Monday, October 17, 2011

Henry Hensche speaks

Henry Hensche (1901-1992) a demonstration portrait done outside in direct sunlight

I get a lot of interesting stuff sent to me because of the blog. This is one of the most interesting. A former student of Henry Henshe sent me a transcript of a video made showing Hensche teaching. Henry Hensche was a revered Provincetown, Massachusetts teacher who was himself a student of the legendary Charles Hawthorne. Hawthornes book is a classic and is one of the texts that impressionist painters read.

Hawthorne died relatively young and Hensche took over "the Cape School" and ran it every summer for many years. Over that time hundreds (if not thousands) of students passed through his hands. Hensches influence was enormous. He was one of those few men who had a proven reputation for producing painters.

I never studied with Hensche but I knew many people who did. I spent part of a summer in Provincetown studying with Robert Douglas Hunter, who had been a student of both R.H.Ives Gammell and Henry Hensche,. That would have been about 1975, I think. Hunters studio-home in the summer was in an old barn in Provincetown that he had been lent by Gammell. It had been Gammells summer digs for many years, but Ives had recently built a summer compound in the Berkshires near Williamstown, Massachusetts. Half of the ancient and enormous barn was Hunters and the other half was Hensches school. He held classes in a sunny patio behind the barn so I was able to observe his students at work.

Hensche taught a doctrine of color and required his students to work with a palette knife. They carefully mixed the colors of blocks and simple objects in dazzling sunlight being sure to represent each of their planes with a different hue. I wasn't interested much in this method at the time as I was
totally enamored with Dutch 17th century painting.

I was invited to witness Hensche do a demo painting
one afternoon in the yard of his home. I watched him paint a head like the one at the top of the page. It was an amazing performance. I tried to "be there" and remember as much as I could.

I also saw a show of charcoal portraits by Hensche at the Guild of Boston Artists, in the mid 70's,
his drawings were superb, the structure of the heads was so solid. I never particularly liked the color thing Hensche was into, but his drawing was solid and that is what impressed me, because I had received a Boston school training that focused more on direct visual draftsmanship rather than the expression of planar form. I wish now I had studied with Hensche for a summer to learn more about the expression of form through planar construction. I have worked for years to get as much of that as I could into my work, remember;


The following is from Phillip St. John who has allowed me to share it with you. At the bottom of the page is his information so you can get a copy of the video if you want to learn more about Hensches methods. I must add a disclaimer here, I am not a devotee of Henrys approach and do not necessarily agree with all that follows, but Henry was an enormous influence on a whole school of painters today and anyone who wants to paint outside in sunlight would be well advised to listen when Henry speaks. A lot can be learned from listening to the "Old Ones"

Script for portions of Hensche video

This is a copy of the words of Henry Hensche in the film “A Look At The Way We See and Paint.” If you’d like to know more about the dvd of the film, click here.It isn’t a book with a logical flow, but a compilation of random thoughts and teachings Henry promoted, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve added some parenthetical inserts for clarity.

You may have difficulty hearing Henry’s voice on the video. This video isn’t a professional production, more like a labor of love.. This script was originally produced back in the day when VHS players had counters on them. I’m including the counter markers, partly for whimsy, partly because many may still have the players.The video/dvd was originally on 16mm film, then transferred to VHS, then to dvd, now it is going to be offered over the web, at a reduced cost, as soon as I can figure out how to do it. I still encourage you to turn it up. I’m in the process of re-editing the show which is easier due to modern technology.

I have also copied Henry’s voice, word for word, so that you could get a feeling for the way he spoke. It isn’t the prettiest reading, but it does carry the flavor of his speech better than cleaning up the syntax would, in my opinion. I’m putting his words in color and possibly make comments on what he said.

0007 “We are seeking today the reasons for why we are living and what the purposes of life are.”

[From here to 0201 is better audio, myself as narrator.]

0201 “Well, if you are interested in the art of painting, it’s not very difficult to comprehend, it is the art of seeing. And the way you see things is the way the painter creates the illusion of reality. What a painter does is simply make it his business to see more accurately and (0211) more precisely than the layman.”

“Then you are dealing with the human being, wherever there is human affection, there portraiture will last. Because everyone that lives wants images of those they love. That’s why portraiture is done, and for that reason you can buy pictures, you can buy paintings. You want (0220) them around because a painter has taught himself to see more beautifully or truly, which is the same thing, and through the painter, through the painting, people begin to see nature.”

“Seeing is a process of having an image come on the retina. Then the mind analyses what comes out of the retina. It is the mind’s analysis, and the quality of that analysis (0233) that makes the difference between a good painting and a bad painting, or an erratic one. Now the art of translating that, that is, what you see visually, you have to learn. And that’s what they call the physical aspect of it, but the real thing, the learning about seeing and understanding what you’re looking at, and that is the analytical process.”

0246 “Hawthorne (Charles W, was Henry’s beloved teacher) was the greatest painting teacher in the world. He made a technique of teaching, first himself, and then through the method, teaching others to do what the Impressionist movement had done, that is, Money, especially. What had Monet done? Well, he revolutionized the art of seeing. (0279) When Monet came along with the new colors that were added by modern chemistry, around 1860 and 70, then so-called Impressionism was born. Monet now had the pigments to express many more color combinations and especially the bright ones. And he simply applied the use of these colors to expressing (0289) the greater variety of color effects that everybody had seen but nobody had been able to create the illusion of. And this is the core of why Impressionism has come into existence. Monet couldn’t have happened until the time when modern chemistry added the new pigments. The ancients couldn’t of, if the had wanted to.”

0300 “New students should keep studying the units until they are so accurate that they tell the onlooker, the layman, or anyone who looks at it, at the study, what the light effect is. In other words, we’re trying to get a morning sunlight effect here. And that’s done by the units of the color being reasonably accurate. Once you understand this, you’ll realize that units are the more important thing. It’s the (0314) beginning and the end of things. As Hawthorne said, “in the beginning as a student, you make the units crudely because you don’t know anything else. Then you get more knowing, you spend (0319) a lifetime elaborating the variations and drawing and concepts of ideas, and composition ideas”. But in the end, when it’s all said and done, lie he, Hawthorne said “you don’t look at a picture unless, from a distance, it stops you through its main masses.” So....if you lose the central theme of an idea, and lose yourself in the details and lose the sight of the ….......of the big concept, whatever it may be, in painting it is the big color note.”

0334 “The finer painter simply raises his or her visual perceptual sense to a very much higher order that the ordinary one. So this gives you a clue too, to the function of a painter in society. His main function is first of all, to teach people how to see the visual beauty or truth of the visual world, that’s his basic function. And it’s done through colors, through color combinations of different (0346) intensities and depths in a certain color scheme that creates the illusions of reality. When it’s on a high level, and above their experience, then man uses these descriptive words like beauty, aesthetic, quality, and so forth. There is no great painting, no fine painting, that hasn’t got a great color quality.”

“Here is the idea that Hawthorne taught, see, that the sum total of the masses, should, in color, should express the light key in which the things are seen. (0361) He solved the problem of how to develop color sensations from crude sensations to one of great refinement. Hawthorne respected anyone that wanted to study the truth and the beauty of life and things. And he thought it was the most wonderful thing to pursue, to add to the sum total of beauty for the world. So, what you do, you start at the beginning of your life with the crude masses, and make endless studies until those masses express the fundamental truth. (0378) He not only made you feel that you were just as important as anybody else, but you hd to earn it, you had to study. And he was also very kind about the understanding of things. He didn’t judge you by your immediate studies, he judged you by the rate of (0386) growth you made. You learned something about, as Hawthorne said, the glory of the visual world (woman interrupts: “You will learn something!”) Yes, The reason for that is, the theory, the teaching principle is right. So, in other words, he was a true American. If you believe this is not the age for the few rich, for the few endowed with money, this is the royalist and feudalistic concept, that only a few are chosen to be the great painters of the world.”

0398 “He felt that everybody should be endowed with possibilities of growth and each one that want to pay the price should have the right to that development to the fullest of their being, and everybody could and can. He drew through class lines, he didn’t think it was just for the few, it was for the many, for everyone who wanted it. And who is there to restrict anybody in saying that they don’t want what is beautiful and good? Who doesn’t want a good picture? Who doesn’t want to understand the use of it? Who doesn’t want to practice some art form? It’s (0412) the development of their senses that makes the difference between animals and human beings. This is another quality the man (Hawthorne) had and he felt it, and believe me, they loved him for it, so see, because he opened up vistas.”

“Hawthorne, my teacher, put that up in a teaching form, what Monet did in practice, so that everybody could learn to grow, to appreciate the quantity and quality of color sensations.”

Then he, the artist, had a function. (0426) You see, he gives the people looking at it a visual experience that they wouldn’t get without the help of the painter. And then through looking at the painting they’ll transfer that experience into visual observation. And then they’ll learn to see nature more attractively and more truly and that gives you everyday life greater pleasure which you wouldn’t have because you hadn’t developed that faculty without exercising it through observation of good paintings.”

0445 “The art’s deal with the eternal things, with the universal things that man never gets beyond. Each generation should grow in appreciation of what the Greeks contributed to the world. We start from abysmal ignorance as children to the enlightenment of the greatest thinkers of the age. So it is a greater truth. So in a real sense, it is very odd, most painting has been practiced for centuries on the earth. It wasn’t until the last hundred years that (0458) the dominant descriptive power reached its fullest understanding, and also in practice. Now we have a very rich language, in color.”

“Impressionists used it to express visual phenomena, in the landscape painting, were the ones that really did it. And now it has effected not only indoor painting and landscape, but all painting; indoors, the figure, as well as out.”

0470 “What is the purpose of art in society? When you have an answer to that, and that’s a philosophical one, then you know what techniques to teach. But they’ve turned it around, they’ve turning techniques, like a written language and they’ve got nothing to say with them, and this is the dilemma that they are in.”

0478 “And the first thing that realistic painting should tell the story of, is the light scheme in which these things are seen. which all objects are seen, which holds true indoors as well as outdoors.”

“That is modern art, that is modern expression, this which deals with reality, you see? When the sun is out, the indoor color is entirely different than on a gray day, when the sun is in. It’s the dominating thing in visual observation. The third thing man did was start with a line and then fill it in with a color. Now we start with a color, then make the shape. And the edge is the last thing we worry about.”

“Painting is simply arresting some effect of nature, holding it before man so there it is for eternity, as long as the (0449) painting lasts, I mean, to share the delight of the visual experience the painter had.”

“Let’s call it philosophy, but a belief that the goodness of man, his love for each other, his love for the earth that he lives upon, from which we come, to which we go. As Hawthorne said, “Let’s add something to the sum total of beauty to the world.” I’m not going to add to the bankruptcy of things. I believe (0551) in America being full of wonderful people with great goals, but they don’t have a voice in things. Real America isn’t heard. These boys and girls that are here (at the Cape School), they are the cream, they are what I consider....the better. They’re the cream on which, if they, if my little effort, my puny effort, if I can’t instill in the the love of what I believe so much, if I can’t instill in them the willingness to fight for it, that is in (0524) producing beautiful work, and having the fortitude to stand up against all the idiocies, then I’ve failed. But so have they. I’d like to believe that, this is the horizon, these are the horizons that American youth is looking for the leadership of great ideas. What are they? Who are they? Who are these? I challenge anybody to a debate on these matters.”

0535 “Painting should deal with the universal things that everybody can understand. The thing that distinguishes a civilized man from a savage or an animal is exactly what which the arts deal with. And the arts deal with human souls communication with each other and understanding what the past believed in and actually the arts deal with the very essence of human faith and love.”

0546 “Through the painter’s eye he gets educate, through the painting, which he has done, that’s the way it works. That’s the function of a painter. To teach people to see that truth, and then you arrest it. A painting is nothing but a still picture of some phenomena of nature (0556) that thrilled, something that they got a kick about, that’s what a painting is. Someone has such enthusiasm about a view they saw, that they felt it so deeply, that they wanted to register it, first of all for themselves and because the had the great enthusiasm, it becomes a landmark of human visual experience, if it’s on a higher order of perception.”

0565 “That sort of thing that children have, they really get excited about something, about what they are doing, and this same thing should be developed in grown people. When that’s not there anymore, that excitement, or growth of discovery, then we’ve become set in our ways. We develop formulas in which there is no life in them.”

0576 “Most education today squelches that creative desire, creative art, if you want to put it that way. Creation is a matter of being fresh in your vision, and not the manner of putting down things that follows see? The desire of loving the truth more and getting excitement in painting the visual beauty of the world.”

0585 “When the arts don’t serve the purpose of making people, man, a part of the rhythm of the visual world, if a painting doesn’t play its proper purpose, when human beings don’t love, what we call by love means understand reality, the visual world the good Lord gave us, as the Christians say, the paradise, which is a Persian word for garden. If you don’t love this garden, how the hell do you expect (0595) to go into paradise after we’re dead? God is not going to give any Christian a chance of the entrance into a paradise if he doesn’t appreciate the one he has got right under his nose. The painter is the vehicle, and the priest through which he learns to see. He’s the teacher of mankind to see this wonder. Maybe for some people this doesn’t mean anything (0607) but the best way to find that out is to blind yourself, and you find often in newspaper clippings, when people have suddenly gotten sight back, how wonderful it is whatever they look upon, there’s nothing unimportant. Hawthorne put it so beautiful, “Everything under light is beautiful.” Cause it’s true, the charm, the enchantment of human vision, this is what poetry deals with, through color and shape and then, line. (0617) [Applause]

0621 “It (art) deals with eternal things of human relationships. From now until doomsday, as long a man lives on the earth. God help us if he doesn’t love the beauty of a spring day, and enjoys being in it.”

0627 “The thing that makes visual art entrancing is the constant change from one light scheme to another, sometimes it’s very dramatic. When it’s dramatic you can see it; you can see the importance of it, furthermore. If you wake up early in the morning and could sit in the same window and watch it and (0634) remember every change and have a camera click it at every so many intervals and then look at them after you’ve got the print of it , you’d be surprised at not having changed the pattern, how the color scheme would be entirely different. Well, that’s the core of visual art, and that’s the core with what painters should deal with primarily and first (0643) of all.”

0655 “The enchanting visual aspect of nature, in a foggy morning, if you’ve ever been here in New England in the fall, you see the veil of fog laying in the valleys, you hardly see a tree (0661) you hardly see a thing, but it’s enchanting. Even the Chinese noticed that. In their art centuries ago when a mountain suddenly appears out of some clouds. When you see it here, if you’re too dumb to see it, and if you don’t think that’s of any value, God help you. If he doesn’t love the richness of the summer with its fruit and the peace of the fall after the (0671) vegetables and things are stored and you have a celebration, and glorify this event. And one of the loveliest things of that kind was when a draftsman by the name of Stephen Crane in England, and he made a frieze celebrating the fall, when girls, women, and men, in the frieze dancing, you know, like people, peasants do, there’s a health of people in the field. I know we did in Illinois (0684) when we got the corn in and the wheat all in the barns, they threw a party and we had a lot of fun. We had some beer and we drank, women cooked wonderful meals. We sat around and boasted and kidded each other and had really fun together. And then this was celebrated by Stephen Crane in a kind of a frieze. That’s (0694) the kind of thing to celebrate. Those are the eternal things. We all shared it together.”

“In order to do this you have to get busy and study, now to see. And do it on a much higher level. Otherwise, it is foolish, and you are foolish if you think you should (0701) get response from people. But that depends on what level your goal is. The great people, the people that are really interested in living, what they try to do is to grow and to keep growing throughout, to the end of their lives.”

0710 “Painting, the study of nature’s visual phenomena, has kept me sane I think. Given me a lot of delight, selfish delight in a way, but it’s a delight that other people share and want.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and felt a little of the inspiration that Henry exuded. It’s available as a dvd, here’s a link to read more about it, along with ordering instructions.

Phillip St. John 606 436-8785 email

Below is a link to a website devoted to Henry and his teaching.


Camille LaRue Olsen said...

Fantastic! Thank you for posting.

Simone said...

Is it just me or does Hensche so blur the lines between faith and painting that it seems painting was his religion?

I agree with what he says about the necessity of maintaining a youthful sense of discovery which makes painting a continual adventure. That's great advice for life in general!

I also agree with him that there is great beauty, interest and value in visual phenomena. Such beauty and interest can lead us to contemplate Truth. However, he seems to have thought of painting, and faith, in purely anthropological terms. Not sure I agree with that.

A few years ago I found a first edition copy of his book in a used book store for basically nothing. I later found out that it can sell for as much as $900 online. In that first reading it seemed to be little more than a rant against modernism. Maybe I should go back an read it again. Somebody may have slipped some new stuff in there while I wasn't looking! said...

Wow! Yes...I hadn't realized how much of Hensche has seeped and collected in my consciousness and into
my painting philosophy through other teachers. I feel like his long lost grandchild. My painting doesn't look like his painting but it develops from the same philosophies. That's why I think even a dumpster can be beautiful.

kev ferrara said...

great stuff!

George Perdue said...

Great things regarding the training of the eye to see. There is a 100+ page document on the subject available from Blue Ridge Oil Paints. Free download, well explained and illustrated. Enjoy

Björn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Björn said...

George the document was first published on rationalpainting by the writer and then it was hosted on the blue ridge oil paint blog and is much smaller the orginal file if i understood right.

i think it is hard to really draw any lines from his religon and how he really looked at it maybe the barbara faulkner and the interview with more students can show or maybe if you ask on the facebook forum where alot of his students are /Bjorn