A Stepladder to Painting

Continuing on with my general theme of old stuff no one else cares about…

Back when I was learning to paint, I came to believe that the craft of painting, the heart of the discipline, had been lost amid a seemingly endless parade of fashionable styles throughout the 20th century. In a mostly unsuccessful attempt to compensate, I made a point of checking out old how-to-paint books from the university library. Most of them were awful, but every once in a while I’d come across something worth reading. A Stepladder to Painting, by Jan Gordon, fell squarely into the latter group. In its time I think it was fairly popular. I eventually bought a copy second hand (since it’s been out of print for years), and my copy from the sixth printing dates from 1944, ten years after the first printing. There was a second, updated edition in the 1960s, but the book is such a period piece that I can’t help but think any later updates would probably not have improved it.

Back in the 20s Gordon was a noted author and considered something of an expert on modern art. I’ve heard his book Modern French Painters (now available from the Internet Archive) was widely read in its day.

As it stands, A Stepladder to Painting reads like a compendium of studio lore from the first quarter of the 20th century, when the old formal methods of art instruction of previous eras were being replaced by ad-hoc methods more appropriate to a generation inspired by the post-impressionists. Gordon’s stated aim was to produce a “concise review of the painter’s job written so clearly that a student could understand it,” and overall he does it well, as long as your definition of painting includes representation and doesn’t insist on atelier methods. Drawing, composition, colour, geometry, subject selection are all here, with entertaining excursions into things like sincerity, memory, and emotion; all enlivened with anecdotes of Gordon’s years as an artist and art student, and exhortations that the student of painting should aim for “professional competence.” You don’t hear that much these days.

The book isn’t perfect. There are, unfortunately, a few passages that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the time but which don’t resonate all that well with contemporary sensibilities, my own included. References to residents of Africa as ‘primitives’; that kind of thing. However, if one can wince quietly and then get on with the book, there is much in it that is at least potentially useful, and it’s all interesting as a snapshot of a bygone era of painting.

One thing from Gordon’s book that made a big difference to my work was his suggestion to use a fountain pen rather than a pencil for sketching. It was great advice; not being able to correct your mistakes is a great incentive not to make them in the first place, and a fountain pen has a kind of expressive line not characteristic of, say, the ballpoint variety. I still do most of my drawing in pen.

As an aside, I have to note that we are, right now, living in a golden age of studio lore, and no longer have to track it down in old books. In that regard, I’ll mention the blog of Stapleton Kearns as a prime source for this kind of thing. Marc Dalessio also provides some great content. If anyone knows of similar examples, I’d appreciate hearing about them.


Update April 2014: Apparently I’m not the only one who cares about this old stuff after all. There are a couple of good websites focussing on Jan Gordon and his wife, Cora Gordon, namely:

Art of Jan and Cora Gordon

The Jan and Cora Gordon Pages

By all accounts a fun couple, who managed to have a good time with the whole bohemian artist thing (rather than being reduced to misery, as so many others were). I tend to prefer Cora’s paintings to Jan’s.

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