Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871), also known as Whistler’s Mother.
There is always a span of time between looking at your subject and placing pencil to paper or brush to canvas. Perhaps it’s brief, as in a few milliseconds. Or maybe it’s a bit longer. And maybe it’s a lot longer – like the following day. Regardless of its length, what’s required during the interval between observation and execution is a good visual memory.1 One artist who trained his quite well was James McNeill Whistler.
Whistler is probably best known for his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1. You might recognize the painting under a different title, Whistler’s Mother. But did you know that along with being a proponent of painting directly from life, he was also adept at painting from memory?
Master and Servant
To Whistler, nature was at the same time his master as well as his servant. On first blush that seems contradictory. To better explain, those who knew him said that he would not work without nature, but that he went to nature for suggestion, mood, and the emotions it elicited in him rather than for literal transcription.
That’s a profound difference, one that even sparked a lawsuit.
Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver, Battersea Reach (1873).
Down By the River
Night entranced him, especially when he was out along the Thames. And although there were problems to overcome, in a way he was still able to paint from nature. A number of his artist friends commented on his approach to painting the river Nocturnes.
While walking or being rowed along the river at night, upon seeing an effect that caught his attention he would stop for a long time gazing at the scene. He would then turn his back to it and describe the scene to his companions, asking them to check for any errors. Notice how detailed his descriptions were.
“There is a tavern window, three panes wide on each side of the central partition, and six panes deep. On the left side is a red curtain half drawn, starting from the third pane from the left, crossing to the second below and down to the bottom about half-way across the first panes. Behind this curtain is a light, in the second pane from the left of the second row. This light illuminates the whole window, except where there is a dark mass near the bottom on the right, probably a table, which obscures it.”
“The wall of the house is really white, but appears a dark blue grey in the moonlight. A street lamp, which is to be out of the picture, casts a shadow, very dark at the top, but broken of course by the illuminated window, and, where it is discernible below the sill, extremely faint.”
Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold, Southampton Water, (1872).
“To the right of the window, at the height of the second pane, is a door, open, with a gleam of light across the sill from the room. The tone of the roof is darker than that of the wall, but is warm in color, and precisely the same in value as the sky beyond it, which is a deep blue grey…” and so forth.
Then when all the errors had been corrected, he would turn round and take another long mental note; after which he walked back to bed, asking his companion not to speak to him, so that he might keep his impression fresh. As such, he went to bed with nothing in his head but his subject.
Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold, St. Marks, Venice (1879-80).
The next morning if he could see upon the untouched canvas the completed picture, he painted it; if not, he passed another night in looking at the subject for the purpose of making more notes and correcting his first impression.2
[When painting from life] every stroke of the brush is, after all, achieved by an effort of memory, and in the case of the Nocturnes, the memorizing was merely of longer duration.
Bernhard Sickert (1908)
Whistler’s Powers of Observation
How did Whistler develop the ability to accurately recall those scenes along the river at night? He was trained to do so by Père Lecoq, and encouraged along the way by fellow students Alphonse Legros and Fantin-Latour.
Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver, the Lagoon, Venice (1879-1880).
In a way, memorizing landscape (whether at night or during the day) is not that much different from memorizing paintings in a museum. Essentially all you’re doing is mentally recording an image.
But there are differences.
First, the original artist who painted the picture made selections. He or she chose every aspect of the scene. That agency is yours alone when out in front of nature. This means that you need to learn how to choose. Part of learning how to choose only comes about after experience – which, by the way, is one of the many reasons for copying masterworks from life and from memory.
Memory drawing (of any subject) also forces you to learn the skill of selection (and Whistler was quite adept at it). Why? Because your time is limited when in front of your subject but with practice you’ll slowly begin to learn what’s necessary and what’s irrelevant.
And the learned skill of selection is as important when working in front of your subject as when working from memory. It is, at least in part, where art comes in.
When well-trained, it is what happens during the interval between observation and execution. What sticks in your memory, however brief, are those things which grabbed your attention. The skill of selection allows you to be proactive; to intentionally control what happens during that interval.
1 Whistler, by Bernhard Sickert, 1908, page 112.
2 Adapted fron The life of James McNeill Whistler, by Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell, 1911, page 113, and Whistler, by Bernhard Sickert, 1908, pages 108, 111-112.