Painting in Planes

With the aid of my trusty spatula, I am attempting to paint only in planes.

I’m taking my lead from Cape Cod School founder Charles Hawthorne, whose wisdom is captured in Dover’s diminutive Hawthorne on Painting.

Hawthorne asked painters to “forget drawing” and “see color planes.” By encouraging painters to “paint in planes,” he hoped to abridge and distill the process of painting a convincing work.

Don’t struggle to “make a thing,” he told followers. “Let it make itself.”

In other words, don’t construct a thing; reveal it.

Don’t draw it; unveil it.

But how does the painter reveal (φανερόω in the Greek of the Bible) a thing?

To the best of my understanding, Hawthorne’s advice boils down to this: eschew outlining.

Easier said than done, because we learn to draw by outlining.

We thus have to “unlearn” drawing to paint.

Here’s Hawthorne’s formula in a nutshell:

Load your brush—or better, a palette knife—and put down a plane, starting from the center of the shape you see (a bottle, for example). Your plane should approximate (resemble) that shape. Then, work to make the plane look right vis a vis all its neighbors. Make the inside of the shape form the outside—the outline. The “drawing” that results will be more realistic and pleasing than anything you paint within outlines.

“One can spend one’s whole life and never really know how to draw,” he says on Hawthorne on Painting.

“If we are lucky we do spend it so, for beauty of line and design is the final expression. But first learn color. If the tones and values are correctly placed, the drawing takes care of itself. You will be a better draftsman if you paint in planes, not in color outlines.”

In his day, Hawthorne would teach students to “paint in planes” by leading them outdoors to the beaches of Provincetown, where he’d insist they use only a palette knife to paint what he called “mudheads,” portraits of the local Portuguese immigrant kids.

Forced to use only a palette knife—the cousin to my spatula—Hawthorne’s students would avoid drawing outlines, modeling the figure, or sketching in details.

Thanks to the knife, all they could manage were planes, plain and simple.

Above: Town View, Provincetown by Charles Hawthorne (1920). Oil on canvas. 25 x 30 inches. The Seven Ups by Robert Francis James (2021). Oil on fiberboard. 8 x 10 inches. Painted with a spatula. Mudhead by a student of Charles Hawthorne. A century after they were painted, more than a hundred of these portraits were found nailed to the walls of Hawthorne’s barn as insulation.