Here today is part four of our excerpts from Little Visits With Great Americans. Today we visit with Charles Dana Gibson, who has some amazingly frank and sensible advice for aspiring artists. Our Gibson sample is from Life‘s 1904 Christmas issue. Merry Christmas!
Being Himself in Style and Subjects, the Secret of an Artist’s Wonderful Popularity
Nothing in the studio of Charles Dana Gibson suggests that it is a studio, excepting the alien circumstance that it is artistic. Such proof tends to puzzle the casual-minded, whose mind is trained to look upon any sky-lighted room furnished like a pound party, and occupied by artists, or brokers, or bachelor wholesale dealers, as a studio.
Mr. Gibson’s studio is a real room, devoted to stern facts, and is, therefore, beautiful. It has no furniture that is not essential. Even the large rugs, woven of moss and mist and fire, hang on the walls like coverings, and not by way of decoration. The wood is heavy and dark. There are no pictures.
Mr. Gibson talks while he works. His easel stands squarely beneath the skylight, and, as he sat before it the other day, a picture grew under his hand while he talked about the making of an illustrator. Everything he said was emphasized by the slow growth of the glorious creature, who was there to show, from her pretty tilted pompadour to the hem of the undoubted creation she was wearing, that what the famous illustrator insisted may be done by skill and hard work can assuredly be accomplished.
“When anyone asks me,” said Mr. Gibson, “what to do to become a successful illustrator, I always assure him that he has thought about the matter and doubtless knows far more about it than I do, for I know of no rule to follow to become what one was born to be, and I certainly know of none to prevent one from failing at something for which he has no talent.
“If a man knows how to draw, he will draw; and all the discouragements and all the bad teachers in the world cannot turn him aside. If he has no ability, he will drift naturally into school-teaching and buying stocks, without anybody’s rules to direct him either way.
“The main thing is to have been born an artist.” Mr. Gibson said this quite simply, as it he were advising a course in something, or five grains of medicine.
“If you were that,” he went on, “you yourself know it far better than anyone can tell you, and you know also, in your heart, that neither wrong teaching nor anything but idleness can prevent your success. If you are not a born artist, you may not know it. I think I can soon say something about the way to find your limitations, but no one can say much to help a born genius. His genius is largely, indeed, that he knows how to help himself.”
Lightly leaving the student of illustrating adequately provided with having been born a genius, Mr. Gibson went on to tell what should be his education before he begins to study art, and upon this he put on record an opinion which is a departure from current belief.
A NATURAL ARTIST WILL NEVER REQUIRE AN INSTRUCTOR.
“I do not think,” he said, “that the previous training of a student who begins studying illustrating has much to do with his career. It seems to me that his actual previous education matters very little. If he wants to learn, he will learn. If he does not, he will not. If he does not want to learn, his attempt at an education will profit him very little. His gift for illustrating, if he has it, is a thing not more dependent upon his education than upon his surroundings. While there are instances in which an education forced upon a pupil has been acknowledged by him afterward to mean much to him, there are also cases in all arts of which we say that contact with the schoolmen would not have been an advantage.”
Mr. Gibson said this quite tranquilly, as if it were not an idea at odds with all other accepted statements that the thorough education of an artist is the best foundation for anything he may undertake.
“That leaves a good deal of work for the pupil’s master,” I suggested.
“Master!” exclaimed Mr. Gibson, with almost a frown; “what is a master? Have we any masters now? It seems to me that the word has lost its old meaning, and that there is no longer such a thing as a ‘master.’ Suppose we say ‘teacher’ instead! And then let me add this: I do not believe the teacher matters in the least.”
“Don’t you think,” I demanded, “that a pupil would make better progress with you for a teacher than he would with somebody whose work had no value ?”
IF YOU DO NOT SEE YOUR MISTAKES, NO ONE ELSE CAN
“Not a bit,” he said, promptly. “To tell the truth, I think the teaching of drawing is an over-estimated profession. It doesn’t seem to me as if I could teach, as if I would feel it would be exactly honest to teach. Why, see for yourself, what can a teacher do ?”
Mr. Gibson laid down his pencil, but he continued thus:-
“I was for a year at the Art League, and two years in Paris. In Paris we used to sit in rows at canvases, like this. We saw our teacher for half an hour, twice a day. He would come and spend less than two minutes beside the chair of each of us, and what would he do? Point out a mistake, or a defect, or, rarely, an excellence, which, if we had any talent at all, we could see perfectly well for ourselves. This last is the important point.
“If you are a born illustrator, you will know your own mistakes better than anyone can tell you about them. If you do not see your mistakes, nobody can ever help you to be anything. All the teachers in all the art schools cannot help you if you cannot see your mistakes. I said I could help a pupil to know his own limitations. Well, that is the way. If your own work looks quite finished and perfect to you, or if it looks wrong but you cannot tell exactly what is the inaccuracy or lack, you may depend upon it that you were not bom to be an illustrator.
“That is true in anything. The writer, the sculptor and the musician have to stand this test. What sort of musician would a man be who could not detect a discord ? You can see it easily enough with that illustration. Well, your illustrator must see a bad bit of drawing, or bad composition, just as quickly as a born piano player can tell if he has played without expression. It is just as true in art as it is in ordinary matters. The snow-shoveler must know when his sidewalk is clean, the typewriter when the words are correctly spelled, the cook when her pastry tastes right, or they are all discharged forthwith. Well, one expects no less of an illustrator than of a cook.”
THE VALUE OF ARTISTIC INDIVIDUALITY
Mr. Gibson returned to his board, and what he said next was wonderfully extra-illustrated by the girl- “Gibson” to her finger-tips,-who looked up at him.
“The whole value of your work is its individuality,” he said, “and for that you are obliged to depend absolutely upon yourself. Obviously nobody can show you how to be original.
“Now take the simple example of a copy book. Do you remember how the letters used to look, and the elaborate directions which accompanied every writing lesson? The ‘a’s,’ and so on, must be just of a height. The ‘t’s’ must be twice as high. The ‘t’s’ and the ‘h’s’ must be a quarter-length or so above those. Well, as a matter of fact, who writes like that? Nobody. If anyone did he would simply be laughed at, and justly so. His handwriting would mean nothing. It would have no individuality. Everybody simply keeps the letters in mind and forms them to suit himself, and after a time he has a writing which he can never change by any chance. That has become the way he writes.
“Well, it is just the same in illustrating. I might tell you all that I know about drawing; any teacher might tell you all he knows; but, gradually, by observation and the assertion of your own personality, you will modify all these forms, and will find yourself drawing one special way. That is the way you draw, and you can never change it in essence, though you may go on improving it forever.
“Now, to my mind, just so much instruction in drawing is necessary as is needed to tell the child who is learning to write which letter is which, and how to pronounce and recognize it. That once learned, the child will go its own sweet way and develop a handwriting such as no one in the world can exactly duplicate. So it is with drawing. When the first fundamental instructions are over, which anyone who can draw can give you, you are your own master, and will draw or not, as you were born to do.
“Remember that I am not saying that I regret the time I spent studying, either here or in Paris. I am only
telling you what I regard as necessary for one who wants to learn.
“Now, just as the way to learn to write is to write, so the way to learn to draw is to draw. I think it is best to begin with objects in the room, and with figures, -any objects, any figures,-it does not matter. But draw one over and over again; draw it from all sides; draw it big, and draw it little, and draw it again. Then go to something else, and then come back to it later the same day. Put them all away till the next day, and then find the mistakes in them. Here is something to remember, and something which ought to hearten many a discouraged student quite blue because of what really should have encouraged him: Do not be discouraged at the mistakes you can find in your own work, unless you find only a small number. The more mistakes you can detect, the better able you are to draw. Do not leave a thing until you are satisfied, after going back to it every day for weeks, that you can draw it no better. Then, if you come upon it the next year, and still see no room for improvement,-well, then there is still room for discouragement about yourself.”
WHILE STUDYING ART, ONE SHOULD WORK INCESSANTLY
“In all this work, observe one rule: Never mind about drawing a thing as you may possibly have been told to do in the course of instruction. Draw it the way it looks to you. You will see it differently as you go back to it again and again. If you do not see it differently, you cannot see your own mistakes, and that is positive proof that for you fame is waiting at some other door, or, at any rate, that it will not come to you from art.
“How much ought one to work? All the time.
Draw all the time. Look all the time for something to draw. In the beginning, never pass anything without wresting from it its blessing, so to speak. Before you pass, be sure you can draw it; and the only way to be sure of that is to draw it several times. The objects in a room are a little simpler than figures, at first, but figures are the most interesting, and you must draw whatever interests you. If you would rather draw crawfish and bootjacks than men and women, draw crawfish and bootjacks. It really doesn’t so much matter what you draw; the point is that you draw. But it is important to you that you develop a taste for drawing something special, and of that you need have no fear if you are a born artist. If you are not, as I said, it doesn’t matter. “I always feel that any general talk about the way to succeed, in any art one selects, is rather unnecessary. I cannot repeat too often that I believe, if the student has it in him to draw, he will not need to be told to persevere, or to work hard, or to be careful of bad influences in his work, or to avoid imitation; he will do all these as naturally as he will hold a pencil. Holding a pencil, by the way, is another example of what I just spoke of. Do you remember that they used to tell us just how our fingers must hold the pen, and how the whole arm ought to move? ‘What will they think of you,’ they said, ‘when you get out in the world, if you hold your pencil like that?’ As a matter of fact, nobody gives the matter a thought, and hardly one of us holds a pencil that way. It is so with many of the formulae of an art. But isn’t it curious that I never did get out of holding my pencil that prescribed way? I do happen to hold my pencil correctly.”
“Maybe you held some of the other formulae the same way,” I suggested, “and they are influencing you.”
“Oh, well,” said Mr. Gibson, “so far as the pencil goes, I fancy, perhaps, that I draw in spite of the way I hold it rather than because of it.”
Then he made a small retraction of his remark. “There is one class of teachers,” he said, “that I count,-pictures. Pictures are always at hand, and good work is the best teacher in the world. A pupil in New York ought to go to the art gallery often and often, and sit there and steep himself in what he sees.
Let him go to study definite pictures, too, but just to sit and absorb, as one sits in a garden, or before an old tower, or by the sea, without sketching, only just looking; that is the best instruction you can pay for on either continent.”
The picture of the girl on the board was practically complete, with its high little chin and haughty mouth and fearless eyes, and it seemed so alive that getting to be a great illustrator appeared hopeless by the side of it.
“How long,” I asked, “does it take, normally, to find out if you’re a born artist or not ?”
Mr. Gibson laughed and took it the other way.
“A very long time,” he said, regretfully, “and some of us even go down blind to our graves.”
“May it not be inferred from your idea that the born illustrator has little need of a teacher, that he also has little need of a sojourn in the art atmosphere of Paris ?” I asked.
“It certainly may be,” replied Mr. Gibson quickly. “A young man or woman can now learn just as much art in some of our great cities, like New York or Philadelphia, as abroad. Our art schools are as good as those of Paris. In fact, they are superior in some respects, and I am very sure that the average American art student is, in general, better off in the United States.