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In search of John Collier

In jos

In search of John Collier

Mesaj  Admin la data de Vin Mar 20, 2009 11:05 pm

March 17, 2009

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. We've put some pretty classy examples at the top of the current clickback.

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.

Best regards,


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."


Current clickback: Habits for success contains reader responses and live comments on the value of positive habits in art and life. We've also put up a selection of the remarkable work of John Collier.

Read this letter online. Please feel free to give your own insights and opinions on the value of returning to basic academic traditions as a way of learning the processes of art and finding your own voice. Illustratable comments can also be made at

Facebook: Michelle Moore, 20, who manages our free links, thought my face would be okay for Facebook. She put the letter there too. Now she's done it again for Twitter.

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Featured Responses: Alternative to the instant Live Comments, Featured Responses are illustrated and edited for content. If you would like to submit your own for possible inclusion, please do so. Just click 'reply' on this letter or write to


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(c) Copyright 2009 Robert Genn. If you wish to copy this material to other publications or mail lists, please ask for permission by writing Thanks for your friendship.


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