Frank Carmichael -
He who thinks nature, in the narrow sense of the work, is alone to be followed, will produce but a scanty entertainment for the imagination. - Reynolds.
I had been told that, while St. Thomas Smith is the dean of aquarelles in Eastern Canada, Frank Carmichael is the strongest among the younger painters. I have been acquainted with the latter for some years. I knew what he could do with oil paints, but I never chanced to see any of his work in the less popular medium until a few days ago, when, on my urgent request, he sent me a parcel of sketches. Mr. Carmichael broke into the profession of art in his teens as a junior commercial artist, with a Toronto firm. he saved enough money to go to Europe to study, and went, but he was back in Canada in 1914. It was in 1925 that he first sketched successfully in water-colour. He camped on that occasion at Jackfish and Coldwell, on the north shore of Lake Superior. This austere remote country he has made his own in art. He was accustomed to hear the fatuous assertion that water-colour did not lend itself to the interpretation of such landscape, and for many years his experiments seemed to favour this view, which indeed explains its prevalence. It is a difficult medium. Late in life David Cox said, "There is not half the trouble with oil as with water colour. I should never touch water-colour again only for my honour and duty to the society I belong to." Cox - the master of water-colour - who took his first lessons in oil when he was fifty-six years old!
Mr Carmichael saw the tremendous possibilities of water-colour. Perhaps he was piqued by its lack of response. But he determined to master it, just to prove, as he says, that it had all the possibilities he saw in it. The interest in his pictures is always set well away from the spectator, and is never placed in the foreground. Nothing obstructs the clear view of his romantic distances, neither a screen of foliage, nor a tangle of branches near the eye. Pattern derived from such elements often is obvious, always flat, and where interest is centred in a point beyond, has little structural affinity therewith. Mr. Carmichael's lineal arrangements are homogeneous, and every form, whether solid like rock, or diaphanous like vapour, has some dynamic significance in the design. That which cannot be moulded to a considered purpose is eliminated; it ceases to exist for him. But Mr. Carmichael's attitude towards nature is not merely selective. It is directed by profound thought, interpretative, never purely representational. He manipulates form and colour in an endeavour to convey some comic truth, a truth more vital if less obvious than that the average landscape painter perceives, or, of he perceives will consider pictorially.
The liberties he takes with the various aspects of form are strictly governed by a proper regard for probability. He is a realist to that extend. His approach is devotional. The grandeur of that vast country which he paints overwhelms the imaginative soul, points his insignificance, his futility. The comprehension of its massy permanence spares only hope to save him from utter spiritual debasement. Hope has inspired artists in many ages. It provided a motive when soaring Gothic churches were built seven hundred years ago.
The essential spirit of Gothicism is rampant in Mr. Carmichael's work. It is expressed in the upward flow of lines, the subordination of all horizontal tendencies. The contours of steep mountains echo those of the pinos, those dark fingers pointing forever to the sky. the same leaning toward verticality is apparent in the hill villages he draws - in the exaggerated sharpness of the gables of all the houses. Mr. Carmichael's line is emotional; dignity, which tends to austerity at times, is achieved by other means. There is no vestige of humour or flippancy in any of his works, but often a lyric note, which with his quality of colour, goes straight to the heart, and the conviction is ever in the mind of the spectator that he can strike this not at will.
None of the chancy effects that the aquarellist is so often tempted to adapt are to be seen in his pictures; there is no evidence of adventitious aid. He paints directly, rigidly, impelled only by the thought the scene inspired. Every brushstroke contributes to the one end. No part is permitted to display beauty in itself, but only in relation to the whole. He makes it manifest that the tree owes life to the elements, the soil to the rock; that the movements of water are directed by the winds and the configuration of the earth. The unity in these designs expresses universal interdependence, a Guiding Hand. Mr. Carmichael is fluent in expression; his themes are new and worthy; he has found a brooding beauty in nature, deeply moving and hitherto obscure.
As a true creative artist, with a new philosophy, and the ability to expound it, he has always condemned servile dependence upon tradition. He recognises the futility of viewing nature through the eyes of others, and the stupidity of honouring conventions established in the past during periods of artistic stagnation. Such faults, unfortunately, are common to painters; few are free. Cotman tried to imitate his more popular contemporaries for economic reasons, but his genius was always too much for him.
Mr. Carmichael has unconsciously developed the idea of pattern, first explored by Cotman. He has added depth, pulsating rhythm, to design, and a realization of solidity to form: All unknown in Cotman's day, but a strong feature in modern art. These qualities will be rejected presently as traditional, I suppose, but inasmuch as it became possible for us to perceive them by virtue of the vision of older masters, so will they help to determine fuller further expression in art.
The beliefs and practices that have come down to us throughout the ages, and the pictures of former years, which together constitute tradition, cannot be dismissed as useless or obnoxious. They are the foundations on which we build, and the measure for progress. That no painter can avoid using the achievements of his ancestors in art, is self-evident. Artists at all periods have deceived themselves by thinking they were adopting a child's vision, an unaffected outlook upon life and nature that should free the hand and eye from the shackles of tradition, but they have been the most sophisticated of all artists.
Mr. Carmichael has gone back to nature with a mind equipped with knowledge, a clear eye, and an artful brush. He has not attempted to demolish and rebuild the old foundations, nor has he striven to lay the courses on another on the same old plan. He has added to the structure; he has erected an impressive edifice on the old foundation.
Mr. Carmichael has lived and worked in Ontario all his life, save for the one short excursion to Europe. He has a strong affection for his country, and a great faith in its future in art. Not rabidly national, he believes that art is the expression of that inner life developed through constant contact with everything around us.
The demand for national art, national music, national literature, seems to me unreasonable. Chauvinism cannot well be expressed in art, which is an international language if ever there was one. There are, however, certain minor facts sometimes evident in painting, that serve to determine the nationality of the subject, for they relate solely to subject. In landscape the facts are geographic. The relation of race to art, and of geography to race, is a matter for the ethnologist. Many modern critics insist that racial characteristics have their influence in art and may be recognised. You have your choices.
Mr. Carmichael confesses that, while he may have his head in the clouds, his feet are firmly planted in his own native soil, and unconsciously and inevitably he expresses it. Most landscape painters have been cosmopolitan, however, and love of country, in a political sense, and love of art, seem not to be synonymous. Reynolds wrote, "The painter must divest himself of all prejudices in favour of his age or his country."
The Canadian painter is especially fortunate. He may be true to his country, in that he never paints outside her borders, yetr, though his taste in landscape may be absurdly capricious, he may find somewhere or other just what he wants. Mr. Carmichael's interest never has been diverted from the Canadian scene, though I do not believe he has painted on the east coast or the Pacific, where the atmosphere is humid. It is the clear air of the interior that he loves.
Every year he goes back to the pine country with an enthusiasm whetted by months of hard labour in the field of commercial art. If the weather is unfavourable, his sketching holiday is ruined, and I venture to say that Canadian art suffers too. Canada is too busy to realize fully the value of art, and of her artists, or she might make it possible for such as Mr. Carmichael to paint uninterruptedly. This, however, is a situation that will improve with time and is an unprofitable topic for discussion.
Mr Carmichael's whole energy as a painter is given to the clear expression fo the emotion inspired by an effect in nature - the most direct means, the simplest statement suffices. His is an unobtrusive technique. He avoids any formalized method of handling water-colour; he despises tricks; he inclines to the opinion that a picture is not judged great by the manner in which it is painted as much as by the emotional motive that prompted its painting. Nevertheless he is a sound craftsman.\\He has no pet colours, finding "the same value and usefulness in any and every colour, so long as it works freely, and is permanent." He does not use gouache, preferring to remove superfluous colour with a brush and clean water, for, as he justly observes, transparent colour becomes part of the paper, and gouache always lies on top, and seems foreign to the character of the rest. With further reference to this matter, he writes, "If washing is carried through consistently, from top to bottom, in its turn it becomes a treatment just as much as clean hard wash, also, I am seeking a fuller realization of form and space than is generally sought in water-colour. Perhaps I am trying to push the medium too far, but I find washing brings me closer to the consummation of my aims than direct work."
Whilst sketching, Mr. Carmichael works as directly as possible on dry white paper, beginning at the top, and working straight down to the bottom, striving to obtain the desired effect as speedily as possible. but the medium is difficult, and man is frail. Like every other water-colourist he has found that direct, undisturbed washers of pigment sometimes need strengthening or reducing.
The sketch is begun by making a very careful outline with a black carbon pencil. This is an important matter, and one which I have neglected consistently, relying on a faint brush line fixing only the position of the chief masses. A bold outline, carefully drawn constitutes an immediate record of the scene, which the addition of colour and tone merely elaborates. The sketch is eloquent at every stage. A black line moreover, whether drawn with canyon or pen, lends palpable substance to the form it embraces, and that can be achieved as easily in no other way. It relieves the painter of the necessity of envisaging the shape of every wash, and thus permits undivided attention to the broader aspects of landscape.
The luminosity of Mr. Carmichael's sketches is enhanced by specks of white peper left between brush-strokes in the hurry op painting. speed is essential to the sketcher. Effects are fugitive, the glory of a moment only. They never recur.
A preliminary wash all over the paper is not a device that commands itself to Mr. Carmichael. he has adopted it, and he watched his effects vanish whilst waiting for the wash to dry enough for him to proceed. Russell Flint used to carry a spirit-lamp to hasten the drying of big washes, but that was in England, or Scotland.
The dry method enables Mr. Carmichael to go over his subject completely, then to go back, and embellish or correct without undue waste of time. His indoor practice is much the same. Naturally he gives more thought to arrangement, and further clarified the underlying idea. His washes are a trifle more expressive than in the sketch. They are merged where necessary, and terminated sharply where a definite edge is desired. They indicate the same ideal of directness and comprehension, but how may be described as a nebula out of which forms are developed, both as solids, and solids in space. To attain this result sometimes involves repeated washing out and repainting.
Mr. Carmichael's very interesting and informative
letter, from which I have quoted, ends plaintively, in the true
spirit of water-colour. Indoor painting with him, as with all
of us, is a matter of sustained effort, of failure and fresh effort,
depression and elation. The practice of water-colour has a chastening
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