John Ruskin


Dear Artist,

Writing on the value and importance of drawing, more than one thousand artists have so far responded to my last letter. Many, like drawing teacher Sue Cowan of Coquitlam, BC, Canada, asked, “Why is it most people don’t sign up for drawing classes? Painting classes are always more popular.” Sue also asked, “Is it true that John Ruskin used to run drawing classes for factory workers?”


“Trees in a Lane, Ambleside”
drawing by John Ruskin, 1847

Thanks, Sue. He did. Ruskin believed in drawing. He thought it was part of the informed life and good for everybody. One of the most eloquent art advocates and critics of all time, Ruskin himself made thousands of fine and sensitive drawings. He carried drawing into his utopian politics. He endowed drawing museums and drew model tea shops. He set up lodgings for the poor and had his pupils design and build roads for the betterment of the country. He promoted model industries and pride-filled workshops along socialist lines. His four goals of art and life were “truth, nature, purity and earnestness.” In the face of the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship and traditional modes of creativity were to be mankind’s salvation. Ruskin Societies sprang up all over England as well as overseas. His curious energy, soon sullied by the arrival of creative meatballism, is with us yet.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) felt that artists had a calling to be inspired as prophets and teachers. He demanded a freely accessed, naturalistic style and a grounding in love of nature and mankind. This led to questions of social morality and reform that occupied his middle years. He attempted to link art with the daily lives of working men and women. To him the arts were a visible sign of national virtue. “Life without industry is guilt,” he said, “and industry without art is brutality.”

Precocious and almost unbelievably prolific in his youth, (the first volume of Modern Painters was written and published when he was 24) Ruskin later suffered from bouts of mental illness. After years of active travel, professorships, lectures and countless publications, he withdrew to Coniston in the Lake District of Northern England, where he wrote little and spoke hardly at all. It seems his mind was forever sharp. Perhaps this was for him a time of recapitulation: to review the brash endorsements of youth, and to quietly welcome the wisdom that the fortunate may gain with age.

Best regards,


PS: “What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination, and third, their industry.” (John Ruskin)

Esoterica: There is a bit of Ruskin in all of us. He bears the invitation to slow down and smell the honeysuckle. He told us, “There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” To be like Ruskin requires a sense of awe and a profound realization of ignorance. These qualities have us all holding hands with the Romantics. “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature,” said Ruskin, “than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”


John Ruskin (1819-1900)


watercolour, 1874


“Tower of the Cathedral at Sens”
mixed media, 1845


“The Pulpit in the Church of S. Ambrogio”


“Study of the Rocks and Ferns, Crossmouth” watercolor








John Ruskin (1819-1900)


“Cascade de la Folie, Chamonix” (1849)


“Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas” (1853)


“Portrait of Rose la Touche” (1861)







Ruskin’s writings
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France


Jeffrey Hessing – Shanghai Studio

I only know Ruskin through his criticism of James McNeill Whistler, one of my heroes — and the subsequent court cases. Granted Whistler was always happy to find a good fight. I will look into more of Ruskin’s writings. I’m also intrigued by his view of the artist with social responsibilities. Very important in these days.

(RG note) Thanks, Jeffrey. Apart from Modern Painters, (1843-60) there are The Stones of Venice (1851-3) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). In Munera Pulveris (1872) he states his case against capitalism. Apart from what seems these days to be a rigid attitude, his early writing tends to be florid and hard going. Praeterita (1886-9) is his classic and quite readable biography.


by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA


“Light Peace Field”
acrylic painting on canvas
by Janet Lee Sellers

One could just as easily contemplate Ruskin as vindictive zealot. I’ve recently been reading Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies and learning much about Ruskin’s efforts to ruin him, his orchestration of Whistler’s financial ruin, to name only one artist of many taking blows for Ruskin’s wrath. It seems that Ruskin was much like many communists in that he wanted everybody to be on board his ark or he would cheerfully fire all his arsenal of influence and sink every other artship. I am glad to know that he slunk off to live under a rock for the rest of his life. Delicate drawing ability or no, he was a first rate monster — Frankenstein’s monster had immeasurably more heart than Ruskin, and Frankie was labeled a monster from the start. Talk about meatballs?! How about meatloaf-heads like Ruskin — he’d just as soon grind ’em all into Ruskinity or Ruskinburgers.


Inflexibility with old age?
by Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN, USA


“John Ruskin in old age”
photo by Frederick Hollyer, 1894

One of the curiously sad things about Ruskin is that later in life, his brilliant vision and insights apparently hardened into inflexibility and obtuseness. I think that tends to happen to many or most of us. Keeping our personal flames alive takes so much tenacity, that in the end we become victims of our own death-grips in a way, a set of insights. To some extent, this may be unavoidable, but knowing about it might help.



Praise be given to drawing
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA


“Haiku of Spring”
acrylic painting on canvas
by Gene Black

Like Ruskin, I feel that every artist should strive for truth and honesty in creation or creativity. I believe this to the extent that my “Artist statement” has this as the first line. “As an artist I seek to portray truth with my art. Because abstract or non-representational art is left open to interpretation by the viewer, the viewer becomes a partner with the artist in this quest for truth.” I particularly love the statement that “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature,” said Ruskin, “than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” Perhaps I love this because after learning to draw and paint, I began loving the outdoors and all the glory of nature. I am frequently inspired by clouds, trees, that lovely angle of the sun thru the tall grass. Drawing and drawing from nature often give a “eureka” moment that leads to invention or improvement on an existing thing. Praise be given to drawing.


Art is everything
by Ginia A. Davis, Barboursville, VA, USA


“Forell on Rosaline”
acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
by Ginia A. Davis

I was unaware of John Ruskin, but have had the same feelings all along — as shown in my artist statement (written in the mid ’90s for my website):

Art influences everything. Art is the choreography of thought and motion. (Anything done well has been directed by a disciplined art.) The soul of art is inspiration. (Nothing can be created without inspiration.) Inspiration comes from the imagination. (Imagination is the world within and beyond.) Without imagination and inspiration, expressed artistically, there is no life worth living.


Life drawing progress rewarding
by Adelyn Cooper, Clear Lake Shores, TX, USA


“Two Inflating Bundles”
graphite, acrylic, oil, canvas on panel
by Mark Greenwalt

I couldn’t agree more about drawing and drawing classes. I’m fortunate enough to be able to go to College of the Mainland (community college in Texas City, near Houston) and take life drawing classes under a truly gifted teacher, Mark Greenwalt. The artistic atmosphere there is such that I sign up for the class every semester as a matter of course. It’s as much about anatomy as drawing. It’s difficult but extremely rewarding when I notice the least bit of progress. I love to paint, but drawing can be done anytime in almost any situation, and I keep pushing myself to just draw.


Drawing awakens the senses
by Timothy Nero, Santa Fe, NM, USA


untitled #1
ink on paper, 11 x 7 inches
by Timothy Nero

Drawing keeps the eye fresh, the mind alive, and intuition nimble. From time to time I have had the privilege of teaching University drawing courses. All subsequent class work is built upon this foundation. I wholeheartedly agree with Ruskin and Cennini. In my own work drawing is the engine that moves the painting and the 3D work. If drawing does not happen neither does the painting or sculpture. For my process it is not necessary to paint or sculpt what I have drawn. In fact that rarely happens. What does occur is that drawing wakes up all the senses and the skills and from this my work is sharpened in the other mediums.




John Constable’s drawings
by Tim Hardy, Canberra, Australia


original drawing by Tim Hardy

A highlight for me of attending a recent exhibition of John Constable’s work was being able to handle facsimile editions of two of his small sketchbooks which he carried in the countryside. I felt very close to Constable as I turned the pages. I could sense his presence through the energetic pencil marks in a way not possible through his worked up paintings. It is the immediacy of the record and the economy of means used that attract me to drawing. Whether it is Constable, Rembrandt, Tiepolo or Van Gogh, their drawings all possess enormous power. I look at my own drawings and also enjoy (mostly!) the faithful record of the marks — especially when in charcoal or reed pen — as I have sought to capture or create a reality.


Back to basics
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA


“Virginia Woods”
watercolor painting, 22 x 30 inches
by Janet Toney

I realized you’re talking about going back to basics. Your focus is primarily in relation to art and drawing. My children and their lives are examples. All three are married and each has one child. All three have careers as do their mates. Their children are into several activities and have their own rushed lives to live. We consider ourselves lucky to get together once or twice a year. My son is particularly good at drawing, but if I suggested he take time to do some he would have a good laugh. Not because he wouldn’t want to, but he couldn’t justify taking the time. Really too bad. You have inspired me to do something. My husband is retired and we moved to a beautiful spot on a mountain where the pace of life (for me anyway) is slower. This is one of the few places my family comes to relax and get back to basics. I plan to invite my family more often. I had stopped asking them because it seemed making the time was too difficult for them. I was wrong, and they need this just as we artists need to get back to the basics of drawing. I might even send Ruskin quotes in their emails!


Non-drawers arise!
by Sheila Norgate, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada


“Year of the dog”
mixed media painting
by Sheila Norgate

I don’t know if you heard from any non-drawers, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents. I don’t draw at all and I have managed to have a full and successful career as a painter. In fact I find myself often telling people who think they could never be an artist because they don’t draw, that it isn’t a prerequisite for the job. Drawing for me has always been associated with the exercise of rendering perfection — something that I steer as far away from as I can. I think it’s far more important to be able to see, to be fully present and to capture the essence of something through one’s own unique take on life, rather than to try and offer up what can so often be construed as a kind of imitation of reality.


Deeper rewards
by Florence B. Hill, Keyport, NJ, USA

For 25 years I was a zoological illustrator. When I started to teach, drawing was a logical skill for me to introduce to my students. I thought my classes would run for a year or two, then interest would wane. Not so, the classes have continued every semester. Often these “terrified adults” begin with drawing classes and then find the courage to take my painting classes. Sometimes they even dare to go on to formal art schools — for credit! It is so exciting and affirming to see their surprise at their progress in just a few short hours. In this age of quick computer-generated art with its instant correction abilities, I’ve felt like a stubborn dinosaur. Nevertheless, I believe that the process of learning to see and put down what you see is of critical importance. Developed eye-hand coordination is one reward. The meditative experience of slowing down and truly observing nature has deeper rewards.


The miracle of drawing
by Tom Johnsen, California, USA

Drawing is at least something I do more than anything else, though it takes effort to take the time to draw in front of a mirror, it doesn’t take long to start noodling with my favorite pen, a Japanese Kabutake brush pen. These drawings are necessarily Notan drawing, since the only mid-tone it produces comes from scumbling over the paper, using the side of the brush, swinging it round, pushing it, then seeing the mark produce something out of the nothing I start with. The shapes suggest, and when they don’t it is usually because they are upside down. If they still don’t suggest, I am in the wrong frame of mind to carry on with it, so I set the drawing aside and begin another. I can usually tell pretty soon when I am still too noisy inside.

Of all artistic enterprises, drawing is the most fraught with self-criticism, and because of this provides the greatest challenge to practice ego-quieting. Drawing is a mystery — the more defined, the more mysterious. I recently visited Missouri’s Nelson Atkins Museum and a book leapt out at me in the bookstore: Drawing Distinctions: the Varieties of Graphic Expression, by Patrick Maynard. It is a difficult, philosophical book, fascinating despite my inability to comprehend, fascinating for the connections he draws between camera and pencil, and its embrace of all forms of drawing, from cartoons to scratches on a stone wall. It is exciting and intellectually stimulating.


Small and large paintings
by Amanda Jackson, Lincoln, UK


“Meditation In Red”
oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches
by Amanda Jackson

A frequent request from the galleries who sell my work is for larger scale paintings. Without exception the larger I paint, the weaker the work. Today I am painting two versions of an image at the same time with the same palette; the little one shines with free brushwork, economic touches of colour and vivacity, its larger sibling groans, its paint layer stretched thin, hard edged and lacking in tonal complexity, it is grey and overworked and I feel I might end up the same! Oil paint behaves so differently on a bigger brush, I seem unable to ever mix enough of one colour or tone without the brush clogging and adding medium just exaggerates the problem of “stretched grey layers.” Any ideas on how to scale up?

(RG note) Thanks, Amanda. The best exercise I know of is to do a straight forward copy of a successful small one into a larger one. This involves scaling up brushes, palette volume, and gesture. A further valuable ploy is to sit down for the smalls and stand for the bigs. A few conscious copies lead to seeing “The Big Picture” — that funnily enough is so much easier to conceive in “the small picture.”


Too much input?
by Jennifer Sparacino, Chilliwack, BC, Canada

Regarding art school and formal art training, I believe that having the insight and knowledge that has been presented by others is a wonderful tool, but can someone have too much input? Going into my 3rd and final year at Art College, I’m feeling like I have learned so much, I need to unlearn some and just start experimenting and find out my own way of doing things. I suppose it’s about dropping a certain amount of inhibitions and letting the “thinking-mind” rest, and the “feeling-intuitive mind” take over. I appreciate and value my education, but to be honest, I’m looking forward to graduating and finding my own path.

(RG note) Thanks, Jennifer. In the end there is no option but to go to your room. The dear and vital “feeling-intuitive mind” can seldom be accessed when in the company of others, let alone in a classroom.






Peggy’s Cove

watercolor painting
by Donna Dickson, Hornby Island, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Libbie Soffer of Wallingford, PA, USA who wrote, “What a guy this Ruskin was…  I wonder if there are no artists ‘near’ our government because our minds would be challenged to consider other points of view, but then we already knew that.”

And also Kay Cox of Seabrook, TX, USA who wrote, “This calls to mind a quote I believe that came from one of Tom Robbins’ books: ‘It is the function of the artist to call attention to what life does not.’ ”

And also Len Sodenkamp of Boise, ID, USA who wrote, “I am compelled to become a born again artist and start drawing everyday.”

And also Winston Seeney of Belmont Lake, Ontario, Canada who wrote, “Ruskin was the first to travel Europe and take measurements of cathedrals. He found that cathedrals were far from perfect, as previously thought. His measuring tape told no lies. Windows were irregularly placed, planes weren’t always true, and lengths and widths didn’t necessarily match.”

And also Rick Ground of Albany, OR, USA who wrote, “Creative Meatballism? Creeping Meatballism might be a fun topic for artists to consider in some future letter. Who knows? Maybe John Ruskin and Jean Shepherd have some commonality.”

And also Theresa Bayer of Austin, TX, USA who wrote, “Ruskin’s idea of offering drawing classes to the general public, in the workplace, could be done today, and it would have wonderful results.”

And also Eldridge Pendleton who wrote, “In encouraging people to draw, Ruskin encouraged them to be spiritual contemplatives. We need to access this spiritual aspect as much today as for those who came under his influence.”

And also Val Norberry of Kalamazoo, MI, USA who wrote, “I think Mr. Ruskin would have benefited from having a few Amish friends.”

And also Peter Worsley of Santa Barbara, CA, USA who wrote, “Your letter would be easier to read if you used shorter paragraphs.”




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