Monday, September 7, 2020

Should Young Artists Study Nature or Past Masters?

Should students study composition? Should they make copies of old masters' paintings? 

According to the influential art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) they should study only from real life. He believed that all learning happens from the student's own direct encounters with nature, and that it was the job of art students to draw from life as truthfully as possible, not to copy the work of other artists or to study composition as a way of improving on what they see.

William Trost Richards, Conanicut

Ruskin wrote that "from young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature . They have no business to ape the execution of masters . . . Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God." 

There's a lot of truth to what Ruskin says, and if I were to choose between studying art or real life, I would opt for real life. But previous masters provide a path into the wilderness, a frame of reference, an example of what is possible. 

I disagree with Ruskin that young artists should not study from previous masters at all. I would suggest that they take inspiration from many eras and styles, and avoid focusing on the style that's current at the time. Students can draw inspiration from examples of visual art that inspires them, be it paintings, sculptures, movies, animation, posters, or comics. I recommend alternating between studying from nature, from past masters, from theory and philosophy, and sketching from memory and imagination. 


Bob said...

It's often said that today's scientists "stand on the shoulders of giants." Why wouldn't the art world work the same way? Thus young artists can certainly build on the techniques of past masters while they develop their own way to interpret nature. And of course, they need to exercise imagination!

Sandra Strait said...

The goal matters. A painting of mushrooms done in the style of the old masters brings joy to the soul. If someone uses the painting to identify said mushrooms, faithful reproduction is far more important than artistic beauty. I agree with you, though, that studying the masters would always be helpful because many techniques are helpful no matter the goal.

Mario said...

One could easily say the opposite: "from young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but fantastic and fanciful art. They have no business to ape nature. Nature is already perfect and stands just in front of your eyes: why bother to make a pale imitation of it (her)? Make something completely new and be a part of the Universe's creativity." Is there some logical or positive reason to prefer either? I don't think so. Which explains why critics are among the most useless people in the world.

Don Ketchek said...

Always be wary of those making proclamations (like this one!). Why either or? Why restrict yourself to just nature or just studying past masters? Usually people make these types of proclamations in the hope of sounding smart - not in the hope of actually helping someone. What seems like the obvious advice is - do as much as you can, as many different ways as you can and see what works. I'm sure there are many artists who paint only from nature and do it the same way every time and learn little. I'm sure there are those that copy masters (or any other artist) and learn little. And vise versa for both scenarios. In all likelihood, one way may work better for some than others. And something - perhaps a lot - can be learned by combining the two.

Oliver Wildman said...
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Oliver Wildman said...

Hi James,

I was wondering if you are familiar with Ruskin's Drawing School that he set up at Oxford and has been digitally uploaded to the Ashmolean Museum website? I came across it after becoming interested in his writings and methods of teaching after reading "Elements of Drawing". He set it up to teach drawing and painting and used his own works and those of other artists that he thought would be useful. It's basically like a supersized "Elements" with plates to copy ranging from Turner to Durer to coats of arms to Tintoretto drawings. I think they were done a few years ago as I wish the resolution was a bit higher for detailed copying and seeing subtle changes of colour, but it gives you an idea on what he thought was beautiful and useful to copy from. After sufficient time with the plates the student could go and represent nature more truthfully (hopefully!).

Whilst there is some guidance on the Ashmolean website for students I had to do some more digging but found that the University of Lancaster has a 300+ page document of his notes on most of the plates and how they are to be used by the student or just useful information with regards to the particular plate. The plates are coded on the Ashmolean website and generally match up with what is in the document. It's not all complete as I think the school itself was a work in progress for Ruskin.

I hope yourself or others may find these links useful as Ruskin and your own books are forming a big part of my own education and changing the way I see the nature and art.

All the best, Oliver.