Book: John Ruskin ‘Elements of Drawing – Letter 3’

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was an english art critic, draughtsman and watercolorist. My tutor suggested to look into his third letter about color.

Overall I sense that Ruskin is quite strict in his rule setting and he challenges the ‘amateur’ artist strongly on what may be nearly un-reachable. Perhaps this has to be seen in the context of his time. He seems to be fond of Turner and refers to Turner works quite often to demonstrate the validity of his ‘rules and laws’.

For Ruskin working in colour is a different approach to depicting form – quite opposite to  black/white drawing.

Color adorns form, but does not interpret it

, a phrase I find quite aspiring. Ruskin focus is on body-colour (opaque mixed with white) and ‘dead colours‘ as the higher level ‘noblest’ in paiting. One should use transparent colors sparely only. Ruskin opposed strongly to the desire of painting texture with colour. Thus he suggests to use hot pressed paper and body-colour painting (Ruskin mainly looks from a watercolorist perspective).

For Ruskin it is of outmost importance to assess hues correctly (via a cardboard with a hole cut out) and suggests to start with layering of the different hues side by side. In case one needs or wants to layer two hues above each other the combined colour effect should be considered. It should be avoided to cover the underlayer completely with the upper colour.

Gradation: all areas in colors should be gradated. This is one of Ruskin’s rule where is quite dogmatic. In the gradation itself he sees the importance of value and saturation that both need to be gradated – either in the same or in opposite direction. His approach to gradation is still valid today:

  1. mixing with wet color,
  2. layering (transparent) or
  3. breaking a color in small dots side by side (kind of pointillism).

Darkening colors should be done with small touches of the upper color and not be applying washes (‘tints’).

One aspect Ruskin highlights seems to me quite interesting: the use of pure white and pure black. In his own words “made the white in your picture precious, and the black conspicuous” . The white should be even subdued with grey in order to make the small areas of pure white outstanding to achieve ‘lustre’. All “shadows should be of some color” and not even close to black and of luminous nature. Black should be restricted to black objects or in deep shadow areas where the black truly needs to stand out. I am wondering if ‘black objects’ cannot also be me the black. He refers to Velasquez as ‘the greatest master of the black chords’.

Overall I sense that Ruskin is referring with his rules to nature as such and what the human eye can observe. By that he is critical of too bright and saturated colors and those should be used only in small areas as a discerned decision.

Ruskin is quite critical about the notion of ‘aerial perspective‘ and the idea that some colors (cold colors) do recede in distance and other (warm colors) do approach. Whether a color expresses distance or not depends for him on the local colors of that object: an orange is more orange when looking close at it thus a vivid orange relates to ‘nearness’. Whereas purple on mountains expresses distance as the mountain as such is rather grey. I find Ruskin’s approach here quite formal and heavily related to learned experiences. I am wondering how he would interpret modern abstract paintings and the use is color to visualize space and depth.


Ruskin, J. and Dunstan, B. (2007) The elements of drawing. London, United Kingdom: A & C Black Publishers.
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