In his 1889 book, “How to judge of a picture”, John C. Van Dyke thoroughly describes how to properly assess a painting. I know, the title is weird, particularly with that preposition “of” stuck in there, but, that’s the correct title.
John Charles Van Dyke (1861-1931) was an American art historian and critic. He was a professor of art history at Rutgers College, and was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908. He authored two series of books related to art, the first were critical guide books, the second covered the history of art in America.
The purpose of this blog, and others to follow, is to share with you some helpful guidelines, offered by Mr. Van Dyke, that will help us critique our own work and the work of others. We will not agree with everything, but all his comments are worth serious consideration before rejecting them out of hand. Remember, this was written in the 1880’s. The ability to effectively critique art, or anything else for that matter, requires a significant amount of factual knowledge and understanding, otherwise what is offered as a critique is really nothing more than an emotional reaction. Mr. Van Dyke is helping us gain that knowledge and understanding.
Perspective and Atmosphere
“Perspective in a general way is understood by all, and its existence recognized in pictures so far as the graded diminution of objects is concerned. But there is another feature which we do not always consider, namely, the indistinctness and blurring of lines which increase in proportion with the diminution of size. We may be able to recognize the face of a friend a few yards away from us; at a hundred yards we see the features of the face, (Van Dyke’s eyes are much better than mine) but not clearly enough for recognition; at half a mile we see but three parts of the figure, the head, the body, and the legs; and when a mile from us our friend is but a patch or spot of color on the landscape, scarcely recognizable from a stump or an animal. It is the gradual dissipation of line that we sometimes fail to take into account, and some of the less skilled of the artists seem not wiser than ourselves in this respect. The tendency of the artist is not to paint the man as he appears in the landscape, but to paint him from memory as he knows him really to be. While the figure decreases in size it fails to fall away in distinctness, because the artist seeks by minute painting to render the same features at a distance as close by. This, of course, is an error.”
What Mr. Van Dyke is describing here is what we define as one aspect of aerial perspective. He continues, “A tree on a faraway hillside will appear to us to have little or no outline or individuality; and the painting of it so that it may be recognized as an oak, a maple, or an elm, is neither nature or art.”
As objects recede they fade in distinctness, until at last they’re lost altogether.
“There is still another feature of perspective which calls for quite as serious attention from the painter as either of the ones mentioned. This is the changed appearance of color, light, and shade, seen at a distance. The change is caused by the air being filled with countless particles of matter, which, reflecting and transmitting certain waves of color, affect the coloring of distant objects. Atmosphere must be looked upon as a kind of transparent fog. In the case of the fog, the air is filled with drops of moisture; in sunshine it is filled with minute particles of dust or similar substances. Both of these are interruptions to sight, the former more so than the latter, of course, and both must be allowed for if we would get the appearance of things upon canvas. Too often, however, we allow ourselves to be deceived by not believing the impression of our eyes; and where people, like the Impressionists, do trust their eyes, and paint effects in violet, blue, and green, we know with what shrieks of derision the great public receives the vision. To be sure, the Impressionists tell us extravagant things, but they also tell us truthful things.”
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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