The Art of Illustration – Methods Of Tone Drawing


LOOKING through a bundle of magazines taken haphazard is likely to be a tedious business, particularly where “wash” illustrations predominate. The temptation to exact and full representation of appearances gives a photographic effect that has no interest except its content—the artist in such cases being nothing but an inferior kind of camera—or if the effort is made to give dramatic effect by forcing the light and shade, we are at once aware of the falsity as of a negative at once under and over exposed in patches. The more correct the observation the more photographic the effect and emphasis of character, movement, or lighting immediately induces a sense of affectation or unnaturalness.

For this reason personality is rather a hindrance than a help in this method of expression, and the result is that one drawing differs from another only by its defects.

while the most perfect is the most perfectly dull. Nothing in all the history of art looks more dead. It is only when the artist conventionalizes his treatment that it becomes capable of emphasis without giving the sense of untruth to nature ; let us take, for instance, the work of Maurice Greiffenhagen, whose work, no matter how closely rendered the facts may be, is never photographic, the reason being that it is capable of artistic emphasis from the manner in which the form is enforced by a dogmatic use of line in addition to the wash. By this means the artist manages to make the most ordinary facts extraordinarily vivid, and in a manner invariably dignified by a fine decorative sense of composition and relation, that might appear forced if the method were not to some extent conventionalized. It is time for artists to see that art does not consist in the simple representation of things seen, and that what can be done by the photographer should be left to him.

In the days before the Meisenbach process, when wash drawings were engraved on wood, a certain liveliness was sometimes imparted to them by the wood engraver, if he was a skilful craftsman, because of the translation of the wash by means of lines, but even this was not satisfactory, as not giving the artist’s exact work, and the spectator was in doubt between the draughtsman and the engraver. Young artists welcomed the half-tone process, as rendering their work more subtly and faithfully ; not foreseeing at the time how soon it would show them the limitations of the medium in which they worked. These were, of course, discovered by artists long before the public, which looked upon ” wash drawing ” as a ” finished ” product, and a drawing in line of any kind, but particularly the pen, as ” scratchy ” or ” a sketch,” so that art editors clamoured for ” wash ” drawing ad nauseam. Then, of course, came the photographically illustrated press and the cinematograph, both admirable things, and the artist is free, if he will, to devote himself to art, and leave the camera to do the work of record making.

Other methods

There are other methods of drawing for reproduction for printing with type ; as for instance, by the use of ” scrape-out ” process papers, when one, two, or three tones are ready printed upon prepared clay surfaces ; so that by scraping away the top layer another tone is disclosed ; and finally white alone. Among the few artists who have satisfactorily worked in this medium should be mentioned Louis Legrand (in the Courrier Francais about 189o), who managed to maintain his artistic dignity in the use of this horrible stuff. It was made most use of, I believe, in Germany, and in the hands of Thony this method was made to yield quite extraordinary results, particularly in conjunction with one or two simple and conventionally applied colours. In the ” Parson and the Painter ” Phil May did a few drawings in this method, but, happily, not many. A drawing may be good in spite of the method, and not because of it. The method has this to commend it over wash drawing, that it conduces to a selective treatment. Various flat mechanical tones of lines or dots can be applied by the process man upon the plate itself from transfer paper if the artist thinks it desirable, and he indicates where it is to be applied by a blue tint, which does not photograph, but serves as a guide to the craftsman, who paints out with Chinese white or gum those parts on the block where there is to be no tint, and then applies the transfer before the plate is etched. Where these tints are well chosen they can be serviceable ; but in England, the process-man, left to his own way, will most probably choose a tint of the vilest and most mechanical order, totally inappropriate to the drawing. Any such methods are best left alone except in case of absolute necessity, and cases of absolute necessity are very rare.

Any medium that compels selection rather than offers facility of inclusiveness is likely to squeeze the best out of any artist. The severer the limitations and the more fully they are accepted the better will be the result ; so that mechanical as these ” scrape out ” methods and dotted tints appear, a more vivid effect is frequently obtained from them in artistic hands than from the use of unrestricted wash.

Surface ” finish ”

The reason that our public monuments are in general so bad is that surface and not shape has been followed in an attempt to give ” finish ” to a work that has never truly been begun. Petty realisms of costume take the place of splendour of outline : the exact reproduction of sword, sword-knot and spur have degraded much of our official sculpture to the level of a tailor’s dummy. The artist is not proud enough, and accepts dictation upon the very points upon which he should dictate, and never submit. Surface is common to all things—what differentiates them ,and gives them significance is form.

Our schools of art have been much to blame in this matter. The Academy used to insist upon students who applied for admission to its schools passing a test at the most impressionable period of their lives, not in the exercise of direct force in the grasp of form or imagination, but in the patient niggling and stippling of surface inessentials carefully copied from the antique long before they could appreciate it. The medium of expression most favoured by South Kensington was the ” stump,” for smearing on the powdered chalk, only suitable for the representation of surfaces, and not for drawing a line, the presence of which was generally looked upon in these exercises as a defect. It is not the general but the particular statement that is of value, and what not the surface but the form, and what expresses the form is Line.

At the other extreme from the perpetual vignetted wash drawings in the magazines in illustration of the little tales of love or adventure, which are produced to meet the demand of an uneducated public, may be set the highly solemn and dull productions of a ” chaste ” decorative school, working in an archaic manner with an affectation of naiveté, but from which all the masculine vigour of the originals followed has been cut away. Not only do they work to the limitations imposed upon the artist by the wood-cutter, but more so when there is no need—suppleness and variety of line are thrown overboard ; and they draw, not as with a pen, but as though with a wood-chopper, going all the way to imitate the work, not of the artist who drew upon the wood, but straining the modem medium to imitate the wood-cutter’s failure to render the artist’s work. After all this the work is reproduced by photography and printed by steam. I am reminded of a modern piece of ” half-timbering ” which I saw executed in the country. The ” half-timbering ” was carried out by nailing up thin boards on the outer surface of the villa wall ; then great oaken pins were stuck in here and there, on the honest principle of not concealing the construction 1 Naiveté is charming, but this skittish affectation of it is annoying, ” like an old ewe dressed lamb-fashion.”