Kimon Nicolaides and "The Natural Way to Draw"

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These are not just little tips and techniques, but a full course of learning how to see, think, and draw like an artist.

Kimon Nicolaides was born in Washington DC in 1891.  He grew up exposed to the aesthetic experience because his Greek father imported Asian artefacts.  He knew early that he wanted to be a painter, and faced with his parents’ opposition, he ended by running away from home to go to New York.

There he enrolled at the Art Students League, and supported himself with odd jobs ranging from being a film extra (he played an art student!) to framing pictures.  His father eventually relented when he saw his son’s devotion to his vocation, and paid for his studies.

Nicolaides volunteered when World War I broke out, serving as a camouflage artist for the US.  Interestingly, part of his duties entailed work on contour maps, which would seem to have been how he came to later develop his famous “contour drawing” method for teaching drawing.

"Death of Lincoln", Kimon Nicolaides

After the war Nicolaides worked as an artist in Paris for a year, with a one-man show held at a gallery there; on his return to the States he settled in New York, where he held a first exhibit at the Old Whitney Studio Club (now the Whitney Museum) and began teaching at the Art Students League.

Over the following 15 years his warmth, sense of humor and high principles endeared him to literally hundreds of students, and he is considered even today one of art history’s greatest drawing teachers. 

This is greatly due to posthumous publication of his book “The Natural Way to Draw”, incomplete when he died at age 47 after a six-week illness; a friend and former student who had been working with him on the manuscript saw to its completion and publication after his death.

Drawing students are often put off by this nevertheless still popular work, owing to its wordiness and the daunting schedule of lessons Nicolaides imposed as he assumed the reader was “about to embark on a year of art study”.  Indeed, what he put in his book was the program for his one-year drawing class at the League.

Like many other before and after me, I undertook the program, and it ended by being simply too much to sustain.

But there are nevertheless two important types of exercises that he sets out in his work that are of great value:  gesture drawing and contour drawing.

Essentially, Kimon Nicolaides felt that the desire to draw was as fundamental and natural as the desire to talk, and drawing, like talking, was about learning how to do things the right way from the beginning.

He felt that drawing well had nothing to do with technique, aesthetics or anything else.  It depended only on one thing:  right observation of the world.

He insisted that students had to discover this manner of right observation by themselves, and that the art teacher’s job was to teach them not how to draw...but how to learn to draw.

Go from "Kimon Nicolaides" to "Plato: What is Art Anyway?"

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