Friday, August 22, 2008

John Ruskin's Elements of Drawing


I first discovered John Ruskin through a badly battered edition of Elements of Drawing that was my constant companion from the ages of 10-16. I don't even remember where I found it the first time (did my mom buy it used? I have no idea), but at any rate I dragged it with me every time I went to sketch something. I loved it because it made it seem like drawing was something accessible to anyone, and it had great pictures that didn't intimidate me. Plus, it was written so simply that even a child could understand it, in spite of Ruskin's warning on the first page of the preface:

In the first place, the book is not calculated for the use of children under the age of twelve or fourteen. I do not think it advisable to engage a child in any but the most voluntary practice of art. If it has talent for drawing, it will be continually scrawling on what paper it can get; and should be allowed to scrawl at its own free will, due praise being given for every appearance of care, or truth in its efforts.

I remember feeling quite self important for using the book long before I was "supposed to", although looking back, I was basically engaged in "continually scrawling," rather than any serious study. At any rate, I just adored the book, which I took great delight in dragging to the woods with me whenever I wanted to go investigate sketching opportunities.

It wasn't until much later that I figured out that the John Ruskin who had written my handy little book was the same John Ruskin who had been one of the most famous art critics of the 19th century. I still remember reading about the Elements of Drawing--it was like a light bulb went on in my head. I ran to my bookcase, and sure enough, it was the same book! I was a little surprised--it seemed like such a simple little book.

151 years after it was published, The Elements of Drawing is still in print today, and it's no surprise. It's an amazing introduction to drawing and the world of art that is a perfect gift for anyone (plus, it has great pictures!). The entire book is constructed like a series of letters to an aspiring artist, and its conversational tone is a large part of its appeal. Plus, the reader is treated like an artist from the first page of a book--and is congratulated on tasks as simple as drawing a line. It's a classic book, and one I would recommend it to anyone, whether they draw or not!

The Ruskin watercolour shown above is Rocks and Ferns in a Wood at Crossmount, Perthshire, 1847.

11 comments:

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, you always write about my heroes! I adore Ruskin and so appreciate his influence on both art and design.

lotusgreen said...

whereas i keep wanting to hate him for needlessly picking on whistler, among other things, but i keep getting tripped up in this desire.

the book looks so cool, and isn't it prescient of him to have written that dare to you!

it's neat that this book is still in print, but, as you might have noticed, i so love that so many are being reanimated, so to speak, to now exist for all time.
'

willow said...

This Ruskin water color is stunning. I adore vintage books! Isn't it so wonderful that this charming edition is still available?

Melanie said...

That happened to me this year with a novel called Old Faithful from the turn of the century. I just thought it was another beautiful Edwardian book and then someone blogged about it and it's so well known and even has a statue! Isn't it weird when old friends turn out to be famous?

Next time I'm in the lakes I want to visit Brantwood (Ruskin) and Blackwell (A+C) and have a nosey round.

mammon said...

Isn't it interesting how our early experiences impress themselves on us so profoundly and it is only when we look back on them we realize how formative they have been?

If your mom got you a Ruskin drawing book she must have known she had a precocious child.

Thorsprincess said...

I don't recall where I got the book. I was always looking for "real books" to give you for homeschooling. I was so delighted to learn that Ruskin was an artist and critic who wrote about how to see and draw as an artist. I recall the book on the shelf where I planned to read it myself--but you found it first and made it your constant companion. I love the beautiful painting you included in your post.
Maman

Margaret said...

Ah, it's too bad we don't know where it came from, mom! But thank you for sharing it with me!
Thanks, everyone, for all the great comments.

Amanda said...

How have I never heard of this book before? Thanks for the recommendation and post!

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks for posting this, Margaret. I rave about this book to my students, and have started showing a film about Ruskin as part of my PRB lecture (on the "Gothic Critique of Modernity"). I too used it frequently as a child and have no idea what happened to my old, battered copy. There's a paperback edition available (still, I think), and I highly recommend it. One could do lots worse than to follow the program and see it through.

tellurian said...

Nice blog margaret. Here's a little story about Ruskin that may amuse you.

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