“The excellence of an artist, as such, depends wholly on the refinement of perception… I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing, and I would rather teach drawing that my students may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.”
John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing


It is always encouraging to find a way to improve ourselves—especially to improve a primordial power such as sight. In his essay ‘Learning How to See Again’ Josef Pieper concludes by suggesting artistic creation: “The mere attempt, therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.”

John Ruskin, who famously wrote “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way,” couldn’t agree more. His The Elements of Drawing—a practical introduction intended to be used at home by beginners—focuses on drawing as a means to seeing the world around us. “The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye.”

I have resolved to try to follow his program. If you read the introductory paragraph of his first lesson below, you will see why he has captivated me. He notes that while studying under a master’s direct tutelage is preferable, it is often not feasible. He assures us that very satisfactory progress can be made following a system on our own, as long as we are willing to do “some hard and disagreeable labor.”

I cannot yet speak from personal experience to Ruskin’s or Pieper’s suggestion of the vision-enhancing power of artistic work. But it certainly has the ring of credibility. And as common habits today tend to separate us from both careful observation and careful work with our hands, it seems this is an exercise well worth squeezing into our week.


Ruskin on Drawing

From The Elements of Drawing, Letter 1, On First Practice:

“My Dear Reader–whether this book is to be of use to you or not, depends wholly on your reason for wishing to learn to draw. If you desire only to possess a graceful accomplishment, to be able to converse in a fluent manner about drawing, or to amuse yourself listlessly in listless hours, I cannot help you; but if you wish to learn drawing that you may be able to set down clearly, and usefully, records of such things as cannot be described in words, either to assist your own memory of them, or to convey distinct ideas of them to other people; if you wish to obtain quicker perceptions of the bounty of the natural world, and to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass away, or which you must yourself leave; if, also, you wish to understand the minds of great painters, and to be able to appreciate their work sincerely, seeing it for yourself, and loving it, not merely taking up the thoughts of other people about it; then I can help you, or, which is better, show you how to help yourself.”


Learning How to See Again Mini-Series

This is the first in a series: Learning How to See Again. Find the other posts below!

I. The Ability to See with Our Own Eyes

II. Dealing with Visual Noise

III: Learning to See by Drawing


John Ruskin (1819-1900) became the leading art critic of Victorian England. Moved by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution he shifted his focus later in life to social and economic issues. A controversial and insightful thinker, his way with words has an enduring power. I am currently doing research in his works, and I plan to share more quotations from them.

Image: by Paul McGehee

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