Hawthorne On Painting

Hawthorne On Painting


As long as one is simple and childlike and humble, one progresses. Keep this point of view and there is no limit.

The spirit that moved the greatest master is the spirit that moves us. He may do it more beautifully, but he approaches it in the same way.

Hawthorne on Painting, Collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne is a short, almost pocket-sized book. It’s a collection of Hawthorne’s thoughts on art and painting. More accurately it’s a collection of critique addressed directly to his students. If I remember correctly I have first heard of Hawthorne from Charles Reid, he either mentioned him on one of his DVDs or in one of his books. The name was new to me. Only after an online search I came across this book and decided to give it a try. This was actually quite a while ago and the book sat on my bookshelf for a few years before I finally managed to pick it up and read it. (I have too many good books I’m afraid!)

Not counting the introduction nor conclusion, the book is structured into five chapters. They are 1. Outdoor model, 2. Still life, 3. Landscape, 4. Indoor model and 5. Water color. The book is just a little over 90 pages but it’s packed with ideas on various aspects of painting. Considering the fact that most of the writings are critiques on actual students’ works, it would be so much more beneficial and enjoyable to actually see the works in question. But since this is only a collection of texts, not a book intended as a teaching aid nor published by Hawthorne himself, I believe that providing such examples was not possible. Still, the language is clear and eloquent and in my opinion a visual aid is not absolutely necessary.

The few major principles of Hawthorne’s teaching echo themselves throughout the book. As I understand from the texts, Charles Hawthorne encouraged his students to paint without drawing as drawing and painting are two separate entities. His next main focus was on the correct placement of spots of color in relation to each other. This point especially resonates in every chapter, on every page, over and over again, in one form or another. In other words, he taught his students to think in shapes of color and value.

If you will only put a spot of color in the right relation to other spots, you will see how little drawing it takes to make form. Let color make form, do not make form and color it. Work with your colors as if you were creating mass – like a sculptor with his clay. Interest yourself in the relation of one color to another – in this way your color rather than drawing creates form. The values rather than the drawing make a boat stay behind the piles of a wharf.

Not all of his advice is concerned with technique though. There are other, psychological aspects of painting, which he bestows upon his students and are as valuable, or even more so, than developing the technical skill. He lead his students to think like artists.

Here you had not settled in your mind what interested you most – you did the scene instead of working at a problem. There isn’t room in your consciousness for more than one sentiment about a thing. Tell that one.

It was certainly very interesting to read his way of teaching. This obviously isn’t a how-to book for beginners or anyone trying to learn the basics, although it does provide encouragement and inspiration for artists at any level. When reading it is necessary to realize the teachings are focused around a particular painting/school style. Hawthorne was noted teacher who founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, which was the first outdoor school of figure painting in America.

That being said, the character and force with which Charles Hawthorne lead his students are admirable as is obvious from the following quotations from the book:

Man alive, are you going to let that weak girl get ahead of you. Put some punch in it, get into it heart and soul. That’s meagre output for a boy of your inches. Get out and work, time is slipping away. Remember, the successful man has a hard time back of him – it’s fun to be successful, it’s worth the price. No one is so important or ornamental that he has the right merely to exist; we have to do our share. Acres and acres of canvas are what it takes to make a painter. Be a bit brutal and fear no one, least of all your subject.

Here you missed the big note, the whole impression, the big simple music that the old masters saw when they painted a figure. You are too careful – but, of course, you can never be too careful. I expect you were careful about the wrong thing.

Charles Webster Hawthorne was undoubtedly a great artist and teacher. Despite the fact that as an artist my views on painting are in some aspects slightly different from his I definitely don’t regret reading the book. It is a good read and quite inspirational I have to say. And so I would recommend it to anyone as a means of refreshment and relax, not necessarily a learning aid to be studied closely. A good book has to have a bit of both. This one does, and although it’s just too short to be truly effective it doesn’t disappoint.

The next few things that really stuck with me after reading the book I decided to quote at the end of this review. I hope you enjoyed this short book talk and if you decided to pick it up let me know how you liked it.

That canvas is a little weak and it comes from a concession to picture making. Work for simplicity more. Keep the lights together, the darks together. Your gorgeous color will not count for much and will result in noisiness unless you make the big generalizations. Separate lights and shadows enough to make them solid. Don’t get too many things in the light – avoid too many branches, too many windows, too many spots. Only the owner of a house counts the windows.

You have tried to carry that farther than you knew how. If you don’t do what you don’t know, you don’t give yourself away. If what you have done is right, people will think you have all the power in the world – believe me, you will get on faster by stopping on the right side. If you conduct your work in that way by carrying it each time as far as you know, each time you will go a little farther.

In water colors get the big note and never mind if they are sloppy. Get out and slop around and have more fun – see if they can’t look as if you were somewhere near the place when the crime was committed! I don’t want them to be sloppy but it is impossible to get both the neatness and the light – if you could do that you would not be here – you would be the best master alive.

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
Comments loaded with incorrect timestamps.


  1. Carl

    Hi Daniel
    Great post. I think Charles Reid mentioned Hawthorne in relation to painting the figure with spots of colour in his book Painting The Figure Naturally,

    1. Hi Carl,
      Ah yes, that’s a really good book. Many thanks for reading.
      – Daniel

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

− 4 = 2