Monday, June 20, 2011

Lilian Wescott Hale . The Eyes Have It!

Home Lessons

Never look into the shadows: Artist Lilian Wescott Hale never looked into the shadows. In her drawings and paintings you will not find details in the darks. Not only was this a tenet of her Boston art school training [part of which included classes with the man who would become her husband], but it seemed as if her eyes and mind really could not see into the shadows. As her daughter, Nancy Hale, records in her mother's biography The Life in the Studio:

"On dark days she always called off a portrait sitting. She said she couldn't see anything when it was dark. Her eyes were certainly very different from lay eyes. When she and went out shopping together, I could peer into the dark recesses behind a shop window and make out all sorts of objects - loaves of bread or garden rakes or magazines or whatever we might be looking for - while my mother, confronted by anything in deep shadow, would all her life simply say, 'I can't see a thing.'

In his class in life drawing at the Museum School, moreover, my father taught his students to render the nude in strict light and shade. Some pupils seemed never to be able to learn to find the edge of the shadow, on one side of which all was visible and to be shown, on the other side of which all was considered invisible.

I can see my father now, standing under the stark atelier skylight in his rumpled old gray suit, backing up from some student's smudgy charcoal drawing and coming up to it again, making gestures with his thumb (he never touched a pupil's drawing) and wearing a pained expression.

'Where the light falls is the light. Where the light does not fall is the shadow. Chiaroscuro, the clear and the obscure. Don't go mucking your drawing up with half-light.' Half-lights were the snare that seduced the undertrained; the greatest sin was to go peering into the shadow."

See things with wonder: "When my mother looked at things (and her life was given over to looking at things; in any unfamiliar house she used to keep crying, 'Look at that! Look at that!' about a chair, a picture, a china bowl of flowers, until she became embarrassed by the realization that nobody else joined her), she looked with a kind of innocent stare. I can see that now, too. She held her eyes very wide open and simply stared, as though confronted by the first day of creation."

Perceive the color that is actually there: "Often she saw things quite differently from other people. Colors, for instance, appeared differently to her from what they seemed to me to be. She would keep talking about a blue house on the road to Gloucester, and couldn't imagine what she was talking about, and then one day we would be driving that road together and she would cry, 'There's the blue house! Look at that!' I would look, and it would be white.

'You're so literal,' my father and mother used to complain to me. This was in no sense a compliment but referred to the instantaneous reflex of reading into color what I figured it had to be, instead of seeing it for what - in that light - it was.

I remember a dress my mother owned in the latter part of her life. She called it her black dress. Although it was a very dark dress, I couldn't help knowing that it was really navy blue. It did take peering to see that, though, and my mother never peered. She just stared, and her vision and the image met for what they were."
  1. Never look into the shadows
  2. Look at the world with wonder
  3. Let your eyes see the color that is actually there

to be continued...

Hint on Finding the Shadow: It's not always easy to see where the shadow begins or even if something is actually a part of the shadow. If in doubt, take your brush, pencil or charcoal and set it on the subject so that it casts a shadow into the area in question. If you can see the implement's shadow, then that area is not a part of the shadow. If you can't see the implement's shadow, then the area in question is definitely in shadow.

* The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale

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