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.

Block Study by MTMcClanahan

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.

Mud Head Study by Henry Hensche

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.

Charles Hawthorne

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)

Henry Hensche

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:

  1. with brush and paint, lightly and simply indicate on your canvas, using lines, four to six shapes that make up the entire composition 
  2. using the painting knife paint these large shapes with pure color that most closely matches the scene
  3. scrap away the thick paint
  4. add smaller shapes of color within these initial larger shapes also with pure color
  5. begin to refine the initial colors to their true, vibrant appearance by mixing directly into them with new, pure colors
  6. 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.

MT McClanahan

An artist and perpetual thinker, MT McClanahan finds inspiration through connecting ideas across a broad range of topics. He especially enjoys philosophy and how art and life interconnect. He is the founder of TPT and his paintings can be seen at

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9 Responses

  1. oldswimmer says:

    FANTASTIC! MT, this is such a wonderful dip in the sea of Cape Cod Bay for me! And no wonder I adore your sea themed impressionism! It’s got that indescribably LIGHT. Nothing has the colors of the cape, and what a place to have a workshop! Provincetown was full of Peter Hunt when I was there, but I did my painting on the Nantucket Sound shores around Harwichport and Oyster Harbor. You make me want to take the old ones out and bask in the light again. No, maybe I’ll just look at your rowboats! Thank you!

    • I had to look up Peter Hunt. Personally I am enamored of Folk Art–love it. I’ve had a piece–a sculpture–in the works for some time now. It’s taken after two old, wood-carved figures–about 13″ tall–that represent the German boxer Schmeling, and the other one Joe Louis. Mine are to represent McCain and Obama (that’s how long it’s been in the works!).

      I’ve been to “P-town” once–am sorta in a gallery there, and enjoyed it much. Saw Rockport too–many paintings have been done there.

      • oldswimmer says:

        Marcus, the furniture in the house my grandparents had was largely Peter Hunt work! I can still envision the soft grey blue with swooshes of light ochre and loose and lovely sea roses and such on the tops and drawers and headboards. A trip to Provincetown always brought enlightenment and a new drive to create. It’s been years, and I doubt I’ll get back there in my lifetime, but the spirit lives on.

        Again, I say that I love your so alive colors and light struck strokes. It spells sea air to me and the smell of jack pines and rose hips by the sea.

        • You are too kind. And your grandparents must have been very interesting folk–for you an artistic legacy no less!

          You must read the article link–The Last Days of Provincetown SOA–apparently Hensche, and especially his wife–were interesting characters too.

  2. Lilith Ohan says:

    Enjoyed the post. Very refreshing… Language that hasn’t been part of my vocabulary for some time now. It is so wonderful to see the same world with totally different eyes…

  3. Hilda Neily says:

    The Cape School of Art in Provincetown is going strong. Glenna Heartwell and I are teaching a class this week and it is very big. People come here from all over to learn to see color . We start with the blocks. I studied with Henry Hensche for 15 years and am enjoying carrying it on. The school is a non profit and the website where you can sign up for classes is Thanks

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