I've always been struck by 19th and early 20th century writers were always doing sketches of each other and of the places they were staying in. Almost every writer whose biographies you look has been drawn by one of his friends or siblings, few of whom are known as artists. I’ve noticed it in English and Russian writers, and none of the drawings I've seen are bad. I’d be proud to have done any of them.
How did they learn? in the sorts of schools these writers went to -- the men anyway -- they wouldn’t have taught drawingl, would they? not in any serious way that would yield the sort of results we see.
I did O level art by going to the Art Club after school and though I wasn’t much good at drawing, I did make a start. But I've made no effort since and now I want to learn. I’d like to put drawings on (blank) postcards from my trips abroad as so many people used to, and do animals and scenes for the kids on letters, birthday cards and the like. And amuse myself in boring meetings or when telly’s boring...
So I've had a look online at evening classes that are offered round my way. There are indeed a few but I don’t think they’re what I need. I know what I need: it’s lots of practice in front of things, scenes and people, with other people so we can motivate each other and with a helpful tutor who’ll set the tasks and give advice.
Instead what I find is the usual course description bollocks that’s perhaps the effect of having to meet government vocational criteria to teach anything at all -- the idea of education for leisure or self-improvement having been expunged from the purposes of colleges and institutes. Thus:
Skills will be developed step by step through a series of carefully designed exercises.
We will start with the basics - how to hold a pencil - and progress at the end of six weeks to drawing a portrait with a difference!
A topic for each lesson follows, with objectives. The first is
Aim: To realise the importance of objective observation in drawing.
Following an introduction to the course and basic studio craft, students will experiment with the mark making possibilities of different materials.
Then we have Relationships, Negative Spaces, Light and Shade, Making Plans and finally
A Drawing !
Aim: For students to produce a rewarding drawing using all skills practised to date and testing their skills of objective observation.
Well, it might work -- much depends on the tutor and, as I say, the reality may be much more flexible.
But my instincts and educational experience are all against this approach. I disagree with the philosophy of starting with component sub-skills and only in lesson 6 putting them together. It’s fifty years since we realised that you don’t develop writing ability by first teaching words, then sentences, then connections, then paragraphs, but by having the kids writing a complete piece, even if only a sentence as long as it’s real writing and not a ‘carefully designed exercise’ -- from Day 1.
(Actually art teachers, too, knew this, as long ago as the 1870s, including one Thomas Ablett at Bradford Grammar School -- and they organised to resist the government’s prescriptions -- on which schools’ funding depended then too -- of exercises in drawing cubes, spheres and pyramids. I'll do a separate posting on Ablett.)
I want to be in a group that sits by the Thames and draws the ash tree opposite, or the bridge and buildings down the river or an old chap on a bench -- and myself, that too, as included in the exercises on the course. As for mark-making and how to hold a pencil, let the tutor show me the possibilities when I'm struggling with the foliage or the hairy surface of a coat. Knowledge at point of need, is the slogan for this sort of practical learning, not ‘front-end-loaded’ as David Layton used to say when talking at Leeds University about design and technology education.
I want to be able to sit down in front of something, or just with memory and imagination, and draw something that looks like it and is nice to look at. How's that for sophisticated?
There’s another way to do it, one I was aware of in Carleton University (Ottawa) School of Architecture, where the standard of drawing was out of this world. But that calls for a separate post. Another separate post.