Teaching and painting

John Lessore and John Wonnacott wrote the following essays for the catalogue accompanying their joint exhibition, The Life Room and the City, at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The Life Room, 1977-1980, by John Wonnacott with a ‘pensive’ John Lessore in
the foreground

First, John Lessore discusses his attachment to drawing and his approaches to teaching it

As a student, I wanted to be taught, and the lack of serious teaching, even in the mid-fifties, was frustrating. Less is taught now. When talking about drawing, one has to distinguish between the skill of rendering and the art of making a living image, between the optic and the visual: these are fundamental definitions.

Although it is now recognized that the net is wider, one used to look to the Florentines as the great draughtsmen of our western tradition, at their best, both artisans and artists. The overlap fascinates. Artisans know what they are doing and can achieve a good product. Artists are blind: every time they work, they aim to surpass themselves; they take risks and can fail as well as succeed, and are surprised by unforeseen results. As opposed to a skill, an art brings little satisfaction because it is prone to self-doubt, even after realisation. While our forbears made sure they were both artisan and artist, most of us today only wish to be artists; I think this is a mistake and one of the reasons we are so much less than they.

Drawing is necessary to, and part of, all visual art; it’s not just something on paper, but, for the purposes of teaching, this is the most common medium. One tries to create a luminosity that gives back the purity of the original sheet before we assaulted it. Drawing without light is not drawing. Lights must be part of a drawing, as well as darks, and one must create light as well as space. Drawing is, of course, the basis of figuration and, as in literature, a descent into description or reporting will kill it. One navigates between statement and suggestion to create movement and life. At the Slade, few people spoke to me about much of this; all was post-Euston Road, measurement dominated. I found the resulting rigidity lifeless. Monnington alone talked about movement.

The basis of rendering is the picture plane, a so-called imaginary, usually vertical, transparent pane, as of glass, at the same distance from the eye as is the paper, through which one maps the subject. This invisible plane and the paper must both be perpendicular to the eye to avoid too much distortion. One draws on the paper as if one were tracing an image on the plane. This results in “sight size” images; so a figure only a few feet away should fit comfortably on an A4 sheet of paper. For many, it is natural to draw this size, and almost everybody did until larger drawings began to appear in the second half of the 19th century. It was used by the great Italian, Dutch and French painters and is natural to most of us. One might bear in mind that the great draughtsmen of the past always tried to make life easier for themselves and used any short cut available. It seems foolish not to do the same.  But those dyslexics whose disability lies in a difficulty of remembering small shapes could be well advised to draw larger to side-step this problem.  Drawing smaller than sight-size is incredibly difficult; when it appears to have been done it may indicate short-sightedness and be sight-size after all.

I do not measure. It is a skill, the difficulties of which increase with distance, that requires learning and discipline. By nature most of us are bad at it. The alternative is directional reference; we are better at this, using the same part of the brain and nervous system that we use to pick up, and drink from, an over full cup or glass without spilling a drop.  Using a straight edge, real or imaginary, one can line up any two unrelated points on the subject, transfer this relationship to the drawing, repeat this to triangulate, and so on. One should not have difficulty keeping angles. It is not useful for very short intervals because these are easy to judge by eye. I teach this practice: but not measurement. A good sense of proportion helps but is not vital.

The above paragraph relates mainly to accuracy, the basis of rendering; it is not essential to art but its absence tends to be a nuisance. It should become a habit and not require much thought. It is like the notes on a page of music: playing the correct notes will not turn them back into music, but not doing so will make life even harder. I don’t think it matters if one’s drawing is “wrong” but I believe one needs to be aware of the fact. Great drawing usually breaks all sorts of established rules; alas, breaking rules does not create great drawing.  Much beauty in art is due to human error; I imagine this is because it is not cerebral but the product of instinct, the greater part of all creativity. Vision and expression are instinctive; we all see differently and should all draw differently. It is skill that stylises and vision that differentiates. And art, as Proust wrote, is not a matter of intelligence.

One cannot really learn to draw; this miracle gift is, or isn’t, in us.  One can learn to render; the rudiments are quickly acquired and the skill can support the art. But the alchemical magic of drawing is locked in individuals. Teaching can add much to one’s working practice, especially the use of ancillary facts, but I think the nearest it gets to a higher state is that one can teach people to see what they have and haven’t done and so appreciate their personal vision. And this is no small thing. We have great difficulties here but sometimes, say when looking at a work upside down, in a mirror or after a long interval, one sees with a bit of objectivity. But one never really knows; we are incapable of seeing our own poetry. I find it more difficult to teach people if I do not know their work.

Painting was always my home. I have had at least two immense privileges: I grew up in a family of good artists and I came to know a great many more. I didn’t really know what it was like not to live in art and, when as a child, I began to glimpse the way non-art people lived, I didn’t like it.  I became a student because I thought I would be taught to draw but this was not attempted; it took me time to understand that drawing isn’t really learnt but its languages might in ways be understood. My ambition was to learn to paint from drawings so as to have a wider range of subject matter than I should from painting direct. It was this practice that made me aware of what I’d left out that I needed to know or put in that I didn’t, and that this was as near as I could get to learning to draw. I was very lucky in that, on leaving the Slade, I won a travelling scholarship and went to Italy. Seeing Italian paintings in situ astounded me. That one could see the hills in the background of a medieval fresco in a church and then step outside and see those same hills centuries later was like stepping from dream to dream. The frescoes did not seem ancient but held a timeless reality of now. Hitherto, I had only ever seen great Italian paintings divorced from their proper surroundings and I saw how much more beautiful and real they were, just as French paintings are in France. I believe it is immoral to transport paintings overseas and one should have only the most compelling reasons for doing so.

After Italy, came France, marriage and long years of domesticity during which I tried to realise my hopes of being a painter. I wanted to paint compositions with sufficient identity to be convincing, i.e. to have “probability”, and to be able to paint what I cannot see before me.  I felt and feel subject matter is a repertory to choose from rather than report as a duty and I took myself into a practice of painting from drawings, memory and imagination, as I had always wanted. I have tried to feed this into my teaching. I have taught since 1965 but for a five-year gap in the 90s.

As a student, the only lectures I attended were Gombrich’s History of Art. I never went to Anatomy, understood my need of it later and taught myself from a Victorian book. The central presence in my subject matter being that of the spectacle of humanity, I find this study appropriate since all mammals share a basic musculature and skeleton, although most non-humans have tails and no fixed collarbones. A study of our surface form and kinetic abilities must be of use to some artists, as it was to me, and should therefore be offered in teaching.  I used the Anatomist Philip Evans to introduce anatomy at Norwich, where I shared the teaching with John Wonnacott; it was appropriate to leave perspective to John. Again, this should be offered but is not relevant to every artist. John is more concerned with objective perception, less interested in anatomy. As I tend to reconstruct from memory or make things up, I value this knowledge as an adjunct.*

Love of the human form must be the cause of that peculiar concept, “The Life Room”, a lovely title. In 1977, Ed Middleditch, decided he wanted to start one at Norwich School of Art, where he was Head of Fine Art, and asked John, himself a superb draughtsman, to do this.  He, in turn, brought me in; and so we ran this strange enclave of students desperate to draw and paint from life.  I certainly could never have imagined it would be so successful as to acquire national importance but it was to become a hub of serious endeavour before being disbanded by a change of regime. All things have their time and this episode worked well.

My passion is the spectacle of humanity; the world passing before my eyes is an endless delight; and, from time to time, I try to snatch a fragment. Art, having lost unity of tradition, has gone off in all directions; and this leaves us free to pick and choose anything we want to pursue and any way to pursue it. We live in the dubious paradise of the individual. However, in spite of this anarchy, certain values are constant and universal, for example characteristics of eyesight, and for me, the chief value outside ourselves is the consensus of acknowledged genius in the great European tradition. It is the beauty one sees in one’s surroundings and the love of great art that fire one to paint; it is dissatisfaction with much contemporary art and, initially, the need to earn one’s keep, that push one to teach. These two aspirations are those to which I have devoted my working life.


* Starting in autumn 1979, at fortnightly intervals over the term, there were five Anatomy lectures called Human Surface Form: The Trunk, The Head and Neck, the Upper Limb, the Lower Limb and the Ageing Process. Together, Philip Evans and I wrote accompanying texts for the students to take home as there was too much information to be remembered. I would take notes during every lecture and, over the years, update the texts so that, in the end, although the brains came from Philip, I had done much of the script. A gifted Norwich student of ours, Michael Croker, agreed to provide diagrammatic illustrations.  These notes are appended to this catalogue.





John Wonnacott recalls being a student and teacher of drawing


JW: I used to teach drawing, at Reading University and at Norwich School of Art. Always, when I started a class, I would stand up in front of them and I would say, ‘All of you know me as a figurative painter. If you’re anything like I was, you’ve probably come into art school with a head full of ideas, full of visions, and you are going to ask me to give you the techniques to realise these. You’re thinking in terms of techniques like modelling, like making a thing recede. I’m going to tell you I don’t know any of these techniques. I don’t know them, and I don’t believe in them. It’s not your brain looking at the world and you learning to model it; it’s your brain reading your retina which is already flat. Try to realise the flatness. It’s the brain that’s doing the job.’ How does that sound to you, as a philosopher?

ACG: It sounds almost exactly like the lecture I give when talking to students about perceptual knowledge. In perceiving we make assumptions, and our cognitive capacities make specific and detailed contributions in each act of sensory awareness; so that our brains are quite literally shaping and colouring what we experience and yet the detail of the perceived content is objective. What strikes me about your work is the power of observation and the detail in that observation: that is why it feels so true to the obdurate reality of things, because it represents the world in ways that we would not make up.

(Extract from a conversation with Professor A.C. Grayling in December 2010, published in John Wonnacott, A Tale of Two Houses, Agnew’s Gallery, 2011)


My own apprenticeship in drawing began in a large high-ceilinged basement Life Room at the Slade, where in our first year we joined students from throughout the school to work from the model in poses lasting no more than one day. A vivid memory of this room is of the unscheduled appearances of Professor Sir William Coldstream hovering above us on the balcony leading from his ground floor office. I don’t think Bill ever talked to us first years individually but we lived in awe of the perceptive dry wit and caustic analysis delivered through maestro performances in his open school crits that were great occasions in the Slade calendar. My A3 charcoal drawings from this period show his pervasive influence. The earlier A3 pencil drawings, the Standing Male Nude and the study from Rubens are more influenced by a fine Wyndham Lewis drawing that my contemporaries will remember passing in the Slade entrance on their way to work.

In our second year, the rigour of Patrick George’s two day-a-week course the previous year gave way to the intellectual aestheticism of the painter/writer Andrew Forge. In his Life Room a model held the pose for two weeks, which then seemed ages, and it was just great to draw at last with paint and colour. The White Nude, completed under this tutelage shows, I think, my then hero worship of Oscar Kokoschka, who later visited the Slade. In my final year Andrew announced at a school crit, before awarding me the Steer Medal, that “Wonnacott must learn not to knock in every nail but to leave space for the imagination of the viewer.” I disagreed then and I am ever more certain now that I believe in knocking in not just the large nails but through to every smallest brush stroke. It is in these last moments of drawing that shapes become invested with the resonance of memory.

In our third year, those of us who were still determined to work from the model could choose to paint in one of a series of small life rooms under the supervision of the finest life painters in the country. I queued from crack of dawn to secure my place in Frank Auerbach’s room where he would turn up twice a week armed with catalogues of Soutine, Rembrandt, Matisse, or whoever he was currently absorbed in. Frank made the act of painting the most important of human endeavours and expanded the possibilities of both looking and inventing. The Reclining Nude was one of three paintings I built in this room.

In the corridor outside our life room final year students worked on large paintings built in emulation of the Klines, Motherwells, De Koonings and other 50s American painters who were filling the new art magazines at that time. These acted as a source of visual refreshment as we emerged for breaks from concentrated study of the model.

Somewhere around the end of my fourth year, Helen Lessore, whose Beaux Art Gallery had become my second art school, put on a show of Mike Andrews paintings that included The Family in the Garden. This kick-started my own painting, The Family (1963-74), that occupied me through the 60s, gaining me a gallery contract some twenty years later and freedom from teaching. Just as I had been bowled over by Helen’s show of Frank Auerbach during the time he was teaching us, I knew that I must now learn from Mike how to slow down and rethink the whole painting process. The looking and the inventing were no less instinctive but now a part of me was forever on my shoulder, watching and analysing the relationship between the two processes, occasionally advised by a reticent and nervous Mike Andrews, offering, for example, his thoughts on the purpose of a particular brush stroke. Besides starting the seventeen-foot Family painting in my postgraduate year I finished four paintings in Mike’s life room.

Any of today’s students who like myself went to art school to learn to draw like Van Gogh or Cézanne (and there are plenty of them), will have read this account of my five years of drawing at the Slade, with this ‘one to one’ tuition from great modern painters, with a sense of frustration and jealousy. The privilege doesn’t end there.

Before the destructive effects of the Summerson Committee and the eventual takeover by Newcastle’s (later Goldsmith’s) media studies model of Art Education, there were hundreds of small art schools, all based loosely around drawing, to feed the National Colleges. Any young painter requiring only a single person’s living income could find enough part-time teaching to survive. In 1965 I was asked by Claude Rogers, a founder of the Euston Road School, to set up a life room for him at Reading University, where he was taking over the professorship. Claude also agreed to ask Ray Atkins, a painter for whom I had developed the greatest admiration whilst we were together at the Slade. From the start Ray and I determined to work alongside the students. I drew for my two days at the beginning of the week while Ray often worked on substantial paintings at his end, with one of his models posing for at least half a term. It was rewarding to be instructing students in measurement and objective analysis in a room dominated by Ray’s energy-packed images. I seem to have mislaid all my large life room drawings from this period but they laid the foundations for my painting of the Norwich Life room and also for my 1974 paintings and drawings of Anne.

A few years after Claude retired, Ed Middleditch asked me to build a similar life room at Norwich and we persuaded John Lessore to join us. While I feel that Claude Rogers was troubled by our life room wars – the departmental tensions that built up around our commitment to drawing – there was a mischief in Middleditch that relished the irritation we caused his other friends on the staff. If most of the student ‘pearls’ brought on by our irritant have struggled to build reputations in this drawing-averse art world then I hope that they will at least look back, as we do, on working in a great atmosphere of mutual criticism – of each other’s works and thoughts across the generations. It seems to me that this is something of how our great university departments used, and ought, to function.

The Life Room at Norwich lasted as long as it did because it was so well lit and beautiful a space, because we were fortunate in the intelligence and friendly cooperation of our models, and because we had the support of that great draughtsman Middleditch and of the historians Lynda Morris and Tim Wilcox. I think it also helped that John Lessore and I approached drawing from such different positions at our respective ends of the week. While we were both committed to drawing the figure from direct observation, John’s teaching concentrated more on the figure and mine on the observation.

John’s own drawing has always exhibited a natural grasp of the richness of flow and rhythm in the human figure that most students found both infectious and directly helpful. The brilliant Friday anatomy lessons that he organized at Norwich with Philip Evans were standing room only. Instruction in any area of visual knowledge as central as anatomy to the history of Western painting will be actively sought out by any seriously ambitious young painter. Like John’s students, I too in my youth attended Slade anatomy classes with enthusiasm. I was also taught, in formal perspective classes, the mathematics needed to construct graphic representations of complex objects – I particularly remember a circular staircase from a set distance, height and directional viewpoint. However, as I have subsequently found this of as little direct help to me in unravelling actual appearances as anatomy has been in my response to the figure or botany and geology to landscape painting, I did not, a little to my regret, ever help organize formal classes in linear perspective for my own students. Nevertheless, I have over the years learned to recognize how our programming with perspective geometry directs and informs all our looking. In the Life Room I would encourage students to decide, before a mark is made, on the direction of their central focus, the extent of the visual field that interested them and the angle to the vertical of the virtual picture plane on which they were measuring. This last is particularly important, though rarely explained, in the Life Room where the model is frequently lying on the floor at a few metres from the artists’ feet.

An attempt at objective measurement is for my own work all important as a way of cleaning appearances of banal association. I am again grateful to the Slade for their first-year drawing course, teaching us to think flat by drawing the shapes between objects and by measuring direction and proportion with a ruler held at arm’s length on a virtual picture plane – techniques I still offered in my own teaching. In retrospect, the only significant difference between my teaching at Norwich and the teaching I had received at the Slade is conceptual.

Slade exercises were understood as a means of visually translating a 3D world into 2D image; an idea that becomes redundant when it is fully accepted that appearances on the retina are already flat, no translation is needed. This change of perceptual model makes little difference to youthful exploring of graphic invention in the life room but seems to me fundamental for the further development of any painter who wants their formal decisions to be made in direct response to their excitement, and to the optical mechanics, involved in looking.

Even for a painter like me, concerned only with appearances not the objects that reflect them, drawing people (hence the life room tradition) is of special importance. Neuroscientists tell us that the appearance of people and particularly their faces requires separate, neuron-rich, areas of the brain to receive and decode them as we read complex emotional and psychological meaning into every nuanced change of shape and pattern. These shapes can only be assessed objectively by the most concentrated determination to override such insidious prompting  pressures.

John Lessore and Ed Middleditch approached the activity of drawing more from sensibility than from analysis and Ray Atkins, at Reading, almost danced his way to the easel, the process was so physical. There are many others of our generation and much younger who could energize, and enjoy energizing, a life room from within their own understanding. But few of them would I think want to contribute a module of drawing offering skills of depiction for possible use in some as part of an unrelated course. There would seem little point. For the discipline of drawing to be approached at all, let alone to any degree mastered, it must be practiced all day and every day. Personal breakthroughs in invention and understanding are few and far between and must be nurtured and protected against the dissipation of art school noise.

After John and I left Norwich in 1985 the activity and purpose of the Life Room there seemed to change. Any shared understanding of drawing as an intellectual and aesthetic discipline underpinning the exploration of 20th century painting had become irrelevant to most art school staff and students. I no longer teach because I am too jealous of my time, but I firmly believe that within the sometimes stimulating cacophony of the contemporary art school, there should always be found one well-lit monastic space where those wanting to draw can face the hopeless limitations of their talent without distraction.