Eric Coombes: Drawing, tradition and Peter Clossick

Despite the best efforts of the state-art establishment visual intelligence survives, argues Eric Coombes

In 1941, Augustus John contributed A Note on Drawing (from which I quoted a few words in the previous issue) to a book edited by Lillian Browse, containing reproductions of his own drawings. John records his sense of good fortune in having been a student at the Slade, and thereby spared an oppressive training in ‘the substitute for drawing’ prevailing in other places, notably the Royal College of Art or its immediate precursor at South Kensington.  This substitute was ‘Stumping’: ‘An innovation having no roots in tradition, it

pretended to provide the student with a means of representing form without risking the use of a line. … the student was instructed to copy the objects placed before him by means of a prolonged

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smudging and stippling process.’  This system ‘… blighted every trace of talent which suffered under its inexorable discipline. google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817";  Many a lad and src="//"> lass, their souls alight with that flame which in the young only art


and love can kindle, were fated, after a course of “Stumping” … to retire beaten at last …’  At the Slade, by contrast, ‘a very different system prevailed under Frederick Brown and his chief lieutenant Henry Tonks.  There “Stumping” was severely banned and the students had to do the best they could with the point of a stick of charcoal and a sheet of “Michelet”. They were even encouraged to study the Old Masters!’.  He continues with some remarks about Brown’s use of ‘rhythmical lines’ and ‘Tonks’ insistence on the Contour [which] was
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equally sound and in the great Tradition …’

Two themes in this brief note are closely connected. First, John was repelled by a system which eliminated the risk of using line, because it extinguished for the students the very source of joy, which had motivated them to study art. It did so by making mindless precisely what should engage the mind in the endeavour to find and articulate an intelligible visual ordering in what is drawn. This endeavour cannot bypass the decisions, the revisions of decisions and, indeed, the mistakes and attempted corrections, which are brought to judgement in the determinacy of line. To eliminate this essential feature of visual thought is to render drawing mindless and deny its very nature.

It was clearly important—to invoke the second theme—that this ‘substitute for drawing’ had ‘no roots in tradition’, whereas at the Slade drawing was understood and taught as the unifying central strand in ‘the great Tradition’, and students

were encouraged to study the Old Masters—a policy whose fruits are illustrated in this book by the astoundingly accomplished drawing after Watteau which won John a prize awarded by Tonks in 1897. The ‘great Tradition’ was defined by a canon, in which the practice of the masters provided models of drawing as a medium of thought.

It does not, for present purposes, matter greatly if John was exaggerating (as he probably was), or being to some extent unfair, in his eloquent denunciation of what went on in South Kensington. What does matter is that he intuitively understood drawing as essentially an exercise of thinking, which cannot be reduced to a mere technique, still less to a fail-safe technique. The gesture of drawing a line is an action integral to the draughtsman’s thinking, and the trace remaining is alive with the meaning with which that action imbues it: the risk of not immediately getting it quite right is just the risk that attends and is inseparable from thought itself. To eliminate that risk is to withdraw the mind from its internal relationship to drawing—that //--> is, the relationship in which drawing is thinking, not merely the product of thinking—leaving nothing but an inert routine: a ‘substitute for drawing’.

It is misconceived, therefore, to take the ‘skill’ of drawing to be merely a technique, merely the means to the end of producing a certain kind of artefact, which might, in principle, be produced, equally well, or more conveniently, by some other technique. Something like this misconception google_ad_height = 90; must underlie claims that photography, for example, can be considered a


form of drawing, and ‘Stumping’ as described

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by John could almost be described (with qualifications unimportant in the present context) as a pointlessly laborious procedure for manufacturing substitutes for photographs.

In a previous issue Dr Selby Whittingham cited Finberg as complaining in 1910 that ‘the only kind of training that is provided for English art

students is training in this capacity of reproducing objects of sight accurately.’. Finberg may well have had good reasons for complaint, but his actual words here, if taken perfectly literally, make no sense. Drawings, of their very nature, cannot possibly ‘reproduce’ ‘objects of sight’ (accurately or inaccurately) except, perhaps, in the limiting case where the sole ‘object of sight’ is itself a drawing. Now as in the past, however, visual representation is often naïvely described in this way. Even so sophisticated and powerful a thinker as Ruskin is guilty of this confusion, most obviously (if inconsistently) in The Elements of Drawing – although what is there posited as the object to be copied is an appearance, incoherently understood as
an array of coloured shapes, already a kind of picture of the scene to be represented. But an appearance is /* xin2 */ of a different ontological order from a picture and is logically uncopyable by any physical entity. One might as well say that a debt can be copied by a coin. This common misconception, which is derived from a notoriously fallacious strand of empiricist philosophy, is extraordinarily tenacious, and by no means dead.

In the practice of art, and even in the practice of criticism, this confusion need not be disastrous: a better understanding advances and articulates itself in the practices themselves, even where less defective conceptions do not emerge into the light of theoretical reflection, or emerge only inchoately in criticism. But it matters much more when, as often happens today, the misconception deforms both teaching and practice. Fifty or so years ago, most art teachers at every level intuitively understood drawing as much more than a technique for making something that might as well be done with a camera, although they probably saw no need, and perhaps lacked the capacity, to explain this at the level of theory. They were src="//"> content in the knowledge that anyone to whom this was not intuitively self-evident had not yet fully appreciated the gifts of the tradition that defines what the visual arts are. But nowadays the very word ‘tradition’ may meet with incomprehension, bewilderment or automatic, unfocused hostility; and its invocation may aggravate rather than deflect the vindictive resentment of uncultured

​ ignorance. But, to touch again on John’s second

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theme, it is through the tradition of image making that perceptual capacities are cultivated which sustain drawing as a medium
of thought. In this respect, drawing is analogous to language.

A photograph, of course, ‘reproduces’ the ‘objects of sight’ no more than a drawing does. But in the confused view we are considering, it might be thought of as a device

whereby visual appearances are mechanically copied. The tenacity of the ‘copying’ error derives, presumably, from the experience of naturalistic painting where the vividness or immediacy of the depicted scene may engender the sense of looking at something ‘just like’ the scene itself. Less naturalistic modes of representation may then be conceived of as deviations from a naturalistic norm, although there is, in fact, no norm of naturalism. It is in a way surprising that this misconception remains so common, even among those supposedly educated in the visual arts, and even since the publication google_ad_width = 970; of Ernst Gombrich’s justly celebrated book, Art and Illusion. This book made a huge impression,

painting’. The technique of ‘thick’ painting seems to facilitate that, since it allows for redrawing or additional drawing, even at a late stage, by working freely into the un-dried or semi-dried paint. This engenders a quality of directness equivalent to the directness achieved with ‘drawing materials’. It also accommodates the registration of varying levels of determinacy in the depiction of different elements in the depicted scene, corresponding to the different levels or kinds of attention occurring in our actual experience. In some passages, a close inspection reveals something surprisingly close to line drawing, as in the heads, for example, in Raft and in Santon – drawing which is delicate, and even detailed to perhaps an unexpected degree. Being worked into the surface of the paint, rather than merely
superimposed on it, this drawing integrates

itself seamlessly into the broad structure of the painting, just as different levels of determinacy come together seamlessly in our perceptions of the world.


For relative ease of exposition, I’ve written almost entirely about drawing and painting, and I apologize if this has not achieved ease of comprehension. But I think it worth adding a brief postscript about sculpture. For of course, the discipline of drawing is as vital to sculpture as to painting, especially if we make a small and natural extension of the denotation of



It is no longer necessary to


enter art galleries to observe directly the consequences