Hawthorne on painting

Green Sky Landscape, Charles Webster Hawthorne

Green Sky Landscape, Charles Webster Hawthorne

As a follow-up to my previous post on my visit to the shows about perceptual painting in Maryland, I read a small book put together by the students of the man who inspired those two exhibits. When Hawthorne talks about how reasoning should not be part of painting, he means something specific: when you paint a person or a house, don’t paint as if you were a surgeon or an architect, simply see the spot of color it forms in your field of vision and paint that, not work form any prior knowledge about the “thing itself.” In other words, be a phenomenologist. But he also suggests that larger reasoning, theories or ideologies or conscious points of view about life are also alien to the sort of painting he advocated. Intentional narrative, message-imparting, intellectual content only turn painting into a package for some precious thought inside it. It becomes rarefied illustration of the thought comes first, the knowledge, and the painting serves it: the painting should give rise to thoughts, if there are any to be had, but mostly it should convey what it is through seeing, not thinking. That wasn’t how painting worked for him, and was probably at the heart of what drove the Impressionists, who were Hawthorne’s predecessors, to rebel against academic painting that served to illustrate classic myth, Biblical stories, and historical narratives. Painting had become a form of illustration. For Hawthorne, there should be no thought involved in the motive for a painting other than the logic of how it is shaped and how the colors are chosen, for no other purpose but to see the beauty in, essentially, everything, including the train station, as he like to put it. Not simply for the pleasure of visual experience. Seeing, for him, I think, was about far more than the visual sensations you get when you aim your eyes at the horizon or a bottle or a face. It’s about embracing an entire world by glancing at one small part of it, and if the painting is good enough, subconsciously, a certain wisdom about that world comes along with the perception of beauty. Abstract reasoning, beyond the logic of how to construct an image, only gets in the way of that.

From Hawthorne on Painting, Charles Webster Hawthorne’s advice to his students:

It is not the sentimental viewpoint but the earnest seeking to see beauty–in the relation of one tone against nother–which expresses truth–the right attitude. If you’re a thoughtful humble student of nature, you’ll have something to say–you don’t have to tell a story. You can’t add a thing by thinking–what you are will come out.

You cannot bring reason to bear on painting–the eye looks up and gets an impression and that is what you want to register. Painters don’t reason, they do. The moment they reason they are lost–subconscious thought counts.

Be always searching, never settle to do something you’ve done before. Every successful canvas has been painted from the point of view of a student, for a great painter is always a student.

Be alive, stop when your interest is lost. Put off finish . . . make a lot of starts. A few large simple spots in right relations are the most important things in the study of painting.

No amount of good drawing will pull you out if your colors are not true. Get them true and you will be surprised how little else you will need.

We paint problems in order to paint pictures and if we are good we keep on doing problems all our lives and the more humbly we stick to that attitude, the better we paint.

Think of color instead of sand, think of color instead of clothes. Color first and the house after, not house first and color after . . . let color make form.

Think of your work as a portrait of the time of day rather than of a model.

We must teach ourselves to be fine, to be poets. Spend a lifetime in hard work with a humble mind. In his attempt to develop the beauty he sees, the artist develops himself.

Of course we don’t think all the time–but why work when we are not thinking? Don’t confuse this kind of thinking with the sort of reasoning I have said a painter should not have.

Get into the attitude where you are thrilled by two shadows coming together. That point of view is so beautiful, so sane, that it is worth while in itself. By working with the abstract point of view, that of the workman, one spot against another, we achieve the concrete. This is the only logical way to get at it. Seems simple. It is simple, but one in ten thousand ever achieves it.

Do what you see, not what you know. Put down each spot of color truly and sincerely–remember that it is the large spot of color that tells the story.

Funny thing about painting; you don’t know what makes it right but you know when it is wrong.

A bottle is as serious a subject for portraiture as a person.

Try to make it look clumsy. It will keep you from being satisfied with well-turned edges. Clumsiness indicates a struggle to put things down right, an honest effort to grasp the truth.

Don’t paint up to a line, work from the center, don’t fill in an outline but make the inside form the outline.

A philosopher would probably be a low grade moron if he tried to paint.

It’s a human impossibility to know how awful the children of your brain are. You hear criticism, but like death, you think of it always for someone else.

There is something noble about being able to paint a dishpan that anyone would be glad to hang in a drawing room.

The successful painter is continually painting still life.

You have to be able to see these spots come together without outline and let the outline come after. Look to the center of color spots and don’t be so particular about where the edges come together.

I have seen things so sensitive that you could tell whether it was morning or afternoon. That is painting–to tell people what the thing looks like. I once painted a canvas and someone said, “That looks like Sunday morning!” I don’t know why, but it did, and it was painted Sunday morning.

Yours is too much of a white house and not enough spots of color–you have painted the house from what you know and not from what you saw; what I want is that you paint this spot of color (the sky) coming against this spot of color (the building) in their right relation . . .

It’s a sad commentary that nothing is so startling as truth to human beings–in a canvas too.

Real painting is like real music, the correct tones and colors next to one another.

Painting is just like making an after dinner speech. If you want to be remembered, say one thing and stop.

Put off the evil day of finishing as long as possible. Keep looking at the beauty of the large spots and thinking of their relations to each other and the first thing you know it will be finished.

Consider the great singers, musicians. They always made you conscious of a reserve of power, something greater that they are capable of. Never fire your last shot. Power is real strength–don’t give all, have reserve.

Get out and slop around and have more fun–see if (your paintings) can’t look as if you were somewhere near the place when the crime was committed. I don’t want them to be sloppy but it is impossible to get both neatness and light–if you could do that you would not be here–you would be the best master alive.

Art is a necessity, beauty we must have in the world. Painting and sculpture and music and literature are all of the same piece as civilization, which is the art of making it possible for human beings to live together.

Be like a humble child; don’t feel like a professional artist. If a man is humble enough, every time he does a nose it is as if that were the first nose he had ever seen. Each time he develops himself, not the nose.




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