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Words from John Ruskin

This is a drawing by John Ruskin, titled Trees in a Lane, Ambleside, done in 1847.

John Ruskin (English, 1819 – 1900) was the leading English artist, poet, art critic and drawing teacher of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draftsman, watercolorist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote about geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy.

In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. He taught his students to, above all, observe nature closely. Here is another work of Ruskin’s, this one a botanical study:

But it’s not about Ruskin himself I mean to write about today, it is to share with you something that Ruskin wrote, about the importance of drawing. As you read it, remember that he is talking about observing things, looking carefully around you – and though drawing can force you to notice every detail, what he writes about “sketchers” is also true if you do not draw, but just look. Here’s what he wrote:

Let two persons go out for a walk, the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The [second mentioned] will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect, but not that the trees make the lane shady and cool; and he will see an old woman in a red cloak— et voilà tout!

But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light, and the motes dance in the green, glittering lines that shoot down upon the thicker masses of clustered foliage that stand out so bright and beautiful from the dark, retiring shadows of the inner tree, where the white light again comes flashing in from behind, like showers of stars. Here and there a bough is seen emerging from the veil of leaves.

There are a hundred varied colors, the old and gnarled wood is covered with the brightness; here is the jewel brightness of the emerald moss; there, the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a garment of beauty from the old withered branch. Then come the cavernous trunks, and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes, each with his diadem of dew.

And down, like a visiting angel, looks one ray of golden light, and passes over the glittering turf -kiss -kiss -kissing every blossom, until the laughing flowers have lighted up the lips of the grass with one bright and beautiful smile that is seen far, far away among the shadows of the old trees, like a gleam of summer lightening along the darkness of an evening cloud.

Is not this worth seeing? Yet, if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”

Here is Ruskin’s watercolor of a kingfisher:

You can actually go to the website of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, at ruskin.ashmolean.org to look at many of Ruskin’s wonderful collection of drawings, and the lectures for which he collected the drawings. There are even eight drawing classes you can take yourself.

Some people create beauty with words, some with drawing or painting, and some with hooked rugs. But looking, closely, is the common thread. Hope you find wonderful things to observe during these summer days!

One Comment

  • Kathy O'Donnell says:

    Thanks for the link Mary Jane. I once had a college professor who stressed the art of observation…the most memorable classes I’ve ever had.

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