Drawing an essential conclusion for artists

Edinburgh Skyline and Princes St Gardens, a watercolour by Adam Bruce Thomson, who continued the tradition of superb Scottish draughtsmanship. Picture: Contributed
Edinburgh Skyline and Princes St Gardens, a watercolour by Adam Bruce Thomson, who continued the tradition of superb Scottish draughtsmanship. Picture: Contributed
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Vasari is famous as the father of art history and the way he told the story of the Renaissance still shapes how we understand the history of Western art.

Until very recently, however, his vision also informed the practice of art itself. Drawing, he argued, was central to everything an artist did. The Italian word is “disegno”. We have appropriated it as “design”, thus separating the mental part, the intention with which you draw, from the act of drawing. For Vasari they were inseparable.

Drawing was the key to any visual exchange between the mind and the world around it and was equally the essential vehicle for the projection of an idea from the mind’s conception to the hand’s realisation. Drawing subsequently became the backbone of all art education. It was only about 30 years ago that it finally lost that position.

Vasari did not think this up, of course. He simply codified the new engagement with the world that drove the Renaissance. Drawing was its instrument. It turns seeing into understanding, observation into knowledge. Since that time, direct engagement with the physical world has reshaped our relationship with it entirely. Observation, record, analysis, understanding, application of new knowledge, in all of these drawing played a central part.

The Young Dürer, a beautiful exhibition of drawings at the Courtauld Gallery in London, shows too that this was not exclusive to Italy, but was part of the Renaissance both north and south of the Alps. It shows how instinctively the young Dürer understood all this and set out on a course of study, travelling to learn from, but also to transcend his contemporaries and predecessors in Germany and Italy. He left behind the formulae of art, adapting and developing them to engage more directly with the actual. He studied his own hand and even drew his leg looking down at it. He drew his wife casually seated at table resting her head on her hand. A self-portrait aged about 20 shows him staring intently at himself, his head supported heavily on his hand. It is an image of astonishing intensity, of brooding angst even, as though he was already contemplating where this new understanding might lead. His wonderful print of the Prodigal Son Among the Swine is like a paradigm of this new engagement with the tangible world.

This engagement and in it the central role of drawing was vividly illustrated in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in the recent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. His extraordinary grasp of the workings of the human body would have been impossible without his command of drawing. When in the 18th century medical science eventually began to catch up with Leonardo, naturally drawing was again the key. One reason why Edinburgh became a major centre for medical research was that surgeons were taught to draw. Thus they could record, analyse and disseminate what they saw under the knife.

Vasari was not forgotten however. His book remained so important that in Rome in the 18th century, two impoverished Scottish artists, Alexander Runciman and John Brown, pooled their precious resources to buy a rare copy. Runciman’s drawings, like his paintings, are free and vivid, but for Brown drawing was so important it became his only medium. He wouldn’t touch paint at all.

Runciman and Brown were younger contemporaries of Allan Ramsay and it was really Ramsay who established a tradition of Scottish draughtsmanship that endured until very recently. To mark his tercentenary, the Scottish National Gallery is currently showing a selection of its unique collection of his drawings. His early work shows the instinctive accuracy of his eye, but also how much he had to learn before his hand could follow it and could invest his drawing with all the subtlety of feeling. He then went to study in Rome. A study of a male nude is witness to time spent drawing the figure in the French Academy there. (It was a habit he continued all his life. There are several beautiful figure studies done in London’s St Martin’s Lane Academy many years later.) He returned from Italy the most sophisticated British draughtsman of the time. A lovely study of a seated girl shows his affinity with the grace of Watteau.

Ramsay drew constantly, using his skill in several different, but always practical, ways. Black chalk, occasionally touched with white, served for studies of costume and pose where light and shade mattered, but he used red chalk to suggest the warmth of skin in his numerous, exquisite studies of hands, for instance. He became court painter and a study for a full-length painting of Queen Charlotte and her children balances beautifully the dignity that a royal portrait demanded with the warmth of the living presence of a mother with her children.

He usually worked on the head of a portrait directly in paint, so drawn portraits are rare and are mostly of close family. Several studies of his wife Margaret Lindsay are very beautiful. A pencil drawing of his daughter Amelia is a masterpiece however. Subtlety of observation is informed with intuitive delicacy of feeling miraculously to show the affection and understanding between father and daughter. Only drawing in the hands of master could say so much with so little.

Alexander Nasmyth was Ramsay’s assistant. He inherited the belief that drawing is the artist’s most essential skill and passed it on to David Wilkie, who in turn became a master draughtsman. Wilkie’s influence shaped later Scottish art and drawing was part of it.

One of the most individual of Wilkie’s many followers was Walter Geikie, the subject of a small exhibition at Edinburgh City Art Centre. Like John Brown, Geikie seems to have preferred drawing and printmaking to painting. He also worked in the streets of Edinburgh, to the evident delight of small boys and the curiosity of passers-by, but few artists anywhere observed so vividly the ordinary life of a city. Geikie was deaf and dumb from a childhood illness, but benefited from the teaching of the deaf pioneered by Thomas Braidwood. His disability seems to have sharpened his observation of expression, however. He even observes the mouth’s movements in speech. That is highly unusual. Paradoxically, in the work of artists gifted with speech, the people are usually dumb.

The strong tradition of drawing survived in Scotland, too. The recent exhibition of Alberto Morrocco’s drawings at the Open Eye was a celebration of the tradition. At the Scottish Gallery, a show of the work of Adam Bruce Thomson revives the reputation of a painter who has been unjustly neglected, but in the context of this discussion it is his superb drawings of the First World War which are remarkable. With good teaching in a long tradition, drawing came to these artists as naturally as breathing.

But drawing is no longer the core discipline that turns observation into knowledge and understanding. It is not just nostalgia to regret its passing, nor is it a matter for artists alone. They are its custodians perhaps, but drawing is a key part of the western intellectual tradition. Some years ago, I did a straw poll around Edinburgh University to find out what disciplines used drawing. The result was astonishing. Botany, medicine, geology, geography, engineering and more, almost any subject that had an interface with the physical world, employed drawing in some form. Fragmented by specialisation, to its users it was no longer recognised as part of a common discipline, but surely it is. Computers have transformed the business of visualisation, but the fundamental disciplines of hand, eye and mind remain the same. Drawing still matters.
• Allan Ramsay at 300, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, until 9 February; Walter Geikie, City Art Centre, Edinburgh, until 28 February; Adam Bruce Thomson: Painting the Century, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, until 30 November.