Edwin Dickinson’s Painting “Gas Tank”

A painting that summarizes the enigmatic relationship between what we see and what we know.

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Edwin Dickinson, Gas Tanks, 1937, oil on canvas, 25¼ x 30½ in. Permanent Collection of the Art Students League of New York

Walking through the landscape, your eyes unconsciously register the broad visual characteristics of the day: the color harmonies proffered by the weather and the season, and the general note of the vegetation. It also notes the big relationship of the land to the sky—the sky being, according to Constable—the “organ of sentiment” in a painting. Then, as you move through the landscape, your eyes cannot help playing the visual game of “some of these things are not like the others.” Your eyes inevitably encounter forms distinctly alien to the rest of the landscape. They keep coming back to those shapes in the middle ground, not only because of their color, but because of their geometry—the regularity of the forms—which gives them away as something particular to man-made objects, with our love of verticals, horizontals and “pure” shapes. Your eye is happy to just register the difference between these shapes and the rest of the visual field, but your brain scrambles to triage the question, “What are they?” Your brain keeps going back to your eye for clues: those shapes are more regular than everything else in the visual field; then, they are clearly man-made, and, finally: they are a telephone pole and gas tank. Edwin Dickinson’s painting Gas Tank (1937) not only records an instantaneous impression of a snippet of the world at a given time on a given day, it summarizes the enigmatic relationship between what we see and what we know of the world before us.

Confronted by new visual experience, the eye and brain—that ceaselessly complex tandem—forever play this back and forth game. The eye, even though it is actively scanning the visual field for information, seems relatively content to register shapes, colors, and edges. But the brain, restless, Faustian, wants to know what it is we are looking at and compare it to everything else in its database. It constantly wants to turn sensation into information, wants to exert its dominion over the world, like Adam, by giving everything a name. And it is precisely at this exact moment of starting to turn sensation into information—when things are about to be named—that Dickinson operates. His paintings are swimming in the ocean of visual sensations and have just barely started to crawl up onto the land and become “things” that the brain can identify, and therefore, exert hegemony over.

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Edwin Dickinson, Nina’s Marsh, 1942, oil on canvas.
Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Edwin Dickinson, Cox’s House, 1948, oil on canvas, 10 x 12 in.

We know that separating the eye and the brain into two neat camps is an over-simplification, and that the eye and brain have a supremely complex relationship. It is akin to trying to separate form and content in literature. And yet, it remains a very useful duality, circumscribing two of the major tasks in “seeing.” People who do not draw or paint, are perhaps unaware of how contaminated our seeing is by all kinds of thoughts, beliefs, and preconceptions. E. H. Gombrich points out that everyone knows that a piece of black coal is dark and the white pages of an open book are light. But, he cautions, we could place the black coal in the direct sunlight and plunge the open book into a deep shadow and the value relationships would be reversed. The white pages of the book would actually appear darker than the coal. If we cannot get rid of the brain’s insistence that the coal is darker, we will never be able to paint the relationship accurately. Getting rid of the brain’s insistence about what it knows, therefore, means going back to a “pre-naming” state, one before the perception becomes riddled with the brain’s information and preconceptions. And while making such a distinction between eye and brain, or between seeing and knowing might be physiologically over-simplistic, it remains immensely helpful in the process of painting. A flagrant case in point is the fact that, for the longest time, many paint manufacturers produced colors like: “Flesh tone No 1, No 2 and No 3.” Aside from not really looking anything like human flesh color (other than parboiled flesh), it might more honestly be described as attempting to represent Caucasian skin tone. If one wanted to paint a Black, Hispanic, or Asian model, it wouldn’t even be in the right ballpark. But it underscores the fact that once we start thinking about what something is, we stop really looking at how it appears, which might be wildly different. Dickinson used to bring a long tube to class to look through, in order to show students that Caucasian flesh is neither pink nor yellow, but an “unnamable color.” (Again, going back to a pre-naming state). Back in the early 1400s, Alberti himself noticed that a figure walking through a sunlit field would exhibit bright green reflected light on the underside of the chin. But that observation, even though he noted it himself, was so wildly at variance with what he knew and conceived as skin tone, that it would not actually be included in a painting until the nineteenth century.

In the Preface to Studies in Iconology, Irwin Panofsky sums up the process very well:

When an acquaintance greets me on the street by removing his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman) and the change of detail as an event (hat removing), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first phase of subject matter or meaning. From the way my acquaintance performs his action I may be able to sense whether he is in a good or bad humour, and whether his feeling towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile. These psychological nuances will invest the gestures of my acquaintance with a further meaning which we shall call expressional. It differs from the factual one in that it is apprehended, not by simple identification, but by empathy.

Dickinson paintings operate in that moment between perceiving a formal configuration of the world, and the automatic identification of the objects and events that the formal shapes describe.

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Georges Seurat, Approach to the Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886, conté crayon. The Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection

In this, he had several predecessors who helped paved the way. Foremost among them was Georges Seurat, who was another great inhabiter of this liminal space between eye and brain. Seurat looked out at nature as if he did not know what anything was, but could only comprehend its shape and tone. He saw the world primarily as arrangements of silhouette and value, taking the entire visual field, not just the object, into account. His drawings are, in this sense, intensely democratic. The whole notion of “pure perception” was broken wide open in the 1880s by the astounding black conté crayon drawings, which Seurat executed on his favored Ingres paper. All of the incipient possibilities of seeing solely in terms of juxtaposed patches of light and dark were here brought to fruition. Never before, and rarely since, have there been such concerted acts of pure seeing. Seurat favored seeing over knowing to an unprecedented extent. As the contemporary artist Mark Karnes puts it, “It is as if he is stating that light doesn’t discriminate in favor of one thing or another—it is merely there for all things all the time.”

Since Seurat’s drawings privilege seeing over knowing, the ostensible subject matter—the “what it is”—becomes less important than the “how it appears.” It therefore leaves both the artist and the viewer open to the unexpectedness of the visual world, to the unpredictable. It places you right smack in the middle of a struggle between what you believe to be out there, and what actually is there. In his Notes on Painting, you can see Dickinson’s teacher, Charles Hawthorne, trying to explain just this problem:

“I can see you struggling,” he says to a student, “with making a thing: let it make itself. You’ll be surprised to see how little drawing you need if you make the spot of color and approximate the shape—then the drawing is more real and you won’t need the kind you learn indoors.”

To another student, he said: “You saw this too much as a hat and not enough as a spot of color.” Or, to a third: “You think you know a great deal about the structure of the face- the bones underneath. Forget all that! Don’t try and show me how much you know. Be humble about it. Paint the color tones as they come against each other, and make them sing, vibrate.”

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Edwin Dickinson, The Glen, Sheldrake, 1926, oil on canvas, 24 x 19¾ in. Permanent Collection of the Art Students League, Gift of Mrs. Chester Dale

Dickinson felt that one of the surest ways to get into that “pre-naming” state of pure seeing was to utilize ‘the squint’. Squinting means to half-close your eyes and to peer through your eye-lashes, so that everything becomes slightly blurry. When you do, details disappear, large masses and color/value relationships emerge, the world becomes simplified and the “what it is” shrinks away.

Carol Cleworth, a Dickinson student at the League during the 1958–9 season, left a set of notes from the Dickinson class. In them, she writes down that among the ways to “see things big” were: “The intellectual decision to see only the big things and the big values,” and “The squint of the eyes.”

Dickinson also suggested not staring at the thing you were going to paint, but to focus your eyes either behind the object in question, or in front of it. In this way, the object becomes blurrier with larger, simpler masses and fewer details.

Certainly, Dickinson was not the first artist to talk about the squint. The earliest mention of the squint that I have found is in Alberti’s Della Pictura from 1435: “In studying such light, it is very useful to dim your vision by half closing your eyelashes, so that the light appears less strong…”

Another great proponent of the squint was Van Gogh. In a letter to Theo, he writes: “What I mean to suggest is that in these studies I believe there is something of that mysteriousness one gets by looking at nature through the eyelashes (The Squint), so that the outlines are simplified to blots of color (Color Spots).”

And in another letter:

While painting, I feel of late a certain power of color awaken in me, stronger and different from what I have felt till now. It may be that the nervousness of these days is linked up with a kind of revolution in my way of working, for which I have been seeking and of which I have been thinking for a long time already…. and now that I let myself go a little, and look more through the eyelashes (The Squint) instead of concentrating on the joints and analyzing the structure of things, it leads me more directly to seeing things more like adjacent contrasting patches of color (Color Spots) …

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Francis Cunningham, Barn and Rock, Sheffield, undated, oil on linen.

In addition to the squint, Dickinson believed that another way of getting to the pure appearance of things was to paint very quickly. Painting quickly forces you to focus on the biggest, most important relationships, and not to get caught up in little details. This puts him square in the tradition of alla prima painters, from Hals to Sargent to Van Gogh. Van Gogh, especially, subscribed to the virtue of painting “quick as lightning”: “With long and continuous practice, it (the perspective frame) enables one to draw quick as lightning- and once the drawing is established, to paint quick as lightning also.” Or, “But as this effect does not stay, I needed to paint quickly.”

But Dickinson took it a step further, and sought to complete his canvases in only one sitting—what he called his “premier coup” (first strike) paintings. A typical Hals painting may be painted alla prima—from the first—and still take numerous sittings. Dickinson believed that what you got in a single sitting had a logic and an integrity to it, and that integrity got lost if you went back in subsequent sittings and invariably made adjustments and concessions. In this way, premier coup paintings summarize what is seen; they evoke the subject rather than describe it in any detail. Francis Cunningham writes:

Premier coup painting is done in one sitting. It is comparable to haiku; it takes one aspect of nature, summarizes it and is done. Sometimes the subject is instantly recognizable. Sometimes, as in mossy places in deep woods, it is not.

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Edwin Dickinson, Chair, Skowhegan I, 1956, oil on canvas, 15½ x 12½ in. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Gift of Merrill and Robert Ryman

In addition to the squint and the premier coup, another way to provoke “pre-name” seeing is to paint with the largest brushes possible. “Big brushes, big thoughts; little brushes, little thoughts,” was a constant Dickinson mantra. Brushes themselves could even be forsaken for painting with a palette knife, which largely precluded the recording of small details. Much of this Dickinson got from his teacher, Charles Hawthorne, who founded the hugely popular and influential Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. Hawthorne went even further and advocated painting with the fingers as well:

Go at it like a savage, as if paint had just been invented. Put it on with a putty knife or even fingers and you get something fresh…… if you go out with brushes you do it subconsciously in the way imbedded by old custom in the mind of the race.

This is truly a case of using a reversion to a type of primitive attack in order to provoke a primitive (pre-name) way of seeing.

A final way that Dickinson tried to get students to see for themselves went back to the very choice of subject. Constantly hectoring students not to select the “obvious” composition- the post-card view—he pushed them to look harder and to find more radical views. He told students that if they carefully set up a still life, they should then ‘go around and paint it from behind’, or even “knock it over and then paint it on the floor”!

Edwin Dickinson's Painting "Gas Tank"
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, View of Rome, c. 1790, oil on paper, mounted on board, 7 11/16 x 15 3/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund

While Dickinson premier coup paintings, like the League’s Gas Tank, are radical paintings, they are not unprecedented. The whole idea of painting an oil painting in a single sitting was anticipated almost a hundred and fifty years earlier by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, a truly radical outlier. Even though Valenciennes painted somewhat anemic, idealized historical landscape concoctions in his studio, he nonetheless made it part of his studio practice to go outdoors and paint from nature in a single sitting. His own premier coup paintings are astounding, and it is hard to realize that they date from the 1780s and 90s.

George Nick, Wissahickon Avenue, undated, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

Catherine Kehoe, Dutch Angle, 2012, oil on panel, 12 x 12 in.

Stuart Shils, Backs of Urban Houses, oil on paper, 9⅜ × 11½ in.

Duane Keiser, Dogwood with Oranges for the Deer

Lennart Anderson, Landscape

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Dickinson’s lessons have reverberated with subsequent generations of painters, including his numerous students at the Art Students League, their students, their students, and other artists who have been attracted to the profundity of premier coup painting.

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