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John Ruskin — the original Boggy Doodler?

I’ve been fortunate to receive a huge amount of positive feedback since giving my TEDx talk earlier in the summer. The most intriguing feedback was that my Green Sketching concept is ‘Ruskinian' after John Ruskin (1819-1900), the influential writer, artist and philanthropist. 

Keen to find out more, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my summer holiday reading books about Ruskin! I also attended a fascinating private viewing of the 2019 Ruskin Prize in Manchester, a prestigious national art competition inspired by Ruskin’s work and values.

Then a fortnight ago, in a truly bizarre coincidence, I accidentally stumbled across Ruskin’s beautiful house ‘Brantwood’ during a family trip to the Lake District (we were on an urgent mission to find an ice cream!). 

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So while I’m fully immersed in all things Ruskin, I thought I’d share some of my notes and quotes. I discovered that Ruskin was brilliant at seeing the connections between issues, people and places. His influence on social justice, art, women’s education, healthcare and environmental protection was remarkable and far-reaching (even Ghandi was a fan…).  For the purpose of this blog, I’ve only scratched the surface of his life and focused on the parts of his life and work that interest me – so if you’re keen to learn more about Ruskin, please check out the books I’ve mentioned at the end. 

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DRAWING AND NATURE

Ruskin was passionate about using drawing as a tool to see nature’s beauty more clearly. Like me, Ruskin considered the process of observing nature far more important than the drawing itself:

‘I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw’.

Ruskin used drawing to observe how the seasons changed, from one year to the next, and found delight in drawing both awe-inspiring mountainous landscapes and tiny, delicate details like the stem of buds from a peach tree. I love and encourage his approach of ‘drawing to learn’, not ‘learning to draw’. 

I was surprised to discover Ruskin had a growth mindset (long before anyone knew what that was!) in that he believed drawing was a skill not a talent, which anyone could master with enough practice.

‘…I have never yet, in the experiments I have made, met with a person who could not draw at all; and in general, there is a satisfactory and available power in every one to learn drawing if he wishes…’

I completely agree! Anyone who can hold a pencil can sketch nature. Obviously it takes time to improve, but anyone can do it. 

When it came to teaching children, Ruskin believed they should beencouraged to draw ‘the things it can see and likes, — birds, or butterflies, or flowers or fruit’ rather than being prescribed what to draw. This relaxed attitude and self-directed approach to sketching is at the heart of Green Sketching, especially with young children. The moment you tell a child what they have to draw, they can quickly lose interest.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION 

Ruskin was fascinated by geology, physical geography and meterology. In fact, he was one of the first people to draw attention to the impact humans were having on the climate system as a result of industrial pollution (during his lecture ‘The Storm-Cloud of the nineteenth century). 

As a keen observer of clouds, he noticed pollution was changing the colour of the skies and realised the potential negative implications way ahead of his time. Sadly, few took him seriously and it’s sobering to note how much the climate has changed since his lecture. Just think where we might be today if his warnings hadn’t been ignored…

Thankfully, Ruskin had more success when it came to the National Trust, helping to establish the much-loved organization that today looks after many of the country’s most beautiful doodle spots, makes the delicious cakes and even sells my greeting cards in some of their shops! :-)  

OXFORD, SWITZERLAND AND BRANTWOOD 

I knew the University art department ‘The Ruskin School of Art’ was named after him but only recently discovered that I’d been to the same Oxford college as Ruskin (Christ Church) though thankfully, unlike poor Ruskin, my mum didn’t come and stay with me in Oxford while I was a young and carefree undergraduate! 

I was also intrigued to learn that Ruskin had also spent a significant amount of time in Switzerland on the shores of Lac Leman. During my thirties, I spent five years living in the same part of Switzerland, a time defined by a succession of big life events (marriage, motherhood, bereavements) which prompted a fairly major reevaluation of my career and priorities. Apparently the majestic mountain landscape also affected Ruskin greatly, both intellectually and emotionally, something I could easily relate to. 

Back in the UK, Ruskin picked a truly beautiful spot to live within the Lake District. The views from Brantwood across Lake Coniston are breathtaking and the way he designed his tranquil woodland garden makes you think he knew about forest bathing long before it was trendy. 

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SKETCHING AND WELLBEING 

It’s well-known that Ruskin suffered poor mental health during his life, but he also recognized the benefits of sketching nature for his wellbeing, advocating his daily practice of sketching and painting sunrise every day: 

Each person who remembers to ‘set aside a quarter of an hour of every morning… for the observance of the sun-rise, and always to have pencil and colour at hand to make a note of anything more than usually beautiful…will find his thoughts during the rest of the day both calmed and purified…’

As an avid colour-lover, I was intrigued to learn Ruskin believed in the power of colour to affect emotions, encouraging his students to add colour to their drawings, in their own way, for their own wellbeing: 

 ‘…if you want to color beautifully, color as best pleases yourself at quiet times, not so as to catch the eye, nor look as if it were clever or difficult to colour in that way, but so that the colour may be pleasant to you when you are happy or thoughtful’.

And when it comes to colour, I have to mention my favourite Ruskin quote, the one that always makes me smile: 

‘The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.’ 

It’s fair to say Ruskin had exacting high standards when it came to drawing and demanded his artwork, and that of his students, reflected the ‘truth’ of nature with careful precision. Green Sketching is a little more relaxed! There’s no need to worry about wobbly lines and wonky perspective. I believe it’s the looking – and seeing – that matters and can change your relationship with nature. 

But the more I’ve learned about Ruskin, the more parallels I’ve found with Green Sketching. It’s given me confidence to continue spreading the message -- his message -- that it’s as important as ever for us to learn to see nature’s beauty more clearly. So put down your phone, pick up a pencil and head outdoors! 

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Further Resources 

  • Find out more about why I think learning to see nature’s beauty is still so critically important in my recent TEDx talk.

  • Learn more about the prestigious Ruskin Prize for drawing here

  • Ruskin’s beautiful Lake District home, Brantwood, is well worth a visit. Described as a paradise of art and nature, it’s a fascinating house with stunning views across Lake Coniston (the ice cream is pretty good too!).  

  • To See Clearly Why Ruskin Matters— Suzanne Fagence Cooper

  • John Ruskin — James S. Dearden

  • John Ruskin Artist and Observer— Christopher Newall 

  • The Elements of Drawing— John Ruskin