See the world one sketch at time

Continuing with the theme of art and museums, in today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Chiara from the Visitor Team takes a look at the time-honoured tradition of artists using museums, galleries, and their objects as a training ground, and how you can use the collection yourself for both inspiration and to hone your artistic skills.


A time-honoured tradition

Drawing and sketching in art galleries and museums was once the staple of every artist’s practice, before being pushed out of fashion by the hands of conceptual art.

However, in a time when a person may be more likely to have a blog than a sketchbook, drawing is officially back. And despite the proliferation of mobile phone cameras, museums have noticed a significant increase in art students and members of the public wanting to draw in their galleries.

Regardless of age or ability, sketching encourages people to slow down, to look carefully, and to connect with the subject. It allows time to see more and experience more through a different lens.

The artist Auguste Rodin credited sketching as the key to his sculpture. He is known to have visited the British Museum in 1881, with evidences of his sketches on notepaper taken from the nearby Thackeray Hotel where he stayed.


Left: Rodin at the British Museum (Source). Right: Rodin’s notes and sketches on hotel notepaper. Sketches include figure K from the Parthenon and Metope from the south side of the Parthenon, 20 February 1905. Graphite on Paper. © Musée Rodin (Source).


Nature holds the beauty

When Albrecht Dürer was born in the city of Nuremberg in the 15th century, animals were not generally considered to be appropriate subjects for serious art. Critics felt that the painting of animals was simply a demonstration of technical skill, and as such did not aspire to the creative vision of ‘great art’.

Although Dürer became one of the greatest oil painters of the Northern Renaissance, he is equally famous for his exquisite watercolours, engravings and woodcut prints, and almost two centuries before art history acclaimed their value, was one of the first to view animals as a subject worthy of attention.


Top Left: The Wing of a Blue Roller, Albrecht Dürer, 1512, Watercolor and body colour on vellum, Albertina, Vienna. (Source). Top Right: Greylag Goose Wings from Robert Coombes’ collection. Nature’s Library gallery, Mancehster Museum. Bottom: Pair of European Rollers, Manchester Museum collection. 

‘The Wing of a Blue Roller is one such example of his remarkable drawing ability; it is a beautiful watercolour painting that accurately captures the structure, texture and shimmering colour of the bird’s plumage and the jagged edges of the feathers. Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Dürer was fascinated by nature as he believed that the study of the natural world could reveal the fundamental truths he was seeking to discover through his art. He wrote:

“Nature holds the beautiful, for the artist who has the insight to extract it. Thus, beauty lies even in humble, perhaps ugly things, and the ideal, which bypasses or improves on nature, may not be truly beautiful in the end.”



Top Left: Bat, Albrecht Dürer, 1522, Watercolour On Paper. (Source). Bottom Left: Bat, Living World gallery, Manchester Museum. Top Centre: Young Hare, Albrecht Dürer, 1502, Watercolour and body colour (Source). Bottom Centre: Hare, Living World gallery, Manchester Museum. Top Right: Stag Beetle, Albrecht Dürer, 1505, watercolour and gouache, (Source). Bottom Right: Beetle Draw, Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum 


Drawing behind the scenes

Manchester Museum’s botanical storeroom – the Herbarium, the Entomology collection and the  Collections Study Centre offer the possibility for all the curious souls, students, academics, artists, researchers and those with a specific interest relating to the Museum’s collections to come face to face with wonderful materials. They include spaces to carry out research, to take inspiration and for drawing.

In the last year, for example, the Collection Study Centre hosted visitors from the Manchester School of Art, the UOM UG Art History Society, Art Therapy Researchers, and photographers and provided artists access to the collections in the stores.

Museum collections can provide endless creative inspiration. Creative outputs can also take many forms including textile, jewellery design, painting, sculpture and even 3D models for computer games. 

Collection can be the source for exhibitions like Red List Insects: Martin Wilson Photo Exhibition, where photographing the UK’s most endangered insects could help raise awareness and bolster conservation efforts. This unique series of fifteen macro scale images (15 times their original size ) focused on endangered, threatened and extinct species from the UK IUCN Red List and will open on the 26 January at the Manchester Museum’s 3rd floor space. 

If you are interested in looking behind the scenes of the Manchester Museum please contact the relevant curator, email or phone 0161 29258192 to make an appointment.



Top, Ria Lucey, Where they ought to look weaving, Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University. Bottom Left, Nelissa tripi, Roman and Egyptian filigree jewellery drawings, Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University. Bottom Centre, Emma Lance, drawing spirit squid and octopus. Bottom Right, Illustrator and PhD Student Talya Baldwin is drawing birds from the collection to raise awareness of endangered Scottish seabirds. 



Left: Bilberry bumblebee – Bombus monticola ©Martin Wilson, Centre: Large blue butterfly – Maculinea arion ©Martin Wilson,  Right: Jewel beetle – Anthaxia nitudula ©Martin Wilson.


One of the best ways of seeing

Drawing is a form of knowing, and it is also one of the best ways of seeing.

It’s not only art students who sketch in museums and galleries. All visitors are permitted to sketch in the galleries. Next time you are visiting the museum how about bringing your sketchbook with you?

With each mark you make you are participating in the time-honoured tradition of artists who sketch to explore ideas, develop their skills, and renew their creative spirit. You are invited to sketch with pencils and other dry media in our galleries (sketching with pencil, felt tip, ballpoint, crayon and pastel is permitted in all the galleries of the Museum. Please note that for other materials you might need a special permission.)

The Museum provides free sketching stools and of course endless wonderful things to choose as your inspiration!



Left: Chiara Ludolini, The skull of a hare on display in The Study, Manchester Museum, and a sketch of that same skull. Right: Chiara Ludolini, Some sketches of dinosaurs inspired by the Manchester Museum Collection.

Chiara Ludolini

With special thanks to Sam Beath, Collections Care Manager and Senior Conservator and Rachel Petts, Curatorial Assistant of Natural sciences and Collections Access Officer for their support and insights.

Thanks to all the visiting ‘sketchers’ of the Museum for making the galleries such a vibrant and inspiring place.


Find out more:

Rodin and the art of ancient Greece (British Museum)

Drawing in museums is a form of respect

Five tips for sketching in museums

Sketching is back in fashion at the British Museum





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