The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

Ruskin's Catalogue of Examples (1870)

Ruskin's first catalogue with notes containing his plans for the Standard, Reference and Educational series.

Examples cover

II. Educational Series / 1st Section

  • unidentified - Photograph of Saint John Baptist from Cima's "Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Paul" 1.

    Here, therefore, is the first of your Educational series chosen for you, not that you may try to copy, but that you may look at, when you would be put in right temper for work. It will seem to speak to you if you look long; and say again, and yet again, ¨Ιδε—ό αϊρων. It is by good Cima of Conegliano; his own Alps are in the distance, and he shall teach us how to paint their wild flowers, and how to think of them.

  • 2. Rosa Canina. ( R The drawings marked R. are by my own hand; those marked A. by my assistant, Mr. A. Burgess. . ) (Budding shoot.)

    And as, among our own wild flowers, this must lead, I have sketched a leaf or two, as they are now opening, very quickly with pencil, securing the shade with a little thin colour (cobalt and light red) above; merely that if you have any power of drawing already, you may try how far you can follow simple curves. There is no fine drawing here of any kind: what grace of effect it may have depends wholly on the curves being approximately true. The next is to be your first real exercise.

  • 3.

    • Ruskin, John - Enlarged Drawing of Apollo's Laurel Sceptre in the Engraving from the so-called "Mantegna Tarocchi" Laurel. Head of the Sceptre of Apollo. (R.) Outline from an Italian early engraving, probably by Baccio Baldini of Florence.

      This is the first of a series of studies of the plants and flowers either directly connected with the Greek mythology, or expressive of more recent phases of thought or sentiment which have risen out of the more ancient myths. And I place these floral exercises first, because they will test what faculty you have for real drawing in the simplest way; and will at once draw your attention to some of the most interesting features both of Greek decoration, of mediæval sculpture, and of pictorial backgrounds of the best periods towards the close of the fifteenth century. And even should you do no more than endeavour to measure and trace one or two of them, they will open your eyes to the differences between fine ornamentation and the rigidities and equalities of modern vulgar design.

      After these, the eight examples, 13 to 20, with their sequels, when completed, will illustrate the conventional system of the early schools of colour, and their special methods of ornamental line, as derived from vegetation or other organic forms.

      Then the group 21 to 30, with their sequels, will illustrate the Greek treatment of ornamental line, and the forms of good architectural decoration in every school.

      The following group, 31 to 40, introduces the practice of chiaroscuro, and the complete methods of ornamentation founded on perfect draughtsmanship and perception of light and shade.

      Lastly, the group 41 to 50 is for practice in colours in the methods of the fully accomplished schools of painting.

      It is of so great importance in any series of examples arranged for general service, that the references should be fixed and clear, that I shall sacrifice at once to this object every pretence to formal succession in arrangement. I have begun almost miscellaneously, with slight exercises in various methods of work: to these, I shall gradually add more difficult and interesting ones. But I will not alter the numbers of this first group; but distinguish the supplementary ones by letters after the numbers. Some even of the drawings intended for this opening series are not yet prepared; but I have named them in the catalogue notwithstanding, and will complete and add them as soon as may be.

      I have several reasons for choosing this conventional branch of laurel for your first exercise. It will show you in the outset, that refinement in design does not depend on minuteness or fineness of work, but on its precision and care. These lines look coarse, but you will find they cannot be altered in curvature by a very small fraction of an inch without losing grace, and that it is very difficult to follow their curvatures without altering them, owing to their continual subtlety of change.

      Also, it is not possible to express the general characters of growth in noble vegetation, with fewer or simpler lines. It is easy to make leaves and stems graceful, but not to make them springy and vigorous as well: and the especial beauty of this group of foliage as terminating the rod of Apollo is the strength with which it is springing, and the visible presence in the god’s virgin sceptre of the life which in the king’s is lost. (Look at the words of the vow of Achilles.)

      Also, note the quaint little stiff leaf at the bottom, which you would think had been drawn wrongly. In vulgar design, everything is equally graceful; but in fine design, there are local uncouthnesses, as, in fine music, discords.

      For the rest, the diminution of the stem for each leaf is much greater than it would be in reality: this is a necessary conventionalism, in order to terminate the strong rod within brief limits; but nothing can be more perfect than its rendering of the universal law of ramification; and even the apparent coarseness of the lines is only caused by enlargement of scale, for this example is much magnified; in the original it is only about an inch high, and the lines are all thickened by cross strokes, not by deeper engraving.

      In copying it, take the finer outline, 3 B; measure all the rectilinear dimensions accurately, and having thus fixed the points of the leaves, draw the contours with light pencil, as in 3 B, as truly as you can, then finally draw them with the brush (as in 3), with violet carmine mixed with Indian red, keeping the outside edge of the broad colour line, terminated by the fine pencil one. But first, read the directions given for colour under No. 14; and observe also that, even in the most complicated forms, as 11 D, for instance, you are to fix points with absolute accuracy by rectilinear measurement, and not to use squares over the whole. Squaring is good for reduction, and for advanced practice, but at first all must be measured point by point.

    • 3 B. Outline for measurement of No. 3. (A.)
    • Ruskin, John - Laurel Leaf, seen Underneath and in Profile 3 C.Laurel leaf seen on the under surface and in profile. (R.)

      Pencil, washed with cobalt and light red. If you have been at all used to pencil drawing, you will probably succeed with this easily enough; if not, let it pass for the present.


    • Ruskin, John - Under-surface of a dried Spray  of Olive, gathered at Verona Study of olive (under surface of leaves). (R.)

      Pencil only, the outline secured by the pen. From a spray gathered at Verona, and now dry; you shall have a better one soon. It is of the real size, and too small for you to draw yet awhile; but it is placed here that Athena’s tree may be next Apollo’s. Take the next exercise instead.

    • 4 B. Outline, with the brush, of part of No. 3, twice as large. (A.)

      Measure this as 3 B is measured, and draw it as 3 B is drawn.


    • Ruskin, John - Study of an Ear of Wheat: Side View, magnified Study of ear of wheat, at the side. (R.)

      We must have the plant of Triptolemus next Athena’s, but you cannot use this copy for some time yet. It is much magnified.

    • 5 B. Study of ear of wheat in front.

      Pencil, with outlines determined with the pen.

  • Ruskin, John - A Wild Strawberry Plant 6. Strawberry blossom, for Demeter.

    In Greece she should have the poppy; but it is well to think of her as the queen of the fruitful blossoming of the earth; so she shall have the strawberry, which grows close to it, and whose leaves crown our English peers.

  • Ruskin, John - Fleur-de-Lys ('Iris Florentina') 7. Fleur de Lys, for Cora.

    She ought traditionally to have the violet, and, sometimes, narcissus; but see note on 23 K.

  • 8. Lily, for Artemis.

    I will look for a characteristic white lily, by Luini or Mantegna, this summer; and we must connect with this and with Cora’s irids the groups of amaryllis and asphodel, and the water-lilies; and we shall obtain the elements of form in a very large division of architectural design.

  • 9.

    • Erica, for Hephæstus.

      This group will contain, besides, the rhododendron and Alpine rose;—the last we may keep for Aglaia, leaving the Erica for Hephæstus, because its name seems to come from its having been rent from the rocks either to serve as fuel, or for a couch of rest after hill-labour. I put a little study of Erica tetralix in the frame 9 B, and must draw an Alpine rose for 9.

    • 9 B. Cluster of the bells of Erica tetralix. (R.) Beautifully engraved on wood by Mr. Burgess.

      Copy it with steel crowquill, and note that in all clustered flowers it is necessary, to the expression of their complete character, to draw them on two, or more, sides. The head of dandelion below, by Mr. Burgess, is to show the right use of wood in plant-engraving; but I shall change the place of this, and put Erica cinerea below Erica tetralix.

  • Ruskin, John - Stone Pines at Sestri, Gulf of Genoa 10. Pine, for Poseidon.

    Study of trunks of stone-pine at Sestri, in the Gulf of Genoa. Pencil, secured with pen outline, and a slight wash of sepia. It is a good way of studying trees hastily.

  • 11.

    • Ivy, for Dionysus.

      I take the ivy rather than the vine, because it is our own; and I want to connect the ivy-shaped leaves of the Linaria with it, and some of the associated Draconid group. This pencil sketch is only begun, but may serve to show the general form of the group of leaves from which it is enlarged, that behind the horseman on the right in the picture of Mantegna’s (S. 35) .

    • 11 B. Outlines of ivy leaves.

      Construct the figures for measurement with pencil lightly; then draw the leaf-lines, as above, with the brush, and rub out the pencil construction. Make as many studies of leaves as you can from nature, in this manner, when your time is too short for drawing anything else.

    • Ruskin, John - Drawing of an Ivy Branch from the Beaupré Antiphonary 11 C. Wreath of conventional ivy.

      From the missal out of which S. 7 is taken . Draw it with the brush, constructing it first as in 11 D. I give you this wreath merely that you may begin to feel what Gothic design means. It is very rude, but interesting, as we shall see afterwards, for some special characters in the transition of styles.

    • 11 D. Outline for construction of 11 C.


    • Ruskin, John - Drawing of a Branch of Oak from Cima's "Saint John the Baptist with Saints Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul" Oak, for Zeus.

      Spray of free-growing oak from the picture of Cima’s. (Standard, No. 8.) The colour here is daubed on without thought of anything but true outline.

      Make studies of leaves seen against the sky, as many as you can, in this manner.

    • Ruskin, John - Sketch of the Oak Spray in Mantegna's Fresco of "The Martyrdom of Saint James" in the Church of the Eremitani, Padua 12 B. Sketch of the action of leaves in Mantegna’s oak tree, at the top of S. 35.

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