I Tried Learning to Draw Using a 200-Year-Old Book

June 25, 2020 | Peggy

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Have you ever wanted to learn to draw? Before you answer with "I can't even draw a straight line," let me assure you that drawing is a skill that anyone can learn. 

Sketch of woman drawing alongside man on piece of paper held by winged boy
Portion of a frontispiece from A Catechism of Drawing (1818).

The two things needed to learn to draw are time and instruction. You may have a lot of time right now due to physical distancing. As for instruction, you can find many online drawing resources via Toronto Public Library

But I became curious about a less conventional form of instruction: a vintage book about drawing in our Special Collections. I wondered what it would be like to learn to draw using this 200-year-old book...


The book

The book about drawing I found is from 1818, digitized from our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Book. It's titled A Catechism of Drawing (full title: A Catechism of Drawing; In Which the Rules for Attaining a Knowledge of that Accomplished Art are Given in Language Adapted to the Comprehension of the Youthful Student).

The book is a sort of frequently-asked-questions of subjects of interest to an art student. Although the word "catechism" in the title is used today mostly in its religious sense, it's used here to mean a series of foundational questions and answers on a given topic.

Like many inexpensive books of its time, the book is almost entirely lacking in illustrations. The only illustration in the book is its frontispiece: "Mentor instructing Genius in the Art of Drawing." It provides a posh start to the work, and may also be there as a kind of gentle flattery for the reader.

Illustrated page showing woman drawing alongside man on paper held by winged boy and the title Drawing
The frontispiece of A Catechism of Drawing (1818).

It does seem odd to have a book on drawing without illustrative examples. As a modern reader, I found it fascinating to see how the author attempts to describe with words alone how to draw things as complex as the play of emotion on the human face, or the majesty of a mountain landscape. It's like the game Pictionary in reverse.

For example, here's an excerpt to help the reader sketch a person's head:

Q. What are the proportions of the human head?
A. The head is usually divided into four equal parts; first from the crown of the head to the top of the forehead; second, from the top of the forehead to the top of the nose; third, from thence to the bottom of the nose ; fourth, from thence to the bottom of the chin.


Instructions for a camera obscura

One section of the manual that I found especially interesting was the description of how to set up an "optical machine" or camera obscura.

You may know that the camera obscura (from the Latin for "dark chamber") is a set up which allows an image to be projected through a small hole. There's a long and storied past behind this phenomenon. For the present purpose, it's enough to say that when used to project an image onto paper or canvas, the camera obscura allows an artist to copy an image directly rather than fuss with measurements and proportions.

Here are the instructions found on page 40:

Darken a room, a window of which looks into a place abounding with suitable objects; make a small aperture in the shutter of the window, into which fix a convex lens; at a distance to be determined by experience, spread a paper or white cloth on the wall or a screen; and on this the images of the desired objects will be delineated invertedly, and thence may be copied with ease.


It's a very simple setup. The experience of someone reading these instructions 200 years ago would be virtually identical to a middle school student doing a science fair project today. The main difference is that today we wouldn't call a window covered over with a bit of paper "a machine," which just goes to show how far machines have come along.


Making my own camera obscura

Below is what my camera obscura looked like after I'd put a pinhole in some paper with the business-end of a meat thermometer, taped it up over a window and topped it off with a magnifying glass — the only convex lens I had in the house.

Window covered in paper with a small hole
Setting up a camera obscura in my home.

I don’t know what, if anything, the neighbors thought about my elaborate efforts to fully black out my windows at noon on a weekday... but I bet it wasn’t, "Hey Gertrude, the crazy cat lady across the street is setting up a camera obscura!"

Here are a couple of pictures of my results. They show the house across the street and a big pine tree in my backyard.

Two side by side photos of sketch pads showing grey outlines of house and tree
Results from camera obscura.

It was a fun experiment, but in the end I have to say, why set up a copying device when it's so much more satisfying to learn to draw freehand? Below are some suggestions for library resources that will help you to do just that.


Online resources for drawing from TPL


Drawing school fundamentals


  • LinkedIn Learning for Library (formerly Lynda.com) is a popular elearning platform with instructional videos. It's particularly strong in providing lessons in digital art, but there are also courses for more traditional methods, such as Drawing Foundations: Fundamentals with Will Kemp. 
  • Kanopy is another video streaming services available from the library. It includes How to Draw from the Great Courses series offering 36 half hour episodes covering all the topics you'd find in a typical art school drawing class.


Edited April 29 at 1 pm to update resource link for LinkedIn Learning for Library.