Line

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Line
by John Ruskin

126. You will, I doubt not, willingly permit me to begin your lessons in real practice of art in the words of the greatest of English painters: one also, than whom there is indeed no greater, among those of any nation, or any time,--our own gentle Reynolds.

He says in his first discourse:--"The Directors" (of the Academy) "ought more particularly to watch over the genius of those students, who being more advanced, are arrived at that critical period of study, on the nice management of which their future turn of taste depends. At that age it is natural for them to be more captivated with what is brilliant, than with what is solid, and to prefer splendid negligence to painful and humiliating exactness."

"A facility in composing, a lively and, what is called, a 'masterly' handling of the chalk or pencil, are, it must be confessed, captivating qualities to young minds, and become of course the objects of their ambition. They endeavour to imitate these dazzling excellences, which they will find no great labour in attaining. After much time spent in these frivolous pursuits, the difficulty will be to retreat; but it will then be too late; and there is scarce an instance of return to scrupulous labour, after the mind has been debauched and deceived by this fallacious mastery."


127. I read you these words, chiefly that Sir Joshua, who founded, as first President, the Academical schools of English painting, in these well-known discourses, may also begin, as he has truest right to do, our system of instruction in this University. But secondly, I read them that I may press on your attention these singular words, "painful and humiliating exactness." Singular, as expressing the first conditions of the study required from his pupils by the master, who, of all men except Velasquez, seems to have painted with the greatest ease. It is true that he asks this pain, this humiliation, only from youths who intend to follow the profession of artists. But if you wish yourselves to know anything of the practice of art, you must not suppose that because your study will be more desultory than that of Academy students, it may therefore be less accurate. The shorter the time you have to give, the more careful you should be to spend it profitably; and I would not wish you to devote one hour to the practice of drawing, unless you are resolved to be informed in it of all that in an hour can be taught.


128. I speak of the practice of _drawing_ only; though elementary study of modelling may perhaps some day be advisably connected with it; but I do not wish to disturb, or amuse, you with a formal statement of the manifold expectations I have formed respecting your future work. You will not, I am sure, imagine that I have begun without a plan, nor blame my reticence as to the parts of it which cannot yet be put into execution, and which there may occur reason afterwards to modify. My first task must unquestionably be to lay before you right and simple methods of drawing and colouring.

I use the word "colouring" without reference to any particular vehicle of colour, for the laws of good painting are the same, whatever liquid is employed to dissolve the pigments. But the technical management of oil is more difficult than that of water-colour, and the impossibility of using it with safety among books or prints, and its unavailableness for note-book sketches and memoranda, are sufficient reasons for not introducing it in a course of practice intended chiefly for students of literature. On the contrary, in the exercises of artists, oil should be the vehicle of colour employed from the first. The extended practice of water-colour painting, as a separate skill, is in every way harmful to the arts: its pleasant slightness and plausible dexterity divert the genius of the painter from its proper aims, and withdraw the attention of the public from excellence of higher claim; nor ought any man, who has the consciousness of ability for good work, to be ignorant of, or indolent in employing, the methods of making its results permanent as long as the laws of Nature allow. It is surely a severe lesson to us in this matter, that the best works of Turner could not be shown to the public for six months without being destroyed,--and that his most ambitious ones for the most part perished, even before they could be shown. I will break through my law of reticence, however, so far as to tell you that I have hope of one day interesting you greatly (with the help of the Florentine masters), in the study of the arts of moulding and painting porcelain; and to induce some of you to use your future power of patronage in encouraging the various branches of this art, and turning the attention of the workmen of Italy from the vulgar tricks of minute and perishable mosaic to the exquisite subtilties of form and colour possible in the perfectly ductile, afterwards unalterable clay. And one of the ultimate results of such craftsmanship might be the production of pictures as brilliant as painted glass,--as delicate as the most subtle water-colours, and more permanent than the Pyramids.


129. And now to begin our own work. In order that we may know how rightly to learn to draw and to paint, it will be necessary, will it not, that we know first what we are to aim at doing;--what kind of representation of nature is best?

I will tell you in the words of Lionardo. "That is the most praiseworthy painting which has most conformity with the thing represented," "quella pittura e piu laudabile, la quale ha piu conformita con la cosa mitata," (ch. 276). In plain terms, "the painting which is likest nature is the best." And you will find by referring to the preceding chapter, "come lo specchio e maestro de' pittori," how absolutely Lionardo means what he says. Let the living thing, (he tells us,) be reflected in a mirror, then put your picture beside the reflection, and match the one with the other. And indeed, the very best painting is unquestionably so like the mirrored truth, that all the world admits its excellence. Entirely first-rate work is so quiet and natural that there can be no dispute over it; you may not particularly admire it, but you will find no fault with it. Second-rate painting pleases one person much, and displeases another; but first-rate painting pleases all a little, and intensely pleases those who can recognise its unostentatious skill.


130. This, then, is what we have first got to do--to make our drawing look as like the thing we have to draw as we can.

Now, all objects are seen by the eye as patches of colour of a certain shape, with gradations of colour within them. And, unless their colours be actually luminous, as those of the sun, or of fire, these patches of different hues are sufficiently imitable, except so far as they are seen stereoscopically. You will find Lionardo again and again insisting on the stereoscopic power of the double sight: but do not let that trouble you; you can only paint what you can see from one point of sight, but that is quite enough. So seen, then, all objects appear to the human eye simply as masses of colour of variable depth, texture, and outline. The outline of any object is the limit of its mass, as relieved against another mass. Take a crocus, and lay it on a green cloth. You will see it detach itself as a mere space of yellow from the green behind it, as it does from the grass. Hold it up against the window--you will see it detach itself as a dark space against the white or blue behind it. In either case its outline is the limit of the space of light or dark colour by which it expresses itself to your sight. That outline is therefore infinitely subtle--not even a line, but the place of a line, and that, also, made soft by texture. In the finest painting it is therefore slightly softened; but it is necessary to be able to draw it with absolute sharpness and precision. The art of doing this is to be obtained by drawing it as an actual line, which art is to be the subject of our immediate enquiry; but I must first lay the divisions of the entire subject completely before you.


131. I have said that all objects detach themselves as masses of colour. Usually, light and shade are thought of as separate from colour; but the fact is that all nature is seen as a mosaic composed of gradated portions of different colours, dark or light. There is no difference in the quality of these colours, except as affected by texture. You will constantly hear lights and shades spoken of as if these were different in their nature, and to be painted in different ways. But every light is a shadow compared to higher lights, till we reach the brightness of the sun; and every shadow is a light compared to lower shadows, till we reach the darkness of night.

Every colour used in painting, except pure white and black, is therefore a light and shade at the same time. It is a light with reference to all below it, and a shade with reference to all above it.


132. The solid forms of an object, that is to say, the projections or recessions of its surface within the outline, are, for the most part, rendered visible by variations in the intensity or quantity of light falling on them. The study of the relations between the quantities of this light, irrespectively of its colour, is the second division of the regulated science of painting.


133. Finally, the qualities and relations of natural colours, the means of imitating them, and the laws by which they become separately beautiful, and in association harmonious, are the subjects of the third and final division of the painter's study. I shall endeavour at once to state to you what is most immediately desirable for you to know on each of these topics, in this and the two following lectures.


134. What we have to do, then, from beginning to end, is, I repeat once more, simply to draw spaces of their true shape, and to fill them with colours which shall match their colours; quite a simple thing in the definition of it, not quite so easy in the doing of it.

But it is something to get this simple definition; and I wish you to notice that the terms of it are complete, though I do not introduce the term "light," or "shadow." Painters who have no eye for colour have greatly confused and falsified the practice of art by the theory that shadow is an absence of colour. Shadow is, on the contrary, necessary to the full presence of colour; for every colour is a diminished quantity or energy of light; and, practically, it follows from what I have just told you--(that every light in painting is a shadow to higher lights, and every shadow a light to lower shadows)--that also every _colour_ in painting must be a shadow to some brighter colour, and a light to some darker one--all the while being a positive colour itself. And the great splendour of the Venetian school arises from their having seen and held from the beginning this great fact--that shadow is as much colour as light, often much more. In Titian's fullest red the lights are pale rose-colour, passing into white--the shadows warm deep crimson. In Veronese's most splendid orange, the lights are pale, the shadows crocus colour; and so on. In nature, dark sides if seen by reflected lights, are almost always fuller or warmer in colour than the lights; and the practice of the Bolognese and Roman schools, in drawing their shadows always dark and cold, is false from the beginning, and renders perfect painting for ever impossible in those schools, and to all who follow them.


135. Every visible space, then, be it dark or light, is a space of colour of some kind, or of black or white. And you have to enclose it with a true outline, and to paint it with its true colour.

But before considering how we are to draw this enclosing line, I must state to you something about the use of lines in general, by different schools.

I said just now that there was no difference between the masses of colour of which all visible nature is composed, except in _texture_. Now textures are principally of three kinds:--

    (1) Lustrous, as of water and glass.
    (2) Bloomy, or velvety, as of a rose-leaf or peach.
    (3) Linear, produced by filaments or threads as in feathers, fur,
        hair, and woven or reticulated tissues.

All these three sources of pleasure to the eye in texture are united in the best ornamental work. A fine picture by Fra Angelico, or a fine illuminated page of missal, has large spaces of gold, partly burnished and lustrous, partly dead;--some of it chased and enriched with linear texture, and mingled with imposed or inlaid colours, soft in bloom like that of the rose-leaf. But many schools of art affect for the most part one kind of texture only, and a vast quantity of the art of all ages depends for great part of its power on texture produced by multitudinous lines. Thus, wood engraving, line engraving properly so called, and countless varieties of sculpture, metal work, and textile fabric, depend for great part of the effect, for the mystery, softness, and clearness of their colours, or shades, on modification of the surfaces by lines or threads. Even in advanced oil painting, the work often depends for some part of its effect on the texture of the canvas.


136. Again, the arts of etching and mezzotint engraving depend principally for their effect on the velvety, or bloomy texture of their darkness, and the best of all painting is the fresco work of great colourists, in which the colours are what is usually called dead; but they are anything but dead, they glow with the luminous bloom of life. The frescoes of Correggio, when not repainted, are supreme in this quality.


137. While, however, in all periods of art these different textures are thus used in various styles, and for various purposes, you will find that there is a broad historical division of schools, which will materially assist you in understanding them. The earliest art in most countries is linear, consisting of interwoven, or richly spiral and otherwise involved arrangements of sculptured or painted lines, on stone, wood, metal or clay. It is generally characteristic of savage life, and of feverish energy of imagination. I shall examine these schools with you hereafter, under the general head of the "Schools of Line."[12]

[Footnote 12: See "Ariadne Florentina," Sec. 5.]

Secondly, even in the earliest periods, among powerful nations, this linear decoration is more or less filled with chequered or barred shade, and begins at once to represent animal or floral form, by filling its outlines with flat shadow, or with flat colour. And here we instantly find two great divisions of temper and thought. The Greeks look upon all colour first as light; they are, as compared with other races, insensitive to hue, exquisitely sensitive to phenomena of light. And their linear school passes into one of flat masses of light and darkness, represented in the main by four tints,--white, black, and two reds, one brick colour, more or less vivid, the other dark purple; these two standing mentally their favourite +porphyreos+ colour, in its light and dark powers. On the other hand, many of the Northern nations are at first entirely insensible to light and shade, but exquisitely sensitive to colour, and their linear decoration is filled with flat tints, infinitely varied, but with no expression of light and shade. Both these schools have a limited but absolute perfection of their own, and their peculiar successes can in no wise be imitated, except by the strictest observance of the same limitations.


138. You have then, Line for the earliest art, branching into--

    (1) Greek, Line with Light.
    (2) Gothic, Line with Colour.

Now, as art completes itself, each of these schools retain their separate characters, but they cease to depend on lines, and learn to represent masses instead, becoming more refined at the same time in all modes of perception and execution.

And thus there arise the two vast mediaeval schools; one of flat and infinitely varied colour, with exquisite character and sentiment added, in the forms represented; but little perception of shadow. The other, of light and shade, with exquisite drawing of solid form, and little perception of colour: sometimes as little of sentiment. Of these, the school of flat colour is the more vital one; it is always natural and simple, if not great;--and when it is great, it is very great.

The school of light and shade associates itself with that of engraving; it is essentially an academical school, broadly dividing light from darkness, and begins by assuming that the light side of all objects shall be represented by white, and the extreme shadow by black. On this conventional principle it reaches a limited excellence of its own, in which the best existing types of engraving are executed, and ultimately, the most regular expressions of organic form in painting.

Then, lastly,--the schools of colour advance steadily, till they adopt from those of light and shade whatever is compatible with their own power,--and then you have perfect art, represented centrally by that of the great Venetians.

The schools of light and shade, on the other hand, are partly, in their academical formulas, too haughty, and partly, in their narrowness of imagination, too weak, to learn much from the schools of colour; and pass into a state of decadence, consisting partly in proud endeavours to give painting the qualities of sculpture, and partly in the pursuit of effects of light and shade, carried at last to extreme sensational subtlety by the Dutch school. In their fall, they drag the schools of colour down with them; and the recent history of art is one of confused effort to find lost roads, and resume allegiance to violated principles.


139. That, briefly, is the map of the great schools, easily remembered in this hexagonal form:--

                                  1.
                                 LINE
                            Early schools.
          2.                                      3.
    LINE AND LIGHT.                          LINE AND COLOUR.
      Greek clay.                              Gothic glass.
          4.                                      5.
    MASS AND LIGHT.                       MASS AND COLOUR.
(Represented by Lionardo,             (Represented by Giorgione,
   and his schools.)                         and his schools.)
                                  6.
                        MASS, LIGHT, AND COLOUR.
                         (Represented by Titian,
                             and his schools.)

And I wish you with your own eyes and fingers to trace, and in your own progress follow, the method of advance exemplified by these great schools. I wish you to begin by getting command of line, that is to say, by learning to draw a steady line, limiting with absolute correctness the form or space you intend it to limit; to proceed by getting command over flat tints, so that you may be able to fill the spaces you have enclosed, evenly, either with shade or colour according to the school you adopt; and finally to obtain the power of adding such fineness of gradation within the masses, as shall express their roundings, and their characters of texture.


140. Those who are familiar with the methods of existing schools must be aware that I thus nearly invert their practice of teaching. Students at present learn to draw details first, and to colour and mass them afterwards. I shall endeavour to teach you to arrange broad masses and colours first; and you shall put the details into them afterwards. I have several reasons for this audacity, of which you may justly require me to state the principal ones. The first is that, as I have shown you, this method I wish you to follow, is the natural one. All great artist nations _have_ actually learned to work in this way, and I believe it therefore the right, as the hitherto successful one. Secondly, you will find it less irksome than the reverse method, and more definite. When a beginner is set at once to draw details, and make finished studies in light and shade, no master can correct his innumerable errors, or rescue him out of his endless difficulties. But in the natural method, he can correct, if he will, his own errors. You will have positive lines to draw, presenting no more difficulty, except in requiring greater steadiness of hand, than the outlines of a map. They will be generally sweeping and simple, instead of being jagged into promontories and bays; but assuredly, they may be drawn rightly (with patience), and their rightness tested with mathematical accuracy. You have only to follow your own line with tracing paper, and apply it to your own copy. If they do not correspond, you are wrong, and you need no master to show you where. Again; in washing in a flat tone of colour or shade, you can always see yourself if it is flat, and kept well within the edges; and you can set a piece of your colour side by side with that of the copy; if it does not match, you are wrong; and, again, you need no one to tell you so, if your eye for colour is true. It happens, indeed, more frequently than would be supposed, that there is real want of power in the eye to distinguish colours; and this I even suspect to be a condition which has been sometimes attendant on high degrees of cerebral sensitiveness in other directions; but such want of faculty would be detected in your first two or three exercises by this simple method, while, otherwise, you might go on for years endeavouring to colour from nature in vain. Lastly, and this is a very weighty collateral reason, such a method enables me to show you many things, besides the art of drawing. Every exercise that I prepare for you will be either a portion of some important example of ancient art, or of some natural object. However rudely or unsuccessfully you may draw it, (though I anticipate from you neither want of care nor success,) you will nevertheless have learned what no words could have so forcibly or completely taught you, either respecting early art or organic structure; and I am thus certain that not a moment you spend attentively will be altogether wasted, and that, generally, you will be twice gainers by every effort.


141. There is, however, yet another point in which I think a change of existing methods will be advisable. You have here in Oxford one of the finest collections in Europe of drawings in pen, and chalk, by Michael Angelo and Raphael. Of the whole number, you cannot but have noticed that not one is weak or student-like--all are evidently master's work.

You may look the galleries of Europe through, and so far as I know, or as it is possible to make with safety any so wide generalization, you will not find in them a childish or feeble drawing, by these, or by any other great master.

And farther:--by the greatest men--by Titian, Velasquez, or Veronese--you will hardly find an authentic drawing, at all. For the fact is, that while we moderns have always learned, or tried to learn, to paint by drawing, the ancients learned to draw by painting--or by engraving, more difficult still. The brush was put into their hands when they were children, and they were forced to draw with that, until, if they used the pen or crayon, they used it either with the lightness of a brush or the decision of a graver. Michael Angelo uses his pen like a chisel; but all of them seem to use it only when they are in the height of their power, and then for rapid notation of thought or for study of models; but never as a practice helping them to paint. Probably exercises of the severest kind were gone through in minute drawing by the apprentices of the goldsmiths, of which we hear and know little, and which were entirely matters of course. To these, and to the exquisiteness of care and touch developed in working precious metals, may probably be attributed the final triumph of Italian sculpture. Michael Angelo, when a boy, is said to have copied engravings by Schoengauer and others, with his pen, in facsimile so true that he could pass his drawings as the originals. But I should only discourage you from all farther attempts in art, if I asked you to imitate any of these accomplished drawings of the gem-artificers. You have, fortunately, a most interesting collection of them already in your galleries, and may try your hands on them if you will. But I desire rather that you should attempt nothing except what can by determination be absolutely accomplished, and be known and felt by you to be accomplished when it is so. Now, therefore, I am going at once to comply with that popular instinct which, I hope, so far as you care for drawing at all, you are still boys enough to feel, the desire to paint. Paint you shall; but remember, I understand by painting what you will not find easy. Paint you shall; but daub or blot you shall not: and there will be even more care required, though care of a pleasanter kind, to follow the lines traced for you with the point of the brush than if they had been drawn with that of a crayon. But from the very beginning (though carrying on at the same time an incidental practice with crayon and lead pencil), you shall try to draw a line of absolute correctness with the point, not of pen or crayon, but of the brush, as Apelles did, and as all coloured lines are drawn on Greek vases. A line of absolute correctness, observe. I do not care how slowly you do it, or with how many alterations, junctions, or re-touchings; the one thing I ask of you is, that the line shall be right, and right by measurement, to the same minuteness which you would have to give in a Government chart to the map of a dangerous shoal.


142. This question of measurement is, as you are probably aware, one much vexed in art schools; but it is determined indisputably by the very first words written by Lionardo: "Il giovane deve prima imparare prospettiva, _per le misure d'ogni cosa_."

Without absolute precision of measurement, it is certainly impossible for you to learn perspective rightly; and, as far as I can judge, impossible to learn anything else rightly. And in my past experience of teaching, I have found that such precision is of all things the most difficult to enforce on the pupils. It is easy to persuade to diligence, or provoke to enthusiasm; but I have found it hitherto impossible to humiliate one clever student into perfect accuracy.

It is, therefore, necessary, in beginning a system of drawing for the University, that no opening should be left for failure in this essential matter. I hope you will trust the words of the most accomplished draughtsman of Italy, and the painter of the great sacred picture which, perhaps beyond all others, has influenced the mind of Europe, when he tells you that your first duty is "to learn perspective by the _measures_ of everything." For perspective, I will undertake that it shall be made, practically, quite easy to you; if you care to master the mathematics of it, they are carried as far as is necessary for you in my treatise written in 1859, of which copies shall be placed at your disposal in your working room. But the habit and dexterity of _measurement_ you must acquire at once, and that with engineer's accuracy. I hope that in our now gradually developing system of education, elementary architectural or military drawing will be required at all public schools; so that when youths come to the University, it may be no more necessary for them to pass through the preliminary exercises of perspective than of grammar: for the present, I will place in your series examples simple and severe enough for all necessary practice.


143. And while you are learning to measure, and to draw, and lay flat tints, with the brush, you must also get easy command of the pen; for that is not only the great instrument for the first sketching, but its right use is the foundation of the art of illumination. In nothing is fine art more directly founded on utility than in the close dependence of decorative illumination on good writing. Perfect illumination is only writing made lovely; the moment it passes into picture-making it has lost its dignity and function. For pictures, small or great, if beautiful, ought not to be painted on leaves of books, to be worn with service; and pictures, small or great, not beautiful, should be painted nowhere. But to make writing _itself_ beautiful,--to make the sweep of the pen lovely,--is the true art of illumination; and I particularly wish you to note this, because it happens continually that young girls who are incapable of tracing a single curve with steadiness, much more of delineating any ornamental or organic form with correctness, think that work, which would be intolerable in ordinary drawing, becomes tolerable when it is employed for the decoration of texts; and thus they render all healthy progress impossible, by protecting themselves in inefficiency under the shield of good motive. Whereas the right way of setting to work is to make themselves first mistresses of the art of writing beautifully; and then to apply that art in its proper degrees of development to whatever they desire permanently to write. And it is indeed a much more truly religious duty for girls to acquire a habit of deliberate, legible, and lovely penmanship in their daily use of the pen, than to illuminate any quantity of texts. Having done so, they may next discipline their hands into the control of lines of any length, and, finally, add the beauty of colour and form to the flowing of these perfect lines. But it is only after years of practice that they will be able to illuminate noble words rightly for the eyes, as it is only after years of practice that they can make them melodious rightly, with the voice.


144. I shall not attempt, in this lecture, to give you any account of the use of the pen as a drawing instrument. That use is connected in many ways with principles both of shading and of engraving, hereafter to be examined at length. But I may generally state to you that its best employment is in giving determination to the forms in drawings washed with neutral tint; and that, in this use of it, Holbein is quite without a rival. I have therefore placed many examples of his work among your copies. It is employed for rapid study by Raphael and other masters of delineation, who, in such cases, give with it also partial indications of shadow; but it is not a proper instrument for shading, when drawings are intended to be deliberate and complete, nor do the great masters so employ it. Its virtue is the power of producing a perfectly delicate, equal, and decisive line with great rapidity; and the temptation allied with that virtue is the licentious haste, and chance-swept, instead of strictly-commanded, curvature. In the hands of very great painters it obtains, like the etching needle, qualities of exquisite charm in this free use; but all attempts at imitation of these confused and suggestive sketches must be absolutely denied to yourselves while students. You may fancy you have produced something like them with little trouble; but, be assured, it is in reality as unlike them as nonsense is unlike sense; and that, if you persist in such work, you will not only prevent your own executive progress, but you will never understand in all your lives what good painting means. Whenever you take a pen in your hand, if you cannot count every line you lay with it, and say why you make it so long and no longer, and why you drew it in that direction and no other, your work is bad. The only man who can put his pen to full speed, and yet retain command over every separate line of it, is Duerer. He has done this in the illustrations of a missal preserved at Munich, which have been fairly facsimiled; and of these I have placed several in your copying series, with some of Turner's landscape etchings, and other examples of deliberate pen work, such as will advantage you in early study. The proper use of them you will find explained in the catalogue.


145. And, now, but one word more to-day. Do not impute to me the impertinence of setting before you what is new in this system of practice as being certainly the best method. No English artists are yet agreed entirely on early methods; and even Reynolds expresses with some hesitation his conviction of the expediency of learning to draw with the brush. But this method that I show you rests in all essential points on his authority, on Lionardo's, or on the evident as well as recorded practice of the most splendid Greek and Italian draughtsmen; and you may be assured it will lead you, however slowly, to great and certain skill. To what degree of skill, must depend greatly on yourselves; but I know that in practice of this kind you cannot spend an hour without definitely gaining, both in true knowledge of art, and in useful power of hand; and for what may appear in it too difficult, I must shelter or support myself, as in beginning, so in closing this first lecture on practice, by the words of Reynolds: "The impetuosity of youth is disgusted at the slow approaches of a regular siege, and desires, from mere impatience of labour, to take the citadel by storm. They must therefore be told again and again that labour is the only price of solid fame; and that, whatever their force of genius may be, there is no easy method of becoming a good painter."

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.