Monday, 28 March 2011

Lectures on art by John Ruskin

This is a review of the book Lectures on art by John Ruskin. A free electronic version of Lectures on art is available in various formats on the site of the Gutenberg Project.
“Lectures on art” is a compilation of seven lectures the artist and professor delivered at Oxford in 1870. Ruskin stayed in Oxford between 1870 and 1875. His system of teaching was based on the methods of Da Vinci (“We will take Lionardo's treatise on painting for our first text-book”) and Reynolds.

Portrait of John Ruskin by Frederick Hollyer, 1894. Source: Wikimedia

The first lectures are full of moral considerations that may have an hstorical and biographical interest, but limited practical use to today’s artists. For instance, Ruskin states that: “Landscape can only be enjoyed by cultivated persons; and it is only by music, literature, and painting, that cultivation can be given.”or that “fine art had, and could have, but three functions: the enforcing of the religious sentiments of men, the perfecting their ethical state, and the doing them material service.”

There are also a number of inspiring comments on art and the practice of art. Here is a digest of interesting quotes from these Lectures on art.

On works of art

“Every good piece of art, to whichever of these ends it may be directed, involves first essentially the evidence of human skill and the formation of an actually beautiful thing by it.”

Simplifying how you see the subject

Ruskin comes back to the same idea in different places of the lectures:

“all objects are seen by the eye as patches of colour of a certain shape, with gradations of colour within them. And, unless their colours be actually luminous, as those of the sun, or of fire, these patches of different hues are sufficiently imitable, except so far as they are seen stereoscopically.”

“All objects appear to the human eye simply as masses of colour of variable depth, texture, and outline.”

“Consider all nature merely as a mosaic of different colours, to be imitated one by one in simplicity.”

On lights and shadows

“But every light is a shadow compared to higher lights, till we reach the brightness of the sun; and every shadow is a light compared to lower shadows, till we reach the darkness of night. […] Every colour used in painting, except pure white and black, is therefore a light and shade at the same time. It is a light with reference to all below it, and a shade with reference to all above it."

On coloured shadows

“Painters who have no eye for colour have greatly confused and falsified the practice of art by the theory that shadow is an absence of colour. Shadow is, on the contrary, necessary to the full presence of colour; for every colour is a diminished quantity or energy of light; and, practically, it follows from what I have just told you--(that every light in painting is a shadow to higher lights, and every shadow a light to lower shadows)--that also every colour in painting must be a shadow to some brighter colour, and a light to some darker one.”

“In nature, dark sides if seen by reflected lights, are almost always fuller or warmer in colour than the lights”

“It is an absolute fact that shadows are as much colours as lights are; and whoever represents them by merely the subdued or darkened tint of the light, represents them falsely.”

A Vineyard Walk, Lucca. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 33.5 x 42.3 cm – Source: Wikimedia

On texture

“Now textures are principally of three kinds: (1) Lustrous, as of water and glass. (2) Bloomy, or velvety, as of a rose-leaf or peach. (3) Linear, produced by filaments or threads as in feathers, fur, hair, and woven or reticulated tissues.”

On the importance of perspective

“Your first duty is to learn perspective by the measures of everything."

On drawing

“Whenever you take a pen in your hand, if you cannot count every line you lay with it, and say why you make it so long and no longer, and why you drew it in that direction and no other, your work is bad.”

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