How To Judge A Picture – Oils, Watercolors, Pastels

In conclusion, it may not be out of place to say something regarding the principal mediums of pictorial expression, such as oil, water-color, pastel, and what they are best suited to express, though, of course, I cannot go into detail about them at this time. If you would inquire further I can do no better than refer you to Mr. Hamerton’s excellent work on The Graphic Arts, the existence of which makes any thing but sketchy comment unnecessary here.

Today the commonest and best medium in painting is that of oil. All sorts of ideas, conceptions, and fancies may find expression in it, and in its nature it is well fitted to convey them all, whether they be light, sober, brilliant, or grand. Its durability beyond other mediums is not of so much importance in artists’ eyes as its freshness, its brightness, its facility for expressing by brush-work shades of meaning, phases of character, types of individuality, and its facility of retaining colors intact and without mingling (except by reflection) with other colors. In literature the

gay, the clever, and the brilliant, are set forth in the light form of the lyric, the quatrain, or perhaps the novel; but that which is of a deep and serious nature requires epic verse or the more sober form of simple prose. The analogy holds true of painting. The profound, the sublime, the poetic re-quire translation through the medium of oil. Therefore it is in oil that we may look for a painter’s best efforts, his deepest thoughts, his most harmonious color, his strongest technique. This, however, is only a general rule, and is subject to some exceptions.

There is no very good reason why water-color should not be considered just as serious a medium as oil, except the fact that it is not generally so used. Every once in a while some one comes out in print to defend the power, durability, color, and general excellence of water-color as compared with oil, and much can be said in its favor. But the truth nevertheless remains that people, especially the artists, do not think so (a popular belief is a hard thing to eradicate), and so, with a few exceptions, the water-color medium is used very much as the lyric is used in poetry, to express something light and sketchy. Whatever may be the merits of the case, therefore, it is hardly worth your time to look to water-color for any thing of a deep or serious nature. You would better seek that which you will oftenest find, namely, sketchy pieces of beauty, bright flashes of the imagination, cleverness of handling, light, transparency of color, atmosphere, tone, cloud and water effects, but not, as a general thing, for qualities and textures. These latter can, perhaps, be better expressed in oil. Moreover, in water-colors detail is usually sacrificed to truth of mass, and you will not look for drawing except as subordinate to other features. The medium is not well suited for elaborated work, though this again has been made subject to some very brilliant exceptions.

The great majority of artists look upon water-color as a medium out of which they can get some recreation. In America about once a year the fancy for it seizes upon the artist, and for a time he relaxes his more arduous labor with oil and becomes a singer in a lighter strain. It is a very beautiful medium, and because it is perhaps not so serious as oil it should not for that reason be set down as trivial or worthless any more than Italian or French music should be utterly cast out because it is not like the music of the Germans.

Pastel, or the drawing with colored crayons, is not unlike water-color in its nature—that is, it aims at the expression of lighter things than are set forth in oil. It has been called a medium wherewith effects are produced by accident; but do not believe any thing so silly. In art there is nothing produced by accident that is of any consequence-and the pastel drawing is of consequence. As a medium for making sketches and catching vanishing effects of color pastel is much used, and of late years it has been put to good service in portraiture and genre, especially by our American artists—Messrs. Chase, Beckwith, Blum, Blashfield, and others. Like the water-color, its strength does not lie in form or line, though it may be so used, but in color-brightness, tone, and textures. It is especially well adapted to the rendering of light fluffy materials, like hair, woolens, rugs, feathers, fabrics, clouds, smoke, and it has been used with great success in flesh tones and even in the rendering of marbles and bronzes. Like water-color again, there is scarcely any limit to what it may express, but the artists put a limit upon what it does express by using it usually for light work. It is quite useless to quarrel with a grounded custom, even if we were so disposed, and we must try to see what artists ask us to see, and not allow ourselves to imagine vain things regarding what we would like to see.

Fresco and tempera are so little used to-day that comment upon them is unnecessary. Pen and inks, charcoals, sepias, and monochromes in general are essentially sketchy in nature, often made as memoranda, and when exhibited are chiefly designed to show some happy fancy or clever drawing. Etching, though not painting, is closely connected with painters, by whom it is chiefly used. It is so well known nowadays, not only through the numbers of etchings (mainly bad ones) that are produced, but through many treatises written upon it, that I need say little. A very common and natural mistake which most people fall into regarding it is that it is an attempt to rival wood, copper, or steel engraving. Such is not its proper design, though many artists try to make it serve that purpose. An etcher works on a copper-plate covered with wax, through which he draws whatever suits his fancy. The needle or point, with which he draws removes the wax wherever it touches, and after the plate is finished it is submerged in acid with the effect that the plate, where the lines are drawn, is bitten into or corroded by the acid. Afterward the plate is cleaned, inked, and printed from like the plate of a visiting card. Engraving, on the contrary, is the cutting upon wood or metal with the graver, and the engraver usually follows not his own design, but the design of an artist before him. The aim of the engraving is more like that of the photograph: to give detail with exactness, and yet maintain the character of the original design. The aim of the etching is to convey certain features, like atmosphere, light and shade, form, motion, values, in a light yet telling manner. As a general rule, the etcher, like the draughtsman with pen and ink, strives to do as much as possible with a few well-directed lines; to give character, force, and suggestiveness, without detail or great elaboration. Where you find an etching so finished in detail that you have to look at the paper for the press mark in order to be sure of what it is, you will generally find not only a poor unsuggestive etching, but a bad substitute for an engraving.

In viewing pictures you should look to landscapes for color, tone, atmosphere, light and shade, qualities, sentiment, feeling, pictorial poetry, and, in such artists as Rousseau, for ideas of sublimity and grandeur. As a rule, however, the landscape does not often rise to the sublime, and for the reason which, if arbitrary, you will consider quite my own, that it lacks concentration and active power. Where the sublime appears, as in Niagara, and the Alps, it is too overpowering for conception or expression. More often landscape presents the novel, the poetic, and the simply beautiful, with special beauties of color and qualities.

In figure compositions look for the pictorial in drawing, grouping, gradation of light, color, and textures. It is the great field for what is called “solid painting,” as may be instanced in the work of Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velasquez. You will further look for dramatic effect, conceptions of passion or of power, and for character. This last quality is absolutely necessary in all great work. The symmetrical and well drawn alone will not do. There must be something of vital force about the people composing the picture, otherwise it drops into the shallow and worse than mediocre, vide Meyer von Bremen, whom having now sufficiently abused, I return to his admirers.

The same advice may be offered regarding portraits. The chief aim is not necessarily to gain a striking likeness, but a characteristic likeness—that which shows the character of the sitter. Denner fainted the life-like in such a manner that the heads seemed to actually exist, but he spent so much time upon wrinkles, freckles, and three-daysold beards, that he forgot to put forth the deeper nature of the man. The outside was all there, but the inner man was absent. Van Dyke, on the contrary, saw beneath the surface, and read a man’s character between the lines. That is one reason why he is to day considered the greatest portrait-painter that ever lived, while Denner is but a museum curiosity, exciting the admiration of the ignorant. Discard the idea of a portrait being proved good by the eyes of it following you around the room. That is but an illusion of perspective. The eyes that follow are not those of the portrait, but those of the spectator. You would better look to the face being well drawn, the flesh possessed of some blood, and not covered with oiled paper, and the clothes being clothes, instead of a suit of sheet-iron.

In genre and still-life, the chief attractions should be artistic grouping, harmonious coloring, effects of light, and strong technique. You may think that an artist who paints a silver urn, a tray, some tea-cups, a tablecloth, and a vase of flowers paints them just as he happens to find them; but such is not the case. In so simple a subject as that there is room for fine grouping, and relations of light and color, and the true artist always places each object for the best advantage of them all before touching brush to canvas. In marines, color is not usually so prominent as gray tone, atmospheric effect, light, cloud masses, and power in the water. But power does not mean necessarily the theatrical splash of an enormous wave on a mountainous cliff, or the crested curl of an incoming breaker. You can easily imagine power in a sleeping lion, and there is might in the ocean, though it may be as smooth as a glassy lake. But it requires an artist like Dupre or Courbet to reveal it. Interiors, court places, street scenes, with men, horses, camels, and the like, give the opportunity for fine effects of atmosphere, light and shade, warmth, color, motion, life. Decamps, Fromentin, Regnault, Fortuny, Rico, and others have so used them, and with what brilliant results I have, perhaps, already sufficiently set forth.

I cannot better conclude this talk than by repeating something said at the beginning of it: Books and theories will not give you a practical knowledge of art, though they may help you to it, and if this effort of mine has benefited you in any way I shall feel well repaid for occupying my rather uncomfortable position; but if you would thoroughly know art you must study it in the original tongue, and not through interpreters. You must look at pictures studiously, earnestly, honestly. It will take years before you come to a full appreciation of art, but when at last you have it you will be possessed of one of the purest, loftiest, and most ennobling pleasures that the civilized world can offer you.