Reynolds addressed the then new Royal Academy annually, or biannually for a couple of decades.
Addressing painters and students, he generally speaks in a practical way about how to learn to paint in the manner of Michaelangelo and Raphael.
The rules he supplies are meant as guidance, but he does actually propound principles to follow. The aim is to create objects of beauty, and the way to attain it is mostly: constant practice in the art, and as much examination of works of painting as possible.
He outlines his notion of Beauty as: creating an ideal composition after examining natural things in a great number, then reducing the various images down to a common form with as little of the peculiar idiosyncrasy as possible. The ideal of beauty is also in the mind of the observer, and so the artist must know the minds of his viewers - he must know how to please. These basic rules also apply to portraiture.
Reynolds is suprisingly practical. He describes the process of composition of pictures as a process of picturing in the mind what is to be done. Then putting it on the substrate as a drawing. He discusses energy of forms, lines of flow in a picture, how to lay down masses. Colour should be applied boldly and plainly. While the plan for the picture should be done from the imagination, the final layer of paint and the details should be done from life drawing. He calls this 'finishing'.
Reynolds exemplifies what he means by referring to the masters of Italy, France and Holland. He considers Rembrandt not of the first rank, and finds problems with Titian, who is better with colours than with composition.
By the time of the discourses of the 1790s, Reynolds is old. He looks back on his life and decides that, if he had his time again, he would chose to paint everything with the plainness, energy and lack of distractions which he finds in Michaelangelo.
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