Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Birthday, John Ruskin!

Anyone who knows me very well knows my peculiar fondness for John Ruskin. My first dissertation chapter didn't really come alive until I found The Ethics of the Dust
, and for that alone, I will always be grateful to him.

Recently, I've been trying to learn to draw decently, and, naturally enough, I turned to Ruskin, whose Elements of Drawing
is available on Amazon for the Kindle quite cheaply (or you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg). To begin with, there is some of the usual pontificating. As I quite enjoy Victorian pontificating, that did not deter me in the least. At length, I began the first exercise.

It was a square. Not a cube, just a square, shaded evenly. In the second lesson, however, Ruskin, admitting that such work is “tiresome,” suggested that I turn to botanical prints to copy them. He recommends Baxter's 1834 illustrations, and I therefore dutifully looked them up. Unfortunately, Ruskin advices using a pencil first, then going over the whole with ink. As I am in possession of some India ink and a dip pen, I promptly drowned the whole with black on account of accidentally using a too-thickly cut pen. Not precisely a success.

Ruskin is a big fan of copying: in his introduction he suggests that children should be given books with illustrations by Cruikshank to copy. Personally I think suggesting Cruikshank is absolutely cracked—but Rackham would be a wonderful substitute, as he does a lot with very little color and works creatively with lines.
The Rackham Original
My clumsy copy

Not daunted by my first failure, I decided to learn more about the book itself. In this way, I stumbled across something very special—the Ashmolean's Elements of Drawing site. Here I discovered videos of drawing lessons all taken from Ruskin's teaching methods. Stephen Farthing, who presents these lessons, does not, thank heavens, start with the shaded squares, but rather with the outline of a leaf. This exercise is heavily Ruskinian, suggesting you use tracing paper to compare and correct your drawing. The idea is not, as so many modern instructors might suggest, to give your “interpretation” of a leaf, but rather to convey, as accurately as possible, the actual leaf.

I find this helpful and interesting simply because modern instruction has taken a path away from copying, tracing, and sheer draftsman's accuracy to convey a more liberal aim for drawing. At the same time, our desire remains the same: to convey an idea visually. I don't mean, you must understand, to suggest that basic representation is the primary function of drawing. But I do believe that is a part of our experience and ought, probably, to be part of our training.

Is this a boring way to learn to draw? Absolutely! But drawing (or the kind of drawing of which Ruskin approves) is a skill just like speaking another language or playing a musical instrument. These are the verbs to be recited, the scales to be repeated. Eventually, it pays off. I think. I hope.

1 comment:

  1. "Eventually it pays off. I think. I hope." - i think so also. Keep drawing.