A Celebration of Women Writers

"Certain Methods of Studying Drawing." by Miss Aimee K. Osborne Moore.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 380-382.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 380] 



It is for a talk on the philographic, or self-correcting method, as a practical means of learning drawing, that we are come together. It is, therefore, needless to go into the question of the use of learning to draw, or to try to decide between the many opposite theories on which well-known drawing methods are founded, or seriously to discuss the question so frequently raised by art teachers of the admissibility, in studying drawing, of any outside helps, whatever, such as are generally used in every other branch of study, sculpture, music, etc. To say that a method is new, is seemingly to say at the same time that its promoters have to fight against a great deal of prejudice (on the part at least of the teachers). In the present case the pedigree of our method is so ancient, and the modern writers who can be shown to be its sponsors are so highly respectable, that it is not very difficult to prove the prejudice against it chiefly caused by people not understanding its drift. Still, it must be admitted, the name "self-correcting" sounds terribly independent, and to mention anything like "mechanical aids" is to call up a formidable bugbear, for it is the fashion among teachers to talk a great deal about art and the ideal, and very beautiful and enthusiastic things are said in this connection, so much so that to speak of "mere drawing," as it was frequently called during the recent Congresses, would seem almost like taking up a very small, unpretentious subject.

Among the world's teachers, assembled lately in a solemn conclave, you may have noticed there were such vast differences of opinion as to what drawing is, that it becomes necessary to begin by asking each person what he or she means by the term before discussing ways and means of studying the subject. So doing, you would receive more answers, and more varied ones, than we have time to listen to now. The Old Masters are simpler and at the same time broader in what they say; let us be modest, and try to content ourselves with what guidance we can get from them; first, as to what drawing is or should be; secondly, as to what kind of help is admissible in learning to draw; and let us get, if possible, some practical suggestions with regard to such help. If we seek far enough we shall probably find that the artists of those times agree through their work, in countless points, with scientific and otherwise remarkable men of our own day, that, whether knowingly or unknowingly, they worked on such truly scientific lines as should cause infinite pain to those modern art teachers for whom science, when we approach the region of art, is a word of ill omen, and mechanical helps of any kind or degree an insuperable stumbling-block. [Page 381] 

"The science of drawing or of outline is the essence of painting and of all the line arts, and the root of all the sciences. He who can raise himself to the point of mastering it possesses a great treasure. Drawing embraces everything; it is used for machines, for plans, for building, for the ordering of battles, etc., so that in looking at all varieties of human work you will find each to consist wholly or in part of drawing."

Let us then establish at once that by drawing we mean the graphic representation on a plane (flat or smooth surface) of all kinds of solid forms, with the varying aspects they present, according to the point from which we look at them, their distance from us and from each other, and their own actual position, etc. "All drawing is founded on a right knowledge of perspective," says Leonardo da Vinci. The word perspective, dictionaries tell us, comes from roots meaning to see through, or to see thoroughly. This definition can not, however, be considered altogether satisfactory, because thorough seeing implies quite different things according to the end we have in view when looking. A paper-hanger or a shop assistant, whose eye is well trained and who sees thoroughly, will, when looking at a large roll of paper or wire or woolen goods, be able to say within a little how many yards go to make up the piece, or how many rolls are required to paper a room. A modeler, or a sculptor, who is going to copy in wax or in clay a certain vase, a head or a whole figure, must rightly see and imitate the shape and the literal or proportional bulk of each part.

Drawing, then, deals with appearances, and whether we are going to make a drawing of a single object or a landscape, to do a portrait from life or to sketch an interior, our first aim must be to rightly see, and our second, to rightly record the actual appearance of the subject from our chosen point of view. The better we see and the more accurately we record it, the truer will our drawing be. Leonardo did not content himself with telling his pupils to learn perspective–he gave them a great many practical hints on the subject, and the first thing he advised them to study, until they understood it properly, was their own eye, and its working.

The first thing Leonardo da Vinci suggests as a help in the translation of the appearance of solid forms on to a plane surface (Treatise on Painting) is the use of a piece of glass fixed upright at a convenient distance from the eye. "To make sure your perspective is right," says he, "fix a sheet of glass before your eye, between it and the thing you intend to make a portrait of; fix your head so that you can not move it at all; close and cover one eye, and with pen or pencil trace on the glass what you see before you. You can afterward take it off on thin tracing paper, and transfer it to another surface for painting pay great attention then to the aerial perspective." This passage, as well as many others in the remarkable work, goes far to prove how well disposed was Leonardo, at least toward the use of everything capable of helping the student to use to the utmost his own individual powers of judgment and criticism. With him all means are good and admissible be they scientific, common-sense, or distinctively mechanical and commonplace, provided they tend toward the true seeing and the intelligent rendering of those appearances of forms in space which it is the sole province of drawing to deal with. Starting with the use of Leonardo's glass plane, or rather the practical realization of his vague suggestion, we found that all the elementary facts of perspective can be clearly demonstrated, and more, made absolutely tangible by the intelligent use of the apparatus we had made, and which we call a philograph, so that the beginner, instead of hearing of mathematical theories, and given a number of tiresome diagrams to work out, could learn the groundwork of perspective directly from nature, and with proper guidance find out, so to say for himself, the first facts of the science on which the whole of linear perspective is built up, and with this advantage, that he only learns theoretically what he learns practically, and the theory after and in proof of the practice.

Next we made quite clear to ourselves that a much more important point has been attained; namely, we can do the same for the perspective of irregular forms, or organic or living bodies and figures, as for the lines and planes of linear perspective. [Page 382]  However slow or tiresome, or, to many minds difficult they may be, methods for the study of linear perspective do exist, and can be learned by almost every one who goes to work properly to learn it; but with organic form this is not the case. Let me give a practical illustration by comparing drawing with sculpture. Say a sculptor is going to copy exactly a plaster head. Long before he thinks of giving it a laughing or a serene expression, the delicate modeling of each feature, or the smooth or the hairy surface, he must realize and put down in the clay the accurate dimensions of the whole mass of the head, the proper relative position and size, height or depth of each part or feature. He does this by help of his eye, and his already acquired knowledge (you will say). Yes, but that is not all; he uses a simple enough help, though one he would be sorry to be forced to do without, at least until he has had a great deal of experience. This instrument, called "calipers," or compass of thickness, is not only tolerated, but you will find that the very best French sculptors recommend and insist upon its constant use by students for the sake of cultivating their eye and judgment of form. But how is it with drawing? How do we expect to gain certainty here? You make an accurate drawing of this head ** from one position, but if you move one inch to the right or to the left and look at it from that altered point of view, your drawing will be no longer accurate, all the relative spaces and distances will appear different arid must be drawn so. The sculptor can walk around what he does, can measure it from front to back, from side to side, or diagonally, but you can do nothing of the sort, and according to what many people say, if you know a way of measuring you ought not to use it; you ought to depend solely upon your eye, even though it means, as it so frequently does, building up a complete work on an incorrect or uncertain foundation.

By means of these helps every ordinarily intelligent person can do in a measure for his own eye what photography does for the glass eye of the camera; not, indeed, produce a complete, effortless picture of all he sees, but accurately record the facts of proportion and form, of perspective alterations, etc., as seen by the eye. Granted that what I say be true, and we make it a first condition with all growing students that they start with learning how and why the instruments may be relied on so far, it is easy to see that quite a new element of certainty is introduced into the study of drawing. We are enabled to judge of the work of our own eyes and of our neighbor's by applying the inexorable test of optical and geometrical facts to what hitherto had depended entirely on our own and on our fellow-man's right seeing and judging.

A few words as to the actual use of the philographic helps in studying according to the method. We act on the belief that just as sounding a note in music covertly repeated, even though you be at first guided to the true sound by some instrument, will soon lead to your being able to sound it correctly without helps; so correctly and repeatedly reproducing graphically the appearance of a given form, even though you are helped to see it, is the shortest and best way of learning to see it without helps. It does not in any way encourage carelessness or scamping, but on the contrary cultivates to the full intelligent judgment and self-criticism on the part of the student, based on the understanding of the chief instrument he must employ, namely, his own eye, and on the laws according to which it works, to enable him to see the difficulties and to cope with them, one by one. By so much simplification, and the practical turning of small means to good account, to render it feasible for all sorts of people, and even solitary students, to master the elements of drawing thoroughly. I leave it to you whether this suggested strengthening of the foundations should imply any harm or any lessening of beauty and completeness in the superstructure. Should it not rather, as we strongly incline to think, have the contrary effect, by making it much harder to pass off bad drawing for good, and much more possible to correct the bad work and do away with bad workmanship.

[Page 380] 

Miss Aimee K. Osborne Moore is a native of England. Her parents were James Moore, late Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals in H. M. Service and Anna Marion Osborne Moore. She was educated at Lawrance. Switzerland, and later studied in Paris and England. Has traveled in Europe, Italy, France and America. Miss Moore is an artist and teacher. She is a member of the Anglican Episcopal Church. Her postoffice address is No. 41 Cathcart Road, London. S. W. England.

* The title under which this address was delivered was: "Philographic or Self-Correcting Methods of Studying Drawing."

** Displaying a Marble Bust.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom