This section is from the "The elements of drawing & the elements of perspective" book, by J. M. Dent & Sons. Also see Amazon: The Elements Of Drawing & The Elements Of Perspective.
c m. Loch Coriskin.
a l. Caerlaverock.
From the Rivers of France.
a q. Chateau of Amboise,with large bridge on right. l p r. Rouen, looking down the river, poplars on right. alp. Rouen. with cathedral and rainbow, avenue on left. a p. Rouen Cathedral. f p. Pont de l'Arche. f I p. View on the Seine, swith avenue. a c p. Bridge of Meulan.
c g p r. Caudebec* larger surface, and very often dulled by finding ideas repeated in different works. Now, for a beginner, it is always better that his attention should be concentrated on one or two good things, and all his enjoyment founded on them, than that he should look at many, with divided thoughts. He has much to discover; and his best way of discovering it is to think long over few things, and watch them earnestly. It is one of the worst errors of this age to try to know and to see too much: the men who seem to know everything, never in reality know anything rightly.Beware of hand-book knowledge.
These engravings are, in general, more for you to look at than to copy; and they will be of more use to you when we come to talk of composition, than they are at present; still, it will do you a great deal of good, sometimes to try how far you can get their delicate texture, or gradations of tone; as your pen-and-ink drawing will be apt to incline too much to a scratchy and broken kind of shade. For instance, the texture of the white convent wall, and the drawing of its tiled roof, in the vignette at p. 227. of Rogers's Poems, is as exquisite as work can possibly be; and it will be a great and profitable achievement if you can at all approach it. In like manner, if you can at all imitate the dark distant country at p. 7., or the sky at p. 80., of the same volume, or the foliage at pp. 12. and 144., it will be good gain; and if you can once draw the rolling clouds and running river at p. 9. of the Italy, or the city in the vignette of Aosta at p. 25., or the moonlight at p. 223., you will find that even Nature herself cannot afterwards very terribly puzzle you with her torrents, or towers, or moonlight.
You need not copy touch for touch, but try to get the same effect. And if you feel discouraged by the delicacy required, and begin to think that engraving is not drawing, and that copying it cannot help you to draw, remember that it differs from common drawing only by the difficulties it has to encounter. You perhaps have got into a careless habit of thinking that engraving is a mere business, easy enough when one has got into the knack of it. On the contrary, it is a form of drawing more difficult than common drawing, by exactly so much as it is more difficult to cut steel than to move the pencil over paper. It is true that there are certain mechanical aids and methods which reduce it at certain stages either to pure machine work, or to more or less a habit of hand and arm; but this is not so in the foliage you are trying to copy, of which the best and prettiest parts are always etched - that is, drawn with a fine steel point and free hand: only the line made is white instead of black, which renders it much more difficult to judge of what you are about. And the trying to copy these plates will be good for you, because it will awaken you to the real labour and skill of the engraver, and make you understand a little how people must work, in this world, who have really to do anything in it.
Do not, however, suppose that I give you the engraving as a model - far from it; but it is necessary you should be able to do as well1 before you think of doing better, and you will find many little helps and hints in the various work of it. Only remember that all engravers' foregrounds are bad; whenever you see the peculiar wriggling parallel lines of modern engravings become distinct, you must not copy; nor admire: it is only the softer masses, and distances; and portions of the foliage in the plates marked f, which you may copy. The best for this purpose, if you can get it, is the Chain bridge over the Tees, of the England series; the thicket on the right is very beautiful and instructive, and very like Turner. The foliage as well; - not as minutely: the diamond cuts finer lines on the steel than you can draw on paper with your pen; but you must be able to get tones as even, and touches as firm the Ludlow and Powis is also remarkably good.
Besides these line engravings, and to protect you from what harm there is in their influence, you are to provide yourself, if possible, with a Rembrandt etching, or a photograph of one (of figures, not landscape). It does not matter of what subject, or whether a sketchy or finished one, but the sketchy ones are generally cheapest, and will teach you most. Copy it as well as you can, noticing especially that Rembrandt's most rapid lines have steady purpose; and that they are laid with almost inconceivable precision when the object becomes at all interesting. The Prodigal Son, Death of the Virgin, Abraham and Isaac, and such others, containing incident and character rather than chiaroscuro, will be the most instructive. You can buy one; copy it well; then exchange it, at little loss, for another; and so, gradually, obtain a good knowledge of his system. Whenever you have an opportunity of examining his work at museums, c, do so with the greatest care, not looking at many things, but a long time at each. You must also provide yourself, if possible, with an engraving of Albert Durer's. This you will not be able to copy; but you must keep it beside you, and refer to it as a standard of precision in line. If you can get one with a wing in it, it will be best. The crest with the cock, that with the skull and satyr, and the Melancholy, are the best you could have, but any will do. Perfection in chiaroscuro drawing lies between these two masters, Rembrandt and Durer. Rembrandt is often too loose and vague; and Durer has little or no effect of mist or uncertainty. If you can see anywhere a drawing by Leonardo, you will find it balanced between the two characters; but there are no engravings which present this perfection, and your style will be best formed, therefore, by alternate study of Rembrandt and Durer. Lean rather to Durer; it is better, for amateurs, to err on the side of precision than on that of vagueness: and though, as I have just said, you cannot copy a Durer, yet try every now and then a quarter of an inch square or so, and see how much nearer you can come; you cannot possibly try to draw the leafy crown of the Melancholia too often.