While bumping around in a jumbled bookshop in Highgate, North London, I found an early copy of John Collier’s Manual of Oil Painting. Published in 1886, it’s a small book of 112 pages with nary a picture, but it’s just loaded with attitude, insight and wisdom that’s dangerously close to extinction. Fortunately, it’s been recently republished in paperback.
Collier, who came from an illustrious literary, political and artistic family, painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style and was one of the top English portraitists of his day. His figurative work, in case you don’t remember, was smooth and bright, with a refined sense of colour.
It was the golden age of the Slade School and the Royal Academy, and Collier brought to them both a sophisticated sense of history and unwavering curiosity of processes and procedures. While he’s hardly mentioned nowadays, he was lauded and honoured in his day.
“As a beginning student,” said Collier, “an artist must first of all learn to represent faithfully any object that he has before him.” He admits there is more in painting than this, but he insists, “The man who can do it is a painter; the man who cannot do it is not one.” While he laments the system of apprenticeship was not practiced in England as it was on the Continent, his methodology favoured historic academic traditions. His heroes were painters of the Venetian school, particularly Titian.
“Titian painted his pictures at first very solidly, with a simple palette of white, black, red and yellow. There was apparently no blue, but black and white make a bluish grey which would be sufficient to indicate this colour in the first painting.” Collier often used this system, and, like Titian, left unfinished paintings to dry and to “refresh the eye by looking to others.”
Collier had something to say about landscape as well. “If the picture be of any size, a shed should be built in which the painter can stand whilst at work. The front and one side should be open to the view and to give plenty of light — the back facing toward the prevailing wind will be shelter enough.” This seems like a lot of trouble, but when uncluttered folks of any age look with clear eyes at Collier’s work they see masterful results.
PS: “In painting, as in everything else, there is a fatal tendency to become accustomed to one’s faults.” (John Collier, 1850-1934)
Esoterica: A photocopy of John Collier’s Sitters Book can be seen in London’s National Portrait Gallery, Heinz Archive and Library. This is the artist’s own handwritten record of all his illustrious portrait subjects, including names, dates, fees charged, and details of exhibitions from his painting life. Underlying it all is a strong sense of destiny and self-importance, a reverence and delight for his times and for the “Empire on which the sun never sets.”
Hats off to John Collier
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
Thanks for putting me on to John Collier. There are many of his portraits online from The National Portrait Gallery of Great Britain. I noticed they are a bit on the dark side, and if one saves the images’ files and then lightens them with a photo editor, nuances come through to show more of this great artist’s vision and technique. A posthumous “hats off” to this great painter.
I love this work
by Betty Newcomer, Mt Gilead, OH, USA
Wow! This is exactly what I aspire to do!! I am beyond making a living at art, but have always drawn glamour girls, and love his muted color. Collier’s work has a lot of class! I hope to see more art that looks like the master’s work, and without the help of computer workshops! Anyone can trace, and render! Free drawing separates the men from the mice, so to speak. I love this work.
Collier no bookman
by Dorothy Hermansen, Houston, TX, USA
Collier himself didn’t think much of books as a way of learning art. Hands on, long hours of application, scraping off unsatisfactory passages, study of actual masterworks, and the close guidance of living masters were his ideals. “It is a melancholy fact that more nonsense can be talked about art than about any other subject, and writers of treatises on painting, from the great Leonardo downwards, have not been slow to avail themselves of this privilege,” he said. It is curious that he saw fit to write the book.
Not taught in schools
by Susie McLean, Osterville, MA, USA
I loved the paintings. What a shame that people aren’t trained to paint accurately what is before them… anything at all… people, animals, landscape, still life, etc… as abstract art becomes more “in fashion” …again… it is sad that people won’t know what realistic “art” is after a while… especially because it isn’t taught in school as it used to be. These are wonderful letters of yours, Robert, I don’t know how you do it… you’re a marvel.
Finding the book
by Maureen Gagne, Thunder Bay, ON, Canada
I also have a copy of John Collier’s A Manual of Oil Painting published in 1911, and I purchased mine at a garage sale for $5.00 in my home town of Thunder Bay and, although I do not paint with oils because of my allergies, I have found the book to be very inspiring and truly practical for any medium… thanks for sharing these letters with us.
(RG note) Thanks, Maureen. There is something to be said for finding an early edition — or even a first edition. The reprint currently available on Amazon has been nicely done and as far as I can see leaves out none of the good stuff.
by Walt Kozier, Sayre, PA, USA
I was curious as to whether you have had the great experience of working with the Maroger Medium? I have been making and painting with it for the past 60 years. I was taught to make it by the old master himself, “Jacques Maroger.” He was a true modern day master. Not too much is said or written about him. Too Bad. There are a few well established artists such as David Lefel, Whitaker, and Joseph Sheppard also using the medium for a lot of years. The Schuler School of Fine Arts teaches the old master’s methods and techniques using the medium. Ann Schuler went on to work with Maroger until he passed on in 1962 and started the school and is now 90-some years old and still painting. Great, Huh? If anyone has any questions regarding Maroger medium please contact me.
(RG note) Thanks, Walt. For those others who don’t know about Jacques Maroger (pronounced: ma — ro – ZHAY) (1884-1962) he was a painter and the technical director of the Louvre Museum’s laboratory in Paris. He devoted his life to understanding the oil-based media of the Old Masters. From 1930 to 1939, Maroger worked at the Louvre Museum as Technical Director. He was also a Member of the Conservation Committee, General Secretary of the International Experts, and President of the Restorers of France. In 1937, he received the Légion d’honneur. He emigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a lecturer at the Parsons School of Design in New York. His “Maroger Medium” was actually a variety of reinventions from old masters and others he admired — the main ingredient was, unfortunately, lead. Modern day media such as Megilp manages to get the lead out, and many oil painters simply love it.
Lilith the bad girl
by R. M. Pleiss, Heidelberg, Germany
The painting of Collier’s you illustrated titled “Lilith” was a popular painting subject throughout the history of Western Art. Lilith is not just Frazier’s difficult girlfriend, but an important figure in the Bible and other mythology. In one version of the myth, Lilith was Adam’s first wife before Eve. (Deuteronomy 27:21). Lilith didn’t like the idea of male dominance, gave Adam some mating difficulty and has been a troublesome figure ever since. The Dead Sea Scrolls mention Lilith in several places and add to her unpleasant reputation. Collier, who loved painting women, was not beyond painting their deceptive, curious and vindictive side.
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The Religion of an Artist
by John Munnings, London, UK
Collier also wrote a book putting forth his views on religion. The Religion of an Artist (1926) parallels the views of Thomas and Julian Huxley, to whom he was related by marriage. Collier, essentially a humanist, looked forward to the time when ethics might take the place of organized religion. “The benefits of religion,” he said, “can be attained by other means which are less conducive to strife and which put less strain on the reasoning faculties.” His point of view came from his curious nature and an ever-deepening empathy for the state of mankind — an attitude not unfamiliar to some artists. Collier was a strong believer in what he thought was the simple and natural universal tendency for uncompromised people to be kind to one another.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jack S. Paine who wrote, “If Collier is so darned good, how come I’ve not heard of him?”
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