Thoughts on Drawing -- John Calvin

I love to draw, and believe that good drawing is the foundation of all successful artwork. I’m influenced by the philosophies of the 19th century “Academy Method” (atelier method), wherein the focus is on accurate observation and representation of what the artist can see. In brief, the progression of this method is:

1. Accurate drawings done from two-dimensional reference, such as from the plates of Charles Bargue’s famous “Cours de Dessin” (Drawing Course).

2. Accurate drawings and then paintings done from casts (three-dimensional models).

3. Accurate drawings and then paintings done from the live human model.

When I was in college one of my professors, Leon Parson, assigned us to copy every drawing from George B. Bridgman’s book “Bridgman's Life Drawing,“ and from John H. Vanderpoel’s book, “The Human Figure.” Why? He wanted to sharpen our skills of observation, and to develop our knowledge of human anatomy.

Accurate “copywork” instruction from two-dimensional reference produces artists who have acute powers of observation, who can manage both positive and negative space, who understand form and line, and who can produce a likeness from a two-dimensional reference. It also teaches students to draw through blocking in, to use simplified shapes, and to move from the large and simple to the complex and detailed. In reality, it’s a version of the Art Instruction of the nineteenth-century which relied on the teaching of drawing skills through the copying of plates produced by the French artist, Charles Bargue.

Even today, the plates of Charles Bargue are in use in ateliers (art studios or art schools) throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. The student is instructed to copy the plate accurately, without additions, modifications, or personal interpretation.

In addition, the drawing or copying of master drawings and paintings has been in practice since the days of the Renaissance. If good enough for those giants and artistic geniuses of that era and since, I’m hardly one to argue the point or usefulness of the activity.

Once a degree of proficiency is demonstrated in drawing from two-dimensional reference, the student moves on to drawing from “still-life” objects or “casts” (three-dimensional models). This is the same instructional progression promoted by Charles Bargue in the 1860’s. The highly acclaimed Florence Academy of Art is just one atelier of many, worldwide, that continues this traditional and time-proven method of instruction.

In the nineteenth-century, the casts were of classical figures from the Greek or Roman Eras, or Renaissance. For example, a student might draw from a cast of “The Belvedere Torso,” from a cast of one of the “Elgin Marbles,” or from a bust of “Homer.” In my opinion, the subject matters little. It’s the act of drawing from a three-dimensional object that is the useful teaching tool. Since the interpretation and drawing from a three-dimensional object is so much more difficult, success can only be achieved through patience and extremely careful observation; necessary, foundational skills for an artist.

From there, the artist moved on to work from a live model, male and female, unclothed and clothed. Once drawing from the live model was mastered, an artist would finally be ready to attempt creative, interpretive, or expressive artworks.

A problem in modern art education rests with the requirement that the student be creative, interpretive, or expressive BEFORE foundational skills are mastered. This ultimately leads to the frustration of the student who cannot realize his creative ideas because he lacks the foundational drawing skills.

As an art student, my teachers rarely drew or demonstrated in front of the class. I’m a little different. I spend almost all of my instructional time in “demonstration,” meaning I show my students how to draw from both two and three-dimensional reference by actually doing it in front of them. In this way I’m like Fullerton College art professor, Marshall Vandruff, who said, “I draw with students in's like 'jamming'...working on the craft in class, in the presence of students, for their benefit, but also for mine."

At this point in my career, I much prefer to draw from life or from imagination, however I do not discount the accurate drawing “copywork” done from two-dimensional models that I completed as part of my artistic training. I ask my students to do the same. Until one can successfully draw from a two-dimensional reference, there is no way he is ready or competent to draw from life.

Over the years I’ve acquired a collection of three-dimensional objects. I doubt any of them would be considered “classical,” but they have proven to be very interesting to students. It’s my belief that if a student is interested in, or likes the object they’re drawing, they’ll generally do better. To view a collection of drawings done from non-classical,  three-dimensional models, please see my Student Still-Life Drawings page.