I’m not a big fan of Charles Webster Hawthorne’s paintings, but then, who am I? In his day he was highly respected, had a huge following and taught thousands of students…Norman Rockwell among them.
To my way of thinking, Hawthorne’s approach to painting is similar to being invited to one’s home for dinner. Rather than ring the front doorbell, enter through the foyer, visit with hosts in the living room and finally proceed to the dining room; Mr. Hawthorne enters from the back porch and on through the mud room. After lingering in the kitchen for a bit, he joins the other guests in the dining room. Yes, they all made it to the dinner table, but he by an entirely different route.
Hawthorne approached painting from a slightly different direction and yet still ended up with a pretty decent result. He was fond of saying: “Painting is the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another. That’s the fundamental thing.”
According to a popular saying… there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That idiom is particularly applicable when discussing the subject of painting.
Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930) was born in Illinois but raised in Maine. His father was a sea captain. When Charles was eighteen, he went to New York, worked in a stained glass factory by day and studied at the Art Students League at night. His early teachers were George de Forest Brush and Frank Vincent Dumond. His biggest influence however was William Merritt Chase.
Chase founded the Shinnecock Hills Summer School in Long Island, NY in 1891. Hawthorne became one of his pupils and eventually worked as his assistant for several years. Chase was renowned for his outstanding demonstrations, but it is noted that Hawthorne surpassed him in this ability. Hawthorne opened his own summer school in 1899. The Cape Cod School of Art was the first outdoor summer school for figure painting. Because of his exceptional power as a demonstrator, students came to realize what a great gulf there was between them and a master. Seeing the perfectness of his first spots of color…and that they could be so stated…caused them to implicitly trust his teaching. His outdoor classes were huge, by 1915 he had 90 students enrolled. Students could stay in a Provincetown boarding house and rent a studio for $550.00 per year.
Regardless of my personal opinion concerning Hawthorne’s work, he obviously was a great teacher, so I share additional insights…all from the book…”Hawthorne on Painting” by Dover Publications.
“The vision of the artist is the vision to see and the ability to tell the world something that it unconsciously thinks about nature. Everyone knows what a man looks like, or a tree or a house, but it is our job to tell the world something about these things that it has not known before, some impression that we alone have received. Art is a personal commentary on nature – the more humble, the greater the personality of the artist, the finer the work.
“Select the thing that is obvious in its paintership – look around and select a subject that you can see painted, that will paint itself. Do the obvious before you do the superhuman thing.
“We must all teach ourselves to be fine, to be poets. Spend a lifetime in hard work with a humble mind. In his attempt to develop the beauty he sees, the artist develops himself.
“As a test to anyone who thinks he can paint pretty well, let him take a dishpan, fill it half full of water and put a slice of lemon in it or something to give surface, and try to paint it to get some quality in it.
Don’t strain for the grand subject – anything is painter’s fodder.
“The weight and value of a work of art depends wholly on its big simplicity – we begin and end with the careful study of the great spots in relation one to another. Do the simple thing and do it well. Try to see large simple spots – do the obvious first.
“Separate into big passages of light and shade. Get the big simplicity of foreground in relation to the mass of sky. Work for simplicity more. Keep the lights together, the darks together. Separate lights and shadows enough to make them solid. Don’t get too many things in the light – avoid too many branches, too many windows, too many spots. Only the owner of a house counts the windows.
“Drop all your dark values to give the white lights a chance.
“Look at nature and try to visualize – see it on your canvas before you begin.
“Keep skies in the aggregate, as a piece. Don’t feel you must get vibration in a sky – see what kind of a blue it is and keep it clean.
“Always be looking for the unexpected in nature, do not settle on a formula. Get into the habit of doing what you see, not what you know. Human reason cannot foresee the accidents of out of doors. Humble yourself before nature, it is to majestic for you to do it justice. An intelligent painter is always making use of accidents.
“If the tones and values are correctly placed, the drawing takes care of itself. You will be a better draftsman if you paint in planes, not in color outline.
Art is a necessity, beauty we must have in the world.
“Painting and sculpture and music and literature are all of the same piece as civilization, which is the art of making it possible for human beings to live together. When I speak of art I mean painting, architecture, music, the art of literature, sculpture, the theatre, in fact everything that’s creative – anything that makes a thought, an idea, or a thing grow where nothing grew before; or a fundamental truth expand and show some new angle of beauty which calls special attention to its being a fundamental truth. All these things and many more come under the category of beauty which is a better name for art than the word itself.
“The most important thing is to have something to say.”
Notes are from “Hawthorne on Painting” by Dover Publications, available through Amazon. Click image to order.
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