In praise of drawing


Dear Artist,

Did you know that between 1820 and 1860 there were more than 145,000 “How to Draw” books published in the USA? In those pre-camera days, gentlemen and ladies kept memories alive by drawing them. A book by J. Liberty Tadd instructed young women to sketch pigs while standing in a pigsty — “in order to more accurately reflect nature.” Many of these books are now on the trash heaps of history, but they nevertheless remind us of other times and other values. This is being made clear in a current exhibition in New York’s Grolier Club. “Teaching America to Draw” is worth taking a look at if you happen to be in the area.


“A Thatched Cottage by a Large Tree”
ink drawing by
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Show reviewer Michael Kimmelman says, “Drawing used to be a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.” He notes that these days we have acquiesced to playing a passive role as receivers. We consume drawings rather than make them. There are easier ways to collect images than to draw them.

It seems to me that these days, while a lot of the fine art drawing has turned to forms of tracing, and high quality drawing is somewhat rare, there is still lots of it around. Particularly with the advent of the Internet, there’s an outbreak of drawing-for-its-own-sake. With over 9 million visual artists in North America, and over 70,000 new blogs coming on stream daily, drawing is alive and well and living online. And it’s not just Plain-Jane drawings of your standard barnyard sow.


“A Woman and Child Descending Staircase”
drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn

With the advent of modernism, the ways of drawing have broadened. Contour drawing, broadside drawing, inverted drawing, multi-facet (cubist) drawing, and process drawing are high on the menu. Add fantasy, caricature, cartoon and anime, and the world of drawing is large indeed. Art workshops encourage drawings of 30 seconds, one minute, and ten minutes. Art stores fuel the passion with an ever expanding kit of tools. (Today I bought a ‘Pigma Graphic “2” Archival pen’ — perfect ‘speed’ over both smooth and toothed, nice chisel for thick and thin. I’m not your local representative for this pen — there’s a brilliant marker for every individual style and temperament.)

Folks who never thought they could draw are now drawers. For many, drawing represents low commitment and high joy. For others, drawing’s the key to everything good. Fact is, drawing is still important, still relevant, and still irresistible.


“Lion Resting” 1650-52
drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn

Best regards,


PS: “Do not fail to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worth while, and it will do you a world of good.” (Cennino Cennini, 1370-1440)

Esoterica: For those of us who would be fine artists, drawing is still the bottom line. Next to composition, it’s the most neglected skill. A drawing a day keeps the cobwebs away. One in the morning before coffee is a credible tonic for a day filled with above average work. Canvas or paper, it matters not. “Good drawing forms the bones on which a strong painting hangs.” (Chris Bingle)

This letter was published as “In praise of drawing” on August 1, 2006.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing you will, in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. (Rembrandt)

Rembrandt’s Drawings



  1. Robert may have been more correct than even he knew just a few years ago. Some drawing substitutes have gotten out of hand and don’t help real art. So I say…Put down your computer-internet-camera device and spend time drawing what you see…even in the coffee shop, for goodness sake,

    • ” So I say…Put down your computer-internet-camera device and spend time drawing what you see…even in the coffee shop, for goodness sake,”

      So well said. You just might SEE something wonderful!!

  2. Brent Robinson on

    I really enjoyed this article. I draw constantly and it fills my spirit with pure joy. Long live the pencil!
    Conte or otherwise…

  3. I have drawn every day for years, beginning with breakfast in a cafe…coffee often gets cold, but in the end, i have my daily drawings. a great start to any day.

  4. I remember taking a drawing class from a woman many years ago when I was just a young beginner learning how to be an artist. I took the class because I thought I first needed to learn to draw. I did as I was told, I drew from life in her class and thought how wonderful it was with all those pencils with different hardness, and I could erase and blend the graphite to look so perfect. One day I went home from class and got out my oil colors and began painting from life as I loved to do. I took the paintings I did to her class to show her and she said, “You can do this?” You already can draw, but you can also already paint really well, you don’t need me, you just need to paint! I have painted ever since, and that artist who taught me still draws amazingly well with graphite. Choose your medium and go with it. Watercolor was another medium I used for many years. I am so glad I did because it was such a great teacher. So very much to understand about techniques and about how to use it that the discipline of using watercolor made me be much more purposeful before starting a painting. No longer did I just throw paint at a canvas without a lot of thought. Pencil is great, watercolor is great. Photography is great. Thank heavens for all these wonderful things we can work with. They have much to teach us but oils are my favorite.

  5. Around these parts everyone projects. I don’t own a projector and don’t draw that well, but I’m working at it.

    • When I was an elementary art specialist, I taught my 4th and 5th graders to draw, starting with contour line drawing, to using simple shapes to create form, later to make tonal drawing, then on to self-portraits, action drawings and still life. I always marvelled at their progress and realized how much learning to draw affects one’s observational skills that transfer across the curriculum. What’s more, the students expressed great pride and joy in their work. Something entirely their own. There was never a child who persevered who wasn’t successful.

    • I highly recommend Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, for teens and adults. She teaches you how to get into that place of silence observation and keens up your ability to observe and to draw what you see, not what you think you see. For children, Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad. This book covers all the basic elements of drawing. It is fun for teens and adults, too.
      Thanks for the article. Drawing is key and foundational for any painting.
      Many people want to paint but have not developed drawing skills. They are frustrated with the outcome because they can see the shapes are off and perspective is not correct. My drawing students felt more confident in watercolor class after spending weeks in the drawing class. They were much more pleased with their paintings.

  6. When I was studying in France I asked my then painting teacher how artists such as Renoir, Cézanne, etcetera were able to capture a moving figure to make a painting which was accurate with vanishing points. He replied “hundreds of drawings”. Yes understanding build up through drawing is essential to be able to render form. Still learning after all theses years.

  7. Excellent reminder, thank you. It is simple play time, and never wasted. I do not allow myself enough of it, taking the time seems like such a luxury–but then why deny myself luxuries? After several avoidable failures of paintings, I’ve been making myself draw them first to check for composition and value structure. Seems to be helping catch the flaws beforehand.

    I also could name several painters I know whose paint techniques are not bad, but their paintings are consistently cheapened by bad drawing underlaying key elements. Trees that taper much too abruptly, whose branches stick up and taper to sharp points instead of flexing out gracefully from the stems, animals that are cartoonish. It is so frustrating to see, and you really can’t take people by the shoulders and shake them.

  8. Forty years of figure drawing classes, hundreds of sketchbooks later, I realized that carrying heavy art supplies while traveling gets heavier with time and age. Finally giving in to technology, (in the footsteps of David Hockney), I pulled out my phone on a recent visit to Salt Spring Island, British Colombia.

    Amazingly enough, it wasn’t so hard to make quick sketches with my fingernail! And after seeing the gorgeous and magical works at UBC Anthropology Museum, I treasure the handmade personal rough hewn sketch. Still drawing, just on a screen- traveling light.

    No more painting from photographs, from now on my subject matter is coming straight from my dreams and cryptic scribbles from my cellphone.
    Next up: IPad mastery & color drawing!

    • From someone with 35 years and 2 banker boxes full of sketches sitting under the stairs…

      I ditched pen and paper a year ago for an apple ipad/pencil with few regrets. Although I miss the tactile feel, I draw a lot more and there is an ease and anonymity you get when out in public.

      Besides, all your drawings are always available at your finger tips.

    • Michael Aronoff on

      NIce work!!!
      I live on Saltspring. Too bad we did not meet. I play with various media too. Nice color.
      Michael Aronoff

  9. Yes, drawing is definitely the foundation of fine art. It amazes me that some artists, that I know personally, actually trace drawings from photos they have blown up in size in order to lay it on canvas or paper. To me this is a form of paint-by-numbers, which is okay, I guess, but I prefer the classically trained approach, which is how I studied and learned. The examples of art in this letter strike an inspirational chord in me, one that takes me back to my days of hard work to hone my skill as a Fine Art artists. The advice I give to those who want to paint, or show an interest in painting, whether it’s a portrait, landscape or still life is……..LEARN TO DRAW (take classes) first by observing and really studying what’s before you, whatever subject chosen to create before putting one line down on paper. Look hard for relationships of angles, shapes, lines and perspective one to another. These are so important, especially if one wants to create realism that is accurate.

    Thank you to Robert (and now to Sara) for the essential information, examples, and insights that are given so generously to those who follow this site.

  10. The Samsung Note line of cell phones and tablets come with a drawing stylus and the excellent Wacom digitizer for drawing and painting.

  11. Drawing to me is also an art form in and of it’s self. I have found wether using graphite, gold, silver, or colour, it can portray any emotion, season or image, sensually soft to aggressively bold to fancifully amusing. I painted in oils for years until my sketches for the paintings gradually turned into the picture. It became the experiment in styles and then a finished product maybe some added colour maybe brushed edges, whatever. Endlessly challenging, fulfilling and fun.

  12. One of my early art teachers always said “To draw it is to know it.” That is so true. When you draw an object or scene you really become very acquainted with it and you’re building visual memories and physical references from which you can create your own visions. And what a lovely art form it is-graphite, ink, silver, conte’,charcoal-beautiful works can be made from all of them!

      • Elaine hartley on

        Hi Joyce… so happy to see your comment! When I think of drawing I think of you!!!
        I love the letters from Sara and Robert!!!

  13. I began taking a nib pen with water soluable ink cartridges and a water brush with me when we travel. A 6” x 4” book of watercolour paper completes my art pack. It’s eminently portable and easy to pull out and sketch with regardless of the setting. The great thing about it is it doesn’t draw attention to itself, so I can sketch figures in an airport terminal, on a ship, in arestaurant, on a street. I feel like Rembrandt when I travel, with everything around me being grist for my mill.

    My grandfather sketched and painted and he taught my mother and she taught me. It is awonderful gift to have passed down. I hope our daughter carries it on. Drawing is the basis of art and the focusing point of artists.painting

  14. I recently came back from a month long trip through Portugal. My greatest memories of this trip are my 40 sketches of my experiences. Not only do I have a visual representation but looking at the sketch reminds me of the weather, the scents, the sounds and even how comfortable I was while creating.

  15. Mark Robillard on

    Been drawing since age 2 years, always enjoyed it and always helped my painting. I highly recommend books by Andrew Loomis and Famous Artists Course with Norman Rockwell and friends, for learning and exploring drawing, and for studies in winning compositions. Drawing and painting I will never retire from, it’s a beautiful thing! And helps make life more beautiful always.

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