Jumping On a Moving Train: The Teachings of Edwin Dickinson

Edwin Dickinson was born in the last decade of the 19th century, came of age in the early 20th, and by mid-century was recognized as an important player in contemporary American art. A student of William Merritt Chase and Charles Hawthorne, Dickinson later became an influential teacher, shaping generations of artists through his teaching in Buffalo, Boston, Provincetown and New York City. Edwin Dickinson died in 1976.

Dickinson’s Teaching:
(From Mary Ellen Abell’s essay “Seeing Everything for the First Time: The Teaching and Aesthetic Philosophy of Edwin Dickinson,” in Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities)

“Dickinson once defined a work of art as something that ‘moves the spirit through the eye.’ He considered that the root of extraordinary art was ‘a very high endowment of one person’ that went beyond technical skills. Because of these convictions, the painter believed he could instruct his students in the “how” of producing technically proficient paintings and drawings, but not the “art” of it. He used to say that he was not teaching “art” because that was something that students would discover themselves with time. The artist was scrupulous about not overriding what a particular individual wanted to do. He was respectful of the intangible quality of “rightness” that many people feel in front of a work of art. If  ‘it felt right’ to the student, then ‘it was right.’ Though Dickinson was leery about imposing his ideas on the more intimate aspects of his students’ art-making, he felt he could introduce them to important tools and techniques that would enable them to develop their capacity to “see” the sensory world…

In his pedagogical approach, Dickinson strenuously avoided any kind of systematic doctrines, which would have been inconsistent with his empirical, intensely personal approach to art. All of Dickinson’s instruction was oriented around individual student critiques… Much of Dickinson’s emphasis on maintaining a positive attitude stemmed from his conviction that quality paintings and drawings were produced by functioning at the height of one’s enthusiasm. He often spoke to his students of the ‘joy in working.’ There was ‘no need to work without it,’ he said. If students lost their zeal for a particular painting, he recommended that they scrape their canvas and begin anew. The artist, he maintained, should only initiate a work of art with the very highest ambitions, and during the process, bring every fiber of being into play… Several students have related that Dickinson instructed them to paint ‘as though you’re jumping on a moving train.’

One of the key aspects of the aesthetic experience in the Dickinson class was its stress on seeing things freshly, with no preconceived expectations. All of his devices – unusual poses, ‘unnameable color,’ ‘interstices,’ ‘angular’ perspective, unusual angles – were about setting aside one’s preconceptions and learning to look meticulously at something as if one were encountering it ‘for the first time…’ The goal was to complete a more honest likeness or more authentic kind of work that was fresh and original. ‘If you do not bring anticipations to the sight of an object when drawing it, anticipations which are connected with its associations in your lay life, it’s easier to get it right than to to get it wrong,’ he explained. What Dickinson taught was not a style of painting or drawing, but a process whereby his followers could discover new color harmonies, new ‘marriages’ or relationships between forms, new spatial constructions, new perspectives. As such, his training remained valid for a student’s entire art career. The artist was led by the demands of the plastic elements in a process of continual discovery and fresh surprises, and each student ended up with a very individual work that was not based on cliches. What is remarkable is the range of idiosyncratic expressions that his students developed, from abstract to figurative modes.”

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6 Comments

Filed under Old & Modern Masters

6 responses to “Jumping On a Moving Train: The Teachings of Edwin Dickinson

  1. lcurtis61

    Thank you for this! Dickinson is one of my favorites, and is so little known.

  2. There hasn’t been enough published on him for sure, but he has a huge following among artists. So many of us have found ourselves connected to him in various degrees through the lineage of artist-teachers that he sired. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    • Hey Frank Hobbs, Thanks for including my self-portrait on your heads sheet, I need to inform you that I was luckly enough to have studied with Edwin Dickinson at Skowhegan in the mid-50’s. He was the most eccentric man I ever met and he was always the real thing!

  3. David Wise

    Does anyone have information or observations regarding the painting of Carol Cleworth, a student of Edwin Dickinson?

  4. Bill White

    I am always interested in what E. Dickinson said about his work and teaching as he has such a command of the essentials of observation and its translation into paint. Thanks for sharing this Frank.

    • David Wise

      I would appreciate any information regarding the painting career of Carol Cleworth, Dickinson’s student and the subject of an important painting bearing her name. I believe she was a contemporary of Francis Cunningham.

      Thanks for any clues.

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