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On Copying

The Art Of Painting - On Copying - 2, a brief series of articles on the art of painting and drawing
 
 
The student invariably follows his strength, which, until he is many-sided, is the last thing to do. You may neglect for a time what comes easiest to you, and turn to fortify the weaker links in the chain of your accomplishments. Do not lack the moral courage to exhibit your failings before your fellows, and do not let a childish vanity urge you on to a constant repetition of what you think your forte, or you will end in strengthening one set of muscles at the expense of all the others. Your performances will be lopsided and unequal. Value as nothing the praise of the incompetent, and value your studies in the making even less.
You will, of course, need to consider many things besides the manipulation of your materials—things to which, in the course of a little chat with you, references may occur.
What I have just said with regard to a partiality in your painting study applies with even greater force to a neglect of composition.
You probably have, even if you are not conscious of it, some constructive ability, like the man who, on being asked if he could play the fiddle, replied that he didn't know, he'd never tried. You may not know. Anyhow, try ! I remember well that in a class of students whose work I supervised, and whose sketch compositions I criticised, there were some who mistrusted their capacity for artistic arrangement, and who with a little persuasion were induced to make an attempt in this direction. They gained in the course of time much facility, and developed in some instances undoubted power.
You may desire to make natural effects your chief aim, and if there lies your strength, by all means do ; but do not forget at the same time to make them decorative. They will be studies, and not pictures, if within the four corners of their frame they are ill-balanced.
The first demand one makes of a work of art is that it be satisfactorily disposed, not necessarily on worn conventional lines, but that its pattern or "blot" be adjusted conformably to the shape and proportion of its setting, and that it obeys the laws of what is called decorative effect. These laws are very wide, for a good Japanese print is as decorative as a fine Titian, a complete Dutch genre picture, a Turner landscape, or a Velazquez portrait group. There are no actual limits to decorative laws ; you may even make new ones for yourself. An industrious striving to create and record impressions you will find the best schooling.
A knowledge of modelling in wax or clay is helpful in composing figures that are in action or that might be sculpturesquely interwoven. Nothing is more suggestive than some such plastic material. Lord Leighton, the grace of whose line is rarely equalled, modelled most of the groups for his classic compositions ; and for flying or clinging draperies a fairly modelled clay figure, on which the material used has been previously dipped in a mixture of clay and water, and is arranged in folds which will remain in condition for an indefinite period, is hard to improve upon.
Then there is a little secret of my own which I will now divulge to you.
You have probably heard of a smoked plate—that is, a common white plate held over a lighted candle to blacken its surface. With the finger lights are touched out, and can be made often to suggest effective arrangements and fancies. It- is a favourite pastime with students. But I think I have improved on this practice ; for china is fragile, to say nothing of the difficulty of storing piles of it ; the regrettable alternative is to efface what might one day prove a useful design. You should always keep your sketch compositions ; the best pictures are frequently done from sketches made many years before the final painting-from them.
With the assistance of an old friend I developed this substitute for a smoked plate. We took a millboard about 20 by 16 inches—a convenient size—and covered it with Aspinall's enamel. When this dried, as it does in a day or so, we had an excellent surface for experiments. A wash of water-colour ivory black replaced the candle smoke, and with a wetted brush we amused ourselves making all sorts of fantasies. A few such prepared millboards are now to me indispensable, and I advise you to make some in the same way. They will greatly facilitate your management of line, grouping, and light and shade. In the same manner you can work in colour with water-colours, and you will find it the most fascinating thing possible.



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