Saturday, 30 July 2011

Ability to draw

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.

1 comment:

John Medway said...

I imagine that until the truly portable camera came on the scene, drawing was almost an essential skill for lots of people. If you wanted to give your friends and relations an impression of places you'd been to, doing a sketch would be the only option. Presumably if you were in the habit of keeping a diary you would also keep a sketchbook which you would fill with sketches in chronological order.

I've also been impressed by the drawings of early scientists (particularly biologists). For biologists drawing would have been an essential skill.

I would imagine that young ladies would have been taught to draw but men would be expected to pick it up without tuition.

I would imagine that fine handwriting would also have been very common before typewriters became commonplace and people of "refinement" would, consciously or unconsciously, have been inspired by each other to refine both their handwriting and drawing skills. This is pure speculation on my part - a historian might be able to put me right.

It is a mildly regrettable side-effect of technological progress that some skills that were once socially, functionally or economically important are now redundant for most people.

I have mixed feelings about my own inability to draw well. In my days as an architectural student, my frustration at not being able to draw well might well have been an extra stimulus to my interest in photography. As an amateur photographer, I am sometimes frustrated by an inability to find subjects I feel inspired to photograph and I sense that I would have the same problem if I tried to take up drawing again. Hence I have not felt a great urge to do so.