The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin


I believe that (irrespective of differences in individual temper and character) the excellence of an artist, as such, depends wholly on refinement of perception, and that it is this, mainly, which a master of a school can teach; so that while powers of invention distinguish man from man, powers of perception distinguish school from school. All great schools enforce delicacy of drawing and subtlety of sight: and the only rule which I have, as yet, found to be without exception respecting art, is that all great art is delicate. 

If you wish to learn drawing that you may be able to set down clearly, and usefully, records of such things as can not be described in words, either to assist your own memory of them, or to convey distinct ideas of them to other people; if you wish to obtain quicker perceptions of the beauty of the natural world, and to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass away, or which you must yourself leave; if, also, you wish to understand the minds of great painters, and to be able to appreciate their work sincerely, seeing it for yourself, and l ong it, not merely taking up the thoughts of other people about it; then I can help you, or which is better, show you how to help yourself. 

It is easy to draw what appears to be a good line with a sweep of the hand, or with what is called freedom; the real difficulty and masterminds is in never letting the hand be free, but keeping it under entire control at every part of the line. These remarks, however, do not apply to the lines used in shading, which, it will be remembered, are to be made as quickly as possible. The reason of this is, that the quicker a line is drawn, the lighter it is at the ends, and therefore the more easily joined with other lines, and concealed by then; the object in perfect shading being to conceal the lines as much as possible. And observe, in this exercise, the object us more to get firmness of hand than accuracy of the eye for the outline; for there are no outlines in Nature. and the ordinary student is sure to drawn them falsely if he draws them at all.  

Nearly all expression of form, in drawing, depends on your power of graduating delicately; and the gradation is always most skillful which passes from one tint into another very little paler. 

Gradation is given to the sky by leaving the lines farther apart; but you must make your lines as fine as you can, as well as far apart, towards the light; and do not try to make them long or straight, but let them cross irregularly in any direction easy to your hand, depending on nothing but their gradation for your effect. 

Now if you can draw a stone, you can draw anything; I mean, anything that is drawable. For all drawing depends, primarily, on your power of representing Roundness. For Nature is all made up of roundnesses; not the roundness of perfect globes, but of variously curved surfaces. There is no more flatness in the natural world than there is vacancy. The word itself is round, and so is all that is in it, more or less, except the human work, which is often very flat indeed. Therefore, set yourself steadily to conquer that round stone, and you have won the battle. 

Everything you can see in Nature is seen only so far as it is lighter or darker than the things about it, or of a different color from them. It is either seen as a patch of one color on a ground of another; or as a pale thing relieved from a dark thing, or a dark thing from a pale thing. And if you can put on patches of color or shade of exactly the same size, shape, and gradations as those on the object and its ground, you will produce the appearance of the object and its ground.

The best scholar is he whose eye is so keen as to see at once how the thing looks, and who need not therefore trouble himself with any reasons why it looks so: but few people have this acuteness of perception. 

The great difference between the masters of light and shade, and imperfect artists, is the power of the former to draw so delicately as to express form in a dark-colored object with little light, and in a light-colored object with little darkness; and it is better even to leave the forms here and there unsatisfactorily rendered than to lose the general relations of the great masses. And this, observe, not because masses are grand or desirable things in your composition (for with composition at present you have nothing whatever to do), but because it is a fact that things do so present themselves to the eyes of men, and that we see paper, book, and i stand as three separate things, before we see the wrinkles, or chinks, or corners of any of the three. 

Always draw whatever the background happens to be, exactly as you see it. Wherever you have fastened the bough, you must draw whatever is behind it, ugly or not, else you will never know whether the light and shade are right. This general law is to be observed in all your studies: whatever you draw, draw completely and unalteringly, else you will never know if what you have done is right, or whether you could have done it rightly have you tried. There is nothing visible out of which you may not get useful practice. 

Your drawing never can be made to look like the object itself, as you see that object with both eyes, but it can be made perfectly like the object seen with one, and you must be content when you have got a resemblance on these terms. 

It is a general truth, that the enjoyment derivable for art cannot be increased in quantity, beyond a certain point, by quantity of possession; it is only spread, as it were, over a larger surface, and very often dulled by finding ideas repeated in different works. Now, for a beginner, it is always better that his attention should be concentrated on one or two good things, and all his enjoyment founded on them, than that he should look at many, with divided thoughts. He has much to discover; and his best way of discovering it is to think long over few things, and watch them earnestly. It is one of the worst errors of this age to try to know and to see too much: the men who seem to know everything, never in reality know anything rightly. Beware of handbook knowledge. 

When the hand is free, the easiest line for it to draw is one inclining from the left upwards to the right, or vice versa, from the right downwards to the left; and when done very quickly, the line is hooked a little at the end by the effort at return to the next. 

If a great man is not in a hurry, he never pretends to be; if he has no eagerness in his heart, he puts none into his hand [or voice]; if he things his effect would be better got with two lines, he never, to show his dexterity, tries to do it with one. Be assured, therefore (and this is a matter of great importance), that you will never produce a great drawing by imitating the execution of a great master. Acquire his knowledge and share his feelings, and the easy execution will fall from your hand as it did from his: but if you kerry scrawl because he scrawled, or blot because he blotted, you will  it only never advance in power, but every able draughtsman, and every judge whose opinion is worth having, will know you for a cheat, and despise you accordingly. 

We have to show the individual character and liberty of the separate leaves, clouds, or rocks. And herein the great masters separate themselves finally from the inferior ones; for if they men of inferior genius ever express law at all, it is by the sacrifice of individuality.