Learning to Draw from Forgotten Manuals

‘My subject here is the how-to-draw book of the early twentieth century, what I think of as the strange and unfamiliar world of the drawing book. I have collected over a hundred books dating from the 1900’s to the 1980’s. Here previous generations describe what they thought lay at that centre of drawing.’

Fig 1. Ruling Lines, from Clemence, W., 1939. ‘Manual of Postercraft’. P. 19

Fig 1. Ruling Lines, from Clemence, W., 1939. ‘Manual of Postercraft’. P. 19

THE EXPANDED FIELD

At the University of the Arts in London drawing has become a popular subject among some 250 PhD students. But what the term ‘drawing’ now embraces is far removed from what past generations might have understood by that term. Over the past twenty years anthologies, conferences, blogs, M.A. Drawing courses, have proliferated. They speak of the ‘expanded field’ of drawing, expanded not only in what can be counted in as drawing, but also in how we can think about drawing. Drawing research has become a proper discipline, here and there touching on science and philosophy. All to the good we may think.

But when it comes to what we call ‘drawing practice’ there are unwritten rules. The definitions push outwards: drawings are events, performances, traces on the wall, trails of sand in the park, sounds; they are private murmurings on paper, made in a ritual of repetition, usually tastefully hand-made and monochrome. Drawing, it appears, is at its most authentic when it is live, or lived through as subjective experience. It is self-consciously drawing and not anything else, not painting, sculpture, installation or performance. As the subject expands, much of what previously made up the centre receives less attention: objective drawing, realism, illustration, graphic art, become classified under technical skill. Nor do you find much close analysis of actual drawings, or straightforward criticism. Drawing is an activity we witness. What is written in support tends to be phrased as vapid generalisations, maintaining that drawing comes from primal impulses that are human and universal, and perhaps outside art history. In her stimulating essay, ‘Drawing is the New Painting’, Karen Kurczynski compiled an exhaustive list of contemporary clichés, many of which contradict each other, but which are endlessly recycled in drawing anthologies. For those of us writing on drawing it may be an embarrassing read. She begins:

Drawing is the new Painting. Drawing reveals processes that painting hides. Drawing in paint enlivens painting. Drawing is marginal. Drawing is handmade and expressive without being outmoded or too commercial. Drawing defies mass mediation and the digital. Drawing is free from convention and therefore it is the ultimate expression of freedom. Drawing is unpretentious and partial. It is a fragment of a new world, or it is a partial memory of the past. It captures a moment in time. Drawing never died. But drawing is threatened: there is no more life drawing… Drawing is the newest oldest medium. Drawing is impossible to define”.

She concludes:

Writing about drawing is plagued by truisms. If these sound like your grandfather’s art criticism, it is because they can be found in both texts from the 1950s and writing from the 2000s…

(Karen Kurczynski 2011)

 

EVIL INSTRUCTION

My subject here is the how-to-draw book of the early twentieth century, what I think of as the strange and unfamiliar world of the drawing book. I have collected over a hundred books dating from the 1900’s to the 1980’s. Here previous generations describe what they thought lay at that centre of drawing. The illustrations tell their own story: vintage telephones, church spires; Spitfires, dogs, dancers, swimmers; chapter headings like ‘other vases in difficult positions’.

Fig 2. ‘Application of combined basic forms’, from Smith 1935, ‘Object, Plant and Memory Drawing’. P. 68,69.

Fig 2. ‘Application of combined basic forms’, from Smith 1935, ‘Object, Plant and Memory Drawing’. P. 68,69.

Fig 3. ‘Speed’, from Smith 1935, ‘Object, Plant and Memory Drawing’. Plate LIV

Fig 3. ‘Speed’, from Smith 1935, ‘Object, Plant and Memory Drawing’. Plate LIV

Fig 4. Frank A. Wootton, 1941, ‘How to Draw Planes’, The Studio (this edition 1942), pp. 28, 29.

Fig 4. Frank A. Wootton, 1941, ‘How to Draw Planes’, The Studio (this edition 1942), pp. 28, 29.

Fig 5. ‘Other Vases in Difficult Positions’, from Sparkes, 1919, ‘How to Draw from Models and Common Objects’, p. 113.

Fig 5. ‘Other Vases in Difficult Positions’, from Sparkes, 1919, ‘How to Draw from Models and Common Objects’, p. 113.

The tone of the writing ranges from thoughtful to prescriptive, to the outspoken – sometimes scorching the page. There may be platitudes here too, about learning to draw by learning to look, but the flashes of anger make a welcome change from bland academic papers. Here are some tasters:

“Ugliness, deliberate ugliness, has momentarily occupied the throne of beauty. Eccentric accentuation of the hideous has been the device of recent art; and in ways we have never seen before, unless it be in some of the more degraded manifestations of savage output….. I have no hesitation in saying that the greater part of so-called art instruction is worse than useless; it engages the student in an evil way.” (Blake 1926, p. 7 and p. 269.)

“Digging the pencil in ought to be rigidly prohibited, just as much as indiscriminate thumping on a piano.” (Rankin 1924, p.12.)

Artists… “are revolted by the degradation to which the art of formal drawing has been brought by photographic ‘process’ reproduction.” (Eric Gill, in the introduction to Beedham 1940, p.7.)

“Sometimes in a painting, buildings also are sketched in with the aid of ruler and protractor. But many artists are enraged at the mere mention of the ruler” (Bodo W. Jaxtheimer, 1962, p. 34.)

I have taken these remarks away from their contexts. Artists and writers then, as now, were often preoccupied with denouncing each other, and denouncing the art world, if not always so publicly. But ideas about teaching drawing have changed with the times. We now have universities with intellectual aspirations where before we just had art schools and studio tuition. The tutors at that time would here and there pour scorn on modern art. Humiliated students, discipline and firm judgements were to be expected. A tutor would erase your efforts with a despairing sigh. I recall the tension of the life-room of the 1960’s, and hope that the teaching I have done has been more user-friendly. In a ‘student-centred’ climate, value judgements have to be delivered with tact; every remark counts as if it is just one person’s view. We don’t talk about rules, or about good and bad drawing.

Some art teachers today do talk of the decline of drawing; of impatient students, of the disappearance of accepted standards. They will find common cause in the introductions to these treatises. Despair at the state of contemporary drawing, and of the modern world, has a long history.

“At the present time there is too much of this ‘everything in a hurry’, and beginning in this way leads only to failure and disappointment.” (Storey 1910, p. 1,2.)

“What we need rather is a tightening up of discipline in this matter, after the kindergarten stage, I have met students who had originally been trained on what I will call the “go-as-you-please” lines. They have told me later when it came to the test of real work and its result, they suffered from a lack of power to concentrate on the real difficulties.” (Hartrick 1921, p. 7.)

“Painters ignore the possibilities of such careful planning in these hurried days; but such foresight contributes in no small measure to the subtlety of Holbein.” (Hubbard 1938, p. 18.)

“The Need for Drawing. I cannot stress this point too strongly. I have known many students who want to dodge the discipline of drawing and go straight on to painting.” (Bradshaw 1945, p. 9.)

If you do stand still too long, or try to reprint the 1920 pictures of ‘speed’ in the 1930 edition, you get caught out. The ‘modern world’ is always moving on. What works for one generation may not work for the next. The laws of drawing may not be as immutable as they seem. Here they are also talking about the impatient student, the student who is not prepared to go through the necessary preliminary stages, and acquire the proper technical foundation. Here and there they lay the blame on the current fads in art – what some called the ‘Anarchists of Art in Paris’.

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