One of my three current projects is a copy of this lithograph by Charles Bargue.
Bargue produced the Cours de Dessin in 1886 and this is Plate 36 from that book. The book is composed of 197 lithographs which students copied (and, since the re-publication of the book still do copy) before moving on to work from plaster casts and drawing from the living model.
I’ve had a go at the Bargue drawings before but my problem has always been knowing the correct technique to adopt in copying them. When I did my first few (about three years ago) I did them in charcoal working at an easel. However, photos from the websites of various ateliers showed students working on the plates in pencil with drawing boards on their laps and that’s the method I’m trying currently. Pencil certainly gives a cleaner finish than charcoal.
Then there’s the question of measuring. I’ve heard a very divergent range of opinions on this. Some people say you should work on them sight size (ie putting the paper and the lithograph side by side and stepping back from the easel to judge the measurements using a plumb line or knitting needle, reproducing the image in 1:1 scale). Others say it’s a good idea to reproduce the lithograph larger than it appears, using comparative measurement. Photos of atelier students at work suggest that some schools actually allow measurements from the surface of print itself, using string or dividers. I’ve also seen accounts saying you should use no artificial means of measurement at all, simply using the eye alone, which sounds super difficult! I know of at least one atelier which says not to bother with the course at all, as the exercises deaden the eye.
Whatever approach is adopted, the idea is to copy the finished drawings exactly; hopefully my latest one will turn out well. For this one I’m measuring from the plate itself, which is pretty easy. Next time I might try working from eye alone and see how scarily bad the results are!
Among the artists who studied by means of Bargue's Cours de Dessin is Vincent van Gogh, who copied the complete set in the early 1880s.
This small landscape is probably the loosest my brushwork gets. It's a fairly old painting, done simply for pleasure on quiet a Saturday afternoon. It's not the most sophisticated or well executed painting, and it needs a bit of restoration because some of the paint has been lifted off after careless storage.
However, I like the liveliness of the brushwork and the contrast between the dark trees in the middle distance and the colours of the foreground and horizon. In my efforts to pursue accuracy I find it easy to lose visible brushwork altogether and I usually end up regretting it.
I suppose, in the end, I struggle with the question of what sort of painter I want to be. On the one hand I adore the virtuosity of Sargent's and Sorolla's brushwork. On the other hand, I find the flawless finish of David, Ingres, or Delaroche (even, dare I say, Bouguereau whose subject matter I find too sickly sweet to really love) truly staggering and long to paint the same way. It's a hard road ahead whichever direction I go, but if I get just a mile or two down either track I'd be a happy painter!
After the disappointment of yesterday’s life drawing, a dose of positive thinking is needed. This is the life drawing I feel is my most successful. I produced it over 10 successive full-day Saturday sessions at LARA under the tutelage of Alex Heath.
There are several elements of the drawing that I think work well. I think I had a fairly good idea of the shapes and proportions of the pose. I was also pleased with the keying of the dark values and the handling of the charcoal. The atmospheric, somewhat glowing, effect of the background also works well.
As a lawyer, I have colleagues who say that for every “rule” out there, there is always a “but”. It seems, for an aspiring artist, this also rings true. On previous occasions I had tended not to focus too much attention on the halftones. My logic in this was taken from the lithographs in the Charles Bargue Drawing Course (see under Resources), where there is always a very clear separation between light and dark and fairly minimal halftone.
However, on this occasion I spent quite a bit of time concentrating on the darkest halftones (ie the darkest tone that is not actually shadow). This was partly because there were only very small areas of true shadow on the figure. I learnt, from this drawing, that although the halftones should never compete with the darks, halftones are still really important in terms of turning the form. The shapes and edges of the halftones should be just as clearly thought out as the shadow, even if they are “played down” in comparison to them.
There was more work I could have done on the edges between the shadows and the lights. In the upper torso particularly, the edges are not varied enough, giving a sharp and angular quality. The more rounded or flatter the form, the slower it turns away from the light source, and this means the values spread over a larger area of the subject’s surface, giving a much softer edge.
I also find the overall impression is rather heavy and sombre, a characteristic that often seems to manifest itself in my work. Some “sweetness and light” wouldn’t go amiss in my work generally – but overall I was pleased with this drawing.
As the summer approaches I find myself thinking back to the time I spent studying at the Sarum Studio* in late summer 2012.
The last piece I did there was the one I was most pleased with. To anyone with an interest in cast painting, the subject matter will be all too familiar. It is commonly said to be of St Jerome, but I’ve never tracked down the original so don’t take my word for it!
I often feel that the ‘fundamentals’ that I learnt from Sarum have got diluted a bit. I can’t pick up a paintbrush at lunchtimes at the moment, so instead I do a lot of browsing ateliers’ websites for whatever catches my eye. The result, I fear, resembles the nest of the thieving magpie!
Looking back at this piece, I’d like to re-learn a lot of the good practice embodied in this painting. There is a looseness and immediacy to the brush work and a unity of effect which I’ve never quite been able to accomplish since. Something for me to focus on over the next few months.
* The Sarum Studio is run by Nick Beer (of Charles H Cecil Studios and author of Sight-Size Portraiture) and is based at the beautiful Wren Hall, a Queen Anne style former school in the stunning cathedral close in the centre of Salisbury. It is soon to become a full time atelier. With a bit of luck, I may be able to manage a visit for a day or two this summer.
Some time ago I was interested to find extracts on Google Books from The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration by Elaine R. S. Hodges. Chapter 4 "Light on Form" was of particular interest. There are various resources online which give a partial explanation of the theory of light (at least in so far as it concerns artists) but this chapter is by far the clearest and most comprehensive explanation that I've yet come across. It may be of interest to other artists out there.
The Birmingham and Midland Institute hosts a weekly figure drawing class, run by Birmingham artist Terry Mullett, which I have been going along to for a couple of years. It's a great opportunity to practice and, unlike many 'informal' classes the poses are relatively long, lasting the entire session (from 6pm to 9pm).
Tonight was one of those evenings when everything seemed to 'click'. I was fairly pleased with the gesture and proportions. I managed to get a decent indication of the values too, rather than getting too niggly with the contour - which is the trap I usually fall into.
I generally work sight-size (various sites listed under "Resources" give a good explanation of what this approach entails). My procedure starts with marking the top and bottom of the figure on the page. I then try to find the gesture by looking for a "rhythm" or "movement" which describes how the weight of the figure is transferred through the pose. I mark this with a flowing line through the length of the figure.
I then try to mark in the tilts of the main masses of the torso, before working on the contour (ie the outline). For me this is the part where I start to get too fiddly. The contour is not really the most important part of a figure drawing and it certainly doesn't need to be tackled in any detail at this fairly early stage. A better approach is to leave the contour and start looking for the shadow line. From where I was sitting, most of the pose was in shadow, save for a couple of places on the shoulders and arms.
I usually don't get much further than getting the shadow pattern massed in. Very occasionally I'll get to the point of being able to put in some indication of the background and start work on the halftones and modelling. Tonight I didn't, but I'm still fairly pleased with the results.
This, somewhat blurry, photograph shows my current studio set-up. I have two easels on either side of a chest of drawers. It's difficult to see but I have a small table which sits on top of the drawers (currently covered with a black cloth), which is where I place still lifes and casts. The two table legs to the back are wedged up slightly higher than the ones at the front, meaning the table-top slopes downwards at the front. My thinking in doing this was that this would afford a greater sense of depth to still life and cast subjects - rather like the stage of a theatre, which slopes so the audience can more easily see actors at various positions on the stage.
Currently on the easels are a still life in charcoal on Fabriano Roma paper and a master portrait copy of a painting by Velazquez (from a poster I ordered online). The still life is proving very tricky. I'm not used to working on Roma paper. It is widely considered the best for charcoal work, as it can take weeks and weeks of working and it never stops taking charcoal. It allows you to make big changes quite far into the drawing without the paper being an issue and wearing through. However, it's very different from the Canson Mi-teintes which I have been using for most of my drawings to-date and I'm not used to it.
The lighting in the room isn't particularly good (it's south facing, for one thing, which isn't ideal), so a while back I bought a photographic lamp, which was cheaper than I expected and has made a big difference.
Most of my materials are stored in a cupboard on the landing outside the studio, which I kitted out with some fitted shelves a while back. I sketched the design in about 10 minutes for our friendly neighbourhood carpenter to fit. It works really well, considering the confined space. In the bottom right hand corner is a cubbly hole for my wheeled taboret (aka, a trolley that I picked up in Ikea) which is the only other bit of kit that I need in the studio itself when I'm working.
One of the things that the revival of classical art education is doing is reconnecting with the methods of training artists from the 18th and 19th Centuries. In those days, young artists spent around four years in rigorous training. Drawings and paintings of the nude (called "académies", examples of which can be found under ‘Resources’) were the building blocks of academic art. The procedure for learning to produce these studies was clearly defined.
The modern academies (usually known as “ateliers”) usually follow something similar in format to the curriculum of these great institutions. First, students usually copy prints after classical sculptures, becoming familiar with the principles of contour, light, and shade. Once sufficiently proficient in reproducing these drawings, students then draw from plaster casts of classical sculptures. At the same time students work from the live model.
Painting was not taught at the leading French school, the École des Beaux-Arts, until after 1863. To learn to paint with a brush, the student first had to demonstrate proficiency in drawing, which was considered the foundation of academic painting. Having learnt to draw, students would then join the studio of an academician and learn how to paint.
In my own self-directed study, I have tried to be as faithful as I can be to the curriculum adopted in a typical modern atelier. This has involved copying “from the flat” (that is, copying from drawings and lithographs of classical sculptures), cast drawing and painting, and figure drawing and painting. I hope that, as I study and my skills develop, I will move onto portraiture, still life, interiors, landscapes and genre painting. There’s a long road ahead, but then, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!
Good afternoon. Well, it's been some time coming but I've finally got round to setting up a website. The good people of Weebly are apparently miracle-workers: it's an incredibly easy system to use, even for a tech novice like me. I hope you'll enjoy reading my blog and seeing my paintings and drawings. I have heaps of ideas and plans for these pages, so do keep popping back... and please do post, tweet, email, forward and generally splash it about! !
Ben Laughton Smith
Aspiring artist, training in the classical tradition.