Chapter 4




Most of the earliest forms of drawing known to us in history, like those of the child we were discussing in the last chapter, are largely in the nature of outline drawings. This is a remarkable fact considering the somewhat remote relation lines have to the complete phenomena of vision. Outlines can only be said to exist in appearances as the boundaries of masses. But even here a line seems a poor thing from the visual point of view; as the boundaries are not always clearly defined, but are continually merging into the surrounding mass and losing themselves to be caught up again later on and defined once more. Its relationship with visual appearances is not sufficient to justify the instinct for line drawing. It comes, I think, as has already been said, from the sense of touch. When an object is felt there is no merging in the surrounding mass, but a firm definition of its boundary, which the mind instinctively conceives as a line.

There is a more direct appeal to the imagination in line drawing than in possibly anything else in pictorial art. The emotional stimulus given by fine design is due largely to line work. The power a line possesses of instinctively directing the eye along its course is of the utmost value also, enabling the artist to concentrate the attention of the beholder 51where he wishes. Then there is a harmonic sense in lines and their relationships, a music of line that is found at the basis of all good art. But this subject will be treated later on when talking of line rhythm.

Most artists whose work makes a large appeal to the imagination are strong on the value of line. Blake, whose visual knowledge was such a negligible quantity, but whose mental perceptions were so magnificent, was always insisting on its value. And his designs are splendid examples of its powerful appeal to the imagination.

On this basis of line drawing the development of art proceeded. The early Egyptian wall paintings were outlines tinted, and the earliest wall sculpture was an incised outline. After these incised lines some man of genius thought of cutting away the surface of the wall between the outlines and modelling it in low relief. The appearance of this may have suggested to the man painting his outline on the wall the idea of shading between his outlines.

At any rate the next development was the introduction of a little shading to relieve the flatness of the line-work and suggest modelling. And this was as far as things had gone in the direction of the representation of form, until well on in the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli used nothing else than an outline lightly shaded to indicate form. Light and shade were not seriously perceived until Leonardo da Vinci. And a wonderful discovery it was thought to be, and was, indeed, although it seems difficult to understand where men's eyes had been for so long with the phenomena of light and shade before them all the time. But this is only another proof of 52what cannot be too often insisted on, namely that the eye only sees what it is on the look-out for, and it may even be there are things just as wonderful yet to be discovered in vision.

But it was still the touch association of an object that was the dominant one; it was within the outline demanded by this sense that the light and shade were to be introduced as something as it were put on the object. It was the "solids in space" idea that art was still appealing to.

"The first object of a painter is to make a simple flat surface appear like a relievo, and some of its parts detached from the ground; he who excels all others in that part of the art deserves the greatest praise,"[1] wrote Leonardo da Vinci, and the insistence on this "standing out" quality, with its appeal to the touch sense as something great in art, sounds very strange in these days. But it must be remembered that the means of creating this illusion were new to all and greatly wondered at.

[1] Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, paragraph 178.

And again, in paragraph 176 of his treatise, Leonardo writes: "The knowledge of the outline is of most consequence, and yet may be acquired to great certainty by dint of study; as the outlines of the human figure, particularly those which do not bend, are invariably the same. But the knowledge of the situation, quality and quantity of shadows, being infinite, requires the most extensive study."

The outlines of the human figure are "invariably the same"? What does this mean? From the visual point of view we know that the space occupied by figures in the field of our vision is by no means "invariably the same," but of great variety. So it cannot be the visual appearance he is speaking about. 53It can only refer to the mental idea of the shape of the members of the human figure. The remark "particularly those that do not bend" shows this also, for when the body is bent up even the mental idea of its form must be altered. There is no hint yet of vision being exploited for itself, but only in so far as it yielded material to stimulate this mental idea of the exterior world.

Plate IX. STUDY BY WATTEAU From an original drawing in the collection of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon.

Plate IX.


From an original drawing in the collection of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon.

All through the work of the men who used this light and shade (or chiaroscuro, as it was called) the outline basis remained. Leonardo, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Titian, and the Venetians were all faithful to it as the means of holding their pictures together; although the Venetians, by fusing the edges of their outline masses, got very near the visual method to be introduced later by Velazquez.

In this way, little by little, starting from a basis of simple outline forms, art grew up, each new detail of visual appearance discovered adding, as it were, another instrument to the orchestra at the disposal of the artist, enabling him to add to the somewhat crude directness and simplicity of the early work the graces and refinements of the more complex work, making the problem of composition more difficult but increasing the range of its expression.

But these additions to the visual formula used by artists was not all gain; the simplicity of the means at the disposal of a Botticelli gives an innocence and imaginative appeal to his work that it is difficult to think of preserving with the more complete visual realisation of later schools. When the realisation of actual appearance is most complete, the mind is liable to be led away by side issues connected with the things represented, instead of seeing the emotional intentions of the artist expressed through 54them. The mind is apt to leave the picture and looking, as it were, not at it but through it, to pursue a train of thought associated with the objects represented as real objects, but alien to the artistic intention of the picture. There is nothing in these early formulae to disturb the contemplation of the emotional appeal of pure form and colour. To those who approach a picture with the idea that the representation of nature, the "making it look like the real thing," is the sole object of painting, how strange must be the appearance of such pictures as Botticelli's.

The accumulation of the details of visual observation in art is liable eventually to obscure the main idea and disturb the large sense of design on which so much of the imaginative appeal of a work of art depends. The large amount of new visual knowledge that the naturalistic movements of the nineteenth century brought to light is particularly liable at this time to obscure the simpler and more primitive qualities on which all good art is built. At the height of that movement line drawing went out of fashion, and charcoal, and an awful thing called a stump, took the place of the point in the schools. Charcoal is a beautiful medium in a dexterous hand, but is more adaptable to mass than to line drawing. The less said about the stump the better, although I believe it still lingers on in some schools.

Line drawing is happily reviving, and nothing is so calculated to put new life and strength into the vagaries of naturalistic painting and get back into art a fine sense of design.

This obscuring of the direct appeal of art by the accumulation of too much naturalistic detail, and the loss of power it entails, is the cause of artists 55having occasionally gone back to a more primitive convention. There was the Archaistic movement in Greece, and men like Rossetti and Burne-Jones found a better means of expressing the things that moved them in the technique of the fourteenth century. And it was no doubt a feeling of the weakening influence on art, as an expressive force, of the elaborate realisations of the modern school, that prompted Puvis de Chavannes to invent for himself his large primitive manner. It will be noticed that in these instances it is chiefly the insistence upon outline that distinguishes these artists from their contemporaries.

Art, like life, is apt to languish if it gets too far away from primitive conditions. But, like life also, it is a poor thing and a very uncouth affair if it has nothing but primitive conditions to recommend it. Because there is a decadent art about, one need not make a hero of the pavement artist. But without going to the extreme of flouting the centuries of culture that art inherits, as it is now fashionable in many places to do, students will do well to study at first the early rather than the late work of the different schools, so as to get in touch with the simple conditions of design on which good work is built. It is easier to study these essential qualities when they are not overlaid by so much knowledge of visual realisation. The skeleton of the picture is more apparent in the earlier than the later work of any school.

The finest example of the union of the primitive with the most refined and cultured art the world has ever seen is probably the Parthenon at Athens, a building that has been the wonder of the artistic world for over two thousand years. Not only are 56the fragments of its sculptures in the British Museum amazing, but the beauty and proportions of its architecture are of a refinement that is, I think, never even attempted in these days. What architect now thinks of correcting the poorness of hard, straight lines by very slightly curving them? Or of slightly sloping inwards the columns of his facade to add to the strength of its appearance? The amount of these variations is of the very slightest and bears witness to the pitch of refinement attempted. And yet, with it all, how simple! There is something of the primitive strength of Stonehenge in that solemn row of columns rising firmly from the steps without any base. With all its magnificence, it still retains the simplicity of the hut from which it was evolved.

Something of the same combination of primitive grandeur and strength with exquisite refinement of visualisation is seen in the art of Michael Angelo. His followers adopted the big, muscular type of their master, but lost the primitive strength he expressed; and when this primitive force was lost sight of, what a decadence set in!

This is the point at which art reaches its highest mark: when to the primitive strength and simplicity of early art are added the infinite refinements and graces of culture without destroying or weakening the sublimity of the expression.

In painting, the refinement and graces of culture take the form of an increasing truth to natural appearances, added bit by bit to the primitive baldness of early work; until the point is reached, as it was in the nineteenth century, when apparently the whole facts of visual nature are incorporated. From this wealth of visual material, to which must 57be added the knowledge we now have of the arts of the East, of China, Japan, and India, the modern artist has to select those things that appeal to him; has to select those elements that answer to his inmost need of expressing himself as an artist. No wonder a period of artistic dyspepsia is upon us, no wonder our exhibitions, particularly those on the Continent, are full of strange, weird things. The problem before the artist was never so complex, but also never so interesting. New forms, new combinations, new simplifications are to be found. But the steadying influence and discipline of line work were never more necessary to the student.

The primitive force we are in danger of losing depends much on line, and no work that aims at a sublime impression can dispense with the basis of a carefully wrought and simple line scheme.

The study, therefore, of pure line drawing is of great importance to the painter, and the numerous drawings that exist by the great masters in this method show how much they understood its value.

And the revival of line drawing, and the desire there is to find a simpler convention founded on this basis, are among the most hopeful signs in the art of the moment.