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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.