I love a facsimile reproduction of an old book, and this book on drawing (and art in general) by Harold Speed is no exception. It’s at once both firmly rooted in its time and a giver of timeless advice for artists and art lovers.
Harold Speed (1872 – 1957) was an English painter of portraits, figures and historical subjects was an elected member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
I bought the book because I wanted to read ‘Oil painting techniques and materials’ also by Harold Speed (next up on my ‘to read’ pile) but thought I’d better start with his advice on drawing first. I’d heard his books recommended by portrait tutors, but also I think Speed’s drawing is breathtakingly beautiful. He has what he calls ‘dither’, that undefinable quality that gives a drawing life and stops it from being cold and dull even if it is realistic. His drawing is realist, but still expressive.
On another level, the book (originally published in 1917) provides very interesting historical perspective on a very specific time when art ideas were changing, modern art was emerging and the establishment did not like it. The book is written in a conversational style that we don’t see in instructional manuals much these days, it’s full of personal opinion and experience even if we might baulk at some of the ideas nowadays. I did chuckle at some of his dismissal of modern, wild ideas though!
Speed speaks about drawing and seeing and the difficulties a student may face learning these. He gives advice on how to look more carefully, on line drawing and mass drawing (tone) and how tone can be built up to form the basis of a painting. He gives both analysis of famous pictures and advice on how to use marks to show particular emotional effects. There were some excellent tips that really helped me and inspired me to use my pencil for life drawing again after a run of painting.
I’d say the larger part of the book was dedicated to properties of composition and what makes a good picture, be it a painting or a drawing, even though Speed claims to not be advising on composition – the topic of which “would need its own book”.
He covers ‘unity’ and ‘variety’ of elements in a picture. Talking specifically about line and mass, he demonstrates how line and blocks of tone can give different moods to images, and can lead the viewer’s eye round the picture plane. He gives examples of rhythm, which I take to mean repetition and pattern of tone and line. I found his recurring comparison of artistic composition with musical composition, chords and melody very helpful – composition is something I find difficult and it made me look at it in different way.
Speed talks about portrait drawing in particular in one chapter; what sets a good portrait drawing apart and what makes a bad one. The advice on posing/dressing sitters is very of its time, but I found it interesting!
He finishes with advice about the actual act of making paintings or drawings which really resonated with me, it’s rare to find an author speaking so directly to the reader/student from their own experience. It makes me trust Speed’s advice so much more knowing that he ‘gets’ how it feels to learn. His advice is universal even if some of the details are most definitely from another century.