Drawing with Ruskin

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Posted 5th October 2020

Drawing with Ruskin

Tara Contractor, Co-Curator of Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin

In 1857, Ruskin published The Elements of Drawing, an instructional manual based on the drawing lessons he had given at the Working Men's College and to the pupils he corresponded with. The text was a radical intervention into standard Victorian art-teaching. He did not aim for his students to produce either “high" art or manufactured goods, but sought to teach them to observe and love the world around them. The book is full of a variety of drawing exercises which can still be performed at home today. One of our favorites is “Exercise VIII" which instructs the reader how to draw a stone. I decided to give it a go and document my results.

Go out into your garden, or into the road, and pick up the first round or oval stone you can find, not very white, nor very dark; and the smoother it is the better, only it must not shine.

I live in a city, so this was easier said than done! Still, the process of looking for the stone made me look at my neighbourhood and its sidewalks more closely than I ever have. Finally, I found a nice round stone in a crack in the pavement and brought it home with me. I think the people walking behind me thought I was crazy.

Draw your table near the window, and put the stone, which I will suppose is about the size of 'a' in Fig. 5 (it had better not be much larger), on a piece of not very white paper, on the table in front of you. Sit so that the light may come from your left, else the shadow of the pencil point interferes with your sight of your work. You must not let the sun fall on the stone, but only ordinary light: therefore choose a window which the sun does not come in at. If you can shut the shutters of the other windows in the room it will be all the better; but this is not of much consequence.


I feel like these instructions about the lighting must have been crucial in a Victorian house without electric light. I, however, am too lazy to move my desk, so I settle for a position where I have nice, even light coming from the left. I can't help thinking that Ruskin is lucky that I'm right handed! And I hope that the scrap of brown paper under my rock qualifies as “not very white."

Look your stone antagonist boldly in the face.

This is one of my favorite lines in the Elements of Drawing. I give it my best shot.

Do not, therefore, think your drawing must be weak because you have a finely pointed pen in your hand. Till you can draw with that, you can draw with nothing; when you can draw with that, you can draw with a log of wood charred at the end.

Ok—I am switching my pencil for a pen, and wishing that pen were erasable! I guess I will need to be bold after all.

Now I do not want you to copy my sketch in Fig. 5, but to copy the stone before you in the way that my sketch is done. To which end, first measure the extreme length of the stone with compasses, and mark that length on your paper; then, between the points marked, leave something like the form of the stone in light, scrawling the paper all over, round it; b, in Fig. 5, is a beginning of this kind.1

I don't have compasses so I try to make do with a tape measure. Ruskin's illustration is very helpful for understanding how to get started—I can understand why he was so careful about this getting this page right when he was going through the proofs of the book, as we can see in the proof copy from Beinecke Library where he has annotated how the image should be adjusted.

Rather leave too much room for the high light, than too little; and then more cautiously fill in the shade, shutting the light gradually up, and putting in the dark slowly on the dark side. You need not plague yourself about accuracy of shape, because, till you have practised a great deal, it is impossible for you to draw the shape of the stone quite truly, and you must gradually gain correctness by means of these various exercises: what you have mainly to do at present is, to get the stone to look solid and round, not much minding what its exact contour is—only draw it as nearly right as you can without vexation; and you will get it more right by thus feeling your way to it in shade, than if you tried to draw the outline at first.

The way Ruskin focuses on areas of shade rather than outline is very difficult for me, so I confess I ended up having to do this twice! The second time, I try my best to forget about the stone's shape and begin by loosely sketching in the areas of shadow. Working in pen rather than pencil also feels very tricky, because you have to crosshatch to get any kind of gradient. I'm happy that Ruskin has given me permission to “scrawl" because this feels very messy, especially at first. But finally I think I have something that looks “solid and round"—it isn't my best work, but I have certainly gained a lot of affection for this “stone adversary"!


Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin is on display until Sunday 1 November. Click here to find out more.

Image: John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, Letterpress and wood engravings cut by Mary Byfield, 1795–1871, after John Ruskin. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.,1857. Printed proof, with annotations by John Ruskin and another hand; letterpress and wood engravings cut by Mary Byfield, after John Ruskin, ca. 1857. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, GEN MSS 1168, Box 15