Based on countless arty chats over the years, I have concluded that people who don’t draw much (or ever), easily consider it to be a lofty and noble pursuit for a few special people aided by the rare gift of raw-born talent. As an artist who couldn’t execute a convincing stick person before my first drawing class, I now happily assert that any willing learner can be taught to successfully translate what they see into lines on paper. As a test to that theory, I recently tried two very different approaches to drawing lessons: the first, rooted in 250 years of tradition at London’s premiere art academy; the second, steeped in gin-and-tonic atop my local pub.
Royal Drawing School
The human figure, with all her contours and shapes, the play of light and shadow on his body, is a subject that has captivated artists and craftspersons for centuries. Humans have stood against gods, have become gods, and represented ideals of virtue, wisdom, beauty, or strength, through humble charcoal or the sublimity of paint and marble. For many schools of art, learning to depict the nude hasn’t changed much since the Renaissance (except now, women are allowed inside art schools, and actual female models have replaced the squishy young men with stuck-on breasts…but I digress…)
So, having been around nearly 20 years, and associated with Royal Academy of Arts who opened her doors in 1768, the Royal Drawing School in London offers the student everything comfortably traditional about learning to draw, towards producing work recognisable as “fine art” by anyone who’s ever been to an art museum.
In this formal setting, a purpose-built studio space in a reputable and well-established art school, we each stood behind an easel, ringed around the model (alternating between a man and a woman each week). Every night started similarly, with brief 10-minute poses, then 20 minutes, then 45 minutes to make up the two-hour session. Directed into position by the tutor, the model stilled and a hush descended, broken only by the muffled scratching of charcoal, until the time for that pose was up.
From tried-and-true warm-up exercises and sight/measure methods to classic model poses, lighting, and props, all is satisfyingly familiar, always with focus on representational/ observational accuracy in mark-making. Beginners, of course, are welcome to this class; however, most students here appeared to already have some experience to build on.
The tutors at Royal Drawing School are experienced (and quite well-known in their sphere) artists. When I attended, several different tutors headed the class over the 10 weeks, an opportunity to experience varying teaching methods. E.g., one tutor repeatedly lapped the studio over the two-hour session, going from student to student, spending 5 or 10 minutes each lap to offer well-observed, specific, and constructive guidance to use of materials or some other aspect. Another night, the tutor went around to each student less frequently to encourage development of the same general skill area in each person’s drawing. Different strokes work for different folks, I guess… (ha! See what I did there? Strokes? Ah, never mind…)
The final point is around cost; Royal Drawing School runs around the same fee as many other life drawing courses in London, which isn’t cheap (£195 or about £20 per session). Added to the tuition is the cost of materials (not included), which, at minimum, requires willow charcoal (£2 for a box) and paper (£12 for a pad of A2 cartridge). With that, you’re looking at a little over £200 and 10 weeks to gain experience in what The Big Draw (Campaign for Drawing) refers to as “universal human language”.
Summary: “comfortably traditional”; classic/formal setting and methods in a reputable school; focus on observational or measured accuracy in mark-making
On the opposite end of the drawing class spectrum is “Drink-and-Draw” headed by painter/teacher Dan Whiteson, conducted in an upstairs room at The Exhibit in Balham. The appeal of “Drink-and-Draw” [DND] initially for me was as a date night activity; however, my partner couldn’t join me that night so I went solo to check it out.
From the get-go, I could see this wasn’t your average drawing class. On the way in, each drawer picks up a board with several A3 sheets clipped on, and then chooses from an array of basic materials set out on a table: pens, pencils, erasers, charcoal, markers, even crayons and coloured paper. The next stop is the bar (the “Drink” part that clearly aids the “Draw”) and finally, we each find a seat – a chair, the sofa, the floor – and gather in close with our 50 new friends around the model in the centre.
Right on time, Dan launches a near non-stop patter that starts with some of his theories on learning to draw (which in a nutshell, seems to be, if it’s not fun you’re not doing it right) and quickly leads, or rather heaves, us into the first exercise – which requires only that the person have at least one working eye, a hand with a pencil in it, and no other previous skill or knowledge whatsoever in putting sharpened end to sheet. All of this is backed by an eclectic music soundtrack which distracts (and liberates) the drawer from worrying too much about what’s going on between pencil and paper.
The tutor, a professional artist himself, employs exercises that are traditional/familiar to most makers (blind contour, gesture, negative spaces, etc.) yet he conducts the two-hour session in a fresh, unconventional manner with a smoothly practiced script, energetic music, and simple art supplies. Naturally, any wobbly anxieties the person came in the door with is soon dispersed by a glass of wine, the very informal setting, and the teacher’s easy-going attitude.
Speaking of which, the tutor engaged very infrequently with individual students. I suspect this was purposeful, so the student didn’t feel in any way they were under assessment, and also in keeping with the aims of the class in the first place, which is not necessarily to accurately reproduce a 3-D form on a 2-D plane but to have fun trying. Clearly, Dan’s all about quickly building confidence while at the same time, helping us experience the joy of learning something new.
As for cost, “Drink-and-Draw” is only £7 for the two-hour session, and includes access to a rainbow of drawing materials (you’re on your own for the drink). So with a gin-and-tonic, one DND costs around the same as a single session at Royal Drawing School, but without further commitment, and without taking itself quite so seriously.
Summary: “fresh and unconventional” setting and lesson delivery; focus on experimentation, building confidence, and joy of learning, through drawing
Related links and stories
- Sign up for courses at Royal Drawing School – painting, drawing, etching and more
- Book a session (or two) to Drink-and-Draw – every other Wednesday at The Exhibit in Balham
- Learn about The Big Draw and Campaign for Drawing – According to the charity Campaign for Drawing, there is no language more universal than that of drawing, calling it “…a powerful tool for invention, for communicating…for its power to engage people…and contribute to society…”
- “Drawing and drinking… it’s London’s hottest new night out” by Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard – 16 October 2014 – “For all that Prince Charles believes drawing is declining in the face of conceptualism and other more fashionable disciplines, I sense a revival in the art as a social pastime as well as a means of personal expression.”
- “Jerwood Drawing Prize 2013 celebrates contemporary drawing where videos win prizes too – London” – 25 September 2013 in kelise72.com