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Alan speaks in a very symbolic and esoteric manner in some parts of his books. Although they can be read anthroposophically, passages speaking of Atlantis, archangels, gods, etc. do not need to be taken literarily to be meaningful. The more you read, the more you will realize he uses many different religions to express ideas in a symbolic manner and not in a religious manner. His writings are not religious. In some places his writings are meant to refer to religious events in a historical way. In some places he is using religious figures (from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Ancient Roman and Greek Religions, etc.) in a symbolic manner. However, at no point is he promoting a specific religion or speaking from a religious point of view.
I have kept the writing as close to one-hundred percent original so you will also find that he speaks of Australia often and some spelling or manners of speaking may be cultural. Any words I have changed are presented like this: <word>.
Also keep in mind that these books are written by a Waldorf teacher with decades of experience who also studied with a Steiner student himself, so he speaks to an audience that is dedicating their lives to the Waldorf method without exception.
Because of this, all of his views are not reflected in the Earthschooling curriculum and not all of them may be ones you want to embrace or are able to use. In all of Alan Whitehead’s writings the opinions are his own and may not align with Earthschooling or Waldorf Books. In some cases, we will be updating some of these chapters in the future with additional and/or updated information.
Ultimately, however, as I read through these passages I find I can distill wisdom from even those paragraphs that do not resonate with me.
We invite you to read with an open mind and heart and with eagerness to learn and discuss…
Oils of the Sun
Oil Painting – Class 11
The class of 17-year-olds gazed up at the Rembrandt portrait. The painting had a room all to itself in the art gallery. “And no wonder,” continued Art Teacher “it is of the most important paintings in the world. Not just because of its content, though the depth of characterization is just short of divine, but because it is one of the first true oil paintings in the history of art.
Oh, there were oils before this of course, right back to the 15th Century in fact; but these were merely part of a gradual evolution of the medium. They were combined with tempura, or just used as a fixing agent or varnish. No, it was Rembrandt, and one or two others of the early 17th Century, who refined and mastered the difficulties of mixing powdered colors in a Linseed Oil base – including the development of thinners for those transparent laminates.”
Young dark-haired Steen, who had been staring at the beautifully painted face, shining like an incarnadine ember from its somber surrounds, turned and asked “How did he get those skin tones? They seem to glow, they’re so natural. No, more than natural, supernatural even – as if you can see right through the surface to the person within; to the core of her being!”
This was after all why Art Teacher had brought her Class 11 here, so that before embarking on their own – and very first – oil painting, they could see the lofty heights the medium was capable of ascending. “As in many other aspects, the first manifestation of a new phenomenon – and oils was very new when the Master painted this – is often the best. No-one since has been able to paint that most elusive of surfaces, human skin, with that – one could call it a metaphysical luminosity.
Yes, Rembrandt does take us on a visual journey into the shrine of the human being. He did this with infinite patience and consummate skill; he would mix delicate tinctures of skin tones, and apply them layer by layer, allowing days to dry between each application, until this shimmering translucence was attained. The Master would do similar with the eyes – that’s why they sparkle with knowing.”
“That’s why they’re actually looking at you!” agreed Steen with enthusiasm. Art Teacher’s mind wandered around the background of her subject as the amiable 17-year-olds wandered around the vast gallery.
Art Teacher would certainly bear in mind the particular developmental stage her 17-year-olds were going through in this year, their introduction to this new Visual Arts right-of-passage. Their souls were blossoming to receive the inspiration of the Conceptual/Pictorial Aspect of the Astral Body; a wretched mouthful to be sure, but reducible to something like – thought pictures of the soul.
So the astral, or ‘sentient’ body, that which had been miraculously unfolding since the students were 14, was ready to be informed on the nature of the picture; itself an astral faculty. But more than this, the picture had to be illumined by concept, by the beacon of ideas. Hence they gallery visit, and other in-depth discussions about the many paintings they would be exposed to – and indeed accomplish.
“But why did oil painting come in just at that time – and that place? You would have thought someone would have thought of it say in Ancient Rome? Or in China even?” queried Steen, these days towering over his diminutive teacher.
“A good question;” she replied, brushing crumbs from her rather stunning off-the-shoulder, vermillion number; the one she saved for special occasions, like gallery excursions with Class 11! “you see, art reflects society; we paint what we are; and in this case it applies not only to content, but medium. The fascination with the portrait is a mirror of the emerging individuality-consciousness of the time; and the medium, one based on ‘substance’ as it is, is an expression of the new materialism, born out of the scientific spirit of Renaissance.
No longer did many artists wish only to represent religious content, with flocks of cherubs – and sweetly-smiling Madonnas; they wanted to artistically explore the material world, as never before. Oils is the perfect medium for this, having a crispness and definition, a textural potential, a color radiance, like no other. With oils, we can truly paint the real – or at least, material, world.”
This seemed to keep them happy for a while as they relaxed and imbibed in the gallery coffee shop. Although to be honest, the table-talk wasn’t always about art. Some grumbled about the ‘silver tail prices’; others admired the passing parade of college students, dowagers – and occasionally genuine art lovers. These distractions gave Art Teacher a chance to sip her coffee and muse over some of the spiritual implications of the Renaissance – or the Age of Gabriel.
Every 300 years or so, mankind enjoys the divine dominion – in a cultural sense – of one or other of the 7 Archangels. There are 12 actually, but only 7 are rostered on this eternal cultural cycle! These are promoted from mere archangelic rank to that of Archai.
Here they become Time Lords, or as they say in German, Zeitgeist – ‘Time Spirit’. Gabriel was the Time Lord reigning through the main period of Oils evolution, from 1510 to 1879. He is also a ‘Picture Spirit’, one who ministers through the magic of color and tone – he is, of the 7, the quintessential Astral Archangel. So painting reached heights never before (or since!) known during his 3 century governance – in both oils andwatercolor.
The new intellectualism of the Renaissance, and beyond to the Reformation, carried with it a darker counterpart, materialism; this led to a striving for naturalism. This could only truly be achieved with oils. Indeed, the new visual awakenings – perspective, color science, foreshortening, chiaroscuro – individualism through realism – were best expressed through the substantiality of oil painting.
However, the danger was that this necessary descent into ‘reality’ would lock the Spirit of Art into matter-heavy manacles, from which the – equally necessary – ascent would be impossible. Such was not the case thankfully, due mainly to the colorful, creative iconoclasm of the Impressionists in the late 19th Century.
“And it mustn’t be the case with my students” thought the pretty blonde teacher frowning. No-one noticed, so she mulled on. “It will be the obverse to materialism, Spiritism, which well redeem the 3-week block lesson. The Visual Arts, in the dispensation of the 12-subject Zodiac, are inspired by the Constellation of Capricorn; that to which is ascribed the sense of sight.
All visual arts activity raises sight-consciousness – again an over-emphasis on looking at the world leads inevitably to a materialistic shadowing of the soul. So, Spiritism is the nominal ‘Philosophical Standpoint’ – or aspect of the 12-fold ego as it really means – connected to Capricorn which will counteract this.
Spiritism of course asks the viewer to look through the material, the substance of the incarnate world, to the Spirit dwelling invisibly behind. That is what young Steen was perceiving but finding difficult to enunciate. This higher reality becomes self-evident to students when the teacher, in her own subtle way, continually alludes to it.” She rounded up a few stray crumbs of delicious chocolate cake.
“I want you to pay special attention to the still-life paintings;” she said firmly, drawing them together again “because that’s what we’ll be doing for the next 3 weeks. This is a lesson in which you’ll not only learn to look, but to see! Mind you, you’ll only be able to complete 2 or 3 pictures, but these will be pretty impressive – I hope! There are quite a few things I want you to note, the first being Composition.”
The class stood in front of a large but delicate flower study, Art Teacher explained. “See how this Australian painter arranged the spray of Red-flowering Gum blossom as an arch over the other elements. And look at the repetition of form in the bowls and fruit – those curves created a compositional ‘family’. The painter chose every element consciously, bearing in mind both its singular beauty, and how it would relate to the whole.
So when you arrange your still life, seek out interesting, colorful, and beautifully formed and shaped pieced. Unusual seed pods are good, or exotic pottery perhaps. Yet even a simple object like a coffee cup can enhance the composition – perhaps even by its incongruity. Drapery is a study of light and shadow really; most beginner attempts make a lustrous velvet fabric look like a crumpled tin!
If the most important aspect of the still life is the selection of its content; the second is the placement. Play with the pieces, and the background; re-arrange them – change the profile – see the composition as a silhouette, as a whole. It is not just an arbitrary selection of objects in an accidental assembly.
When this stage is satisfactory, draw it, using a broad-edge quality pencil. (The same shape as a carpenter’s pencil). Roughly block in the main tones – not colors, just light-and-dark surfaces. See the objects first as simply regular solids, like cylinders, rectangular prisms, spheres, cubes and so forth. There should be no detailing at this stage. Get this full-size pencil drawing right because this is going to be transferred onto your canvas.
Oh, I know we could cut corners and paint on a prepared surface of Masonite or its equivalent, but if you’re going to learn Oils, you should learn it right. We’ll find out how to stretch a canvas; and how to control the tightness with little wedges. And I’ll introduce you to the brush range, so different as it is from watercolor painting. We have 4 main oils brushes: the Round, Flat, Bright, and Oval. These are made variously from sable or hog bristle, depending on the texture or surface patina you want to create.
Oh, there’s quite a lot to learn on the technical level; like how to use the palette and palette knife; how to thin, mix, varnish, and fix. Even the palette knife is regarded as a kind of brush, especially when one wants to trowel on the paint to increase density and opacity. Naturally I want you to work on easels, not on the flat – and of course I want the finished paintings framed.” It seems a formidable undertaking; but then they had 3 weeks to do it. If the experience held consistent, a lot of the painting would be done in their own time – as the enthusiasm rose!
The students may not, on this first journey into the expressive power of oils, create masterpieces; but they could have many highly commendable works to display at the end-of-year Open Day. Besides, a school should not so much be a place of excellence, but of universality – and you can’t have both! Although this may sound like pedagogic heresy – almost all schools say that a striving form excellence is their highest goal – closer scrutiny reveals the hollowness of the slogan. Some obtain genuine excellence in a narrow field, which is quite easy to achieve really. A conservatorium of music high school is one example. But what of the many talents of the students that remain neglected – or eschew entirely!? – in the feverish pursuit of musical excellence?
Can the consummate cellist dance? Or grow flowers? Or make a beautiful wooden table? – Or paint in oils!? Alas, excellence is more appropriately attainable after the students leave school and find their specialty in life. A non-universal individual is a deprived one.
“Why can’t we just use acrylics?” complained Steen as the group sauntered past the mighty marble columns in the foyer, and out into the sunshine. “It’s a lot easier you know.”
“If oils brought painting to earth,” replied his teacher smoothly, she had been waiting for this one “then acrylics committed it to the sub-earth. Plastic paint is a creation of (Ahrimanic) human cleverness alone, and hence has no life, or Spirit. Not that it doesn’t have an evolutionary purpose; but that purpose is not fine art.
You see, if plastic expresses the aesthetic gloom of the sub-earth, then Linseed Oil, the basis of oil painting, expresses, in its deepest essence, the Sun. It is a gleaming, pale gold sun-substance sublime. They say that a great novel has never been written on a word-processor (this small effort was hand-written first!!) – another clever but spiritless invention – well a great painting has never been done in acrylics.”
Art Teacher passed a hand through her own pale gold, sun-colored hair as a gesture that this conversation was finished as they had to get back to school in time to start Oil Painting that afternoon. Steen tried hard to think of a painting that had been executed in vinyl or other synthetics, but couldn’t; so, in the spirit of excited anticipation of expressing his sensitive soul in this most sophisticated medium, he soaked up the oil-creating sunlight instead.
Oil painting of Lorien Novalis Kindergarten by Stephen Whitehead, Class 12, 1985.
Still life oil painting by Grade 11 student. An education in conventional art techniques helps form a scaffold for true artistic freedom in later life. All the greats first learnt to draw!