Drawing in Academic Practice 

Earlier this month award-holders Caroline Barron (Rome Awardee) and Anna Brass (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture) held an experimental drawing workshop for academics who work on material culture. Here they tell us about how the idea for the workshop came about and where they hope to take the project in the future.


Drawing in Academic Practice workshop, April 2019. Photo: Anna Brass.

Caroline: Anna and I became friends over the course of the winter semester at the BSR; from October to December 2018 I was resident as a Rome Awardee, and Anna was – and continues to be until September this year – the Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture. Although we had chatted over dinner and during various excursions, it wasn’t until Anna and Holly Hendry, the Rome Fellow in Contemporary Art, coordinated the costume effort for the annual Halloween party at the American Academy that we really had a chance to talk in depth.

Anna: Caroline came to my studio in the afternoon of the party – we had to construct her costume quite quickly because it was the last one to do and we didn’t have much time. So, I made her help me paint it. We were working from a picture of a Roman cinerary urn with a fake inscription on her phone, and I did one row of lettering whilst she did another. Caroline was hesitant about painting – she didn’t want to muck it up – but I encouraged her to just look at the letters and paint, and not to worry too much about making it look perfect.

CB: Replicating epigraphic text in what appeared to be a scarily free way was unnerving to begin with; I wanted the letters to be exact representations of those in the stone inscription, but as I started painting I began to relax, and to isolate particular characteristics of the letters that stood out to me. Rather than focusing on proportionally accurate depictions of the letters, I allowed myself to pick up on specific details, and to paint them in an uninhibited way.

AB: Caroline did a top job and the costume was ace. We rolled up to the American Academy looking super cool in our homemade costumes and thoroughly enjoyed the attention from the other guests. After that Caroline and I became firm friends and we went on trips to museums, including to the Capitoline where I made her do some more drawings.


BSR award-holders at Halloween

CB: The afternoon we spent drawing in the Capitoline Museums remains one of my happiest memories from the BSR. Anna equipped me with a sketchbook and a crayon – not a medium I was particularly familiar with – and directed me to draw various aspects of the objects on display, such as the negative space between two Attic vases, and – my personal favourite – a dog in an Etruscan relief. I found these exercises so much fun, and they helped me to break away from the idea of drawing as something that had to be executed exactly. Anna encouraged me to look at the form of the shapes I was drawing, and to feel the connection between my hand and my eye as I drew them.

Fast forward to April and we’ve just led a drawing workshop at the BSR for academics who work with material culture. The Halloween costume and the Capitoline drawings turned into a discussion about how drawing makes you look at objects, and the differences between the ways that academics and artists approach visual and material culture. The workshop was a real experiment for us, an exploratory exercise that did not have at its base a particular question that we were trying to answer, but rather a trial run at how productive the use of various drawing techniques might be in academic practice.


Having invited some borsisti, Research Fellows, artists and friends who work on architecture and material culture, the workshop started with a series of warm-up drawings that were designed to immediately increase their confidence. Participants had to draw the person opposite them without looking at their paper, and then again but this time drawing with both hands simultaneously. Next, we drew objects from around the BSR – cups, pot plans, things from Anna’s studio – with the amount of time decreasing from 60 seconds, to 30, 20, 15, and finally 5.


Timed drawings

Timed drawings

After the warm-ups came a longer drawing in the cortile; the participants were each given a view of the space to draw. We went from drawing an object in 5 seconds to drawing a complete scene in half an hour, with the focus on using charcoal to think about texture and shadow. There’s very strong light in the cortile, as well as lots of ferns, which make really lovely angular shadows on the pebbles.

Chris and Olivia

Drawing in the cortile

A favourite exercise of the afternoon was a collaborative drawing session; six images were laid out with six pieces of paper and a range of crayons and charcoals. Each participant had 30 seconds to draw from that image before moving one place to the right to continue work on the next image. The result was a series of drawings in which it was impossible to tell who had made what mark.

4 collaborative drawings

Collaborative drawing

The day ended with a discussion session, in which we talked about how successful the different exercises had been and what the participants had – and had not – found most useful in these new approaches to looking at objects. We then set up a small exhibition, selecting some of our favourite pieces from the day and celebrating the results of the workshop as a whole body of work.


Exhibition and rinfresco. Photo: Stefania Peterlini.

The workshop was a really interesting experiment for us both; we’ve had lots of ideas about how to take it forward and remain convinced that drawing can, and should, be a vital part of academic questioning about objects and buildings and the forms that they take. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the workshop was the extent to which our brilliant participants were ready to – or in some cases have already – include drawing in their research, which was clear from the confidence and assurance with which they approached some of the exercises. It would be interesting to see how academics working with less obviously ‘drawable’ materials, such as manuscripts or musical scores, might engage with the same exercises too, which has given us food for thought for the next workshop. Drawing in Academic Practice is an ongoing project….expect to hear more from us about it soon!

Caroline Barron & Anna Brass