Manual of Oil Painting

'Lady Godiva' by John Collier. Oil c. 1897

‘Lady Godiva’ by John Collier. Oil c. 1897

I’ve recently started reading another academic book about oil painting. Simply called “Manual of Oil Painting”, it is by the Victorian artist John Collier.

Wiki describes him thus: “The Honourable John Maler Collier OBE RP ROI (27 January 1850 – 11 April 1934) was a leading English artist, and an author. He painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, and was one of the most prominent portrait painters of his generation.”

Many of these older reference books are available to read online for free. You can view and download this one here. I recommend having a look through. There are no illustrations, but the descriptions of painting methodology will be recognisable and interesting to any student following an Atelier style of training today.

The following section is one that immediately struck me, as it describes exactly what painting is; that in principle it should be easy….. but it is absolutely not!

This representation of natural objects by means of pigments on a flat surface is a very definite matter, and most people are competent to judge of the truth or falsehood of such a representation, if they are fairly put in a position to do so; even the student himself can be a good judge of the success of his own work if he will make due allowance for his natural partiality for it.

There is, after all, nothing so very mysterious in the matter. Every natural object appears to us as a sort of pattern of different shades and colours. The task of the artist is so to arrange his shades and colours on his canvas that a similar pattern is produced. If this be well done the effect on the eye will be almost identical. As far as seeing is concerned, the two things, the object and the picture, will be alike; they will be absolutely different to the sense of touch, or indeed to any other sense, but to the sense of sight they will be practically identical.

I am sorry to say anything that may diminish the awe with which the outside public regards my profession, but instead of finding it (as many worthy
persons do) almost miraculous that a perfect representation should be made on a flat surface of solid objects, I have always wondered why it should be so difficult.

Let us state the problem once again –

Whenever we look at a scene we have a patchwork of shades and colours floating before our eyes, and this in fact is the scene; we have to place on canvas similar patches, similar in form, position, colour, and intensity. It ought not to be difficult; any one who can judge if two colours and two forms are alike ought to be able to paint an accurate picture of anything that he has before him. And yet it undoubtedly is difficult – so difficult that a long and laborious course of study is needed before even the most gifted can achieve a real proficiency in this elementary part of their art.