Rokeby Distance Drawing: Gibson Girls

Get ready for a total art history nerd post! The Rokeby Museum has given me access to their archive and I have been digging through the letters and images of Rachael Robinson (a 19th century illustrator).

Charles Gibson Rachael Robsinon Elmer Courtney Clinton
The Sweetest Story Ever Told, C. 1910, Charles Dana Gibson, Public Domain Image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

As a teenager Rachael studied drawing in New York with her teacher Ernest Knaufft. In one of her letters back home she writes about seeing an exhibition of work by Charles Dana Gibson (image 2). From her letter we know that his work had a big impact on her art!

There is a new exhibition of Gibson’s pen drawing a little way from Mr. Knaufft. I have been twice, they are grand. I wish thee could have seen them. Some of them sell for $2.00. They are very large. Some 3 by 2 feet. I should think he is a young man yet. Some of his lines, on faces especially, are so fine you can scarcely see them. They have to be sent to Paris to be reproduced.

— Rachael Robinson Elmer to Robinson Family, March 5, 1893

Gibson was famous for his images of ‘modern womanhood’. At the turn of the century American women had better access to education and work possibilities than they had in the past. The role of the woman was changing and Gibson captured this evolution in his art.

rachael robsinon elmer ann robinson pen and ink charles gibson
Portrait of Ann Stevens Robinson Reading, c. 1891–1900, Pen and Ink, Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919)

As an art student Elmer student and drew sketches of her relatives. The above image shows her mother Ann reading the pages of her father’s manuscript. Her author father was nearly blind at this point and her mother played a central role in his writing process. She corrected and re-transcribed his writing and corresponded with his editors.

gibson rachael robinson pen and ink
L to R: Portrait of Rachel Byrd Stevens, c. 1893–1903, Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878–1919), Box 19, Image 3357; Head of a Girl, c. 1882–1935, Charles Dana Gibson, Public Domain Image from Library of Congress

In a sense both artists recorded a modern image of womanhood. Yet they couldn’t feel more different. Elmer’s women feel old fashion compared to the “Gibson Girls”. But given a little context, her image of Ann is a much truer example of a woman at work.

Gibson’s depiction of 20th century womanhood isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s limited. He depicts the women he saw and knew in his affluent New York circle. Elmer’s art helps broaden our understanding of what social change meant for a different part of the country. Of course neither artist tells us much about the condition of BIPOC from this period. For me this comparison highlights the importance of seeking out new voices from history.

Rokeby Distance Drawing Course : Copy

How did a young woman from a rural town become an important book illustrator at the beginning of the 20th century? Join me as I chart Rachael’s artistic journey and share a drawing exercise from the course she took in the 1890s. The Rokeby Distance Drawing Course is available now on the Rokeby Museum Website.

Rowland Evens Robinson Rokeby Rachael

In this week’s lesson I invite students to make a copy of a drawing by Rachael, a portrait of her father, Rowland. Through archival material from the museum’s collection we also explore Rachael’s relationship with her father- a prominent illustrator and author.

Rowland was a major influence on Rachael’s professional career. An active author he would often get Rachael to illustrate his articles and books. Before the age of 18 Rachael had a dozen published illustrations thanks to this collaboration.

Understanding Rowland’s role in Rachael’s story, forces us to think more critically about the role of distance education in Rachael’s success. Rachael studied art with an important New York illustrator through a correspondence course. Having access to this education gave Rachael the tools to pursue her career. But seeing how hands on her father (and mother) were in her education and her early career reminds us that access doesn’t equal success. Rachael was able to take advantage of distance education because she had a stable and supportive home life.

By sharing Rachael’s story I want to pull back the curtain on the modern conception of an artist as a genius. Generally when an artist has early success it is because there is a support system around them.

I don’t think you need an author father to get your start as an illustrator. But I think it suggests that beyond education, artists need to think about finding some kind of apprenticeship to learn the business side of their trade.

Click here to read the full lesson!

Bill Reid: Art & Memory

Bill Reid Inspiration Art craft

Bill Reid was my first engagement with art. I can still remember seeing his Raven and the First Men sculpture and the sense of awe that I felt. The launch of the new toonie with his design brought me back to those memories.

It’s interesting to think about Reid’s work and my own practice all these years later. What stands out to me now when I look at his work is the quality of his craft and the narrative clarity.

Looking at a Reid sculpture, I have the same “how did a person make that” response that I did all those years ago. His work is beautiful. The composition, the detail and his carving technique are all incredible.

As a kid I remember getting pulled into the story of Raven. In a single still image we understand the story that Reid is trying to communicate.

As an artist I strive for these same artistic qualities. I want my art to be beautiful and I want it to communicate clearly.

Bill Reid Toonie

Reid might not seem like an obvious influence on my work. We are working in different cultural traditions. For me what connects our work is craft. Reid apparently rejected the title of artist and called himself a ‘maker of things’. I get that. Like him it’s this process of making that drives and defines my practice.

My knowledge of craft acts as an entry point for me to engage with different fine art traditions. When I look at something like sculpture (which I don’t do myself). I look for clues to how the artist made the object. When I start to understand their process the intention of the artist starts to reveal itself organically. There is always a connection between how something is made and what it is trying to communicate.

Universal Language: Wyeth and Xuan

In the late 19th century, artists who had the chance to study in the cosmopolitan French system started to discuss the idea of painting and realism in terms of a universal pictorial language.

Ai Xuan and Andrew Wyeth

A beautiful example of the kind of cross cultural dialogue is the work of the contemporary Chinese painter Ai Xuan which is inspired and aims to respond to the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth.

andrew wyeth courtney clinton chinese art
Andrew Wyeth, Up in the Studio, Part of the MET Collection

Xuan and many other Chinese realists were compelled by the relationship Wyeth built between his figures and the landscape. In both his landscapes and his portraits Wyeth shows his subject as subordinate to the grandeur of nature. Seated next to a window the subject of these portraits is not the sitter but the light. The light gives these images both a narrative and an emotional presence.

Ai xuan andrew wyeth
Ai Xuan, Girl in Cottage Window, 1993, Oil on canvas

Cultural Identity

Wyeth was the son of one of the most important American illustrators, NC Wyeth (image 5). NC Wyeth helped define the myth of the cowboy at the heart of America’s cultural identity. Andrew Wyeth strips his country scenes of all the grandeur and the myth of his father’s work. His work is a humbling image of America and more generally our place as humans in the natural world.

socialist realism contemporary art realism

Xuan came out of the Socialist Realist tradition. He trained and started his career making art that propagated a nationalist view of the communist state. This shifted with his fine art that looks at the Tibetan community and their close relationship to the land. Like Wyeth he is quietly deconstructing the myths of human self importance that defines his country’s culture.

NC Wyeth ai xuan american identity
NC Wyeth, Poems of American Patriotism, Oil on Canvas

Seeing the work of these two artists together gives a western audience a window into Chinese culture. It helps us see a shared humanity. It also gives us a way to step back and look at our own culture from a different angle. We can easily identify propaganda from other cultures but we are not great at recognising the archetypes and images that have influenced our own cultural identity.

Drawing Challenge: Building Blocks

Remember being a kid playing with building blocks? Remember that rush you got when you realised you could stack and build out your blocks? We can do the same thing on our sheet of paper. The same way this kind of play teaches kids valuable cognitive skills, we can use this exercise to develop our drawing skills.

This week’s challenge

For this week’s challenge we are going to expand on last week’s challenge and start to build in 3D space. I recommend that you work through last week’s lesson before you start the one from this week.

For this week’s challenge you will need two coloured pens and a slightly thicker marker. I would recommend a blue and a red ballpoint pen and a sharpie marker.

We are going to use a couple photos as reference for this week’s lesson. You will find the photos below.

Start with cube

In two point perspective the only parallel lines are the vertical height lines. The width and length lines of our cubes will recede towards two vanishing points (Vp1, Vp2).

Our first step is to draw a horizon line. When we look at the cube we can see a lot of its top side. This tells us that the horizon line is significantly above our cube.

Step 2: vanishing points

To find our two vanishing points we are going to take the angle of the front two bottom edges of our cube. Line a pencil up against the bottom right edge. Now imagine that your pen extended all the way until it met the horizon line. Where would that point be?

Do the same thing with the bottom left edge.

In both cases that point where the line extending from the bottom line and the horizon line meet is outside our picture plane (the rectangle that defines our drawing).

Above is an image that shows our two vanishing points. Look how far vanishing point two is. This is a pretty typical case. It’s very rare that your vanishing points will be close to your picture plane. So we have to get used to imagining where they are and making construction lines that suggest or estimate that point. Our aim is not exactness, our goal is to make images that feel like they are in perspective.

One thing that can help is to draw a thumbnail in the corner of your page that shows the relationship between the vanishing points and the picture plane. In our case it’s important to note that the vanishing point on the left is much closer to the picture plane than the right vanishing point.

Step 2: Base

To start, let’s draw a square in two point perspective.

Mark a point near the bottom left of your page. This will represent the front corner of our square.

Let’s start from the right side. The length lines that define the right side will all originate from the right vanishing point (Vp2). We know that this point is a long ways away. This tells us something about the slope of the line. Because it will take longer to reach the vanishing point we know that the slope of this line will be less steep. Measure the bottom right edge of the cube in the photo to get the exact slope.

Repeat the same process on the left side. The length lines that define the left side will be much steeper. We know the vanishing point on the left is much closer to the picture plane. To ensure that the left length lines meet the horizon more quickly we need a line that is closer to a vertical.

Now let’s indicate the invisible lines that define the back edges of our square. We can’t see these lines because our cube is opaque. We are going to use the information we have to estimate these lines.

Let’s start with the back left line. This line is opposite to the right front line. In theory these two lines are parallel. In perspective any lines that are parallel will converge towards a shared vanishing point. So the left back line will recede towards the right vanishing point. We want to draw a line that is very similar to our front right edge. But it should slope slightly towards that first line.

For the right back line, the same principles apply. In this case, the back right line is moving towards the left vanishing point. It will look very similar to the left front edge but again it should slope slightly towards the front line.

Getting the base correct will make all the difference as you move through the drawing. So spend all the time you need to get it right.

Step 3: Build out your cube

Build out the rest of your cube starting with the two front sides and then the top of your cube. Think like a builder and work from bottom to top. As you make new lines, think about their relationship to the vanishing points.

To get a step by step guide to building your cube check out last week’s blog.

Add a Cone

Ok now that we have a base cube, let’s have some fun! Let’s add a cone to our drawing!

We don’t know how to build a cone yet. But we do know how to build a cube or a box. So let’s start with what we know.

Step 1: Draw a box

If we measure our cone we can see that it’s approximately two cubes high. So let’s build a box measuring two cubes on top of our original cube.

To build this next cube we need a base. Well lucky us we already have our base. The top of our original cube is also the base of our cone.

To build side walls around our base we stretch out our four vertical lines. Go ahead and stretch them just past your top measurement.

For the top plane we need to use our imagined vanishing points. The front left edge and the back right edge will both move towards our left vanishing point. Our right front edge and our back left edge will move towards our right vanishing point.

Look at how the cone sits inside our cube.

Step 2: Ellipse base

Now let’s think about what makes our cone different from our cube. Let’s start with our base (we always start at the bottom). The base of our cone is defined by a circle in perspective (we call this an ellipse).

To draw that ellipse we first find the centre point of our base square. Draw an X starting at the four corners of the square. The point where the two diagonal lines meet is the centre of your square. Knowing where the centre is we can draw two more lines that run through the centre of this square. These should make a kind of cross in perspective.

When we draw a circle in a cube we see that the circle hits the square at these centre points of the length lines. These points mark the four crests of the circle’s curved line. We can use this information to help guide us as we draw our ellipse to represent the base of our cone.

Step 4: Top

The top of the cone is quite unlike its base. The top is not flat or round, it is defined by a point. But how do we decide where that point is? Rationally, we know that the point is above the centre point of our base. If we draw a vertical line starting from the centre of our base up towards the top of our new box, we can find our point. This line represents the centre line of our cone.

To complete our cube draw two diagonal lines. First, from the centre of the right front edge of the cone base to the top point. Next from the middle of the left back edge to the top point of the cone.

Add Cylinder

In the same way that we built on top of our cube, we can also build out from our cube. Let’s add a cylinder to the back left side of our cube.

In the same way we build a cone inside a box, we can build our cylinder inside a box that comes off our original cube.

Step 1: Base

To start building this new box, we start with our base. Always start with the base. It’s boring but it makes drawing so much easier!

This part is really fun, because we get to be really lazy. In the same way that we extended our cube’s vertical lines to build the walls of our cone’s box, we can extend the length lines of our cube’s base to make our new base!! Magic.

Step 2: Build out a box

Let’s start with the front right edge. Our new box measures about the same as the total length of our cube (both sides). So let’s pull the front right edge of our cube about that length to the right. Now we can extend the back left edge the same distance to the right. Mark a point on the front right edge that represents the right front corner of our new box. Starting from this point, we can extend a line towards our left vanishing point. This line will represent our back right edge. Now we have the base of our cube.

Using the construction lines from the top of our original cube. We can build out the rest of this new box.

Step 2: Cylinder in box

To build our cylinder we are going to start with the two sides that are defined by an ellipse. We are going to divide the squares that hold these ellipses in the same way we did for the cone.

To draw that ellipse we first find the centre point of our squares. Draw an X starting at the four corners of the square. The point where the two diagonal lines meet is the centre of your square. Knowing where the centre is we can draw two more lines that run through the centre of this square. These should make a kind of cross in perspective.

When we draw a circle in a cube we see that the circle hits the square at these centre points of the length lines. These points mark the four crests of the circle’s curved line. We can use this information to help guide us as we draw our ellipses that make the two sides of our cylinder.

Now all we need to do is define the top and bottom edge of our cylinder. The lines for the top edge should be just left of the vertical centre line of the side squares. We want it to feel like the line is extending from the ellipse. Or that the ellipse is turning into this top edge. Same principal for the bottom edge. The line should start somewhere on the right side of that centre vertical line of the side squares.

Finishing up the drawing

To give our drawing a clean feel. We can go over our main lines with a darker or thicker pen. We don’t want to draw all of our construction lines. Only lines that define the edges that we can see. Take your time on this step and try and clean up any loose lines and improve your curves.

Selfie: #Neutral

This painting is called #neutral. The aim was to address a conceptual limitation in the series of Selfie paintings I have been making.


#Study (WIP), Selfie, 2020, graphite on paper

In this painting I portray myself like a marble sculpture. So much of the tradition of realist art references Roman and Greek sculpture. This kind of sculpture is what we call ideal art. It presents an essential idea of the human form. It’s not meant to represent a specific person but an idea of the average person. When artists want to express a universal message they will use this kind of “generalized” figure to say this is everyone’s story. For a long time these generalised figures have been presented as white. In both fine art and pop culture we’ve treated white culture as neutral or most relatable.

There is a lot of great art right now that is challenging this idea. I think of Kent Monkman or Kehinde Wiley who make ideal art not only with different bodies but also with a different intended audience.

Acknowledging bias

With my own Selfie series, I’m asking my viewers to look beyond the subject (me) and think about the history and process of image making. I’m asking them not to think about me as an individual. In this way I’m treating myself as a neutral subject. .

To paint this I used both a neutral and a red paint. By expressing the color of my skin, I want to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a neutral figure. We all have an identity and that informs our understanding of the world. It’s scary to admit our own shortsightedness. But I think in our divisive culture, it’s the only way forward.

Drawing Challenge : Line

I am so excited to say that we are one month into the drawing challenge! For those of you who have been drawing with me since week one or two, Thank You! It has been soo much fun to see all of your awesome work!

Drawing Challenge Student week 3

For those of you joining us for the first or secound time, welcome! To find out more about the drawing challenge, I’ve posted an overview of the challenge here.

This week’s challenge

This week we are going to work from a really great drawing book on ornament design, Cusack’s Freehand Ornament, by C. Armstrong. The book was printed back in 1895 and a free PDF is available online.

For a little perspective, these exercises were intended for school children. That’s right a hundred years ago, kids as young as 12 were expected to have fundamental drawing skills.

In his introduction Armstrong writes:

Art is long, one must not be discouraged, but must give the subject more time and more brain effort, by which in the end they will succeed. It is to be remembered that not the fact of being born clever makes a genius, but that infinite trouble is the mother of genius.

So with that in mind let’s take on one of the biggest challenges in drawing : Line Quality.

The challenge with lines is that they require practice. There is only so much of the process that you can intellectualize. To get beautiful straight or curved lines you have to practice. That means making a lot of ugly lines and that can feel discouraging.

But there are tricks to help attack this challenge. Building on the block in technique we learned in weeks 1 and 2, Let’s explore a process that makes our job simpler.

How to start the drawing

drawing challenge

To start our drawing we are going to block-in the glass by reducing its parts to basic flat shapes. They will be represented by a squared semi-circle. For the stem we ignore all the detail of the final drawing and we use an upside down triangle. and for the base a secound triangle. Already we understand what is being represented.

Work big to small

drawing challenge courntey clinton

As we start to add detail, we want to keep in mind the principal of big to small. This means we start by adding the largest shapes.

The upside down triangle should act as borders for the new shapes you are drawing. Think about the negative space between the curved lines and the edges of the triangle. Make sure that your new shapes stay within your triangle. If they don’t seem to fit, go back a step and redraw that triangle.

As you add these large shapes, take measurements. Compare the size of the curved part of the stem with the top of the glass. These two shapes are very close in length. Make sure that is true of your drawing.

How to clean up your lines

Now you have enough information to add the details that make the drawing interesting and dynamic. Take your time adding these last shapes.

When you are satisfied with your drawing, you can take a darker or thicker pen to draw over your lines. Make sure to take your time on this final step. Keep looking at the original drawing. It’s easy to fall into automatic mode here and lose some of the subtlety of your lines.




Composition is the link between  abstract and realist art! By taking a deep dive into composition, I want to show what these two genres have in common!

Illustration and AbEx


heffel jack bush composition cresendo spring auction
Jack Bush, Crescendo, 1974, 28 1/2 x 36 5/8 in (part of Heffel Spring Auction)

To illustrate the link, I’ve chosen two works by the great Canadian artist Jack Bush. By day he was an illustrator. By night he was an abstract painter.

These two genres look very different but what unifies them is a really strong composition or design. At it’s most basic, composition is about thinking through the placement of the different elements that make up the picture.

In Bush’s abstract work he places color in a way that conveys a sense of motion. In this painting the color tiles seem to be falling in space.

jack bush illustration art composition

In his illustration he uses proportion to create a sense of atmosphere. The antique candlestick is much larger than the main figure. It creates a sense that the figure is surrounded by antique objects. There is only one object but we understand that she is in some kind of antique store. This information is communicated through composition.

Composition Strategies

richard diebenkorn scisors clinton graphic traffic

Good composition gives an artwork an emotional quality. It elevates a picture of a pair of scissors from an industrial design sketch to something we call fine art!

Composition is a tough concept to pin down. There are no set rules for what makes a great composition. But there are strategies you can learn to approach composition from a more analytical point of view.

Diebenkorn’s Scissors

The American painter Richard Diebenkorn was a master of composition. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Diebenkorn experimented with both abstract and realist painting throughout his career.

Drawing from life was a big part of his practice. He produced a prolific number of pen and ink wash drawings of still life subjects and life models. He would often turn these into more abstract paintings.  In this way he used his realist drawing as a kind of composition strategy.


ink wash scisors diebenkorn graphic traffic composition

One of his most famous motifs was of a pair of opened scissors.

There is sooo much we can learn about composition by studying these works. Notice how the subject never changes: it is always the same opened scissors.

What changes is the orientation or size of the scissors and their placement. By making these simple changes the narrative and emotive quality of the scissors changes with each image.

In this way the first principal of composition is placement.

Drawing Challenge : Copying

So with social distancing taking effect it is time to get a hobby! Why not learn to draw? For anyone with time, paper and a pen copying old master drawings is a great way to learn to draw. Below you will find a list of high res drawings that are great drawings to learn from.

Join our growing community of art lovers! Thanks to the CBC for sharing this drawing challenge!

Choose a drawing

Set up Art Exercise:

Grab a pen and paper and a large book (9 x 12) that you can lean against the table. You never want to draw on a flat surface. Tape your paper to the book and lean it against the table, resting on your lap. Now you can look at the paper head on. When the paper is lying on a flat table you are seeing everything in perspective and making your job twice as hard.

Choose one of the below drawings. You can print it out and tape it to a wall or you can use the image from your screen. Make sure the drawing is far enough away. You want a least one arms length between you and your subject.

How to start

Never start with the eye. We are going to work big to small. First try and block out the big shape of your drawing. Imagine if you only had 4 to 5 big lines. How would you represent this drawing?

Get the right measurements

Now you want to take some measurements. What’s the middle point of the drawing? If it’s a portrait draw a dash line to indicate where you would place the eyes, the base of the nose and he middle of the mouth.

To make measurements stick your arm out so it’s straight and close one of your eyes. Use your pen as a kind of ruler. Measure the space from the chin to the eyes and than from the eyes to the top of the head. They should be pretty close. Now check those same measurements on your drawing. Keep measuring different sections and compare the measurements of the drawing with your copy. Try and do this for at least 15 minutes.

How to add shadow & detail

Now you can start to ad detail to your outlines. show the roundness of the line outline and started adding the features (eyes, nose, mouth).

When you are feeling really good about placement, it’s time to start looking for shadow shapes. In all of these drawings the artists have used line to show shadow. Before we copy the lines lets try and outline the shapes of the different shadows. Draw lines that represent the boarder between the light area (no lines) and the dark areas (groups of lines).

How to get feedback

If you want to get feedback on your drawing tag me to your copy on instagram @clinton.courtney




Corona Virus Drawing Challenge

Drawing Challenge Overview

So with social distancing taking effect it is time to get a hobby! Why not learn to draw?

Join our growing community of art lovers! Thanks to the CBC for sharing this drawing challenge!

How to participate in the challenge

Drawing challenge materials

To take part in the drawing challenge you will need:

  1. Pen (any household pen)
  2. Paper
  3. A drawing board

You don’t need fancy artist supplies to participate. Find any old pen lying around your house. For paper you can use any smooth paper. A great choice is printer paper. You will need something that you can lean against a table so that you can draw on an inclined surface. I like to use a coffee table book.

New challenge every Tuesday

Every Tuesday, I will post a weekly drawing challenge to my blog, Graphic Traffic. The blog will outline the challenge and give you step by step instructions. This challenge is aimed at artists of all levels. So there are lots of resources to help you succeed!

Thursday Instagram Live drawing session

Every Thursday at 5pm (Eastern Daylight Time) I will host a live drawing class on my Instagram Live. You can find me on Instagram at @clinton.courtney. The Drawing sessions will last approximately one hour.

The live drawing session is structured like a class. The audience is encouraged to have their pen and paper and to draw along!

Live drawing schedule

  • 5 pm to 5:30 pm : Intro and warm up exercise
  • 5:30 pm to 6 pm : Weekly challenge exercise
  • 6pm : Q & A with the Artist

How to get feedback on your art

If you want to get feedback on your drawing tag me to your copy on Instagram @clinton.courtney

How to find the weekly challenge

You can find all of the Corona Virus drawing challenges on my blog, Graphic Traffic.

Here is a list of all the past challenges