Four self portraits by Crystal Chia. A head and shoulders drawing of a deceased child.

Drawn together: how the Museum's collection inspires students

By Sarah Jaffray, Project Officer: Bridget Riley Art Foundation, Prints and Drawings

Publication date: 5 September 2017

Sarah Jaffray, Project Officer for the Bridget Riley Art Foundation, talks about how drawing is enjoying a renaissance among art students, in part thanks to the Museum's fascinating collection.

Drawn together: how the Museum's collection inspires students

Drawing is popular again. With blockbuster exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery and the Ashmolean and festivals like The Big Draw, drawing seems to be a big part of our cultural consciousness. It seems strange for me to suggest that drawing has ever lost its popularity, but when I started working as Project Officer for the Bridget Riley Art Foundation (BRAF) at the British Museum three years ago, I was told by some university Fine Arts tutors that students were actively hostile to drawing.

Since then, BRAF Project Curator Isabel Seligman and I have worked with over 1,100 artists, art students, and tutors from across London and the UK to investigate the role drawing plays in their individual practices, and in higher education arts programmes. We discovered that many students had lost touch with drawing because it felt too basic. Anyone can draw. All it takes is a pencil and paper – it doesn’t seem 'unique' or different enough from what has gone before.

Four students sketching and making notes in the Prints and Drawings Study Room
Central Saint Martins students drawing in the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Room.

Through workshops and a touring exhibition curated from the Museum’s Prints and Drawings collection (a collection that holds over 50,000 drawings from the 15th century to the present), Isabel and I have tried to revive an interest in drawing, especially the practice of drawing from another artist’s work. Workshops are open discussions guided by student and tutor interest. They touch on the context and media of the artworks and, most importantly, give students time to draw from drawing. Our hope is that through the practice of drawing, students can interrogate their working methods while in conversation with historic works of art. We have definitely seen resistance to what some feel is a command to copy an historic artwork. However, a majority of students have embraced what is for them a new method of learning.

Ways of knowing is a small display (currently on in Room 90a until 28 September 2017) that demonstrates the sort of work and ideas that have come out of our BRAF workshops. It showcases the art of Stage 2 BA Fine Arts students from Central Saint Martins alongside the artworks from the collection that inspired them.

Prints and drawings on display in glasses cases
Gallery view Room 90a.

These artworks emerged from a five-session course on drawing entitled 'On not knowing' led by the BRAF team and their tutor Nicola Thomas. The course is based around the description of drawing from Bridget Riley’s 2009 essay 'At the End of My Pencil'. In it, Riley explains: 'For me, drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know.' Working from this idea, students were encouraged to be curious and closely examine their artistic process through drawing.

For Crystal Chia her time drawing on the course profoundly impacted her practice. She explains: 'for the longest time I have abandoned drawing as my form of practice... This project has freed me from my analytic mind, reminding me of the importance of connecting to the reality of looking and observing, putting sight onto paper and allowing me to return to the most simple and direct way of making art.'

Four self portraits by Crystal Chia. A head and shoulders drawing of a deceased child.
Left: Crystal Chia, Self-portraits, 2017, Ink on paper. Copyright Crystal Chia. Right: Formerly attributed to John Everett Millais, Portrait of a dead child, around 1850, Graphite and black chalk on buff paper, copyright expired.

After spending time with the drawing Portrait of a dead child in the Prints and Drawings Study Room, Chia began to reflect on the intensity of observation and exchange that happen in the process of making a portrait. Instead of making an exact copy, she was inspired to use a new approach to observation. She explains her process: 'I closed my eyes like the little child in the portrait and felt my face and body with my fingertips and translated that touch onto paper.' The lines of her drawings are the delicate tracery of touch; her shifting movements and perception are the real subject her Self-portraits.

Two ink drawings of groups of people
Left: Karlin Wong, Figure Studies. Ink on paper, June 2017. © Karlin Wong. Right: Luca Cambiaso (1527–1585), The Marriage of the Virgin. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, black chalk, squared in red chalk for transfer, 1567.

For Karlin Wong, drawing in the Study Room helped her realise that 'unfinished works can be a great source of inspiration.' She took inspiration from the schematic figural drawings of late Renaissance artist Luca Cambiaso (1527–1585). 'Works in progress' such as Cambiaso's preparatory drawing provide important lessons for artists seeking to learn new techniques for their own working process. From Cambiaso, Wong developed new associations between figure and abstraction.

The workshops also impacted the drawing practice of Cez Mckend. She explains: 'The project invited me to start thinking about drawing as research through the use of experimental process. The purpose was not to replicate, but to generate something new by a means of observing.'

Abstract graphite drawing
Cez Mckend (b. 1996), Artist’s Sketchbook. Graphite, 2017. © Cez Mckend.

Her sketchbook, like those of most artists, is a place of experimentation and exploration. On these pages she is playing with marks, textures and spatial relationships.

Before taking part in the BRAF workshops Pequeno (né Jonas Mcilwain) had a sceptical view of drawing. After being exposed to diverse types of drawing in the Prints and Drawings collection, he found drawing became more integrated into his practice.

Notes and diagrams on circumference. Drawing of an abdomen.
Left: Pequeno, Partial Circumference Attempt (detail). Charcoal on paper, 2017. © Pequeno. Right: Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Abdomen and left leg of a nude man standing in profile. Red chalk, on orange-red prepared paper, c. 1506.

Pequeno was influenced by studies in which an artist is 'working something out.' He discovered: 'The exposed process of drawing, like making a blue-print, is most effective as an idea-to-paper type of action.' He was most inspired by how Leonardo’s hugely ambitious ideas were being worked out through drawing. Pequeno's calls his work a 'serious joke', trying to calculate the incalculable. In the above drawing, he is working out his relationship to the sun.

Other works from artists Cicely Haslam, Joshua von Uexkull, Cecil Collins, Ingres, Margaret Stones, Bridget Riley, a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Micah Lexier and Gerhard Richter are too numerous to show here, but are all on display in the gallery.

Beyond the amazingly creative student interpretations and rarely exhibited drawings from the collection, Ways of knowing is also about bigger themes of BRAF. Isabel and I hope artists and non-artists will see drawing as a valuable method of research. We hope to inspire a better understanding of drawing as a diverse media that ranges from the playful to the intellectual. We hope Ways of knowing inspires you to explore our drawing collections and perhaps book an appointment to draw in our Study Room.

These works were displayed in Room 90a until 28 September 2017.