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Observational Drawing

Observational Drawing

Colin Moss “Half and Half” (1951) Pastel

Throughout his entire career, Colin Moss’s mastery of observational drawing was the bedrock for much of his artistic output. Schooled in the 1930s, at a time when observational drawing was the cornerstone of art education, his training at Plymouth Art School and The Royal College of Art profoundly influenced his long career in art.

However, during the “swinging 60s”, this once central part of the curriculum was marginalised and quickly assumed a subsidiary role in how art was taught in this country. In today’s blog, we trace how observational drawing came to prominence in the UK and then lost its place in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.


Henry Tonks

In the UK, Slade School of Art Professor Henry Tonks was instrumental in shaping the way that students were taught. Under his long tenure (1892-1930), students had to draw constantly throughout their early years and were given regular lectures in perspective, for example, and regularly went to museums to make copies.

Pen and wash museum study by Colin Moss of a cockerel

Colin Moss – “Museum Study – Cockerel” c1932

The art historian Jacob Willer argues that Tonks’ emphasis on observation and drawing was a legacy of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements of the early to mid 19th century that, in turn, drew on the traditions of the early Renaissance.


Royal College of Art

Similar ideas also ran through The Royal College of Art, which was founded in 1837 as the Government School of Design. At the RCA, the approach differed from the Slade, which was established to train fine artists. The RCA offered students a thorough grounding in drawing from using plaster casts of natural forms, ornamental designs and fragments of architecture and sculpture above life drawing.

Although by Colin Moss’s time, the RCA did as much life drawing as students at the Slade, close observation through anatomical casts remained an integral a part of the curriculum as it had in the College’s foundation a hundred years before.

Sepia photograph of the interior of a room at the Royal College of Art filed with anatomical plaster casts

Royal College of Art interior showing plaster casts of classical sculptures dated 1910
© Victoria & Albert Museum


Board of Education Drawing Exam

In order to qualify for entry into the RCA, Colin Moss had to pass the Board of Education drawing exam in the early 1930s. This tested students on their ability to draw from memory subjects chosen by the examiner such as a skeleton and muscle figure across seven different categories including as antique drawing and measured perspective. Colin Moss later said that this drawing exam was

“a wonderful sort of basic grammar, nobody would ever consider doing any of those things in an art school now of course… but I maintain that it gave a grasp of drawing which was the basis of everything I’ve ever done since.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed


Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield

It was this grounding that enabled Colin Moss to compose drawings such as “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” – a drawing that:

“could only have been done by someone of Colin’s generation, who had been rigorously trained within the disciplined 1930s art school tradition with its emphasis on learning the musculature and skeletal features of the human figure by heart.”
Chloe Bennet, Colin Moss: Life Observed

Pencil drawing of two anatomical casts, one with its head knocked off, set on a WW1 battlefield

Colin Moss “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” (1978) Pencil
Colchester and Ipswich Museums Collections


Battlefields and Surrealism

“I was doing a project on anatomy with my students and these somewhat damaged casts were all that we had…I had to do a lot of drawings of these casts in teaching these kids to draw.


When the project was finished I was fascinated, I found I quite liked drawing these casts very carefully and precisely in pencil, so I started to draw the left hand figure, and then thought, that’s interesting I’ll make another one.


I drew this figure, which would got its head knocked off, but the head was still around so I put it on the ground in front of it. By a strange coincidence, a student brought in a book which was full of photographs of the 1914-18 war.


I looked at them and thought what an amazing piece of surrealism to put these casts into the battlefield … you can see the shells exploding in the air and so on, and it all came together as a complete idea. I didn’t set out with a concrete idea in my mind, it grew as the thing developed.”
Colin Moss: Life Observed


New Ideologies

The disciplined environment that Colin Moss spent his formative years in, started to disappear in the post war period, as new ideologies spread rapidly throughout art education.

Henry Tonks, the man who did so much to emphasize close observation through anatomical casts and life drawing, commented that even in the 1930s the demands for change to the curriculum were strong. When describing the approach of a modern student, he said that they

“saw that no great power of drawing was necessary to produce a picture of ideas, so they made the plunge – perhaps plunge is too violent a word, they sidled into art.”

Colin Moss was committed to the values of Tonks throughout his career but started to find himself at odds with the prevailing mood of students and fellow practitioners. The academic training that he had received was seen to be somewhat restrictive by students who wanted to develop their own interpretations.

Multi-coloured watercolour showing Colin Moss standing next to a window looking taciturn and downcast

Colin Moss – Sketch for self-portrait “Inward Looking” (1966) Watercolour


Jacob Willier’s view is that this was the result of a change in attitude and ideology from the 1930s through to the 1960s that saw:

“art becoming more of a matter of taking a stand and making a novel statement and less a matter of making a good picture to the best of the painter’s knowledge and ability.”


Ipswich Art School in the 1960s

This pressure for change led to the creation of the new Diploma in Art and Design, which was introduced across art schools during the 1960s. At the Ipswich Art School where Colin Moss was senior lecturer, Roy Ascott was appointed to lead the School’s implementation of the new diploma and he appointed a team of new lecturers to assist in this task.

Black and white photograph of Colin Moss standing with a group of students and tutors in the Ipswich Art School looking at his painting "Roadworkers"

Colin Moss with a group of students and tutors in The Octagon, Ipswich Art School, 1960
Photograph courtesy of the East Anglian Daily Times


One such person was Stephen Willats, whose studio was next to Colin Moss’s. He expected to find an “ageing reactionary entrenched in tradition” he discovered the “breadth and depth of Colin’s vision and intellect.”

Indeed Colin “might have been a master draughtsman of the old school but he did accept the radical, if not mind blowing, ideas… when art schools universally were becoming more informal and free expression was the vogue.”


Life Observed

Despite the changes that occurred within art and art education, Colin Moss’s disciplined training in close observation as provided by anatomical casts and life drawing endowed him with the firmest of foundations. It enabled him to approach every piece of work secure in the knowledge that he could depict the human figure in its true form and apply his own creativity and expression on top of that foundation layer.

Pencil drawing of a prostitute leaning against a wall set next to a drawing of two men in the 1930s

Colin Moss “On the Streets, Then and Now” (1992) Pencil


To see how Colin Moss actually used this in his drawing, and how his style evolved over his long career, head over to our Instagram page to view some of his best work.

Colin Moss – From Camoufleur To Soldier

Colin Moss – From Camoufleur To Soldier

Painter, draughtsman, camoufleur, printmaker, teacher and soldier

Colin Moss served as a camoufleur from 1939 – 1943, working on the concealment of civilian installations. During his service he designed a number of camouflage schemes for installations such as Stonebridge Park Power Station, London.

At the beginning of the war, the Germans already knew where several of Britain’s vital industrial targets were located. Recruited solely from the foremost artists of their generation, the aim of the Leamington-based camouflage officers (“camoufleurs”) was to guard Britain’s civil installations by confusing “a pilot at a minimum of five miles distant and 5,000 feet up throughout daylight.”

Camouflaged Cooling-Towers, 1943, Watercolour, 36.8cm x 54.6cm, (War Artists Advisory Committee purchase © Imperial War Museum)


Why Artists?

The camoufleurs of the Camouflage Directorate were theatre set designers, practicing artists, sculptors, architects. All were recruited as “there was a natural partnership based on their aptitude for good visual recall, and their understanding of scale, colour and tone”.

Their designs featured strident patterns, in an array of colours, painted onto buildings. The aim was to break up forms and outlines so that objects on the ground were difficult to spot, even against a shifting background (ie looking down from a plane).

The camouflage schemes they designed either hid the target, so it merged into its surroundings, or deceived the eye as to its size and placement.

More surreal techniques included adding road markers to roofs or standing concrete cows on them, to fool Luftwaffe bomb aimers or, at the very least, to make them to hesitate and so miss their target.


Smoke and Mirrors

The patterns were designed to break up and disrupt the objects outline and consisted of a mix of dark and light colours, painted next to each other. At power stations like Stonebridge, where Colin’s “The Big Tower” (below) was painted, the power station’s fuel was modified to emit darker smoke that would contrast with its surroundings for “disruptive colouration”.

(L-R) Stonebridge Park Power Station with camouflage scheme in place 1941 (B&W photo), Camouflaged Factory Buildings, 1941, Watercolour, Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, The Big Tower, Camouflaged, 1943, Watercolour 63.5 cm x 45.3cm, (War Artists Advisory Committee purchase © Imperial War Museum)


As the war went on, and the threat from the German air force decreased, the UK Government scaled back its commitment to civil camouflage. Inevitably, this meant that the work of the camoufleur unit was wound down. However, before the camoufleurs were reassigned to new war work, “the Ministry decided it wanted a pictorial record of aspects of camouflage and all the artists were given about a month’s paid leave to do paintings of whatever jobs they had designed.” Colin Moss : Life Observed.

Colin spent his month’s leave painting watercolours of the various camouflage schemes he had designed, before joining the Life Guards (part of the Household Cavalry) on active service in the Middle East. A number of those watercolours are in the ownership of the Imperial War Museum in London, others are housed by Leamington Spa Museum & Art Gallery.


Military Service

Once the aerial threat from the German Airforce was over, Colin went on active service. He was initially deployed to North Africa (in 1943) and later, once the war was over, Palestine, as part of the effort to establish the state of Israel.

The images below are from a number of Colin’s sketchbooks, now kept in the Tate Archive in London. This is the first time they have been published.

(L-R) North African Refugees Pen, ink, gouache & wash, 24.8cm x 27.5cm, Two Soldiers Talking Pastel, 59.5cm x 42cm, Middle East Battle School Pencil, ink, gouache & wash, 37.7cm x 25.2cm


L-R North Palestine 1946, Lithograph, 37.5cm x 47.8cm, Portrait of an Officer, Seated, Palestine, 1946, Pencil, 51cm x 36.7cm


For his final for 6 months of military service (in 1947), he taught in the Army Education Corps (now the Educational & Training Services – ETS) gaining invaluable experience before commencing his post-war career, lecturing at the Ipswich Art School.

On the Tube 1947 Watercolour & ink, 24.5cm x 30.8cm


Post-War Memories

As Colin’s career at the Ipswich Art School came to an end in 1979, his war-time experiences bubbled to the surface. Over the next decade, he generated a series of sketches, drawings, paintings, linoprints and watercolours, reflective of his experiences, memories and opinions on “war and the pity of war”.

(L-R) Exodus, 1985, Charcoal and pastel, 48cm x 40.5cm, “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” 1978 Pencil 76.5 cm x 56 cm (Colchester & Ipswich Museums)


(L-R) Playing Soldiers, Oil & collage on board 99 x 120.5 cm Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service, Sentry Under Red Sun, Oil on board 91.8cm x 71.5cm


One of his most haunting paintings from this era is “Moonlight over the Third Reich”. The influence that camouflage dazzle techniques, and art movements such as cubism and surrealism, had on camoufleurs like Colin throughout their artistic careers, can be seen vividly throughout this work. The painting “Moonlight over the Third Reich” was donated to the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London by Colin’s widow Pat in 2009.

Moonlight over the Third Reich, 1974-1982 Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London, (L-R) Linocut, 50cm x 40.5cm, Oil on canvas, 91cm x 75.8cm, Pencil, 69.9cm x 51.8cm


The Camoufleur Alumni

At its peak, the Camouflage Directorate numbered over 230 staff, including a number who, post-war, went on to become some of the most significant and illustrious artists and designers of their generation.

Members of the group included:

  • Christopher Ironside (designer of the UK’s decimal coinage)
  • Janey Ironside (professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art)
  • Richard Guyatt (professor of graphic design at the Royal College of Art)
  • Eric Schilsky (head of the School of Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art)
  • leading lights of the English Surrealist movement Julian Trevelyan and Roland Penrose
  • set designer, painter and sculptor Victorine Foot
  • Robert Goodden (professor of silver smithing at the Royal College of Art)
  • Robert Darwin (principal of the Royal College of Art)

and, of course, Colin Moss.


Camouflage Exhibitions

In 2007, the Imperial War Museum in London put together a wide-ranging and extensive exhibition on camouflage. It was the first one of its kind in showing the history of camouflage and its use in wildlife, popular culture and, of course, how camouflage had been used in warfare. The exhibition featured the work of the Leamington Spa camoufleurs including four of the watercolours that Colin painted in 1943 of the camouflage schemes he worked on.

In 2016, the Imperial War Museum loaned these watercolours to Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum for its 2016 exhibition “Concealment & Deception”. The book accompanying the exhibition can be accessed online here .

(L-R) Captain Colin William Moss – Life Guards, 1943, Poster for the Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum 2016 Exhibition “Concealment & Deception” featuring Colin’s 1941 watercolour Camouflaged Factory Buildings

Palaces in the Night: The urban landscape in Whistler’s prints

The work of one of the most controversial artists of the mid-19th  century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), is featured this summer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The exhibition, which continues until September 8, centres on the cityscapes for which Whistler is widely celebrated as a printmaker.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter c1872

Born in the USA in 1834, Whistler’s family travelled between the USA, Europe and Russia due to his father’s occupation as a civil-engineer. In 1859, aged 25, Whistler settled in London, choosing to reside alongside the working people of Wapping and Rotherhithe, frequenting the pubs and theatres, backstreets and riverside wharves where they lived and worked. Before settling in London, Whistler had spent three years at the US Military Academy at West Point where, despite being dismissed by the then superintendent Robert E Lee, he became highly proficient in map drawing and was employed in the etching office of the US coastguard after his dismissal. The precision that he learned at West Point and with the Coastguard would greatly benefit him in his later career.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Limehouse 1959

The exhibition also includes work from Whistler’s travels in Europe, but undoubtedly it is the work that depicts London, a London that has long passed into history, that most captures the attention. Whistler was able to capture this ramshackle world of wooden jetties and wharves through spending time observing the intimate details of everyday life and shunning any sensationalism that might distort the real lives of the people he drew.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – The Barber’s Shop 1887

‘…the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil – and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky – and the tall chimneys become campanile – and the warehouses are palaces in the night – and the whole city hangs in the heavens’ James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1885.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – Rag-Shop Milman’s Row 1887

To find out more information about the exhibition, click here.


Social Realism & the Art of Colin Moss ARCA

Social Realism & the Art of Colin Moss ARCA

Social Realism & the Art of Colin Moss ARCA

Colin Moss was a social realist [who] applied firm draughtsmanship and the forceful vision of European expressionism to the docks and terraces of his native Ipswich. There he drew and painted scenes of ordinary life – men in the pub, women eating sandwiches in the park or bending on doorsteps to pick up milk. “I draw working-class people because they are more interesting than middle-class people,” he said. “I have no political allegiances.”

Ian Collins – The Guardian (January 2006)

Colin Moss, “Over the Garden Fence”, 1947

Colin’s passion for social realism dated back to his student days at the Royal College of Art. His 1936 painting, Hunger Marches, was part of his Diploma show in 1937. Based on the 1936 march to London by the unemployed men of Jarrow, Colin’s painting captures the dignity of the men, stoically walking through the rain in their capes.

Colin Moss Hunger marches 1936

Colin Moss, “Hunger Marchers”, 1936

His unconventional decision to paint the men as they were seen from behind, emphasised their upright determination as a body of humanity rather than as a collection of individuals. This was a device which would become something of a trade mark in several of Colin’s future work. Even though it is easy to draw some sort of political message out of his work, Colin never once joined a political organisation. His party neutrality meant that people could view his work as a document of post war life; rather than as party propaganda.

Colin Moss, “Uphill Workers”, 1955

Amongst the artistic community in 1930’s Britain there was an intent to show ordinary people doing ordinary things (often referred to as “kitchen-sink” art) and this fascination with the “everyday” became an essential part of Colin’s artistic drive.

Colin Moss, “London Pub Scene”, 1939

Returning to Ipswich after the war he was struck by how much the town resembled a Coronation Street style northern conurbation with little houses around the middle of the town and enormous pubs. In his own words “It was a very Arnold Bennett kind of town”. Post war Ipswich was one that was gritty and tough with rationing still a feature well into the 50s and the majority of the working men employed in heavy industry. Colin’s hostility to sensationalism, gave his work a much more relatable edge as when people would view his work they could see their own experiences reflected in his work.

For more information about “Window Cleaner” 1955, click here.

Post-war Ipswich’s industrial heritage included names that were widely known in Britain and across the world. Engineering companies such as Ransomes, Sims & Jeffries, Ransomes & Rapier and Cranes exported goods around the globe and employed generations of Ipswich workers. Colin’s 1950 ink and gouache drawing “Ipswich Cyclists” captures three workmates cycling home in the dark from work. One man leans across to chat to his fellow cyclists and the headlamps of the three bikes glow in the gloom. Interestingly, men on bikes appear quite frequently in Colin’s work as this was the main means of transport for workers before mass affordable cars. In fact, during the 50s, Ipswich was supposed to have more bicycles per head of population than any other town in the country!

Colin Moss Ipswich cyclists 1950

For more information about “Ipswich Cyclists” 1950, click here.

Long hours working hard in the dust and heat at the Ipswich based Ransomes Sims & Jefferies engineering plant was the way of life for thousands of locals. The sound of the Ransomes’ bull horn would summon the men to the RSJ works, which, until the 1960s was on a vast site around Duke Street and Ipswich Dock. “The Bull” kept time, not only for staff of RSJ, but others all around town, including children in the local schools. Despite the above companies dominating life within the town, nowadays the industrial scene in Ipswich is a shell of what it is with most of the factories themselves being demolished.

As well as the industrial side of life, Colin also drew and painted domestic scenes – a woman hanging out washing or brushing the front step, his mother rolling out pastry. Each image a snapshot of a life from a bygone age but which captivates the eye, and the heart, with its “mundane” humanity.

Colin Moss “The Artist’s Mother Making Pastry” 1962

Colin’s kitchen-sink realism was just one strand of his extraordinarily multi-faceted career but possibly was the work that was closest to Colin Moss the man. And his interest in the lives of ordinary people carried on throughout his career in art. His in interest in the regular meant that he could portray life on the streets without the condescension that so many artists seem to do; and this ultimately makes his work so much more poignant.

From the artist’s sketchbook 1995

“As an artist Colin drew and painted what he saw around him. His work functions not only as great art but also as a valuable social document about what life was like in Ipswich and across the country from the late 1940s until his death in December 2005. His portraits of workers leaving the Ransomes & Rapier factory, prostitutes on street corners, old women walking to the shops, laden with bags are an important part of Moss’s artistic legacy to the town.”

Andrew Clarke – Arts Editor at East Anglian Daily Times

Colin Moss “On the Streets, Then & Now” 1992

Kiss & Tell about Plaster Casts

When Colin Moss was training at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, drawing was an integral part of his education – and intensively taught. His Board of Education Drawing Examination was, in his words, ‘very difficult indeed’. One test involved drawing a figure in action as a skeleton and a muscle figure, showing all the bones and muscles. He also had to do a life drawing from memory.

It’s entirely possible that his study included drawing plaster casts, which had some advantages over drawing from life. Shadows, for example, were still present, but the white plaster made it easier to recognise them and to experiment with tones. Which may be why Colin was using them at the Ipswich Art School in 1978. By then exercises like this had rather fallen out of fashion.

“I was doing a project on anatomy with my students and the somewhat damaged casts were all we had… I had to do a lot of drawing of these casts in teaching these kids to draw.”



Colin completed the project, but became fascinated by the casts themselves. The head of one had broken off, so he put it near the figure, on the ground, and started drawing it. At which point one of his students brought in a book full of photographs taken during the First World War. And inspiration struck.

“I looked at them and thought ‘What an amazing piece of surrealism to put these casts into the battlefield…’ You can see the shells exploding in the air and so on, and it all came together as a complete idea. I didn’t set out with the concrete idea in my mind, it grew as the thing developed.’


Colin Moss “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” 1978 - Plaster casts

Colin Moss “Anatomical Casts on a Battlefield” 1978 Pencil 76.5 cm x 56 cm
Colchester & Ipswich Museums

Restoring the art school’s plaster casts

As part of the ongoing Kiss & Tell exhibition, Ipswich Museums and Galleries have restored two of the old Ipswich Art School’s plaster casts – the Bruges Madonna (pictured below) and Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo. The conservation process for the Madonna began with a series of photographs to record the state of the cast before restoration. The work involved cleaning the surface, replacing essential missing parts, repainting the piece and then waxing it.

The restorers used melamine sponges, warm distilled water and conservation grade mild detergent to clean the cast. As expected, this revealed a considerable amount of detail, but there had also been much damage over time. After sealing any open edges with a solution of PVA glue in water, they used dental wax to control the plaster fills, modelling them using coarse sandpaper and then smoothing them with flexi grit paper before finishing with Polyfilla. After sealing the casts with the PVA/water solution they painted it with chalk paint, allowing the plaster to breathe, and finished it with a final coat of wax. You can read a detailed account of the process here.

Bruges Madonna and child

Kiss & Tell at Christchurch Mansion

The exhibition itself is devoted to works of art showing the human body in its natural state and in movement. With Auguste Rodin’s iconic The Kiss as the star attraction, it also includes works by Suffolk sculptors including Thomas Woolner, RA (a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who was born in Hadleigh) and Maggi Hambling CBE, who trained under Colin at the Ipswich School of Art.

One of Colin’s paintings –  ‘Standing Nude’ (1969) – is on display alongside works by artists such as Constable, Blake and Picasso.

The exhibition, reviewed here continues until 28 April 2019