John Ruskin, ‘On First Practice/Exercise I and II’, from The EIements of Drawing (1859).


KEY THEMES: art, drawing, nature.

KEY LOCATIONS: a nice location for drawing; places to observe and draw nature.

POSSIBLE ACTIVITES: drawing; observing nature; cultivating the innocence of the eye.

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Some notes to assist your reading

This extract has been selected from a work that offers the best example of Ruskin’s role as an art instructor. While he made his name as an art critic, he was also an accomplished amateur artist and gave lessons to students throughout his life – as one-to-one classes or as courses given at London’s Working Men’s College in the 1850s. The Elements of Drawing provides a series of lessons for beginners in various forms of drawing, as well as advice on the purposes of art. The extract makes clear his desire to help those who wish to better love nature and painting, rather than those wishing to appear cultivated to others.  He believes that success in drawing, as he understands it, is the result of painstaking application, but also of an ardent desire to closely observe and understand the world, and nature in particular. As he memorably says elsewhere (in the Preface to this book), ‘I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw’. He also sees drawing as open to all, rather than being confined to those with a supposedly innate talent: it can be learnt by anyone willing to try. Ruskin recommends readers devote one hour a day to pursuing the series of lessons offered in the book. The first two are included in the extract.

In making extracts from Ruskin’s works I have in general removed footnotes, but in this case I have included them, because in one of them (from Exercise I) he outlines his important theory of the ‘innocence of the eye’. He describes this as ‘a sort of childish perception’ of the world in which one paints or draws exactly what one sees, rather than bringing preconceptions about forms, colours, or shapes of nature onto the canvas. With an innocent eye, we paint or draw objects and scenes ‘as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight’. Part of Ruskin’s dislike of the Old Masters (see the extracts from Modern Painters for examples of this) is that instead of going out to actually observe nature, they painted their preconceived notions of natural forms in the confines of their studios. A loving artist (like J.M.W. Turner), he contends, works in a very different way. It’s worth noting that Édouard Manet voraciously read The Elements of Drawing in an English edition and claimed that the ‘innocence of the eye’ was a leading influence on his own practice and on impressionist painting as a whole. It is one of the ironies of Ruskin’s career that he seems to have been entirely unaware of impressionism, and highly critical of the related work of James McNeill Whistler, who famously sued Ruskin for libel after an excoriating review in the 1870s.

Where does The Elements of Drawing fit within Ruskin’s career? To my mind it occurs at the end of his enormously productive and impressive first period, closing the phase begun with Modern Painters (1843), and appearing a year before the start of a new period of more directly-committed and urgent political and social writing with Unto This Last (1860). It is also part of a growing commitment during the 1850s to take his own work beyond elite audiences and to reach a broader range of the populace. Although Ruskin was politically a Tory, he had a strong urge to democratise art and culture – evident in his lessons at the Working Men’s College, in taking his writings out on the lecture circuit, and in attempts to influence museum policies, architectural practice, and art education institutions. After 1859, Ruskin was never again as optimistic, never again as confident in the success of his work, or in the goodness of the nation in which he lived.

The extract is from the opening of the book, comprising parts of Ruskin’s introduction and his first two drawing exercises. He describes the first exercise as ‘tiresome’ but important, while the second introduces botanical subjects. If you wish to read on, you can access this work in Volume 15 of the Library Edition of John Ruskin’s Works (just type 50 into the number box at the top to get straight to the start of this extract, or type 37 to start with the Preface). These webpages contain lots of other links and suggestions for further reading if we have whetted your interest. It may be the case, however, that the extract inspires you to draw as well as read, so feel free to try Ruskin’s first exercises, or some of the others. This would make a great Local Group activity if you have a shared enthusiasm for art. For those seeking to follow Ruskin’s lessons, many of the specific materials he recommends are no longer available, but it should be possible to obtain suitable drawing paper, pencils, and other supplies. Whether you are an experienced artist or a complete novice, Ruskin will challenge you to see and to draw in new and inspiring ways. Good luck.

Dr Mark Frost, Director of Ruskin Studies and Legacies

Letter I: On First Practice

  1. MY DEAR READER,– Whether this book is to be of use to you or not, depends wholly on your reason for wishing to learn to draw. If you desire only to possess a graceful accomplishment, to be able to converse in a fluent manner about drawing, or to amuse yourself listlessly in listless hours, I cannot help you: but if you wish to learn drawing that you may be able to set down clearly, and usefully, records of such things as cannot 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 loving 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. 

  1. Only you must understand, first of all, that these powers, which indeed are noble and desirable, cannot be got without work. It is much easier to learn to draw well, than it is to learn to play well on any musical instrument; but you know that it takes three or four years of practice, giving three or four hours a day, to acquire even ordinary command over the keys of a piano; and you must not think that a masterly command of your pencil, and the knowledge of what may be done with it, can be acquired without pains-taking, or in a very short time. The kind of drawing which is taught, or supposed to be taught, in our schools, in a term or two, perhaps at the rate of an hour‘s practice a week, is not drawing at all. It is only the performance of a few dexterous (not always even that) evolutions on paper with a black-lead pencil; profitless alike to performer and beholder, unless as a matter of vanity, and that the smallest possible vanity. If any young person, after being taught what is, in polite circles, called drawing, will try to copy the commonest piece of real work – suppose a lithograph on the title-page of a new opera air, or a woodcut in the cheapest illustrated newspaper of the day,– they will find themselves entirely beaten. And yet that common lithograph was drawn with coarse chalk, much more difficult to manage than the pencil of which an accomplished young lady is supposed to have command; and that woodcut was drawn in urgent haste, and half spoiled in the cutting afterwards; and both were done by people whom nobody thinks of as artists, or praises for their power; both were done for daily bread, with no more artist‘s pride than any simple handicraftsmen feel in the work they live by. 

  1. Do not, therefore, think that you can learn drawing, any more than a new language, without some hard and disagreeable labour. But do not, on the other hand, if you are ready and willing to pay this price, fear that you may be unable to get on for want of special talent. It is indeed true that the persons who have peculiar talent for art, draw instinctively, and get on almost without teaching; though never without toil. It is true, also, that of inferior talent for drawing there are many degrees: it will take one person a much longer time than another to attain the same results, and the results thus painfully attained are never quite so satisfactory as those got with greater ease when the faculties are naturally adapted to the study. But I have never yet, in the experiments I have made, met with a person who could not learn to draw at all; and, in general, there is a satisfactory and available power in every one to learn drawing if he wishes, just as nearly all persons have the power of learning French, Latin, or arithmetic, in a decent and useful degree, if their lot in life requires them to possess such knowledge. 

  1. Supposing then that you are ready to take a certain amount of pains, and to bear a little irksomeness and a few disappointments bravely. I can promise you that an hour‘s practice a day for six months, or an hour‘s practice every other day for twelve months, or, disposed in whatever way you find convenient, some hundred and fifty hours‘ practice, will give you sufficient power of drawing faithfully whatever you want to draw, and a good judgment, up to a certain point, of other people‘s work: of which hours if you have one to spare at present, we may as well begin at once. 


  1. Everything that you can see in the world around you, presents itself to your eyes only as an arrangement of patches of different colours variously shaded.* Some of these patches of colour have an appearance of lines or texture within them, as a piece of cloth or silk has of threads, or an animal‘s skin shows texture of hairs: but whether this be the case or not, the first broad aspect of the thing is that of a patch of some definite colour; and the first thing to be learned is, how to produce extents of smooth colour, without texture. 

  1. This can only be done properly with a brush; but a brush, being soft at the point, causes so much uncertainty in the touch of an unpractised hand, that it is hardly possible to learn to draw first with it, and it is better to take, in early practice, some instrument with a hard and fine point, both that we may give some support to the hand, and that by working over the subject with so delicate a point, the attention may be properly directed to all the most minute parts of it. Even the best artists need occasionally to study subjects with a pointed instrument, in order thus to discipline their attention: and a beginner must be content to do so for a considerable period. 

  1. Also, observe that before we trouble ourselves about differences of colour, we must be able to lay on one colour properly, in whatever gradations of depth and whatever shapes we want. We will try, therefore, first to lay on tints or patches of grey, of whatever depth we want, with a pointed instrument. Take any finely pointed steel pen (one of Gillott‘s lithographic crowquills is best), and a piece of quite smooth, but not shining, note-paper, cream laid, and get some ink that has stood already some time in the inkstand, so as to be quite black, and as thick as it can be without clogging the pen. Take a rule, and draw four straight lines, so as to enclose a square, or nearly a square, about as large as a, Fig. 1. (see below) I say nearly a square, because it does not in the least matter whether it is quite square or not, the object being merely to get a space enclosed by straight lines. 
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  1. Now, try to fill in that square space with crossed lines, so completely and evenly that it shall look like a square patch of grey silk or cloth, cut out and laid on the white paper, as at b. Cover it quickly, first with straightish lines, in any direction you like, not troubling yourself to draw them much closer or neater than those in the square a. Let them quite dry before retouching them. (If you draw three or four squares side by side, you may always be going on with one while the others are drying.) Then cover these lines with others in a different direction, and let those dry; then in another direction still, and let those dry. Always wait long enough to run no risk of blotting, and then draw the lines as quickly as you can. Each ought to be laid on as swiftly as the dash of the pen of a good writer; but if you try to reach this great speed at first, you will go over the edge of the square, which is a fault in this exercise. Yet it is better to do so now and then than to draw the lines very slowly; for if you do, the pen leaves a little dot of ink at the end of each line, and these dots spoil your work. So draw each line quickly, stopping always as nearly as you can at the edge of the square. The ends of lines which go over the edge are afterwards to be removed with the penknife, but not till you have done the whole work, otherwise you roughen the paper, and the next line that goes over the edge makes a blot. 

  1. When you have gone over the whole three or four times, you will find some parts of the square look darker than other parts. Now try to make the lighter parts as dark as the rest, so that the whole may be of equal depth or darkness. You will find, on examining the work, that where it looks darkest the lines are closest, or there are some much darker lines than elsewhere; therefore you must put in other lines, or little scratches and dots, between the lines in the paler parts; and where there are any very conspicuous dark lines, scratch them out lightly with the pen-knife, for the eye must not be attracted by any line in particular. The more carefully and delicately you fill in the little gaps and holes, the better; you will get on faster by doing two or three squares perfectly than a great many badly. As the tint gets closer and begins to look even, work with very little ink in your pen, so as hardly to make any mark on the paper; and at least, where it is too dark, use the edge of your penknife very lightly, and for some time, to wear it softly into an even tone. You will find that the greatest difficulty consists in getting evenness: one bit will always look darker than another bit of your square; or there will be a granulated and sandy look over the whole. When you find your paper quite rough and in a mess, give it up and begin another square, but do not rest satisfied till you have done your best with every square. The tint at last ought at least to be as close and even as that in b, Fig. 1. (see above) You will find, however, that it is very difficult to get a pale tint; because, naturally, the ink lines necessary to produce a close tint at all, blacken the paper more than you want. You must get over this difficulty not so much by leaving the lines wide apart as by trying to draw them excessively fine, lightly and swiftly; being very cautious in filling in; and, at last, passing the penknife over the whole. By keeping several squares in progress at one time, and reserving your pen for the light one just when the ink is nearly exhausted, you may get on better. The paper ought, at last, to look lightly and evenly toned all over, with no lines distinctly visible.

* (N.B.—This note is only for the satisfaction of incredulous or curious readers. You may miss it if you are in a hurry, or are willing to take the statement in the text on trust.) 

The perception of solid Form is entirely a matter of experience. We see nothing but flat colours; and it is only by a series of experiments that we find out that a stain of black or grey indicates the dark side of a solid substance, or that a faint hue indicates that the object in which it appears is far away. The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify,as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight. 

For instance: when grass is lighted strongly by the sun in certain directions, it is turned from green into a peculiar and somewhat dusty-looking yellow. If we had been born blind, and were suddenly endowed with sight on a piece of grass thus lighted in some parts by the sun, it would appear to us that part of the grass was green, and part a dusty yellow (very nearly of the colour of primroses); and, if there were primroses near, we should think that the sunlighted grass was another mass of plants of the same sulphur-yellow colour. We should try to gather some of them, and then find that the colour went away from the grass when we stood between it and the sun, but not from the primroses; and by a series of experiments we should find out that the sun was really the cause of the colour in the one,not in the other. We go through such processes of experiment unconsciously in childhood; and having once come to conclusions touching the signification of certain colours, we always suppose that we see what we only know, and have hardly any consciousness of the real aspect of the signs we have learned to interpret. Very few people have any idea that sunlighted grass is yellow. 

Now, a highly accomplished artist has always reduced himself as nearly as possible to this condition of infantine sight. He sees the colours of nature exactly as they are, and therefore perceives at once in the sunlighted grass the precise relation between the two colours that form its shade and light. To him it does not seem shade and light, but bluish green barred with gold. 

Strive, therefore, first of all, to convince yourself of this great fact about sight. This, in your hand, which you know by experience and touch to be a book, is to your eye nothing but a patch of white, variously gradated and spotted; this other thing near you, which by experience you know to be a table, is to your eye only a patch of brown, variously darkened and veined; and so on: and the whole art of Painting consists merely in perceiving the shape and depth of these patches of colour, and putting patches of the same size, depth, and shape on canvas. The only obstacle to the success of painting is, that many of the real colours are brighter and paler than it is possible to put on canvas: we must put darker ones to represent them. 


  1. As this exercise in shading is very tiresome, it will be well to vary it by proceeding with another at the same time. The power of shading rightly depends mainly on lightness of hand and keenness of sight; but there are other qualities required in drawing, dependent not merely on lightness, but steadiness of hand; and the eye, to be perfect in its power, must be made accurate as well as keen, and not only see shrewdly, but measure justly. 

  1. Possess yourself therefore of any cheap work on botany containing outline plates of leaves and flowers, it does not matter whether bad or good: Baxter‘s British Flowering Plants is quite good enough. Copy any of the simplest outlines, first with a soft pencil, following it, by the eye, as nearly as you can; if it does not look right in proportions, rub out and correct it, always by the eye, till you think it is right: when you have got it to your mind, lay tracing-paper on the book; on this paper trace the outline you have been copying, and apply it to your own; and having thus ascertained the faults, correct them all patiently, till you have got it as nearly accurate as may be. Work with a very soft pencil, and do not rub out so hard* as to spoil the surface of your paper; never mind how dirty the paper gets, but do not roughen it; and let the false outlines alone where they do not really interfere with the true one. It is a good thing to accustom yourself to hew and shape your drawing out of a dirty piece of paper. When you have got it as right as you can, take a quill pen, not very fine at the point; rest your hand on a book about an inch and a half thick, so as to hold the pen long; and go over your pencil outline with ink, raising your pen point as seldom as possible, and never leaning more heavily on one part of the line than on another. In most outline drawings of the present day, parts of the curves are thickened to give an effect of shade; all such outlines are bad, but they will serve well enough for your exercises, provided you do not imitate this character: it is better, however, if you can, to choose a book of pure outlines. It does not in the least matter whether your pen outline be thin or thick; but it matters greatly that it should be equal, not heavier in one place than in another. The power to be obtained is that of drawing an even line slowly and in any direction; all dashing lines, or approximations to penmanship, are bad. The pen should, as it were, walk slowly over the ground, and you should be able at any moment to stop it, or to turn it in any other direction, like a well-managed horse.       
  2. As soon as you can copy every curve slowly and accurately, you have made satisfactory progress; but you will find the difficulty is in the slowness. 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 masterliness is in never letting the hand be free, but keeping it under entire control at every part of the line.

* Stale crumb of bread is better, if you are making a delicate drawing, than India-rubber, for it disturbs the surface of the paper less: but it crumbles about the room and makes a mess; and, besides, you waste the good bread, which is wrong; and your drawing will not for a long while be worth the crumbs. So use India-rubber very lightly; or, if heavily, pressing it only, not passing it over the paper, and leave what pencil marks will not come away so, without minding them. In a finished drawing the uneffaced pencilling is often serviceable, helping the general tone, and enabling you to take out little bright lights. 

**What is usually so much sought after under the term freedom is the character of the drawing of a great master in a hurry, whose hand is so thoroughly disciplined, that when pressed for time he can let it fly as it will, and it will not go far wrong. But the hand of a great master at real work is never free: its swiftest dash is under perfect government. Paul Veronese or Tintoret could pause within a hair‘s-breadth of any appointed mark, in their fastest touches; and follow, within a hair‘s-breadth, the previously intended curve. You must never, therefore, aim at freedom. It is not required of your drawing that it should be free, but that it should be right; in time you will be able to do right easily, and then your work will be free in the best sense; but there is no merit in doing wrong easily.

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 them; the object in perfect shading being to conceal the lines as much as possible.

And observe, in this exercise, the object is more to get firmness of hand than accuracy of eye for outline; for there are no outlines in Nature, and the ordinary student is sure to draw them falsely if he draws them at all. Do not, therefore, be discouraged if you find mistakes continue to occur in your outlines; be content at present if you find your hand gaining command over the curves.