Direct observation of nature is the central tenet in John Ruskin’s book of drawing instruction “The Elements of Drawing”. First published in London in 1857, it was frequently reprinted during the next fifty years. The exercises build methodically, appealing to both beginner and advanced artists without resorting to tricks or effects. Ruskin’s aesthetic ideas influenced major art movements in his own time and well into the 20th century. He states, “Everything that you can see in the world around you presents itself to your eyes only as an arrangement of patches of different colors variously shaded.” This idea is at the core of Impressionism and Abstraction. Ruskin puts everything within reach by saying, “If you can draw a stone you can draw anything that is drawable,” due to everything in nature being “made up of roundnesses.” However, he admits not everything is drawable. “Many things (sea foam, for instance) cannot be drawn at all, only the idea of them more or less suggested…” Trees in full leaf present similar “inimitableness, this mystery of quantity.” His insights illuminate the great expressive power of drawing when it is yoked to observation.
In the mid-20th century, the ability to draw the world of appearances fell out of favor as the foundation of making art. Reverence for nature acquired an antiquated patina. Indirect mediated experience, filtered through photography, art, and electronic and print media, took precedence in art schools over an individual’s direct observation. Novelty and invention crowded out the practice of observational drawing. In the post-Pop era, fear of inhibiting the free expression of pictorial thought led instructors to avoid the corrupting influence of teaching unfashionable skills. “It is indeed true,” Ruskin said, “that the persons who have peculiar talent for art, draw instinctively, and get on without teaching; though never without toil.” For those persons who wish to augment their toil with practical information, John Ruskin’s book is a welcome corrective.
The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin, Dover Publications, Inc., 1971
ABOVE: Still life, pigment liner pen on Holbein multi-drawing book, 5.5″ x 7.25″ (13.97 x 18.42 cm), 3/7/08
Desktop, pigment liner pen on Holbein multi-drawing book, 5.5″ x 7.25″ (13.97 x 18.42 cm), 3/8/08
Fruit, pigment liner pen on Holbein multi-drawing book, 5.5″ x 7.25″ (13.97 x 18.42 cm), 3/3/08