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Learning to Draw / Drawing to Learn

The Fleming Gallery in London, in collaboration with Glasgow School of Art, recently put on a show entitled ‘Learning to Draw / Drawing to Learn’. In the second half of the 20th century art education in Britain moved away from the traditional academic practice that was centred on the life room. It actually took longer in Scotland, due to a different education system, but eventually progress could not be halted and the teaching of the Bauhaus and Basic Education was installed as a primary teaching method. As definitions of visual art expanded to include branches of theatrical performance, film, sound, language, gesture, neon and digital innovations, the activities of the life room – and observational drawing in particular, diminished.
Drawing was originally a way of understanding and representing the world, from architecture to an anatomy, from proportion to problem solving. It was and still is an active means of visual discovery, as opposed to a passive means of recording. But alternative methods of visual and conceptual presentation of ideas now predominate. Today the camera is king, the blind man has knocked the model off his dais and the once eager student has abandoned life drawing as well as his donkey.
The organisers of the Fleming exhibition are aware that it is now problematic to “link dependence on quality in art with an agreed set of skills and attributes” and “it is now no longer possible to measure competence through observational drawing”. The art world has embraced too many alternative positions and the old certainties and traditions are no longer seen as relevant. But observational drawing does still cling on as a discipline…
Ken Currie, a graduate from Glasgow School of Art and one of Scotland’s most significant painters has also entered the debate on art school education. “The younger generation want to learn how to paint, but this is not being delivered at arts schools in Scotland and all over the world” he said. “Most of the tutors in art schools, with a few notable exceptions, are themselves deeply hostile to painting. They themselves are not painters.”
Drawing and painting as a subject is seen to be difficult and students who want instant success and gratification “are not prepared to go through with the hard graft.” He heaps particular distain upon the “dreadful academisation of art” with tutors sporting their new professorial titles and post graduates students revelling in their “research fellow status”.
Ken Currie points out that despite the recent international success of Glasgow School of Art graduates, it was voted third bottom for higher education institutions in terms of student satisfaction. “A lot of students go there with high hopes, given the high reputation of the school, and come out feeling just completely disillusioned”.
Although drawing exhibitions are more frequent than might be expected, definitions of drawing have expanded exponentially with the widening definition of art, but not always to its benefit. The Fleming Gallery and Ken Currie have highlighted an area of concern and are trying to bring drawing back into the forefront of appreciation. Sharpen your pencils they seem to say, there are new times ahead – Learn to draw, draw to Learn.
Image Credit: Ken Currie, THe Three Oncologists

Posted by author: James Cowan
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6 thoughts on “Learning to Draw / Drawing to Learn

  • I am sorry I missed this exhibition. We have too few opportunities to see drawing respected in exhibitions. It seems to me that we have lost by not respecting drawing and painting as investigative processes. I guess the other side of the coin is that drawing and painting are not as constrained as they were in classical art education. As always, there is en ebb and flow; something is lost and something is gained…

  • Having visited the Glasgow School of Art Degree Show this year and last I would say there were more traditional type paintings than in previous years, which I would hope indicates a slight shift from wholly conceptual art.

  • I would like to see a more inclusive approach at art colleges- a return to the life room and a continuation with exploring the more recent media. We are in the position now to allow for that, except for entrenched attitudes getting in the way. The dismissal of drawing and painting as ‘traditional’ is tedious as is the attitude that working with ideas is a cop out from hard work. Actually, I am surprised this post hasn’t attracted more comments as this conceptual/ traditional debate usually gets people fired up. I was at a Scottish art college in the eighties and the life room was a dominant part of our week. I loved it am glad i was there at that time. We were also encouraged to be very free and expressive. Everyone in the department was drawing and painting- there was no thought about using other media. Slowly painting became less popular until the Painting degree shows had no painting whatsoever. In some ways, this was interesting as it allowed the breaking down of boundaries between disciplines, but it was also extreme prejudice against painting and a certain brainwashing of students who did want to learn to paint. Famously, they were directed to the photocopier to make art instead. Good students will make good art whatever they are using and the standard of work remained much the same. In recent years, there has been a bit more painting in the shows but what I have noticed, more than anything, is the diversity of approaches. This is very healthy. There seems to be less of a house style. Gone for good, I hope, are the days where you are told you have to learn to draw and paint properly before you can branch out. This very branching out at an early stage is exciting and educational. If students are also allowed to return to the life room they will be so much better prepared to respond. There are many, many students who want to paint and they should be allowed to do it without attracting prejudice (and automatically low marks), but they should be encouraged to branch out as well.
    It parallels, in some small way, the tyranny over hemlines in the sixties and seventies. Even an inch out and you were ridiculed. It had to be precisely mini, midi or maxi or it was nothing. Then, probably in the 80’s, people thought- so what- I can wear any length and breathed a sigh of relief..

    • To have diversity in an Art School or University is essential. It reflects the time we live in and acknowledges widening definitions of art. Students however who want to concentrate on figurative painting and the discipline that that involves have certainly since the 1980s found it difficult to find a Fine Art department that still have teachers that can cater for their needs. The advice often given is to young students is to apply for Illustration Degrees because there they still encourage drawing and painting skills.The BP Portrait award often has painters who have come via that route or else who have gone to specialist painting schools that have grown up to fill the gap such as LARA – the London College of Representational Art.
      The answer surely is to employ more painters on Fine Art degree Courses.

  • I think one of the problems is that students are often badly advised, particularly those direct from school. Different universities have different priorities and a drawing lead course is not so unusual outside London it seems to me even when painting is conspicuous by its absence from the degree shows but I find that art teachers in schools (and I am sad to say on too many Foundation Diploma and National Diploma courses in colleges) seem not to steer students to the places that would really develop their talents but either encourage them to apply to a ‘known’ university or simply the nearest one.

  • It is good to see this blog again after several months. Problems with education arise when you are told that some things are not worth learning. Often the people who tell you that have just been told it themselves. They want to be seen to be in the know. This doesn’t seem to happen with OCA because we have such a wide range of tutors. However, it does happen a lot in many bricks and mortar institutions.

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