Why my books are needed?
Two quotations from students who have come on my courses at the Painting School of Montmiral indicate why there is a need for my books on drawing and painting. The first talks of, “a very different and vastly more interesting type of artistic education than I have met before” (Yolande Hart). The second goes into greater detail, explaining that, “This course, with its reference to proven research and with the patient explanations of its implications with respect to how the brain receives and interprets information provides a fundamentally sound approach commonly lacking in other courses and literature” (Iain McCowan).
Other comments on the uniqueness and efficacy of the methods I use in my teaching can be found on the “Comments” page of the Painting School website. Over 200 examples of student work can be found on the Student Work page
The limitations of existing books
At the end of a course, students often ask me to recommend books to read that will help them reinforce the new ideas to which they have been exposed. The explanation as to why I have found it difficult to give them a satisfactory answer is the same as the reason I seized an opportunity to do research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Before arriving at this turning point in my life as an artist, an important part of my time had been devoted to teaching drawing and painting. Despite enjoying my work and although my approach was clearly appreciated by my students, I always felt that there must be some better ways of helping them. In my efforts to improve matters with respect to their drawing from observation, I tried out a variety of the practices recommended in books, including most of the ideas later to be popularised by Betty Edwards in “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain”. I found that nearly all of these helped up to a point, sometimes spectacularly so, at least in the short term. The problem was that there were always important reasons for wanting to go beyond that point. I also used ideas coming from the Psychologists of Perception, that centred on their concept of “schemas” and the way these influenced both looking and doing strategies. Again, they helped to some extent, but left too many questions unanswered.
An opportunity to learn more
At the University of Stirling, I found myself gifted with the opportunity to do ten years of fundamental research into different aspects of how artists use their eyes when drawing and painting, It was during this time that, with the invaluable encouragement and help from colleagues, I was able to find convincing answers, not only to most of the questions I had brought with me but also to many others that emerged with the passage of time. In the process, I learnt a lot about reasons for the strengths and limitations of practices that are routinely recommended in how-to-do it painting and drawing books. Evidently, my new knowledge indicated a need for updating or replacing a surprising number of ideas that had previously been taken as fundamental truths. An additional, and quite unexpected spin-off of the research was the discovery of a rich vein of information relating to the birth and early development of Modernism in Painting.
In short, while at Stirling, for a whole bunch of reasons, I found myself being more and more excited by what I came to experience as a bubbling fountain of new ideas. So confident was I in their power to help aspiring artists that I took the step of setting up my summer school in S.W. France as a way of both sharing and testing them. When it came to teaching students, the use of the new knowledge both confirmed its validity and enabled me to expand it further. I must admit that I felt exhilarated by how well everything seemed to be going in both practice and theory.
A lone voice finds a soul mate
The only problem was that, when I looked at what other people had written on the theory and practice of drawing and painting, I had to face the fact that I was a lone voice crying in a wilderness: I found myself wanting to point out shortcomings in every book I read. Nor did anything change very much for a long time. Indeed it was to be more than twenty-five years before, totally unexpectedly, I came across intriguing references to the nineteenth century teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran (1802-1897), formerly Director of the “École spéciale de dessin et de mathématiques” in Paris.
What led me to this little known, but hugely influential figure was the discovery that Auguste Rodin, whose rapid and expressive drawings I had for long admired, was one of his students and a lifelong advocate of his ideas.* I also learnt that Lecoq Boisbaudran was a hard taskmaster. Later, when at last I came across his writings. I was amazed at how much there was in common between his attitudes, ideas and teaching methods and mine.
How Lecoq Boisbaudran came to write his book
One of the things we had in common was that both of us hesitated before committing ourselves to the task of writing our books. Another was that we were both were urged on by our students. in a Preface to one of his writings Lecoq Boisbaudran recounted how his ones had prevailed on him to set down his ideas . He told how when they put pressure on him to publish what they described as his “true method”, his first response focused on the word “true”:
“The ‘true’ one! That is far too exclusive a word. There is not and can never be only one method. Every sensible teacher should have full liberty to construct his own method, provided always that he bases it on upon true principles and rational deductions.”
But these salutary words, with which I completely agree, did not deter his students who pushed their argument further, saying:
“If the poorness of contemporary teaching is due to a general ignorance of principles and if you believe yourself to possess the required principles, it is your duty to make them known, and to spread them abroad.”
My students likewise have encouraged me to publish my “true principles and rational deductions” and they have done so for much the same reasons as the students of Lecoq Boisbaudran. And, like him, I allowed myself to be convinced that I should “make known” and “spread abroad” the ideas I teach. In other words I was persuaded to write my books.
What we have in common
So what else do we have in common? At the general level, we share three priorities, namely to:
- Help students develop their individuality.
- Emphasise the importance of training the memory.
- Explain why, contrary, not only to the beliefs of many but also to what might seem to be the dictates of logic, the aspiration to achieve accuracy in drawing and painting from observation provides a particularly effective preparation for those who wish to free themselves from the straitjacket of habit and explore new ways of seeing and doing.
Also, there are many similarities in the details of our different methods . For example, we share a belief in the effectiveness of rigour as a learning tool.
An important difference
Although there is plenty of evidence that Lecoq Boisbaudran had a memory-training philosophy with respect to the use of colour in painting, precise details of what he told his students has not come down to us. All we know is that they learnt to paint complex scenes from memory in ways that encouraged personal expression (my research suggests that examples can be found in the work of Whistler, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard, and many others). In contrast I have written two substantial books on the subject (now combined into one volume). The first of these focuses on whole-field colour relations and the ideas that were set in motion by Georges Seurat’s experiments with what he called “painting with light”. It tells how combining these with ideas on whole-field lightness variations, originating in the Italian Renaissance, inspired a paradigm-shift in the use of colour in paintings. The second book is on the subject of local interactions between colours. Since so much of value has been published on this subject (Itten, Albers, Hornung, etc.), it concentrates on rectifying misconceptions found in many how-to-do-it books and on the importance of viewing conditions on appearances, a much neglected and very interesting subject. It also has a section on shadows, highlights and shading, which my research shows are treated by eye/brain systems as being manifestations of colour in the same way as it treats red, orange, yellow, green blue and violet as colours.
Need to update
However, even in the domain of painting, there are substantial differences between information-base that underpins the methods of Lecoq Boisbaudran as compared with that which underpins mine. This is because in the more than one hundred and fifty years since Lecoq Boisbaudran published his first book, significant developments have taken place in the knowledge available both in the domains of visual perception and the neurophysiology of eye/brain function. Because of these, there is a need to update the “true principles” and the “rational deductions” of which the pupils of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran spoke.
In summary, the purpose of my books is to meet this need for updating the contents of books on the practice of drawing and painting in the light of modern research. More specifically, it is to make use of the new knowledge to provide useful modifications and practical alternatives to widely taught artistic practices.
* Rodin’s enthusiasm is evident from the letter he wrote to M Luard, the editor of a 2013 edition of Lecoq Boisbaudran’s writings. M Luard placed it on the first page after the title. In it he praised Lecoq Boisbaudran’s teaching: “The greater part of what he taught me stays with me still. I very much wish that every young artist could profit from his teaching and I strongly advise you to circulate his ideas by means of a new edition of his writings.”