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The Drawing

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Edwin Dickinson
Renaissance of an American
Master
In the latter years of the 1950s LIFE Magazine approached
Americas most esteemed painting teacher, also considered
one of its finest painters, several times. Each time Edwin Dickinson turned them down flat.
He knew firsthand how LIFE Magazine, the premiere publication of its time, had mocked Jackson Pollock in its August 8,
1949 issue Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter
in the United States?

Edwin Dickinson, Self-Portrait, 1949. Oil on


canvas, 23 x 20 1/8 in. National Academy of
Design, New York.

With the passage of time, over 60 years, that LIFE Magazine article is remembered not for the casual
slander of its original intent but as a monument to journalistic perspicuity. Dickinson had another
reason for avoiding the media: In 1928-29 he was nationally mocked as the painter who had won
an important prize for a painting that was hung sideways. That was a slight that haunted Dickinson
throughout his lifetime. Yet Dickinson was highly regarded in the art world as a painters painter. His
influence on the development of American art is only now beginning to be understood.
Edwin Dicksinson studied under Charles Hawthorne and William Merritt Chase who both encouraged
him to paint work that was less concerned with general, commercial appeal but with with responding
authentically to an observed or imagined subject.

The central tenet of Hawthornes and Dickinsons teaching was the practice of color spotting. This is
the development of a direct visual approach to the appearance of nature. A color spot is an observed
value and hue that is applied opaquely onto the canvas. A color spot is generally no more than 1/4 inch
diameter and its relationship is wholly dependent on the color values next to it. Simultaneous contrast
play a large role in determining whether a specific hue adheres accurately to the perceived color value
within your subject.
This is direct painting. You mix your color and stick it on. In Hawthornes classes you would use
a palette knife a radical painting process then that negates any possibility of cheating such as
scrumbling or fancy brushwork.
There is no underlying support such as a cartoon or underpainted grisaille to rely on. You are literally
painting by the seat of your pants. To paint purely and not follow the precepts of an academic schematic was a revolutionary approach preached by the likes of Courbet and Manet in the mid-nineteenth
Century.
Bear in mind, however, that Courbet, Manet and their counterparts benefited from a superb academic
training. So, too, did Hawthorne and Dickinson. Their training was object-oriented and focused on the
figure.
Color spotting has a singular specific
purpose: it trains the eye to see by
means of placing paint on canvas. It
does not in any way negate the other
important methods of painting. Nor is it
antithetical to anatomy, perspective, or
any of the other formal and conceptual
concerns of painting.
Color spotting is a specific discipline that
enables the painter to detach themself
from preconceptions about the appearance of nature. It is a training tool, not a
painting style.
In Hawthornes, Dickinsons and Cunninghams classes a premier coup figure
study would begin by first establishing a
Francis Cunningham, Shoulder, 1958
few premise spots. These are usually
large and simple notes that set the gov- This small work, an example of color spot training, was painted in Edwin
Dickensons class at the Art Students League in 1958 by my instructor,
erning key for the painting.
Francis Cunningham.
Dickinson has said that he would plan For an informative example of what a class taught by Dickenson was
a premier coup with up to thirty premise like click here for this 20 minute video demonstration of color spotting
spots before actually beginning to paint. by Francis Cunningham.
In practice the paint is applied opaquely onto the white canvas. The next color spot is laid next to it
and the value/temperature relationships adjusted as necessary. The object is to hit each color note
accurately. Which is no small feat.

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In Dickinsons class the first five minutes were spent setting up a painting. The following three minutes
were given over to looking and planning with view-finder in hand, a composition sympathetic to the
canvas (the pictorial surface area). With only a half-dozen lines swiftly drawn the surface of the canvas
is divided and the gestural dynamic of the principal shapes established. These initial lines, geometric
in character and drawn from the appearance of nature, allows for only the big considerations of shape
and movement. These initial lines would strike the edges of the canvas which are regarded as the first
four lines of the composition. This initial drawing served as a scaffold for the work to come.
The painting progressed by drawing with shapes of color-value, the color-spots, and developing designs
within designs which emerged as the painting developed. In the color-spot technique, drawing and
painting are thought of as one and the same and not as stages in the working process.

In Francis Cunninghams words ...


How interesting the pieces of paint and how right they feel when you hit the
notes, for these notes have been truly seen. Now you will discover that colorspots on your flat canvas evoke a visual, tactile enjoyment and communicate
sensations of form, space, and light. Unsought, the three-dimensional world has
appeared. This is your reward, and it has happened out of your own looking and
detachment from any preconceptions about the objects you are looking at or
how they should be painted. The experience is exhilarating. In addition, you will
find rhythms and movements that you never would have dreamed of if you had
started with a wire outline around everything and a preconceived idea of their
color. Your color will appear strange, refined, unexpected, and beautiful.
Both Dickinson and Hawthorne advised their students to look at nature as if it
were already a painting. This takes training. You must look at the chaotic threedimensional world with a built-in plumb line and finder, seeing it with complete
detachment, as flat shapes of color-value while simultaneously responding emotionally to the form, space and visual content of what you are looking at. No
aspect of painting is excluded in the color-spot process. If desired, conceptual
elements such as perspective and form theory may enter into the process.

Edwin Dickinson, Nude Figure - Marie, 1939

Edwin Dickinson was born in Seneca Falls, NY


in 1891. The death of his mother in 1903 from
tuberculosis and the suicide of his brother Burgess, a talented musician nicknamed Beethoven,
in 1913, along with his fathers remarriage to a
significantly younger woman have all been felt
to have informed the themes of his sustained
works.
After twice failing the Naval Academys entrance
examination Dickinson enrolled in William Merritt
Chases class at the Art Students League of New
York in 1911. The following year he studied with
Charles Hawthorne for three years.
Hawthorne had also been a student of Chases
and had a powerful influence on the young Dickinsons development as a painter. An example of
Hawthornes teaching is the mudhead exercise.
Edwin Dickinson, Mudhead, 1914
Here the model is backlit and the portrait painted
by spotting in the colors from the center of the head outwards. Hawthorne
insisted that his students paint with both their palette knives and fingers. The idea is to focus on spatial
form and color relationships rather than illustrative structure. Hawthorne wanted his students to paint
as if painting had just been invented.
Demobbed in 1919 from the Navy after the Armistice of 1918 that ended the First World War Dickinson
llived on the inheritance from his mother and a small allowance from his father to continue his painting
studies and to pursue his career. The money ran out in 1924 and Dickinson hit rock bottom.
Two portrait commissions that he had spent eight weeks working on were rejected. A sore financial
setback for any artist. He managed to sell a major painting, The Cello Player to a friend for $500 that
was paid in installments. Still it was not enough for him to continue.
An art patron, Esther Sawyer, agreed to pay Dickinson a monthly salary of $50 in exchange for firstrefusal rights to his paintings. This arrangement lasted for twenty-one years until Dickinson began
teaching regularly at the Art Students League and Cooper Union in 1945. Dickinson continued teaching regularly at the Art Students League until 1966.
Dickinsons first brush with notoriety came in 1928 when one of his major works, the eight-foot tall
canvas The Fossil Hunters (see the following page), was hung sideways at the National Academy of
Design and won a major prize. Personally I consider this feat an admirable trait: a compositionally
powerful painting should read well no matter what its orientation.
The Great Depression of the 1930s had a dismaying impact on all artists of that time. Rather than
retire his paints and brushes like many artists then and now in our own economic doldrums,
Dickinson took to the fields and beaches of Provincetown and pursued en plein air oil sketches that he
called Premier Coups. He hoped, like another artist from the Netherlands fifty years earlier, that smaller
paintings would be easier to sell. As with Van Goghs irises and cherry blossom trees this was not to
be.

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Dickenson would usually spend no more than three to four hours on a Premier Coup. Conversely he
would spend ten years, and more, on a major studio painting. Ruins at Daphne, begun in 1943 and
not completed until 1953, found its genesis in the Roman ruins at Arles, France. Dickinson painted
Ruins at Daphne as a tribute to his brother who had taken his own life decades earlier. The disjunctive
landscape of these ruins are composed around a Syrian temple.
Ruins at Daphne is painted on a red-ochre imprimatura upon which a careful perspective drawing is
rendered and then modeled with only three values of red-brown oil paint. During its progress in 1949
Elaine de Kooning documented its progress in an article she wrote for ARTnews. The article won
Dickinson a much wider audience for his work.
After almost nine years of working on this one painting did Dickinson further develop it by overpainting
with muted, neutral grays. He had completed almost a third of the work when a gust of wind caught it
while being moved and a hole was torn in the lower right corner. The damage was repaired but a heavy
coat of varnish was applied by the restorer rendering any further work on the painting impossible.
Dickinsons studio paintings convey stark motifs of loss and ruin. They are dark, enigmatic visions of
transcendence and grief.
My interest in Dickinson lay largely with his
premier coups. These quick oil sketches
incorporate the construction of an image
by juxtaposing color spots that infer light
and forms in space. Painting intuitively
plays the major role and allows one to paint
and discover their own sensibility without
being self-conscious about it. One simply
gives themself over to the process of painting. Dickinson warned against the temptation to rework a premier coup in the studio.
And he is right. Attempting to fix a premier
coup more often than not ruins it. Dickinsons favorite painting tool was the little
finger of his right hand with which he would
pull down and blur (flou) his edges creating an ethereal sensibility to his forms.
Edwin Dickinson, Gas Tank, 1937
Painting outdoors has both its advantages
and disadvantages. The advantage of en plein air is the purity of the painting experience. The disadvantage is people. Every plein air painter knows of what I speak. In 1941 before the American involvement in World War II Dickinson was maliciously rumored to be a German spy simply because he had a
beard and spent his time drawing and painting on the beach. Despite appeals to the American Legion
these accusations continued into 1943.
By 1959 Dickinsons health faltered. His vitality was sapped by the removal of a tubercular lung and
his painting output diminished radically. The demands placed on him by his stature as an important
American painter took up much of his time. He continued to teach until 1966.
By 1970 Alzheimers Disease had begun its toll. He died in Provincetown on December 1, 1978

Edwin Dickinson, Ruins at Daphne, 1943 - 1953

For over thirty years Dickinson has stood in the shadow of Edward Hoppers fame. This is in large part
due to Dickensons enigmatic vision that address the viewer in sotto voce (intentionally lowering the
volume of ones voice for emphasis). But this in no way diminishes Hopper. It is merely a matter of
taste and what is popular within a culture.
Today Dickinsons reputation is undergoing a renaissance. Particularly his premier coups amongst
the renewed interest in plein air painting in the United States. Plein air painting today appears to be
taking two divergent pathways: one is the Barbizon influence which is the more common; the other is
the direct descendant of Dickinson and Hawthorne which, in my opinion, produces the more interesting
work.