and shadow.
The experienced painter’s greatest difficulty is the modeling of the edges, as they appear harder and sharper than they are in reality. In all the finer qualities in painting there is nothing that takes greater study, observation and thought than this studying of the edge, and a good lesson can be learned by studying some great master’s work under a magnifying glass. An apparently hard edge will be lost here and there, found again and always kept soft.
Even in a good photograph from some master of finish, Ver Meer of Delft, for example, it is easily seen and learned. To do it is harder – fir most artists a lifetime is short enough.
Still, the trade must be learned, the difficulties studied and overcome. The accomplished painter may become an artist – the genius without solid knowledge of his craft will never be anything but an amateur, and after all, a well painted earthen pipkin and a lemon or two is an infinitely better work of art, than an ill painted Madonna, however, greatly conceived. The big Hollanders were finished craftsmen and their sometimes commonplace canvas are eagerly sought for and admired by lovers of sound work and for the beauty sound work processes.
The love of the study will grow; if the selection is well made, the delight over every small obstacle removed not to return in the same manner again, will compensate the student. There is no time limit, no hurry whatever, the sitter will not disappoint or change expression every few minutes. If a bit does not come right, scrape it out, try again, and again. Attack the main object first, the jug or pot that makes the picture, and keep drawing and modeling that. If it comes against the background, study the background at the same time, search for the amount of light it contains, heighten the lights as much as possible, they will tone down fast enough, pay no attention to manner of brushwork, state facts and look out for drawing all the time.
Observation of values means drawing, drawing all the time; if the study is in value it will be in harmony. Color is a gift, it takes care of itself; the arrangement of the objects, the selection of the color gamut has settled that part and the study of relations will whip the color into place.
What greater commendation for still life painting can there be than the superb canvases of still life left by masters like Velasquez and Rembrandt, full of beautiful harmonies, and undoubtedly undertaken as training studies. The conception of light, color and line, the disposition and adjustment of objects are well within the grasp of the still life painter, and for sheer beauty of color for its own sake very few painters have surpassed Chardin. Still life painting must be of a well understood simplicity, solid, strong, vital, unnecessary details neglected, salient points embellished, made the most of, every touch full of meaning and for the love of beauty. Careless work, a slurred light, shadow or edge will spoil the harmony, excuses will never suffice, the study has to be done, and well done, to hold any place whatever. A landscape may pass muster if carried by beautiful tone or color, even with a loose construction or shaky drawing; a still life, never.
The steps from painting of inanimate objects to life is a very small one. The painting of a head against a simple background involves exactly the same principle, leaving aside the choosing of the one expression selected from the many the sitter will undoubtedly take. The construction of the head, the modeling of the planes is the same, and so far as clothing and accessories are concerned, this is all still life painting.
Out of doors, again the skilled craftsman, however nettled at first by ever changing light and conditions, will have the principle right, judgment and experience will take care of the rest.
The finer; more subtle questions in a picture should be understood from the beginning, the vibrating reflected lights in the shadows, the diffused light all over the surfaces, the light that lives and moves. In good work the contours are never sharp and hard, light and color play over them, and still, by their light relation to surrounding objects they hold firmly their place. To see all this beauty in a simple study is with respect for what can be learned from it, and every moment of the working day will be delightful, however full of disappointments over obstacles to be removed one by one. Keep all studies, to observe progress, and attack every weak point. Stick to construction and drawing. Use the palette knife unsparingly and keep the canvas free from unmeaning paint, leave technique and brush handling alone, and work simply for truth and beauty.
If the schools would indorse still life painting for its true value, better workmanship would be the result. At no time has simple honest painting been so well understood as when the great Dutchmen lived and worked; their sharp yellows, cold blues and warm delicate grays and blacks were wrought out of still life studies. The interior in its relation to the human figure, not a mere stupid and lightless background, was the result of absolute knowledge of values, of the searching for the light and atmosphere surrounding each object, each figure. It is to a great extent a lost art today, local color has superseded light value and showy technique often takes the place of the very finest of attainments, absence fo any apparent manner. Any student, worthy of that name, can gain the knowledge, and there is no better road to complete understanding, to acquiring the ability to see and judge whatever is worthwhile in any piece of work, however simple, than the study of inanimate objects, arranged to a purpose, and studied through to a finish. And after all, a two penny bunch of violets in an earthen jug may make a great work of art, if seen through a temperament.