Initially Ruskin’s book, The Elements of Drawing in Three Letters to Beginners, opens with a description about who the book is aimed at, and interestingly, who it is not. For example, Ruskin decrees that no child below 12 (or perhaps even 14 he says) should be shown how to draw. For someone who never fathered children or seemingly had much contact with the softer side of life (children and women) he seems to have an extremely good comprehension of when and where it is wise to invest your time in instructing young people. If a child is interested in drawing, Ruskin suggests you should merely encourage. If you give him a box of coloured paints and he achieves nothing more than staining the paper, then you should take the paints away again.

Drawing, not colour, is the foundation for Ruskin. Enabling shading and gradation in a student is the very beginning of being able to convey shapes and tones and ultimately images. Ruskin even offers his readers (and therefore, his students) drawing exercises from shading boxes with a fine point, to shading between two lines. He admits that the exercises are tedious and such, suggests switching between them in order to relive the tedium. However, it is always with the insistence that the tedium is necessary and productive.

Ruskin moves gracefully through references to perspective and the great painters, in particular referencing the Venetians of course, and suggesting that only David Roberts knows perspective in a manner which ‘would enable him to draw a Gothic arch to scale at a given angle and distance’.[1] As an interest observation, Ruskin also admits that ‘Turner, though was professor of perspective to the Royal Academy, did not know what he professed, and never, as far as I remember, drew a single building in true perspective in his life’.[2] Ruskin’s observations are rather astutely the product of an artist and an observer, for he recognised that understanding perspective has never lead great artists to great art. Or, a term Ruskin prefers to stress and does so through the text, ‘delicate art’: further proclaiming that ‘all great art is delicate’.[3] In order to understand perspective, Ruskin offers an exercise which uses a pane of glass and a long paintbrush to capture landscape from affair. Ruskin makes plain that no mention of figures is included because they cannot be drawn to any good purpose by an amateur’.[4]

These exercises and the underlying belief in the whole text is that everyone can draw with the right guidance and ample patience. You must be ‘ready to take a certain amount of pains, and to bear a little irksomeness and a few disappointments bravely’.[5]

Once you have passed the stage of tint and graduation, Ruskin suggests you tenderly move on with the pencil point and tint a large letter, giving an illustrative example with the letter ‘A’.[6] After all, ‘An entire master of the pencil or brush ought, indeed, to be able to draw any form at once, as Giotto his circle’.[7]

When discussing drawing trees, and having been already mentioned in passing, Ruskin refers to ‘outline’ which is to be thought of as being ‘like a bridle’.[8] The outline, as bridle, is the threshold between pencil and colour, and is a significant marker of both the student’s competence and progression, but also of Ruskin’s teaching.

Exercise VII gives very precise instructions on how to begin painting seemingly in order to master tinting, starting with the wonderful colour that is Prussian Blue.[9] His description is calming and conveys a familiarity and expertise (e.g. discussing how it will run, or need blotting, or how ‘the colour lodge there in a great wave’.[10] Ruskin’s description and recipe for watercolour painting is so lively in fact that one can imagine Elizabeth Siddal or D.G. Rossetti in the 1850s filling their pages and practicing attempting to lay on full dark colour most evenly. The work which particularly comes to mind is Siddal’s Sir Patrick Spens (1856, Tate) and the dark green which she used for the figures’ clothes. Ruskin also refers to ‘cakes’ of colour, a reminder of how differently we paint nowadays, using tubes. Winsor & Newton introduced a glycerine-softened formula of moist cakes in 1835, before advancing a modification of their moist cakes into the American invention of the tube in 1846.

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Siddal, Sir Patrick Spens (1856, Tate)

You must obey Nature, Ruskin insists and then will you learn her secrets and be able to master ‘refinement of the forms’.[11] Often the way Ruskin writes, you can see perhaps the suggestion that he was hugely self-critical, struggling through ‘irksomeness’ and ‘weariness’ and being disappointed at self-perceived, probably incorrectly, ‘failures’ of expression. The upward struggle that he considers part of the learning process appears to have been spoken from experience and with authority having come out the other side. ‘Always remember that a little bit perfected is worth more than many scrawls’.[12]

When describing outline, Ruskin says that what you can see is not an outline, rather ‘what you see is only a certain space of gradated shade, with other such spaces about it’.[13]

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Correggio, Venus with Mercury and Cupid (‘The School of Love’) (1525, National Gallery)

Subtlety is a feature of drawing and painting, which, although not expressly correlated, is implied by Ruskin that it will lead to a delicacy (and delicacy as we have already heard from Ruskin, is what makes ‘great art’). This subtlety is expressed in the way one achieves light effects and Ruskin provides various suggestions in order one may understand light (and the importance of an artist’s authority over space and outline required if he is to create light convincingly). Ruskin looks to Veronese and Titian’s portrayal of anything white in order that one may understand light. He also adds a footnote about Turner’s painting of ‘fishing-boats and fish at sunset’. One specific example of understanding light is made through examination of ‘the wing of the Cupid in Correggio’s large picture in the National Gallery’.[14] I assume Ruskin is referring to Venus with Mercury and Cupid (‘The School of Love’) (1525, National Gallery) which entered the gallery’s collection in 1834. The cupid’s wings are small and multi-coloured, but at the top of the wing presented to us on the canvas are small white dots of paint which serve to create form and shape, and in fact life. Interestingly the cupid’s wings are distinct from many Victorian artists portrayal of wings which is in part due to the figure being a cupid and not an angel (allegorical / pagan rather than Christian). However, they are conventionally Christian in as much as they embrace the highly chromatic peacock qualities of many Florentine artists’ angels, the peacock being representative of resurrection. Whilst Ruskin is discussing the use of white to create form and light within a figure, I also note the correlation between technical application of light and symbology in this instance.

Correggio, Wing detail of Venus with Mercury and Cupid (‘The School of Love’) (1525, National Gallery)

Light and lustre continue to be of primary interest in the first letter, whether it be the ‘light reflected from its lustrous surface, sometimes the blue of the sky, sometimes the white of clouds, or the sun itself flashing like a star’.[15] Ruskin’s slightly poetic cadence here also belies some of his natural theology by impressing upon his reader a certain majesty of divinely created form. Complete form, ‘except now and then by chance’ is never seen.[16] If we draw this thinking out, we can perhaps surmise that Nature by virtue of being unable to be complete in form to our eye, is in a process of reception and simultaneously therefore revision and experience. It is incomplete, to us, but not to the divine. We constantly revise our understanding through experience and inevitably through the seasons, which is perhaps what Ruskin is referring to with his phrase ‘unity of action’. Ruskin embraces ‘the variety and mystery of Nature’ and practically speaking recognises Nature is received ‘without absolute delineation of detail’.[17]

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After Turner, engr. J.T. Willmore, Barnard Castle (1831, Tate)

Clouds are ‘intricate’ and in the hierarchy of engravings Ruskin suggests are worth the beginner seeking out, he marks individual works with stars to indicate their educative and technical importance. Having identified engravings with ‘Clouds, including mist and aerial effects’ as a crucial lesson for the student, it is therefore significant he identifies images such as Lancaster Sands (a Turner image of 1828) as being one for the student to actively obtained a copy of.[18] Ruskin also recommends Ballyburgh Ness (another Turner image, c. 1835, Tate) which is an extremely dynamic and organic image of cloud, light, sea, and fell, and Barnard Castle (1831, Tate) which again is a sky filled with clouds and shifting golden light, as is Flint Castle (1834, Tate). Ruskin does not so much labour the idea of copying these engravings but of looking at them. Looking. Seeing. Absorbing and understanding. These are the key tenets of Ruskin’s teaching methodology and they are embedded within Letter I of this text. These are the key tenets of Ruskin’s teaching methodology and they are embedded within Letter I of this text throughout each of the exercises. By the time the beginner reader has finished this Letter, they will have encountered, and hopefully advanced their abilities, in rendering light, shade, foreshortening and creating representations of the natural world, be it stone, leaf, or cloud.

Furthermore when discussing engraving, Ruskin is quick to point out firstly that it is worthy of more attention than a beginner may think (a Beginner who has perhaps thought that engraving is mere business.[19] In order to protect you from harm of engravings that are insincere in their delineations, Ruskin suggests you seek a Rembrandt etching, even suggesting certain subjects of particular note, e.g. Abraham and Isaac.[20] He also suggests securing access to a Dürer image, and stresses that ‘If you can get one with a wing in it, it will be best’ (Ruskin’s emphasis).[21] It won’t surprise readers now to learn he makes explicit reference to ‘Melancholy’ (Melancholia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart).

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Dürer, ‘Melancholy’ (Melancholia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart).

‘Perfection in chiaroscuro drawing lies between these two masters, Rembrandt and Durer’ [sic].[22] Rembrandt is lose and Dürer is often too strong with his outline, he has little or no effect of mist or uncertainty’ which suggests that Ruskin considers his art a little less than delicate (I am not suggesting that Ruskin doesn’t applaud Dürer but his description does show discrepancies in Ruskin’s categorisation and is perhaps evidence of some of his poetic licence. Contradictions are an inherent part of Ruskin’s writing, evidence in some ways of a long career and a long life where his views changed. He does state that Dürer’s line is always made ‘valuable’).[23] Leonardo is the name who bridges the differences of these two artists, but it is preferable, in the likelihood of being unable to view a Leonardo drawing, that a Beginner engages most with Dürer. Failing that, Ruskin suggests a Cruikshank etching, or even Leech’s Punch woodcuts.

Such is Ruskin’s esteem for drawing that he believes you can differentiate a master from a forger by the quality of it. A great master has an ‘economy’ of execution (of line) which a forger cannot replicate.[24] The quality of difference is related to outline, ‘Again, observe respecting the use of outline’. It is an artist’s effectiveness at employing and knowing when to break an outline that belies his power. Restriction, economy, arrangement, and ‘unity of action’ are, I suggest, what Ruskin considers evidence of mastery: ‘A good artist habitually sees masses, not edges’.[25]

Surprisingly, Ruskin is disparaging about Retsch (sic) who seems to have been popular at the time, and was certainly frequently reproduced. He considers engravings of poor outline are at risk of corrupting public taste. In order to clarify how heavy-handed use of line and light be best avoided, Ruskin turns to Raphael. Interestingly, Ruskin turns to a Raphael sketch of an angel to illustrate his point. The angel sketch is a preparatory study for the 1512 Heliodorus fresco in the Vatican, and is an intense, highly animated head design which Ruskin sees as being exemplar of the balance between dark strong lines, and tender and light ones.[26]

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Raphael, Angel detail from The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple fresco (1512, Vatican)

[1] Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing: In Three Letters to Beginners (New York: John Wiley, 1863), p. XIX.

[2] Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing: In Three Letters to Beginners,  p. XIX.

[3] Ibid., p. 33 and XI.

[4] Ibid., p. XXI.

[5] Ibid., p. 5.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Ibid., 49.

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] Ibid., 51.

[14] Ibid., 77.

[15] Ibid., 89.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 90.

[18] Ibid, p. 90 and 92.

[19] Ibid., p. 79.

[20] Ibid., p. 78

[21] Ibid., p. 79.

[22] Ibid., p. 79.

[23] Ibid., p. 80.

[24] Ibid., p. 82.

[25] Ibid., p. 84.

[26] Ibid., p. 83.