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!

Rokeby Distance Drawing : Vision

Courtney Clinton Studio Distance Drawing Course

In my first #RokebyDistanceDrawing lesson I invite students to start a sketchbook and develop a practice of engaged observation. Don’t worry this doesn’t require any deep breathing. 😉

Through this exercise I want to challenge the idea of art as a kind of creative expression and instead present art as a kind of visual research.

Most young artists assume that because they know the world around them they also understand it. When asked to put pen to paper and draw something as simple as a tree most flounder and draw a 🌲 not an actual tree. Many assume that this means they don’t have any artistic talent. With first lesson my aim is to throw out this idea of talent and get students to start thinking about the connection between observation and drawing.

Learning to draw is about training your eye. It means sitting in front of your subject for a sustained period and working out it’s structure and mechanics. Of course the ultimate aim of art is expression but this research into observation will allow a young artist to better articulate and inform their ideas.

courtney clinton rokeby museum vision

For the lion’s share of this course we will focus on training our ability to see. Near the end of the course we will shift our attention to creative expression. I can’t wait for you to see how all of this time spent looking will fuel your creativity!

Lessons are free and materials are kept simple (paper and pencil). Each lesson comes with step by step instructions! The course is hosted on the Rokeby Museum website!

Click here to join the read the first lesson!

Rokeby Distance Drawing Course

I’m so thrilled to announce the launch of a new project, The Rokeby Distance Drawing Course! At once a digital exposition and an interactive piece, the project plays with rather than fights against the limitations of interactive artistic creation in the age of COVID-19.

As Artist and Residence at the Rokeby Museum, I am developing a new series of work that explores, activates, and shares the letters from a 19th century drawing course and the artistic journey of its student – a young woman who went on to become a pioneering female illustrator. The work is a meditation on knowledge and sharing as driving forces for connectivity and overcoming isolation.

You can read the first installment here: Rokeby Distance Drawing Course


Chautuaqua Movement Fin art society Rachael Robinson Elmer

In September, 2019, I was invited to the Rokeby Museum to engage with their archive as part of a four day artist lab. From 1793 to 1961, Rokeby was home to four generations of the Robinson Family.

In the museum’s archive of the family’s letters and artifacts I discovered the original letters (dated 1891-93) from a correspondence drawing course that one of the daughters, Rachael Robsinson Elmer, took as an adolescent.

In March and April of 2020, I ran a series of instructional drawing demos from my Instagram Live as a way to test and think through different ways of using technology to present this historic material to a contemporary audience.

Research Residency:

As part of the research phase, the Rokeby Museum is supporting my work through digital access residency that is taking place over the summer.

Following COVID-19 guidelines, the residence takes place remotely. Collaborating with their Education Fellow, Allison Gregory (who lives on the property) I have access to the archives (art and letters of my main subject, Elmer). Gregory and I have a weekly meeting to ensure my access to the archive. In a lot of ways our collaboration mimics the form of the historic correspondence course that inspired the project.

Sharing my research:

Rachael Elmer Courtney Clinton Distance Drawing Course

Catherine Brooks, the Rokeby Director, and I agreed that making this drawing course available now, during the COVID-19 crisis, will serve a real community need. We intend to share this archival drawing course freely on the museum’s website.

From July 27 to October 5, 2020, we will post a new lesson on the website every two weeks.

Lesson Schedule:

July 27: Vision
August 10: Copying
August 24: Mistakes
September 7: From Life
September 21: Self Critique
October 5: Illustration

To make the material more accessible to a contemporary audience, I will supplement the historic material with images. As a Quebec artist, I am conscious of issues of language and accessibility. Adding visual guides to this material is also a way to make the material more accessible to a non-anglophone audience and expand the reach of this project.

How to participate:

Courtney Clinton Studio Distance Drawing Course

The course is meant for self directed learning. Students can join at any time and they can work through the exercises at their own speed. Starting July 27th until October 5th we will publish a new lesson every other week. For students looking for a little extra incentive we encourage them to treat it like a 12 week drawing challenge!

Each lesson includes a little history on the life of Rachael Robinson Elmer. We hope students will take inspiration from her artistic journey. To help students work through the exercise there are step by step drawing examples and a written explanation.


To participate you will need a basic drawing kit.

  • 6B, 2B and HB pencil. Recommended brand Mars Lumograph
  • Kneaded eraser
  • Pencil sharpener or exacto knife
  • A pad of 18” x 24” drawing paper. Recommended brand Strathmore
  • Drawing board

Course Level:

The course is open to anyone curious about learning to draw but is ideal for kids 15 to 17 interested in getting into an animation, illustration or game art program. I have experience working as an admissions advisor for a video game art program and have designed the exercises in a way that these drawings could be used for an art school portfolio.


To ask questions or get feedback share your work on instagram and tag @clinton.courtney and @rokebymuseum and use the hashtags #RokebyDistanceDrawing and #DrawingWithRachael.

You can also email questions and images to intern [at] rokeby [dot] org. We want to see your work!


Pandemic art heroes, CBC Arts, March 25, 2021

The Distance Drawing Course, Making the Mark, September 8th, 2020

Rokeby Remote Learning Course, Gurney Journey, August 1st, 2020

Montreal artist teams with Rokeby Museum on art classes, WCAX Channel 3, July 24, 2020

Montreal artist creating remote residency in Ferrisburgh, Sun Community News, July 24, 2020


I graciously acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for making this project possible.

Drawing Challenge: Value Composition

There is an interesting debate that runs throughout the art tradition. Many argue that what makes an image truthful is a kind of authenticity – artist who copies directly from nature. There is a second school of thought that argues that truth comes from the representation of experience not material.

This means that an artist who imposes a certain amount of imagination onto their subject (or their idea of the world) actual creates a more truthful image than the artist who operates like a camera and merely captures reality.

There is no fixed answer, artists have gone back and forth on their approach throughout history. So it’s worth learning strategies for both approaches. For most of this challenge we have focused on understanding and replicating the structure of our subject.

This week we are going to switch gears and think about composition. In studying composition we learn tools and strategies for unlocking our imagination and adding our own ideas to art.

This week’s challenge

This week we are going to think about value as a tool for composition and design. Last week we used value to create a sense of light and shade and to give an object a feeling of form.

This week we are going to switch gears completely. We are going to build on what we learned in week 3 when we talked about placement and the thumbnail approach. We are going to use the same thumbnail approach to explore how we can create patterns using value.

The thumbnail approach allows us to make lots of quick studies before we start our final drawing. To learn more about this approach I encourage you to check out our challenge Composition.

Start with a value scale

value scale

Whenever we are working with value it is helpful to create a value scale. Let’s start with a full value scale of eight values.

Start by drawing a long rectangle and dividing the rectangle into 8 smaller boxes. Each box will represent a box on the scale.

To make an accurate value scale it is helpful to start with the darkest and lightest value (1 and 8). Notice that value 1 is almost (but not completely pure black). It’s always good to keep a few dots of white in your darkest value – this gives the value a lighter feel. Pure black suggests a total absence of light and there are very few instances of this in nature.

Next indicate your two middle values (4 and 5). Try and create values that feel like they are halfway between your darkest and lightest value.

Next put down a value for your second darkest value (2). This can be scribbled in. Allow some of the white of the page to peek through. Next put down a value for number 3. I used cross hatching to make this value. First I put down a series of very close vertical lines and then on top a series of horizontal lines.

Finally you can put down your lights. Space your vertical lines apart to lighten the value of these two values.

Thumbnail studies

When we are thinking about design and making thumbnail studies we work in simplified terms. This means that we don’t take into account detail or shading in our thumbnail drawings. It also means that we simplify our values. To do this we reduce our value scale from eight steps to four steps.

simplified value scale

Make a second four step value scale. For your four values use steps 2, 4, 6, 8.

Value Plan

andrew loomis creative illustration

We can use value to create a kind of pattern in our drawings (and eventually paintings). To understand this idea, it is useful to read Andrew Loomis’ chapter on value in his book Creative Illustration. In his book he introduces the idea of a value plan.

A value plan is a way of distributing and ordering value in a drawing. He argues that there are four basic value plans and describes these plans with a series of abstract images of squares. Obviously there are other ways and strategies of designing you composition. But learning Loomis’ approach is a way to start thinking strategically about composition.

For the value plan he uses the same four values that we defined on our 4 point scale. In each of the four plans he alternates the placement of the value.

Looking at these drawings might not make any sense. But I promise you, that copying these four seemingly simple drawings will revolutionize your understanding of art (this is not an overstatement).

Creating Value Composition

andrew loomis value plan composition

Above is an example of how we can use these four plans in an original compositions. Each drawing uses one of the Loomis value plans as inspiration for the placement of values.

Again copy these sketches to really understand how they work.

Notice how I play around with shapes. I often combine objects to create a larger more interesting value shape. Sometimes I treat the wall and the tabletop as one shape (1,2) and sometimes I treat them as two shapes. In the forth example I treat the wine bottle and the table as one shape. When I do my finished drawing I can use outline and a more nuanced treatment of value to distinguish between my combined shapes. In the design stage I let myself think in abstract terms.

This exercise is all about creativity. So now I encourage you to do your own designs. Use the below drawing as your basic composition and come up with four different value compositions. Use the Loomis value plans to guide you!

drawing challenge week 9