Growing up graphically

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
ARTISTS EMERGING: Sustaining Expression through Drawing. By Sheila Paine. Ashgate pound;25.

Most children seem to like drawing. They take to it like ducks to water, in fact, and it is only later, with the advent of self-consciousness and the growing urgencies of science, sport and words that the activity frequently fades out.

Sheila Paine has had the valuable idea of investigating the childhood drawings of seven people for whom drawing did not fade out, in search of guidance on how to encourage the development of the emergent artists of the future.

The seven artists are John Everett Millais, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso; and Michael Rothenstein, Gerard Hoffnung, Sarah Raphael and David Downes. The level of their achievement is varied but each is at the least an established artist with an independent vision.

Artists Emerging first takes a general look at both the approaches to art education of former times and at what seem to be the distinctive characteristics of developing young artists; it is a survey full of perceptive and discussable observations. The next seven chapters explore the nature of each talent and how it was affected by social context, education, and emotional pressures.

They still have slightly the air of a report on research, so that sometimes there was even more detail than I felt I needed, and the intensity of each chapter varies in relation to the interest of the artist.

The chapter on Lautrec is the most gripping, not least because his development is the most continuous of all these artists; by the age of 15 he was making drawings that were not only skilled but showing both the characteristic forms and the distinctive touch of his maturity.

Not surprisingly, the pages devoted to Picsso are almost equally interesting. The contrast with Lautrec, however, is that the young Spaniard comes to the end of his adolescence with (despite occasional hints and portents) a bravura version of the then fashionable art that does not at all show the ways to come.

If I think I can detect something of a change of tone in the later case studies in the book it is perhaps not altogether surprising. The studies of Sarah Raphael (a talented artist too soon taken from us) and David Downes offer a wealth of first-hand information and an engaging parti pris on the part of the author.

In particular David Downes forms a natural bridge to the general observations about teaching and encouragement that end the book. From the age of four Downes, either despite or because of his learning difficulties and idiosyncrasies of personality, produced confident drawings that combined both observation and feeling.

His situation is not, however, so very different from many other students, and it is gratifying and reassuring to hear of the sensitive way in which his development was cared for in the art schools he attended.

While Sheila Paine cannot, from her survey material, prescribe specifics for the new young (have handicaps, be born in Nazi Germany, be Spanish) they each have their own situations, and she can indicate ways in which they may be helped to profit from them.

The value of the close scrutiny of the work of the artists in this book surely lies not least in their inspired commitment to the fascinating power and attraction of drawing.

Quentin Blake is the author of 'Words and Pictures' (Cape). The 'Tell Me A Picture' exhibition selected by him is at the National Gallery untilJune 17. Web: www.nationalgallery.org.uk


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