Hundred-Year-Old Directions for Making Pencil Drawings

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, May 27, 1913:  It’s raining again like it did last week. Nothing much doing.


Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Rainy days can be the perfect time to work on artwork or crafts. Did Grandma ever while away a rainy afternoon making pencil drawings?

I recently came across a hundred-year-old magazine for teachers called School Arts Magazine. The January, 1913 issue had an article about how to teach students to make pencil drawings.

Do children today still learn how to make pencil drawings in school? . . .or is that considered “so old-fashioned”?

The Possibilities of the Pencil

With the many new elements that are crowded into the topic of drawing in the public schools—it is easy to lose sight of the fact that after all the universal medium of expression is the pencil.  Rightly employed the marvelous possibilities of the pencil are astonishing.

The proper teaching of pencil-rendering is not difficult if correctly approached. The tendency of every child is to make fine, hard lines instead of the broad, rich stroke which gives character to the result. With firm, smooth lines, much of color, texture, and light and shade can be pictured in a suggestive manner.

At first, detail should be almost entirely left out. The more a child “fusses” and “finishes” his drawing the more labored and unsatisfactory the results appear to be.

See to the condition of the pencil. It should be sharpened to a blunt point well supported by the wood, and the point flattened on one side to give it a form capable of making lines of all widths and qualities.

Fig. I

Before attempting a problem in drawing in light and shade, the pupil should gain some facility in handling the pencil—by practicing strokes and lines of varying width and color. The drill shown in Fig. 1 will give skill in laying tone flat and solid in appearance.

Fig. II
Fig. II

After this is accomplished the pictorial sketch may be attempted (Fig. II).

In beginning a sketch first decide upon the point of interest. Much must be omitted and many contrasts exaggerated in order to keep the attention centered upon this point.

After deciding what the central point is to be, a light sketch, in as few lines as possible, should be made. These first lines must be accurate, and no erasing should be done. The masses of light and dark are next considered, beginning with the planes in the important part of the drawing.

Fig. III
Fig. III

Select simple, flat masses and lay the tones in with the direct stroke already mastered in the preliminary practice (see Fig. III).

The direction of the stroke can be made to express contour and texture, and should be carefully studied from that viewpoint.

The sharp, vigorous accents of black will produce the contrast which brings out the light and sparkle of the sketch and adds so much to its beauty. The contrasts should be emphasized at the center of interest, and diminished into soft grays as they recede into the less important parts toward the background. .

It is easy to over-emphasize out-of-door nature subjects, such as flowers, fruit, and vegetables. The boys especially are more interested in the common objects of everyday life.

The pencil is by far the most convenient and best medium for most of the work that is included in a well-considered course of art instruction.

30 thoughts on “Hundred-Year-Old Directions for Making Pencil Drawings

  1. I felt I learned a lot about drawing from this. It was never taught to me like that at school, but it seems so obvious once you’ve seen it, doesn’t it?

    1. It helps when the steps are clearly explained. One of my pet peeves is directions that skip steps because they were “obvious.”

  2. That does look like fun! Drawing has never been my “strong suit”, although my sister and my son have the talent.
    You have so many resources (magazines, etc) from 1913 to reference as you write posts sharing your Grandmother’s diary. Did you start collecting these when you began this blog?

  3. It’s raining here today too. I bought my daughter some drawing pencils and an instruction book last summer, at her request. She may very well pick up a pencil and sketch something on a rainy day. Thanks for the lesson, but sewing is my goto rainy day activity..,…or reading blogs. 😉

  4. That’s a wonderful drawing lesson. I wonder if they did their sewing or embroidery on rainy days?

  5. I think I need to save these instructions! Wish I had drawing lessons in school, but art was actually not even a subject. You are so clever in filling in the gaps of your grandma’s diary. 🙂

    1. When I’m browsing through old publications I often find things that I find really interesting–but that don’t really illuminate any diary entries. When that happens, I wait for a day when Grandma wrote little and then use one of the miscellaneous interesting items.

    1. These days I seldom write anything by hand. I used to really enjoy doodling or making little sketches in the margins. I like using a computer to write because it’s easy to revise and re-arrange what I wrote; but your comment makes me realize that I’ve also lost something.

  6. I almost missed this! I love that attention was paid on instructing how to draw realistically, but often that squashes a child’s natural imagination and creativity. I think positive reinforcement is the real key to encouraging a child to continue drawing (or anything), especially if they are self-doubters. I learned all this stuff in school, was encouraged as well, and yet feel I am not as imaginative as I might have been if I wasn’t told a “right” or “wrong” way. But that’s just me 🙂

    1. I’m glad you noticed this post. I really like your art– and value your perspectives on this. Your view makes sense to me. I enjoyed art when I was young, but never felt like I was very “good” at it. I think that I was a self-doubter and focused too much on teachers’ grades and reactions to my attempts.

  7. I hope that kids still get the opportunity to participate in some kind of art program at school. It doesn’t get much cheaper than pencils and paper and look at the results 😀

  8. Teachers today (except in an actual art class) don’t really care how you draw, as long as the picture doesn’t have anything to do with violence or nudity. I find it interesting that this article includes so much information about the basics when not even my art teacher taught me anything about this kind of stuff…I wish this post existed four years ago!

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