Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Pissarro's advice to an art student

Camille Pissarro offered the following advice to an art student around 1896. I encourage you to read it critically. I'll comment afterward.

"Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament. The motif should be observed more for shape and color than for drawing. There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that. Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole; it destroys all sensations."


Camille Pissarro
"Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and colour which should produce the drawing. In a mass, the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within. Paint the essential character of' things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever, without bothering about technique."


Camille Pissarro
"When painting, make a choice of' subject, see what is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously. Don't work bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brush strokes of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately."

"The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colours produce on their surroundings. Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it."

"Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add. Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky on foliage. Don't be afraid of putting on colour, refine the work little by little. Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression. Don't be timid in front of' nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes. One must have only one master --- nature; she is the one always to be consulted."

My thoughts (and I want to hear yours)
The foregoing advice is one of the pivotal texts of Impressionist technique. It has echoed down to our times through various teachers. Whenever I've read Pissarro's advice, I've taken it with a grain of salt, especially when it was presented dogmatically. Here are some of my initial reactions:

1. To his credit, Pissarro talks about seeing as well as technique: "The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything..." Capturing an impression not just a matter of brushes and paints. It's at least as much a problem of learning to see. For example, learning to isolate and compare colors is essential to painting them convincingly, regardless of what brushes you use. Since Pissarro's time, we've learned a lot about how the human eye sees color, so it's possible to be more analytical about that.

2. When he says "Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel," I would counter that knowing the rules and principles helps you observe and feel more accurately. Telling a student just to "paint what they observe" is useless advice unless you explain what to look for and why things look the way they do.

3. I never understood why the line "Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression" was necessary. Is he just making an excuse because he can't draw well? Why can't I have both good drawing and accurate color? Artists who combined academic drawing skills and impressionist methods, such as Krøyer, Mønsted, Zorn, Sorolla, and Sargent could capture impressions without disregarding precise or accurate drawing.

John Singer Sargent
3b. However, it makes sense when he says "Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and colour which should produce the drawing." Painting students who have only drawn with line need to learn that paint strokes don't have to be linear; they can be any shape or texture, and for this kind of opaque painting, the value and color, (plus edge quality, opacity, etc)  have to be considered, too.

4. John Singer Sargent (above) sometimes painted in the "small touch-impressionism" way. A subject like the one above necessarily is made of small touches, well observed. Sargent is perhaps a closer ally to Monet than to Pissarro, but Monet didn't like to write about his method. 

5. Painting in "everything at once" rather than "bit by bit" is just one way of painting. It applies more to opaque oil painting, and less to watercolor or gouache, which can favor a more planned and organized approach. Oil can be painted in many ways: "window shading," area-by-area, systematically, or indirectly (as with Maxfield Parrish) and the results can be accurate and strong.

6. If Pissarro wants to capture an overall impression immediately, why does he say: "Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately."? Big brushes are much more efficient for capturing overall impressions rapidly. Students don't need encouragement to use small brushes. They need to be encouraged to use bigger ones, especially at the beginning. He does say to "paint generously and unhesitatingly" and I think he's right there: be willing to use lots of paint. By painting unhesitatingly, I think he means to develop your intuition, and that comes from a combination of practice and analysis.

7. Painting overall with brushstrokes of a given module makes it hard to achieve scale. If you want to make something look big, you need to alternate large shapes with tiny touches. Nature is not composed of bean-size blobs. I think the advice should be to use a variety of tools and to look for contrasts of scale within the subject. And to achieve depth, the advice might be to paint from background to foreground, not overall or 'everything at once.'


8. If you use the same tools or approach for every part of the scene (sky, water, buildings, etc), those areas will all look the same and they will all look like paint. In Pissarro's case, it leads to what contemporary critics called "woolliness," meaning it looks like the whole thing is rendered in counted cross stitch. No problem if you want your painting to have that look, but if you want your painting to hold the mirror up to Nature, it may not be the best advice.
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I welcome your thoughts in the comments. What parts of Pissarro's advice are useful to you or your students? What parts don't make sense or seem wrong? 

24 comments:

R. A. Davies said...

Lol. I wrote a long thoughtful post about this, tried to post it, and it disappeared! So, to shorthand it: Pisarro=uncanny valley—see bridge piers, seems like student work, brushstrokes interfere with sense of distance. Sargent=my fave, each brushstroke has purpose, thoughtful shape (he’s known for that), creates perspective even in water, that requires close observation.

James Gurney said...

R.A., sorry to lose your fuller answer, but I like the bullet point version, too. Zorn is also wonderful at achieving perspective in water, especially in his early watercolors. I also like what you say about each brushstroke having purpose. From what people said about Sargent's way of painting, it wasn't "dink, dink, dink," but rather each stroke was carefully considered before it was applied.

Manuel Barranco said...

Well, I'm quite embarrassed to write here, but I've been wanting for years and I wanted to do it. I think today is as good occasion as any other, to thank you for the great work you do in this blog, which I have been reading for a long time. Thanks, James, for sharing your experience. Today, as I read this new post, I feel once again the gratitude and the pleasure of reading someone who feels the traditional art of painting in a way that I really like. I even remembered J.Gurney a few days ago, while I was visiting the Museum House Sorolla in Madrid! Thank you, James, from a humble amateur painter, from Spain. (And yes: I also made my own sketch easel according to your model! Thanks also for that!)
(siento mucho mi mal nivel de idiomas) Saludos. Manuel.

sketcher said...

It is difficult to imagine an artist of Pisarro's stature not being concerned with drawing. Drawing well is so essential. Several weeks ago I overheard a comment in a drawing class that stunned me. Several students were looking at a very good still life drawing and one commented "She just likes to prove she can draw rather than expressing herself." All I can say is, those who can do!
Thank you for sharing so much wonderful information.

Charley Parker said...

In reference to item #3: I think the American Impressionists as a whole put a lie to that one, and it's the reason I often admire their work even more than the originators of the Impressionist style. Unlike the French Impressionists, they did not feel the need to reject the tenets of the French Academy and the Salon (for whom accurate drawing was the basis of all painting). The French Impressionists, particularly Monet and Pissarro, felt the need to forcefully reject the Salon and Academy as they had been rejected by the Salon. So I think this one (like Monet's pretense that he did not draw) is as much political as artistic.

Sheridan said...

The idea of finding ONE artist that has all the correct answers is a futile exercise. To believe that it is possible would be to think that all great art could be accomplished if the PROPER rules were followed. I paint realistically, but have seen many great pieces of abstract or graphic design by people I know had problems with drawing. The advice you should take comes down to, what is it you are trying to accomplish.

For me, the philosophy on taking advise that will serve all of us the best, is the lyric from a song by "The Band": "ya take what ya need and leave the rest". I view the work that I do as applying a nice blend that I've assembled of advice and observation from many sources, that can help to complete what I envision.

Marion Boddy-Evans said...

"Nature is not composed of bean-size blobs."
I just love this description! Not least because, while I totally do relate it to Impressionism and Pointillism, today we've had lots of heavy hail and the ground is covered with frozen pea-sized blobs.

A great post, thank you!

scottT said...

Lots of good thoughts already! I'm more impressed by how right the advice is than wrong. It's amazing how closely it accords with a lot of what influential teachers like Hawthorne and Carlson (right on through popular plein air practitioners like Macpherson)teach. A major exception being the small brush. Of course there are may ways to work out a painting, but overall this advice provides a firm foundation for beginning.

I'm not anti-theory, but I do believe the ultimate source is observation of nature in all her elements. Knowing things like "warm light, cool shadows" can be helpful, but ultimately the best artists are the best observers, taking nothing for granted. I also believe it's the best way to stay engaged and refreshed.

James Gurney said...

Scott, you're right: it's basically solid stuff, and Carlson and Hawthorne express similar notions later (Hawthorne is always talking about "spots" of color adjacent to each other.)

But as Charley points out there were other schools that connected French "impressionist" methods with academic drawing. And there were also other plein-air practitioners (such as the Newlyn School group following Bastien-Lepage, and taking away a quite different bunch of ideas. Zorn was more oriented to the Newlyn group than he was to Pissarro and Monet. Some of the Russians, such as Shishkin, took a very different batch of painting principles from the Dusseldorf School in Germany, and Repin was quite reluctant to accept the ideas of the impressionists entirely.

Does anyone know what Pissarro means by "Paint the essential character of' things"?

Sheridan, absolutely. That's why it's good to go back and sort out the ideas that people were talking about during the day, and take what you want if it makes your paintings better. There's no right and wrong, but it all starts with the ideas in your head.

Sketcher, yes, I disagree with the assumption that accurate drawing can't be also expressive. And I don't think anyone would accuse Pissarro of being very accurate or accomplished at drawing, at least I wouldn't. Not compared with many others of his day.

Manuel, I'm grateful to you for saying that. I try to write something new each day so that I can learn something too, and reading everyone's comments helps me understand it all better.

timothy bollenbaugh said...

James:

Your generosity via this blog broadens my education, and so does your management of the comments. Some regulars, such as Tom Hart and Erik Bongers, not to mention a host of others, are very informative. Never a waste of time, rather mostly a contribution of experience and insight.

Sincerely,
Tim
bollent@wwu.edu

Bonny Wagoner said...

Having had poor eye sight before corrective surgery I recognize the images as more a reflection of similar vision issues than technique. I look at this type of "style" and wonder if they too suffered from being near sighted because this would have been all that they could see at a distance. Now that I can see 20/20 without correction I'm grateful to see everything with clarity and my appreciation for that clarity is reflected in my work.

Jessica Kirby said...

Great post! I had to giggle at a few parts because I could sense a fair amount of frustration coming out in your writing. I get that feeling a lot while reading books about artists or written by artists. In the ones written by artists it almost always feels like they're taking out their anger and frustrations on the reader. In that sense I'd say what Charley Parker wrote about Pissarro being rejected by the Salon and in turn rejecting that way of painting could ring true. As far as not being concerned with the drawing aspect, I think that's silly. There's a balance and to reject good drawing will throw off that balance. Drawing is probably the most valuable tool an artist can keep in their toolbox. It's like one of those Swiss Army multi-tool gadgets that does everything.

Rubysboy said...

Concerning attitudes toward drawing among painters.
Pisarro: "Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and colour which should produce the drawing."
Some painters (and students and viewers) seem to feel that drawing is the sovereign skill - "get the drawing and values right and you can put any color you want on it and it'll look right." Others elevate color to a dominant position - "just get one spot of color right and put the right spot next to it and keep going." In my experience, there's not much middle ground here. Painters who feel one way would give up painting before they would convert to the other camp. I don't think this will ever be settled in favor of either of these positions. People have their preferences and it's a matter of taste. Personally, I admire the work of master draftsmen whose paintings seem like beautifully colored drawings (Durer, Ingres, Eakins...) but in the hands of those who are not masters, paintings done in this way often seem wooden, paint by numbers. uninspired. Similarly, I admire many painterly painters (Rembrandt, Soutine, van Gogh, Soutine, Fechin) although in the hands of amateurs this approach can lead to some appalling results. Artists skilled in the relevant techniques from either camp can do outstanding paintings. Yes, some painters can and do paint both ways and produce paintings admired by both camps (Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, Fechin) but even these masters seldom satisfy the fanatics of either camp.

It seems ridiculous for anyone to claim that any of these stances are 'wrong.' Why fight about it? Find teachers who paint the way that feels most natural and appealing to you and ignore those who criticize. To each his own....

Limn Illustration said...

After reading all of this, I'm curious what the philosophical shifts in the art world were at the time. I'm not too familiar with Pisarro's work but i would suspect that many were rejecting Academic Art and so comments like "tight drawing hampers" etc makes sense. Many would have been doing tightly rendered Bargue plates (I suspect) and the avant garde would have looked down on this method I suspect. Why? Because if so many people are doing it and can do it than it must not be art in the way that perhaps Pisarro and like minded contemporaries define it.


Just a random rant.

Matthieu Kiriyama said...

James, I wonder if when Pissarro talks of 'painting the essential character of things' he isn't giving his own interpretation of the Sino-Japanese concept of 'shai'(写意) or 'reproducing the feeling'. 'Shai' is often contrasted with 'shasei'(写生), 'reproducing things raw', i.e. sketching from life. Think of the difference between an almost scientific picture of a bamboo, with every part neatly outlined and then filled in with accurate colours, and an almost calligraphic brush and ink depiction of the same subject. 'Shai' would correspond to the latter approach and is often described as expressing the inner life of the subject rather than reproducing its outward appearance faithfully.
Given that the impressionists were avid collectors of Japanese art and also found in it inspiration as to artistic possibilities outside of academic painting, I would not be surprised if Pissarro was inspired by the concept of 'shai' and adapted it to European painting practices. I do not know however if he ever wrote about his own taste for Japanese art the way Van Gogh and others did, so I cannot affirm that it was his inspiration.

Stephen Berry said...

I think the quote that one should “paint generously and unhesitatingly“ has more to do with spirit and less to do with technique. I don’t think many teachers would tell a student to paint “more tentatively”. Taking in the right context, that would be the opposite of painting “ generously”.
The issue with drying is really a problem with watercolors. I’ve seen a lot of watercolors totally ruined by terrible drawing, because students really don’t understand forms in depth, but I’ve also seen a lot of water colors that are pretty soulless, but are wonderfully accurate drawings

Sandig said...

Great article. Thank you for that. Imagine the influence of Pissarro had with his fellow painters at that time. He was with so many of the talented artists . I feel he evolved like they did ,changing styles , trying new techniques and colors. How wonderful that they left such information behind for us to read and observe so that we can paint the tree purple and green , the sky ochre spotted in our very own confident impressionist way. Enjoying all of your posts.

James Gurney said...

The following comments are by Brian Spinosa, who doesn't have access to social media, so he emailed them to me (Thanks, Brian):

Part 1: "Below are the Pissarro paragraphs you posted followed by some of my thoughts.

Pissarro P1: "Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament. The motif should be observed more for shape and color than for drawing. There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that. Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole; it destroys all sensations."

It appears Pissarro wants the student to focus on the big picture, the motif, the impression. If shape and color, which drive the motif, can describe form then he appears to advise “there is no need to tighten the form” with drawing. Along that line, I interpret “precise drawing” to mean the addition of extreme details and not accurate structural drawing. In that context he seems to feel that extreme details impact the desired impression of shape, color, and form.

Pissarro P2: "Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and color which should produce the drawing. In a mass, the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within. Paint the essential character of things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever, without bothering about technique."

In the first two sentences, Pissarro seems to be advising the student to focus on value, color and edges to create mass or form rather than utilizing outline. I interpret “essential character of things” to be the combination of values, colors, and edges that enable something to be recognized without excess details.

James Gurney said...

Brian Spinoza's comment, Part 2:

"Pissarro P3: “When painting, make a choice of subject, see what is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously. Don't work bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brush strokes of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately."

By itself, the last sentence in the paragraph about using small brush strokes and putting down perceptions immediately seems contradictory. In the context of the entire paragraph, I interpret it as putting the right value and color, in the right place, the first time (“immediately”), as they relate to the surroundings. This seems to be discussing the finishing process and not part of a larger block-in. Even with this context “small brush strokes” is a vague term.

Pissarro P4: "The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colors produce on their surroundings. Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it."

This paragraph seems to mirror points in Pissarro P3. It emphasizes looking at everything in the context of what is around it, which impacts the perception of value and color. It also reiterates completing the painting as a whole instead of bit by bit.

Pissarro P5: "Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add. Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky on foliage. Don't be afraid of putting on color, refine the work little by little. Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression. Don't be timid in front of nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes. One must have only one master --- nature; she is the one always to be consulted."

I interpret “cover the canvas at the first go” to involve some sort of blocking in process. Since Pissarro mentions aerial perspective and reflected light (and also reflected colors in Pissarro P4) it seems odd that he also states “don’t proceed according to rules and principles.” However, continuing that sentence with “but paint what you observe and feel” seems to be a vague way of describing the use of artistic license.

Les Dorscheid said...

Wonderful post and analysis. My take is that Pissarro is pushing back against the prevailing thought at the time that drawing was most important. Charlie Parker"s commits above articulates this point well. I'll add this, after years of developing drawing skills and becoming so sensitive to line, shape, proportion...its challenging to let that go in order paint "impressions of ones observations."

What makes a great painting? What causes the viewer to respond emotionally? Are our emotional responses universal? I believe Pissarro offers insight here.

Great post and discussion, much appreciated.

Susan Krzywicki said...

Oh dear, I was reading through the Pissarro advice and thinking, yes this makes sense to me. Then I realized that you were pointing up the flaws in his approach.

I grew up in an era where 'expressiveness' was seen as the goal. In college, we weren't deeply involved in drawing. So, this advice all seemed more like what I had tried to do when I was painting.

Sorry for being a philistine. My idea: I'll try to keep doing my meager amount and make the pool of creativity bigger, even if my efforts are trivial, sparse, and shallow.

This is not meant as a criticism, just an observation about how we are often out of step with others. Even with people we admire.

James Gurney said...

Hi, Susan, thanks for your honesty. And nothing wrong with your reaction. I just have a way of questioning and testing any teaching. I definitely disagree with the assumption underlying Pissarro's argument which is that careful or academic drawing somehow takes you away from being expressive. In my experience it's exactly the opposite. People who are able to draw and paint accurately and carefully tend to have more resources when it comes to making an expressive statement. Same would be true in music, dance or any of the other arts. Sure, there's dry, emotionless, timid academic work, but a person with emotion and energy and ideas can take those skills and do wonders with them.

Gavin said...

I am a little bit late to the table so to speak, but from what I have read about Pissarro and observations made by his contemporaries, he was usually meticulous about what he put down, and it was often carefully planned out first. Perhaps some of the contradictions can be attributed to the period the observations were made in, as Pissarro's style changed through the decades, especially when the neo-pointillists arrived (he was a modern artist, not opposed to keeping up with the times).

When he states to paint without rules and principals, I suspect his knowledge and experience was so ingrained over the years, that the level of unconscious competence undoubtedly made him feel liberated and unrestricted, despite he was applying his years of observations and experience. A few of his early landscape drawings and sketches are very detailed and show a great level of competence.

For me, the French impressionists differed from the likes of Sargent and Zorn, as they had no qualms flattening the picture plane with opaque shadows, and using small dabs of colour which took precedence over value structure. Small strokes, drybrushing, scumbling, slurring - one painting could use a lot of techniques as opposed to trying to get the perfect alla-prima stroke in one attempt.
They didn't always change the brush size to suggest distance (or changed it very little); being enamoured by Japanese ukiyo-e art, colour and composition were more important than edges, realism and value, though they certainly didn't abandon it altogether. I read many years ago, they Pissarro got tired by his neo-polittlist period with tiny dabs of paint. It was a lot more work and effort and he lost his buyers and struggled financially during this experiementational period.

Prior to this period I imagine like the other impressionists he would have had a quick block-in of some sort. I'd love to see some of Pissarro's unfinished paintings. The best unfinished work I've seen is probably by William Merrit Chase (https://i.pinimg.com/originals/a6/5b/9d/a65b9d878559bfe7259373a73bb22093.jpg) who used a warm/cool background, a thinned outline drawing in paint and a very direct approach. However I think it differs from the likes of Monet for example, whose work could start quite dark and uninspiring (one critic visited his studio and saw many dull unfinished paintings and was greatly disappointed) as he built up the layers of colour and light, often with drybrush technique back in the studio, working the same piece over several years.

Gavin said...

Just found an unfinished Pissarro, from his time in London!
http://4.bp.blogspot.com/--BBjVHs_unE/VACeqx4h1vI/AAAAAAAAE24/8AeulBiGPp8/s1600/800_Bath-Road-London.jpg