The traditional method of the classical Chinese and Japanese painters indicates, even prescribes, the way in which to arrive at a meditated, condensed representation which distills the utmost from its subject.
We are repeatedly told in written records how these painters wandered about in the countryside, deep in contemplation; and how only when returning home did they seize the brush and depict on the silk what had impressed them. Every triviality was forgotten, and a force more unconscious than conscious intensified the expression of the natural form to give it the subjective impact which the painter had received from the subject itself.
You can test how far a subjective impression differs from an "objective" reproduction by drawing a landscape, first from memory, then directly from nature, and lastly by photographing it from the same viewpoint. You will be surprised at how flat and insignificant the photograph appears against your drawing from nature, even when you have employed all possible mechanical aids for insuring an accurate record. This experiment does not apply when you put in clear detail and there is less space in the picture. Photograph and drawing then approximate more and more closely.
If we follow the historical development of pictorial art from the point of view of naturalistic representation we find two influences repeatedly at work against it. One is the human tendency to emphasize and exaggerate certain aspects, expressing itself in the form as well as in the content of the picture; the other is variations in ability.
Stylistic emphasis is most apparent in unusual proportions. large eyes, heads, and hands are the most telling means of expressing the spiritual in Romanesque art. In the Gothic style they are elongated and narrowed. The Baroque expresses sensual enjoyment with colossal bodies; in the Rococo this robustness is transformed into an almost sickly sweetness, with the body acquiring an expression of languid decadence.
Alternating with these periods are times when body and spirit achieve a harmony: the classical Greek and Roman, its rebirth in the Renaissance, and a later attempt at a revival of classicism. These three periods were concerned with the perfect proportion of all things and achieved varying success both in general concept and in particular example.
Ability ebbs and flows to its own rhythm alongside these changes of style, generally expressing itself at the beginning of a period with monumental strength, reaching a perfection of balance at the zenith, and ending in decadence and decline, - although at this final stage it often brings forth the most beautiful works of the entire cycle, like overripe, choice fruits from the last days of harvest.
Naturalistic representation reached its last and most trivial stage at the time of the advent of photography. The less gifted resorted to aids invented in an earlier time to obtain an "exact" replica of a model: the artist looked through a squared glass and mechanically transferred onto squared paper whatever lines filled each square; or used lavater's silhouette maker, a piece of paper in a frame onto the back of which a candle threw the shadow of the model so that it could be simply traced around.
Meanwhile, everything which was known about pictorial representation was compiled into a categorical syllabus, and students in art academies were tormented to the brink of despair with the copying of plaster casts, both whole and in detail, for a minimum of two years. In this way all their imaginative powers were completely numbed or destroyed for the rest of their lives. Many whose temperaments could not endure this stultification were dismissed from the academies as incompetent and went away to become important painters.
There may sometimes have been a few exceptions, and the author must beg indulgence for his sweeping generalization. At all events, the opposition of a full-blooded temperament to the fossilized, or better, "plasterfied," activities of the academies engendered something quite new: a painting direct from nature, but one in which the momentary impression was immediately transposed and interpreted.
To put it crudely, the painter screwed up his eyes and painted only the strongest colors which penetrated his sight. It was just this immediacy, rather than clarity of form, which inspired him. He saw significance only in the general impression which triumphed over the whirling mass of incidental detail.