Learning to Draw and Respecting the Tradition

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

As I have spoken with various groups about iconography, including my own students at Mount Angel Seminary, I have often been asked if a person needs to be able to draw in order to be an iconographer.

Do you need to know how to draw before you start studying iconography?  No, I explain.  When I was a beginning student with the Iconographic Arts Institute, I had taken just one drawing class in college.  However, if I want to fully engage in the process of becoming an iconographer, learning to draw is essential.  If would be as if I wanted to be a musician but did not learn how to read music.  I still might be able to sing well, but my skills and ability to grow would be severely limited.

Learning to draw is also an indication of respect for the iconographic tradition.  If I have discerned that I am called to be an active practitioner of that tradition, then I have a responsibility to do my work with as much skill as I can.  If I only trace my prototypes and never learn to draw on my own, the life in my images will be diminished.

The little book 101 Things to Learn in Art School (public library) dedicates several of its 101 things to drawing.  Right away the reader finds #2: Learn to Draw.

Drawing is more than a tool for rendering and capturing likeness.  It is a language, with its own syntax, grammar, and urgency.  Learning to draw is about learning to see.  In this way, it is a metaphor for all art activity.  Whatever its form, drawing transforms perception and thought into image and teaches us own to think with our eyes.

Photo by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

A few pages later we have #5: A drawing (or a painting, photograph, and so on) is first and foremost an expression of its medium:

The medium is the artwork's first identity.  It is secondarily about what it depicts.  Form shapes content.  A poorly executed image remains insignificant.  A well-constructed image of something seemingly insignificant can be masterful.  In all great work, the subject and the means by which it is rendered are inseparable.  Master your technique to protect your content.

#17 also expands on drawing: Drawing is about mark making:

Every mark has a distinct character and quality.  Every mark is a signature.  Variation in pressure and weight is the visual equivalent of intonation.  Marks, or lines, of consistent weight or thickness surrounding a figure or object will flatten the image.  Tapering or breaking a line in a curve can connote a highlight or make the curve flow.  Also, a tentative line will read as such.  Give every mark or line authority and make sure is serves a purpose.  Try to use only the marks you need.

#20 explains: Clear sight makes clear art.

Observation lies at the heart of the art process.  Whether your art derives from mimicking nature or extrapolating a mental construct, your powers of observation are critical.  Unless you can see what lies before you, you cannot describe it.  Train yourself to eliminate preconceptions and received understandings when observing anything.  Try to see what is before you, not what you think you see or want to see.

All four of these passages are included in a handout I use with the History of Art students on the day we begin some shading exercises with an icon.  I hope they learn to see what the icon has to offer them in that moment when they sit down with their paper and pencils.