Why Draw from Observation?

To inspire those preparing applications for tonight’s Drawing Year deadline, we’re posting this essay by Timothy Hyman RA, who has been a tutor at The Prince’s Drawing School for over a decade. Timothy Hyman is a practising painter who teaches on our Drawing the Everyday in the City class, the Drawing Year masterclass Drawing the City by Night, and is a member of The Prince’s Drawing School’s Academic Board.

Why Draw from Observation? A Personal Statement by Timothy Hyman RA

“I have sent myself back to school … I am restarting my studies from the beginning,  from ABC … so I shall have to study drawing. I draw all the time …” Pierre Bonnard

“At some point between 1950 and 1980, most British art schools abandoned the observational drawing that had been at the centre of all Western artists’ training for at least 300 years. After the demise of neoclassical values, plastercast and nude model regimes had come to seem irrelevant, often oppressive and ritualised; “Slade drawing” was characterised by Stanley Spencer as “a disease”.

“Nevertheless, by 2000 many artists were aware of a lacuna in their training, rendered more glaring by the widespread renewal of figurative imagery. Could one set up a drawing school that took account of the “de-skilling” inherent in twentieth-century modernism, that faced up to the difficulties of representation in our time, yet still offered an intense engagement with perceptual experience? Bonnard’s definition of art as “The Transcription of the Adventures of the Optic Nerve” was one starting-point, and his own story – throwing away his camera, to embark on a lifelong daily practice – seemed emblematic of that “renewal by Drawing” enacted by several more recent artists. In the case of Philip Guston, for example, drawing answered to a “feeling of needing to start again, with the simplest of means, to clear the decks.”

“Speaking personally, my own principal reason for going out drawing is to renew my sense of space, of being-in-the-world; if I stop drawing for several weeks, I find my spatial invention goes dead, and my art becomes schematic. But I also draw because the specific –
a friend’s face, a familiar street – has appeared before me as a moment of seeing, as an epiphany, to which I must somehow respond. And if we’re fortunate, such a drawing can become not a mere “sketch”, but a sign close to embodied thought.

“In the words of Josef Herman, “By distancing itself from the physicality of solid matter, drawing comes closest to the actual working of  the mind.” Watteau spoke of “devoting his morning to thoughts-in-red-chalk”; a young child told Marion Milner a drawing was “a line around a think”.

“At the top of Gwen John’s list of necessary qualities in art, she put “The Strangeness”, and perceptual drawing  is a good route to the unexpected. Its absence from most recent surveys of “Drawing Today” (including the Jerwood) results from a misunderstanding – that such drawings lack “concepts”. But I value this mode of drawing precisely for the challenge it presents to any artworld “positioning”, for the radical disinterestedness built into our perceptual response.

“When a drawing is going well, it takes on its own momentum and autonomy, free of all the baggage that painting inevitably carries. It feels “clean”.  So the utopian idea arises, of a “Drawing Community”, pursuing an open debate: through lectures and forums, certainly, but above all through all the variety of our very different drawing procedures.”

Timothy Hyman RA

If you want to spend next year drawing, don’t forget that The Drawing Year application deadline is midnight tonight (with portfolio drop-off at the School on 10 and 11 April). Submit your online application here


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