On the Value of Learning to Draw

By Ruth Weisberg, Professor and former dean at the USC Roski School, Director of the USC Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities, artist, and former Ryman Arts Board Member

In the 18th and 19th century most educated people were taught to draw as it was viewed as a fundamental part of a polite education.  The advent of photography in the mid 19th century and our access to it on account of easy to use and affordable cameras in the 20th century tended to diminish the importance of learning to draw in more recent times. In the last twenty years a number of art schools and university art programs de-emphasized drawing even for those who were studying to become artists as the deconstructive tendencies of post-modernism made drawing less important for some. For example, I can remember battling successfully in the early 1980s to preserve the very comprehensive drawing curriculum at USC. And in the past ten years some artists and teachers have actually espoused ‘de-skilling’, – in another words, the less mastery and skill the better. In spite of this aberration, or maybe because of it, I am here to say they are just plain wrong, and while so called grown-ups can deprive themselves of something of great value, I am saving my concern for young people who might be denied an essential part of their education and development.

Why do I think learning to draw has so much intrinsic value? What skills and values does it encourage? First in drawing there is a great emphasis on observation. We think we observe in everyday life, but there are more profound ways of seeing. A good introductory drawing course should hone your visual skills considerably. Observation is hard and rewarding work. You learn to see details and how they fit into the whole visual field. You see both the edge or contour and at the same time the sense of swelling and dimensional form we call volume. The student artist ultimately develops a broad repertoire of marks such as hatching or parallel lines, and a range of shading and textural effects to express the very rich visual reality they are drawing. Also taking what we see in three dimensions and transcribing it into two dimensions is challenging.  Drawing something like the human figure which is very familiar is made more difficult because of a variety of preconceptions which we almost all have. For example, if you ask 100 random people to draw a person, over 90% of them will draw a frontal view. We are hard wired as a species that walks upright to want to see our fellow humans, face to face.

It takes both perceptual acuity and physical control to draw well. The mind, eye and hand need to be in sync. In many ways it is like learning to master a sport. The perception of the ball coming towards you and your ability to fine-tune your motor movements with the appropriate response is very similar. The force behind the line and its direction need to be in the artist’s control.  Once you are able to truly see and analyze the visual elements and transcribe three dimensions into two, ( which by the way is one of the reasons why drawing from life is more valuable than drawing from a photograph which has already translated three dimensions into two )  the next level of accomplishment requires something more human and more profound. What should our drawings mean? What should they express about what we are transcribing from the observed world?  Drawing or other art media allow one to add expressive visual elements, and layers of meaning. This is what it means to be an artist. One who learns to draw can progress from the honing of skills based on the powers of observation to the imaginative and creative act of making art. 

Above Image Courtesy of Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles

RUTH WEISBERG (b. 1942) POINT OF DEPARTURE, 2009 Mixed Media Drawing on Paper, 30 x 22 5/8 inches, JRFA #9829



Above work by Ryman Arts students

Ryman Arts students are trained in classical figurative drawing through their Foundation and Intermediate drawing courses.