Block Studies And Mud heads: Hawthorne, Hensche And The CSA
I'm writing this from memory, so, if I get a detail wrong here or there, please forgive me. I've read the books illustrating the American Impressionist's ideas in regards to capturing light, on canvas, with paint. Specifically, Charles Hawthorne's Hawthorne On Painting, and, John Robichaux's (Henry) Hensche On Painting. To put it lightly, the ideas here changed the way I paint.
One reason I have an affinity to these ideas is because I am enamored of back lighting--painting with the primary light source (usually the sun) behind the subject, and, therefore, facing the artist. This set-up is what created Hensche's "Mud Heads" where a sitter's face was presented by the artist as an amalgam of intense, reflected color hues. This mixture of paint colors produces a beautiful glow of simulated light effect.
But the number one takeaway from Hawthorne and Hensche, if I had to pick one, is the focus on shapes of color (as opposed to linear delineation). Once you begin to see your subject as shapes rather than outline, colors, composition, relationships, everything, becomes easier to see. I call it seeing a shape from the inside out as opposed to seeing from the outside (outline) in.
So where do these paintings of blocks come into play? I've offered this exercise to my students in workshops and many dislike it simply because of the subject matter. But the block studies, introduced at the Cape Cod School of Art, are an introductory exercise in learning to see the effects of light on colored objects. It is no accident that all the shapes in this exercise are flat; rounded form presents a new set of problems that are best tackled after flat shapes are understood. It is a very methodical way to learn to paint, to learn to see, the Impressionist's light.
Read The Last Days Of The Provincetown School Of Art (also known as the Cape Cod School Of Art--CSA)
The method to capturing this impression of light is to break your scene/composition into major, flat shapes of color, creating a mosaic of color shapes, that you then break down further into smaller shapes. Next, more color is added to the existing painted shapes, to eventually produce the desired effect. Here is a breakdown of the procedure:
- with brush and paint, lightly and simply indicate on your canvas, using lines, four to six shapes that make up the entire composition
- using the painting knife paint these large shapes with pure color that most closely matches the scene
- scrap away the thick paint
- add smaller shapes of color within these initial larger shapes also with pure color
- begin to refine the initial colors to their true, vibrant appearance by mixing directly into them with new, pure colors
- continue refining in the same way
These great teachers of painting taught their students to use painting knives, taking away any desire to paint detail, to produce their studies. And that is exactly the way Hawthorne and Hensche saw painting--as a continuous exercise in the production of studies, the artist always searching, always learning.
I cannot emphasize enough how the teachings of these artists influenced my working methods. They opened my eyes to a new way of seeing. I write this in hopes that I can influence another painter to this way of seeing. It is a warm feeling to think that, maybe, I am somehow connected to these, and many others, that follow the Impressionist's light.