Ruskin Library


Ruskin Research


Drawing from Nature

Gather a spray of any tree, about a foot or eighteen inches long. Fix it firmly by the stem in anything that will support it steadily; put it about eight feet away from you, or ten if you are far-sighted. Put a sheet of not very white paper behind it,as usual. Then draw very carefully, first placing them with pencil, and then filling them up with ink, every leaf-mass and stalk of it in simple black profile... . Do not be afraid of running the leaves into a black mass when they come together; this exercise is only to teach you what the actual shapes of such masses are when seen against the sky.

Make two careful studies of this kind of one bough of every common tree,—oak, ash, elm, birch, beech, etc.; in fact, if you are good, and industrious, you will make one such study carefully at least three times a week, until you have examples of every sort of tree and shrub you can get branches of. You are to make two studies of each bough, for this reason,—all masses of foliage have an upper and under surface, and the side view of them, or profile, shows a wholly different organisation of branches from that seen in the view from above. They are generally seen more or less in profile, as you look at the whole tree, and Nature puts her best composition into the profile arrangement.

John Ruskin, Elements of Drawing, 1857

Sycamore leaf, by Garstang Community Primary School
John Ruskin: Sycamore leaf

Drawings of a sycamore leaf by a pupil from Garstang Community Primary School and by John Ruskin. Ruskin has added a note to his

'note energy of leaf at ribs - forming stronger points the ribs are in relief on the under side of the leaf only and the strongest on the reverted ones'

A spray of oak leaves by John Ruskin, and a single leaf by another pupil from Garstang.

Ruskin describes the oak in an early version of one of his poems

Now the broad Oak displays its arms around:
Its brawny branches, spreading, sweep the ground;
Its kingly arms their giant strength display,—
With their great breadth e’en hide the face of day,
Broad round the mother-trunk they throw their arms,
And dare encounter dreadful war’s alarms ....




John Ruskin: Oak leaves

Oak leaf, by Garstang Community Primary School
Leaf, by Garstamg Community Primary School
All collections have their mysteries and these are three of ours ..... does anyone know what they are? The only clue is that they're all garden plants! The one in the centre came from the garden at Brantwood - it's a big leaf, drawn about full size on a piece of A4 paper, and it didn't quite fit ... . The other two are obviously the same type - look at the pattern of the veins.

As well as studies of leaves and twigs, Ruskin also drew pictures of trees, such as the aspen below, drawn at Fontainbleau. He describes the day in Praeterita

... found myself lying on the bank of a cart-road in the sand, with no prospect whatever but that small aspen tree against the blue sky. Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced,—without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere. The Norwood ivy had not abased me in that final manner, because one had always felt that ivy was an ornamental creature, and expected it to behave prettily, on occasion. But that all the trees of the wood (for I saw surely that my little aspen was only one of their millions) should be beautiful ...

John Ruskin: Aspen


If you would like to see more of our botanical drawings, look at our Ruskin's Flora exhibition page, and our expanding illustrated catalogue of botanical drawings.

School Visits Drawing Workshop Book
John Ruskin Booking a Visit



Opening times:
Gallery: -
Monday-Friday 10am-4pm - during Exhibitions (closed weekends and Bank Holidays)
Reading Room: - Monday-Friday 10am-4pm - (by appointment only)

Read Ruskin Library News
Lancaster University Logo

Ruskin Library - Lancaster University - Bailrigg - Lancaster - LA1 4YH - England
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 593587 - e-mail:

Visit our Facebook page

Text and images (c) The Ruskin Library (Lancaster University) unless otherwise stated
Webpages created by Jen Shepherd (Ruskin Library)