Homework Friday – Learning like the Old Masters.

I haven’t been spending all my time breathing smoke and complaining about being tired since the New Year. While I haven’t been following a formal plan I have still been reading each evening.

Earlier this month I procured myself a copy of Discourses on Painting and the Fine Arts, delivered at the Royal Academy, by Sir Joshua Reynolds KT, (Jones & Co, 1825).

Beautifully worn and pre-loved, bound in boards with leather corners and banded spine, the title on the spine is School of Raphael, so I’m presuming it has been rebound at some stage. Inside are marbled end papers, and a few names of previous owners in ink – all of which have been scrubbed out by someone who doesn’t understand the importance of provenance in old books. Sigh.

But I digress and set aside for the moment my bibliophilic sensitivities.

I have read two of these discourse during the week. As they were originally delivered to an audience I read them aloud, my only audience my cat, Molly (who would have much preferred I left her to sleep).

The first thing that struck me was the language used. In the first discourse, given at the official opening of the Royal Academy in 1769, Sir Joshua talked about the importance of such an academy and the role it would play, (I’ve paraphrased the key points further on). I expected to struggle with text, thinking that a mid-18th century document would read quite differently to a modern text. But I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps it was because the text was a lecture, or perhaps it was because Sir Joshua was playing the role of educator, but the discourses are very readable and understandable.

My take-away points from this first discourse, focusing on the artistic lessons being given, rather than any political messages, were;

  • take time to master the rules;
  • draw what you see, not your interpretation;
  • practice;
  • subdue the urge to rush towards mastery;
  • focus on building technical skills;
  • once you have technical skills, and know the rules, then personal style, mastery, and interpretation can happen.

The old masters (referring to Raphael, and Michelangelo) worked rough sketches, then complete finished sketches, then and only then, they began working on the main picture based on these sketches. The sketches allowed them to work out the composition, adjust perspective and detail. When needed, they would go back to a sketch to focus on a detail of the main picture, e.g. a study of a hand, then return to the main work. Finally they would complete a work by referencing back to the original source, or model.

In short, learn the rules, learn proper technique, practice, curb your ego.

I have no doubt that this is a slow processes, and my desire to learn as the old masters learned will lead me down a very long path. But at the end of that path will be a confidence in my abilities that up until now has been lacking. Self-taught as I am, I suffer as anyone would from a certain amount of making it up as I go along, which leads to fluking things a lot of the time, and not being able to replicate techniques. For this reason I’m very much looking forward to learning more about the methods that 18th and 19th century students were taught.

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