AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Drawing Lessons

by Florence Monkhouse
Volume 2, no. 2, 1891/92, pg. 413-419

It can scarcely be denied that of all the great educational subjects the one must inefficiently taught and least understood as a means of training is drawing. A girl of average ability whose inclination has been toward music leaves school with some degree of appreciation of good music. She has at least sufficient critical faculty to distinguish between the harmonies of a fine composer and the jingle of a pantomine song. She is a fairly intelligent companion in a concert room, and can herself play the easier works of the great masters on the piano or violin in a manner that makes it possible to listen without absolute pain. On the other hand, her sister, who does not care for music, but has a "taste for drawing," returns with a package of water-colour drawings or oil-paintings copied from chromolithographs, vulgar in colour, shapeless, with no relation at all to art or to nature; or worse still, with a collection of plaques, tambourines, and mirrors, mounted on plush, and daubed with fearful abortions supposed to be roses or branches of lilac or laburnum, things which, just at the moment a girl's taste is forming, blunt her perception of beautiful form, and utterly ruin that most delicate and most easily degraded of all faculties--the sense of colour. This poor girl proudly spreads her productions over her mother's drawing-room, driving out or extinguishing her grandmother's meaningless but delicate and harmless old-fashioned water-colour drawings in their wide white mounts and thin gilt frames, just as the dashing young lady teacher has driven out the old drawing master, with his bent shoulders and portfolio of crayon copies and thin water-colours, or perhaps flower drawings or studies of trees by Harding, a collection seldom worse than harmless, and often excellent. Even the simpering young women with doves on their shoulders and the home-sick Italian boys were better that what has superseded them. At any rate, the mischief generally stopped short at the artist, as they did not always rise to the dignity of being framed and so made little impression on the household, and were forgotten after a time. But tambourines and looking-glasses cannot be put away in a portfolio, and few people have the nerve to burn or break them, so they are disposed about the walls or presented to friends, and the mischief spreads.

Children at school should not be taught oil-painting; they should be taught to draw. Teachers ought to recognize and to take their stand firmly upon the fact that a medium so difficult to manage as oil-paint is beyond the scope of schoolgirls, however clever. It is only after years of hard technical training that a piece of work can be produced fit to be looked at, and it would be as reasonable to expect a class of girls to produce sonnets worthy of serious attention as to expect from them oil-paintings of tolerable quality. The girl who comes home with this collection of worthless lumber returns more ignorant and less capable of being taught what Art means than if she had never received expensive painting lessons. She is a most irritating companion in a picture exhibition, where her silly senses lead her unerringly to the wrong thing. She has no right perception of the difference between good and bad; pictures are to her at the best pretty things, and it has never dawned upon her that they may have a meaning. Of course it cannot be expected that a girl who has just left school will have a just appreciation of the great masters, ancient or modern; this can only be attained by long study and maturing years; but I can see no reason why her knowledge of Art should not be as advanced as her sister's knowledge of music. It may be said that if a girl's education has to be carried on too far from the centres where fine pictures may be found to make it possible to bring her into contact with them, she is not then on an equal footing with her musical sister, to whom the works of the masters may constantly be played more or less adequately. But if, while her hand was taught to draw her mind were directed to the beautiful forms around her--to the sweeping lines of the hills, to the supple strength of the trees, to the slender grace of the flower stems, to the living and breathing life of her everyday world; if her eye were trained to rejoice in the blue of the sky, the green of the fields and trees, the loveliness of the flowers, she might be safely trusted in after years, when she comes before pictures, to choose pure colour and fine drawing. Much, too, might be done by careful use of autotype reproductions from great works, such as Turner's Liber Studiorum, or the noble portrait studies from Holbein, which, with many other excellent things, are to be had at moderate cost. But to train her upon chromo-lithographs or bad oil-paintings, copies of copies perhaps, is like carefully training her to sing out of tune.

It is easy to attack a system so obviously wrong as this, but there is another which may be described as its direct antithesis, and which must be approached with much more diffidence, both because it is backed by high authority, and because it undoubtedly possesses some educational value --I mean the long and weary courses of Freehand Drawing adopted by the schools connected with South Kensington. In these schools there is placed before the pupil a succession of fine, wire-like outline drawings generally taken from Greek ornament of the best period, and, so far as actual form goes, above criticism. But the point and interest of this ornament lay in the play of light and shadow over the modeled surface, and when this light and shadow and all the little irregularities and variations which characterise hand-work are removed, the whole life and meaning of the original is taken away. It is doubtful, too, whether it is wise to make a child draw ornament; mere abstract form does not appeal to an untrained mind, and a child whose constant effort has been to reproduce the things around her will cease to take any interest in a study which she cannot connect with her own life.

I have said that this method has a certain educational value, but this is I think in special cases or for special purposes. A hand that show a tendency to weak and undetermined lines, or an eye insensible to differences of curve, might be strengthened or corrected by a judicious use of Freehand, and the engraver, or the worker in hard metals, stone or wood, might gain considerable precision by this means, but a conventional and mechanical outline is the very last thing desirable in a young painter. The distribution of light and shadow is the first to be studied. My experience tells me that children have a craving to surround their drawings with a hard line, and it is difficult to make them grasp the idea that outline is merely the meeting of light and dark parts. To train them on pure outline only tends to confuse them as to its real meaning.

The question arises--How are young people to be taught drawing? It seems to me that the first principle of teaching drawing or anything else is to arouse the intelligence--to make the pupil feel that the subject in hand is one of the interesting things in a world which every health young mind finds full of interest, that drawing is not an abstract study which they must plod at a certain length of time, however dull it may be, in order to become accomplished men or women, but a study full of deep meanings and vitally affecting everything they see in the course of their day. Almost all children show a desire to draw; it seems to be their natural mode of expression; but, curiously enough, when they begin to be taught to draw this desire generally leaves them. It if does not, this is often because they do not connect the two kinds of drawing, the cubes and curves and scrolls of their drawing-books have no intelligible relation to their endeavours to represent the man feeding his horse, or the house with a lady and a parasol in the garden.

It is this first young impulse toward drawing as a means of expression which should be directed and encouraged, and the dryer passages of study will become interesting when the child recognizes that they must necessarily be passed through to enabler her to do what she desires to do. Indeed, the dry passages in the study of drawing need by very few; there is little that cannot be made interesting. I had a remarkable proof of this some time ago on the part of a little pupil of mine. I had been helping him to draw a cup and explaining the changes that took place in the rounds as the position of the cup was changed. He listened with great interest and attention, and a few days afterwards burst into the room in a state of high glee to describe to me the wonderful changes he had seen take place in the shape of the wheels of a railway engine. "At first it was a long way off, and was like this," he said, taking up a piece of charcoal and drawing a straight line; "then it was like this," drawing an oval; "and then when it came into the station it was quite round." This little man was six years old, and found the elements of perspective positively exciting.

In teaching beginners to draw, whether young children or persons of more mature intelligence, I should take an object of the simplest possible form (a up is very good), place it in strong light, so that the shadows are distinct, and upon this explain the elements of perspective and of values. From this I should pass to easy casts of leaves, fish, fruit, &c., then to heads and full-length figures, but always encouraging the student to draw by herself, without the teacher's aid, similar things to those she is studying in the cast. If she is drawing an ear, encourage her to get a brother, or sister, or playmate to stand still while she makes a drawing of his or her ear; if a plaster head, then get her to try portraits of her friends.

For these cast studies the best medium to use is charcoal on French paper; but for drawings done for amusement by herself, it is better to let the child use any medium she fancies, in order to disabuse her of the idea that too much depends upon the means. Pencil, crayon, or water-colour may all be used with advantage, but for the more severe work from the cast charcoal is best, because by its means the effect can be obtained most readily, and alterations may easily be made. While it may be used with as much strength or as much delicacy as any other medium, the readiness with which alterations may be made encourages good drawing.

A question upon which there is room for considerable difference of opinion is as to how far cast drawing should be carried, and when work from the living model should begin. It is obviously a question to be determined in great measure by the idiosyncrasy of the pupil. It is much easier to attain accuracy of drawing from what is motionless, but study too long continued of what is lifeless and eolourless must lead to a certain dullness of style. In the case of schoolgirls--whose time is principally taken up with other work, and whose drawing occupies perhaps only two hours a week--it is scarcely possible to get so far as work from the living model at all; and to guard against the dullness incident to continual cast drawing, it is well to vary the work by a little landscape with pencil or water-colour, and also studies of leaves and flowers. But whatever work is done in colour, let it be the pure, bright colour of Nature, such as every eye that is unsophisticated loves. No child likes low tone or washed-out colour; they are for the world-worn--too weary to bear the glory of true colour, or for those whose sense is corrupted by this generation of aniline dyes, or hard metallic greens and blues, that they can no longer distinguish between the brightness of pure, natural colour, and the staring hideousness of chemical dyes. The sense of colour seems to be quitting us. Our cities are grey and melancholy from the absence of beautiful colour in buildings and dress; our skies, from the smoke of the cities; our pictures are low-toned, and all brightness is in bad taste. But we have still our wild flowers, and so long as "the little speedwell's darling blue" spreads itself over the bright green of the young grass we cannot quite banish colour from among us. Let us try to save the coming generation from the blight that has fallen upon ourselves, and make the children love purity of colour. If the eye be dimmed in youth the mischief can never be quite undone. It cannot be too strongly insisted upon that this thrusting away of brightness is the most serious of mistakes.

The question of cast drawing as it affects older students who have more time to give to the study of art must to some extent embrace the vexed question of the importance or otherwise of study from the antique. Until a girl can draw a head from the cast in a way that shows she understands the structure she is not fit to leave it for life, when the difficulties are so much increased by the impossibility of keeping the model quite still. But when she shows herself capable of drawing from the life the question is whether her time is better spent in drawing only from life, or in still devoting a great deal of it to working from the antique. My own impression is that the study of such works as the Elgin marbles and other examples of great art is of the very highest consequence to young people. It helps them to distinguish, on the living model, between what is accidental and what is essential; it accustoms them to largeness of conception, to grandeur of line; in fact, it helps them to "style." I speak with diffidence, however, knowing that may voices of authority are heard to declare that drawing from life alone is the most profitable use of time; but even these, I think, will say that constant study of great works is desirable, the point at issue being whether this should be by careful drawing or by frequent observation. Whether a drawing is from the life or from the marble it must be an accurate and exhaustive study of the particular model before the student, with all its faults and blemishes. A student must never idealise--that is for the accomplished artist, to whom years and application have brought knowledge.

As to the usefulness of copying pictures, I should say that much of it is certainly not good, but to take parts of a picture which are exceptionally fine in colour and to try to reproduce that colour, must, I think, be of assistance to a wise student.

A factor of immense importance in the work of an artist is a well-trained memory, yet, so far as I know, there is no school or system of teaching which lays much stress on this. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in those admirable discourses which, though a little old-fashioned in parts now, may still be read with very great advantage, strongly recommends that whatever work has occupied the attention of the student during the day should be repeated at night from memory. Another excellent method, which I am told is customary among the Japanese, is to place an object before the student for a given time, and then to remove it and cause him to draw it in the best way he can. Whether this is a Japanese method or not, it is certainly a sensible one, and ought to be universal.

What I particularly insist on in teaching is that it shall be made interesting, that the intelligence shall be kept bright, that the connection between Art and Nature shall never disappear from the learner's mind, that drawing shall not be an abstract study, but a living one.

Typed by Dawn Duran, Feb 2013; Proofread by Anne White, May 2013