NOTES FROM HOWARD PYLE'S MONDAY NIGHT LECTURES, June-November 1904
After each lecture Ethel Pennewill Brown and Olive Rush compiled their recollections of Pyle's comments in a notebook, now in the collection of the Delaware Art Museum, from which these notes were taken. The notebook is the gift of Mr. John Anderson. MR. PYLE SAID:
There should be one great point of interest in a picture. One may have other points of interest but they
must be subordinate to the great idea. A subject must not be chosen because it is picturesque. It should be a general subject and should hold some great truth of nature or humanity so that person seeing it would give a part of his life's earnings to posses so beautiful a thing. After you have chosen a general subject, submit it to the crucible of your own imagination and let it evolve into the picture. Project your mind into it. Identify yourself with the people and sense, that is, feel and smell the things naturally belonging there. One of the greatest pleasures in Art is living in a subject, but it requires great mental training and it is hard, much harder, to acquire this mental training then to get technical training. Keep always before you the general subject or idea that you want to express. Let no thought of light and shade or effect blur it. Sometimes I find it very hard to keep the central idea. This morning I began a composition and it was not until four o'clock that I was able, finally, to crystallize the thought. It is so necessary that you all should make these compositions. It is the most important part of your studies here - the reason for your coming to Wilmington. In criticizing you - you may imagine that my technical knowledge has helped me to find the mistakes in your picture - it is not that, but from my long experience I can find your central idea and develop it. This subject is great (a foundry) not because there is a fire and two men half-naked before it with interesting effects of light - but from the fact that in that dim room and in that great heat, men are turning the crude elements of the earth into things for the use of man Be rational and see that you always build things in a real way. (about a badly constructed door) Wyeth, your heart is in the West and you should go there and live that wild life until you come to know it intimately. Anyone looking at Remington's work feels that he has breathed the air of the Plains, and is at home there. It is necessary either to have lived with these things you are going to picture or else, by the imagination, see them as though you had lived them.
If you had gotten behind your picture you could not have made that Indian so. He would have become
tremendous - a dark mess, as though pulled up from the earth. You could not have put the horizon line there, or that reflection of the moon on the water. The Indian wouldn't see the sea as you have it there... that is your sea... but for him it would be a gray mystery peopled with spirits. The glowing rim of the moon would rise out of the mists and the Indian beholding it would say, "The eye of the Great Spirit is red as he looks upon me." Let your soul flow into your picture. Every art has its limitations. In literature you cannot tell the story in one complete impression as you can in a picture, but must tell the different causes leading up to the climax. And in (classical) music you cannot describe anything but emotions. In painting we can only picture the supreme moment, leaving to the imagination what precedes and follows. The better a picture is, the more a little imperfection jars. A man with frozen feet wouldn't notice a pebble, but a man comfortably shod will be greatly annoyed at a grain of sand in his shoe. Did you know that the light on a black coat in sunlight is brighter than a white paper in the shadow? I was sitting in my studio today and had thought that I had gotten what I liked - but I glanced across the room and saw everything bathed in mellow light. Looking back at my picture I saw I had been painting with mud. And I thought - what is the use of it all? Then a brighter thought came to me - that it was not tones we were striving for, but to express a great idea. Tissot's work is wonderful. For as bad as the drawing is (and it is wretched sometimes) yet I cannot look at his better things without being deeply stirred, so dramatic and vital are they. In my twenty eight years experience I have never made a successful painting of a subject that I had described and talked about to anyone. The young artist has great ideas and struggles to express them. Then he becomes absorbed in the means used and, in his effort to be clever, loses his grasp of the subject. That is the critical stage in his work. This lacks real continuity in that one part of it is treated decoratively - the other realistically... you must stay fast by one method in a picture. There must be a one-ness. Your art is limited. Nature uses sunlight on full rounded forms whilst we have only a flat surface and tinted earths to use in creating. Nature's palette is full of the whole gamut of colors. We may see pink and yellow and purple lights in a white fence yet, if we use those pinks, yellows and purples in the white... we should have mud. So, we have to translate things. In springtime the whole earth is in a glow of pink and to express that we would let the whole picture be suffused with a pink light - with tender greens and grays and glints of blue. I want to repeat that it is well not to speak too much of what you intend doing as it crystallizes the thought, destroying the freedom.
You have two ideas which are parallel and that is always disastrous. If, in making a picture, you
introduce two ideas, you weaken it by half - if three, it weakens it by a compound ratio - if four, the picture will be really too weak to consider at all and the human interest would be entirely lost. This is an academic composition and academic means not real. The art student learns rules for doing things but all the rules in the world would never make a picture. A great picture can only be made through inspiration and truth, and rules are of use only for correcting. I find it very difficult to make young artists realize the importance of giving the proper attention and size to the seemingly insignificant parts of a picture. When one of these details is slighted everything relative to it immediately jumps into prominence. A false black in a picture will cause every other dark spot to obtrude itself. A strong note of red, instead of making the rest of the picture appear the complementary color - green - will emphasize the other reds. A badly drawn accessory will make the whole picture seem out of drawing. When you find your drawing is not hanging together, do not look to your central figure for defects but to the accessories and in most cases you will find the trouble there. I wish - how I wish - that I could make all young artists realize that it is not the way a picture is done but the thought behind that makes it worth while. All great artists, I am sure, realize this but they do not take the trouble to analyze the thought and to teach it to younger workers. None of the students who have come to me have seemed to realize this at first. As I have said before, nature paints in ways and colors and tones which we cannot hope to imitate. For, her lights are so brilliant and her shadows so deep, that we cannot possibly copy them... We can only produce the image of an idea. We can only take one phase of sunlight at a time. If you break up your cloud masses you must also break up the masses in the rest of your picture. Or if you treat the rest simply, the clouds would have to be treated in the same manner. To N.C. Wyeth about his picture "Indians in Canoes. Sunset": I like this because you have seen it from the Indians' viewpoint. They are thinking Indian thoughts. To Stanley Arthurs... You haven't imagined the succession of events leading up to this scene. Your composition will betray every thought you had while making it. If it is done in pleasure, it will give pleasure to the beholder. Every great picture is conceived with enthusiasm. Then follow days, months and perhaps years of hard concentrated effort where the painter often leaves his studio at night feeling overwhelmed and almost discouraged. Finally the light seems to come and the work if finished in teh spirit in which it was first undertaken. Every great masterpiece shows that it was created in this way. You can feel the inspiration of the conception, the patient working out of the idea and the enthusiasm of the finish. Paint your pictures by means of the lights - imagine that you are bringing moving beings out of a gray chaos and not that you are drawing men with black paint.
It takes five years to learn how to paint a picture and then you come to find that you only have to
imagine things vividly and make them real as they are. Tell the truth and do not make the work merely clever, for the world is growing tired of that. I feel it in the air. Plenty of work is being done in New York that is better technically than the work here. Yet the work of this school is being more and more sought after and the art-editors say it is conscientious, which means that is carefully thought out and true to nature. This composition is too conscious. It seems to have been arranged. A scene must be complete and the surrounding must be vital. These men might belong to the time of Daniel Boone and they might be anywhere. I recall a bar-room picture of Remington's Making the Tenderfoot Dance (by shooting pistols at his feet). Bad as it was in many way - it has the vividness of reality. From the bottle and two glasses on the roughly built conter one knows just how vile that whiskey is and how the bartender, on filling the glasses, will slip the bottle under the counter so the men will not take a drink they haven't paid for. On looking at this I feel the table has been pulled out in the room by Mr. True and not by those men. People instinctively place a table parallel to a wall. It looks at though you had arranged this table so you could show the figures of the three men. In every human being there lies a thread that connects with every other life. Just in so much as we are able to express that underlying thought or emotion so that it will be recognized and felt by our fellow men do we succeed. In doing a composition we often make sketch after sketch without getting what we want when suddenly an unseen force seems to guide the hand and we exclaim, "Why, that is what I wanted!" It may be that the arrangement is entirely different from what we had started out to make it. Then we may elaborate and work up the idea, always coming back to this sketch in which we caught the spirit until in the finished work we get something that should be better than anything that has gone before. I try much harder to not arrange a thing than to arrange it - letting the thought form itself. A good composition is created through vital instinct and not through labored force. On N.C. Wyeth's Pony Race and Indians: This is an exception that proves (proofs) the rule. A while ago I said that the moment of violent action is not so good a point to be chosen as the preceding or following instant. Here the interest lies in teh excitement of uncertainty and eagerness to know who shall win, and this interest is heightened by seeing the figures in greatest action. To put figures in violent action is theatrical and not dramatic. In deep emotion there is a certain dignity and restraint of action which is more expressive. There is no need of being an artist if you cannot take an ugly subject and arrange and treat it in such a way that it loses its horror and becomes beautiful. Tolstoi in "Frau T - " describes the death of a man. He takes on through all the stages of the illness, and he does not make it pretty and fill the room with flowers and burn pstilles. But through it all - even though (it is) so realistic - one does not feel the horror of death, but its sublimity.
To Olive Rush: Before this you expressed form by drawing black outlines but now that you are
leaving them out and, by that, giving greater possibilities for truth you should pay attention to the correct drawing. In taking something away from a pupil there is always danger of not supplying something else that will take its place. No arrangement of tones will cover bad drawing - your drawing must be good all through. You should not need models. You know how a face looks. How an eye is placed and the form of it and you should be able to draw it from your knowledge. That is the very difficulty with students from other schools. They have learned to copy the figure, have studied in New York and Paris. People say, "That is a good draughtsman." Yet ask him to draw without the model and he is utterly helpless. He has learned nothing of real value, for you cannot draw until you can be independent of the model. And so I would advise you to draw your figures and carry them as far as you can without the model then get the model to correct by. You have not caught the spirit of the trees. Think of the great trees. The wind whispering through the leaves. The cool shadows in the stream and the silence and wild strangeness of the place. You know how it is when you walk through the woods. It seems as though you are part of it. There is a feeling of kinship with its creatures, its trees and growing things. You cannot get those things in any way but by imagining the scene vividly and recalling all your impressions of the woods. It is a mistake to turn the back of a principal figure. It is an axiom in Dramatic Art that the face should always be turned toward the audience and Dramatic Art is nearest akin to our art. As soon as the face is turned away the interest begins to flag. You should see the face with its varied expressions. If I were you, I would have the girl's face turned round as though she is looking backward, hesitating to step out on the log. Now Mr. Wyeth this lacks a little of being a great composition. In the main it is well told, but you have been a little over-dramatic with your figures. A panther crouching to spring on his victim is not possessed of passion but merely a desire to eat. He is cool, calculating, hungry. A wild beast devouring another takes its food in a way that is natural to it, as a tree absorbs moisture, rather than as a creature bent on revenge. When you throw your own self into the animal you make him human. You should consider him a being different than yourself. The action of the Indian, too, is over-stated. He knows escape is impossible and his only hope lies in meeting the attack. So he would not lean back as you have him, but would instinctively brace himself for the blow. This is too much like an exhibition picture. I feel that I have seen many similar pictures exhibited. It is well-arranged and the color is pleasing, but it does not express anything. I cannot tell from that whether it represents a placid lake or the edge of the sea with the surf beating against the shore. If you had realized the way the waves lapped the rocks one would have felt that onlooking at the picture, but as it is - it is meaningless.
These ugly, uncouth squalid conditions do exist but I feel that art should dignify, ennoble and beautify
them. I do not mean that there should be init any sentimentality of prettiness or anything else that is false. Make it true. But truth and beauty are very near akin: and if underneath the ugly and rough exterior you get that finer life, it wil enliven and enrich the picture and the beholder will say "I have seen those slum people but I have never seen that in them or known that they were at heart like other people." And so, you see, you give to that man a broader humanity. Next to Constable, Innes is, perhaps, the greatest landscapist. He painted great thoughts. He did not copy nature but took some mood of it and expressed that upon his canvas. This composition lacks the feeling of reality, and I am sure that were you to submit it, it would not go. You have seemed to roughen the road-bed for the picturesque effect, not thinking of truth. The roadbeds are filled with ballast and packed with stone and are as level as possible. Do no hesitate to make road level and smooth for that is your most important fact. One can take an unpicturesque fact and, by emphasis, make a picturesque fact of it. St. Gaudens (in the Shaw Memorial) had the problem before him of a row of marching soldier with their guns all on a level. Most artist would have broken the line of the guns by making some higher than others trying to get variety, but St. Gaudens, defying all rules, frankly put them straight across the composition. And so by insisting upon an apparently ugly fact he strengthened the work. It is only your thought, your inspiration that is sublime. Leave that out - your picture is dead. When you paint the man's face and coat use a stiff brush and lay the paint on thick and dry to contrast with the water in the foreground, which you will lay in a loose, wet way. I would advise all of you when you paint that you do not get too close to your work. Work at arm's length as you stand and walk back frequently to see what you are doing. About Olive Rush's "Santa Clause at a Department Store"... It is all a matter of mental attitude. You see your subject either as a grown person sees it, looking down upon it in a superior way or else as a child sees it. Transformed and wonderful, as though some one came into a room wearing a masque. You know the strange vague feeling it always gives you - a sense of unreality. A child would feel all that and would see vividly the detail of things in the bundle, the white hair against the leathery face and the dark cap. All this would appear to the child exaggerated and wonderful. I wish that sometime I might come and find about ten fine compositions so that i would have to do but stand here and tell you how good they are. I think of how your compositions, representing tremendous thought and concentration, are brought to me and I tear them to pieces, but I do it rather than cover them in praise that you may have the benefit of my quarter of a century's worth of experience; that the years to your fruition may be shortened; that you may have the time to go farther. Now what I am giving you in these Monday night lectures is the very flower of all I am trying to teach. For your illustrations are only a means to an end. Through them you learn to express your ideas so that in time you may paint your pictures.
All great art is the expression of some great truth. Tell the limpid truth. The great works of art are
great because they tell the truth simply and directly. The Greek marbles, in which we almost fancy that we see the breath of life swelling the huge chests, are wonderful not because of the manner in which they were done but because they embody truth. If you paint this as a beautiful scheme of color it will be admired and kept by a few artists and collectors of posters but the great world will pass it by unless you have, besides that color scheme, an underlying interest that touches their lives. Every thought that comes to one is good. And one that comes to you is just as great as one that comes to a great artist; only he has the ability to look back into his mind and bring the image forth. The inspiration comes to you and deep in your mind is a shadowy image. You put a pencil to the paper and with the first black line the image goes - like that (a snap of the fingers). But through training you learn to retain the image until you can express it on your canvas. In this (picture of a woman holding a clothes basket, with her children next to her), instead of expressing the idea, you have made a picture of it. You have struck a new note and have lifted these children out of the ordinary into the realm of Poetry. In trying to work out your thought you have unconsciously, I fancy, put grace and charm into the lines.