95: Drawing (An Enticement)

Summer’s arrived and, with it, one trusts, some free time. Reading, of course. Reading the things that, during the busy days, we don’t have time for. Reading, also of course, those writings Ruskin calls “the books for all time,” the books which, if they remain unread, impoverish our present time (for more on these books and a partial listing of some which have earned their place in such company, see Post 53).

The chance to read, then. But, perchance! To draw!

Ruskin always said that no one really sees anything properly until he or she has made the effort to draw it, because drawing forces us to see that which, usually, as we go about those before mentioned busy days, we miss–often utterly–as if we were walking blindfolded. He made the argument all his writing life. Below is one of the first instances of such arguing, written when he was only 19. The passage is taken from his article entitled (in true 19th century and 19 year-old fashion!): “An Essay on the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music, and the Advantages to be Derived from Their Pursuit” (1838). The heart of his matter is to make it indubitably clear what the differences in perception are for a person who draws when compared to one who does not. In which framing, his sentences quickly become a little disquieting for those of us who do not have pens, pencils, and drawing paper to hand, either when we are on, or after, our strolls! To make matters more unsettling, it is a bit of Ruskin the truth of which can be tested immediately in imagination! 

Let two persons go out for a walk, the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The [second mentioned] will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect, but not that the trees make the lane shady and cool; and he will see an old woman in a red cloak— et voilà tout!

But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light, and the motes dance in the green, glittering lines that shoot down upon the thicker masses of clustered foliage that stand out so bright and beautiful from the dark, retiring shadows of the inner tree, where the white light again comes flashing in from behind, like showers of stars. [H]ere and there a bough is seen emerging from the veil of leaves.

[There are] a hundred varied colors, the old and gnarled wood is covered with the brightness; [here] is the jewel brightness of the emerald moss; [there] the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a garment of beauty from the old withered branch. Then come the cavernous trunks, and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes, each with his diadem of dew. And down, like a visiting angel, looks one ray of golden light, and passes over the glittering turf — kiss — kiss — kissing every blossom, until the laughing flowers have lighted up the lips of the grass with one bright and beautiful smile that is seen far, far away among the shadows of the old trees, like a gleam of summer lightening along the darkness of an evening cloud.

Is not this worth seeing? Yet, if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

As always, Ruskin’s doing proved as good as his saying. He drew all his life and from such drawing came the great majority of the truths he shared with us about what he saw as the inexorable laws of nature, art and architecture (clearly set out in the five volumes of Modern PaintersThe Seven Lamps of Architecture, and the three-volume, Stones of Venice). Regarding which laws, this hypothesis: that one of the reasons–perhaps the principal reason–that Ruskin’s teachings in these areas were not as widely accepted as they might and should have been was because the great majority of those who read his works did not draw themselves–and, as a result, simply could not see what he saw!

I digress. (But not much!) I was talking of Ruskin’s own drawings. Instances below (for other examples, see Post 21.) First, as if in echo of the marvelous passage we have read, is his rendering of a little juniper shoot and its berries–drawn one day in the garden of the house outside of Geneva, Switzerland, where he lived for some months in the early 1860s:


Next is a lovely watercolor which captures the exquisite beauty that surrounds the spectacular hill town of Positano on Italy’s Amalfi Coast:


Finally, just to make his point about the importance of drawing for helping us see that which, otherwise, we surely would have overlooked, I offer his drawing of a small portion of the Church of San Sauveur in Caen, a city in Northwestern France–proof-positive, if ever such there was, of another of his life-long arguments: that the architecture of the High Medieval Period was the most complex and beautiful the world has ever seen:

St. Sauveur-Caen-Detail- 1848 (Ruskin Library)

I was put on to Ruskin’s passage about the benefits of drawing by Kateri Ewing, an artist-in-residence at The Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York (about Roycroft, its importance, and connection to Ruskin and his work, more in later posts).

Below are some of her thoughts about how, from a previous life in which the practice was little emphasized and never taught, she came to drawing. I think that what she has to say is vitally important to hear because, if you are like myself, you might,, at this juncture, be thinking something like: “Well, that’s all well and good, this drawing business. I can even see how beneficial it is. But can’t draw. I have no talent! If I tried to draw, it would all come to naught, be a waste of time, and be deflating and embarrassing to boot!”

Which is decidedly not the case–especially when you can count as your principal instructor Ruskin himself–as Kateri tells us:

I have always loved to sketch and to try my hand at art, but none of my efforts ever revealed what was in my head or my heart.  I would have this vision of what I wanted to create, but I never seemed to have the skills, or patience, to see them through. Something was different though in that spring of 2013 when I discovered The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin. I began to read and work through the exercises he prescribed. Over the next several months, because I was learning so much, I woke two hours before I had to get ready for work–and went to bed far too late–so  that I could spend time with Ruskin’s words and practice my blossoming skills. My first attempts were so very disappointing. I almost gave up several times, but then I tried my hand at painting a fresh, spring green leaf that I had found on my morning walk.

That first leaf was a bit sloppy and forlorn, but the effort taught me that I was working too swiftly, not really taking to heart all that Master Ruskin had been teaching me. So I started again, spending days trying to paint another leaf that had been left over from the previous autumn. The leaf was dull and brown, not something most people would find beautiful or worthy of drawing, but something about it caught my eye and made my heart ache for its passing beauty. I worked on it for several days, always keeping in mind something I perceived from my reading of Ruskin: the beauty is in really seeing. When I looked closely at this tobacco-brown, withered leaf, the patterns and spots and subtle variations of color, the gentle turning lines of its veins, were far beyond my skill level at that time, but I knew that this is what I wanted to learn–how to capture the essence of something so ordinary that a person (myself and others) would perceive it as extraordinary! I found a little more success in that second leaf, and was inspired to get back to the labor which was required when The Elements of Drawing is your teacher. By then, there was no doubt in my mind that John Ruskin had become my Master.

An inspiring story, yes? Below is the first leaf drawing she mentions, the one she didn’t think very good.

Kateri's first leaf

Here’s a recent leaf effort, one she is much more satisfied with:


Here’s a third, a tree which grows out of a rock, which it both does and doesn’t (Art!):

And, as a final example, here is a little goldfinch, attired, Kateri says, in his summer finery, balancing on a thistle:


Today, Kateri devotes all her days to her art work. (If you’d like to see more of her work and learn something of the art classes she teaches on line, visit www.kateriewing.com.)

Still Kateri’s story, inspiring as it is, is not the point of this post. Those (there are actually three) are:

First, to contend for the truth of Ruskin’s suggestion that one never sees anything or any thing properly if one never picks up a pencil and makes some attempt to render that something as it is in nature on paper.

Second–to suggest, in equally strong terms, that, if we never choose (it’s always a matter of choice, isn’t it?) to try  sketching, we deprive ourselves–in exactly the same way we deprive ourselves if we choose never to read “the books of all time”–of one of the greatest experiences and chances to learn that life offers. An enticement.

And third–to propose, as did Ruskin, as does Kateri from her own experience, that anyone can learn to draw. You don’t need “inborn talent.” You don’t need to love art. You don’t need to devote thousands of hours to drawing. All you need is a willingness to give it a try (a number of tries really) and see what happens. Ruskin did not write The Elements of Drawing as a guide for aspiring artists. He wrote it for folks like (quite possibly) you and (certainly) me; wrote it not because he thought, if we give drawing a try, we’ll unearth previously buried Michaelangelo or Turner talent (he knew we would not!), but because he wanted to teach us how important it was to see the world and its beauty aright and convince us that drawing was one of the keys of keys for doing this. To engender such seeings, not masterpieces, was his goal. And gift. Another enticement. Free for the taking.

The summer’s still young, “the books of all time” still (always!) beckon, and that store with the fine pointed pencils and lovely pads of paper for drawing is not far away. Let me know how it goes.


Until next time,


P.S.: I am very grateful to Trevor Gionet for his considerable help with transferring the images above. 🙂

P.P.S.: Above, Kateri mentioned Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing and told how the lessons Ruskin set forth in that small volume helped her learn to draw. The Elements is easily available if you’d like to give drawing a go. There are many editions, but, in my experience (yes, I’ve given drawing a go myself!), by far the best is the one pictured below, a profusely illustrated effort–with most helpful notes in the margins–by Bernard Dunstan (Herbert Press, UK; 1991). You can get it, and very cheaply, at a book search engine site I’ve mentioned before, addall.com (click on the “used books” tab). On the cover is another simply wonderful Ruskin drawing, a watercolor, “Vineyard Walk at Lucca (Italy),” 1874. I apologize for the poor quality of the image, but I wanted you to know what the cover looked like in case you’ve decided to order a copy. If all this is not enticement enough, consider this remark of Claude Monet’s, made to a journalist in 1900, the year of Ruskin’s death: “Ninety percent of the Theory of Impressionist Painting is in Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing!” Ruskin, never much of a fan of impressionism, might not have been delighted to have been the source of such inspiration, but surely he would have been pleased at Monet’s unvarnished praise of his little book of lessons.  🙂

Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing (Dunstan, ed.)--cover

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