Editorial Feature

The Royal Drawing School: an institution that celebrates putting pencil to paper

Artistic director Catherine Goodman on why she set up the school in 2000

The Royal Drawing School is an independent, not-for-profit resource that aims to raise the standard and profile of drawing through teaching and practice. The school was founded in 2000 by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and artist Catherine Goodman. It was first known as The Prince’s Drawing School but was given the Royal seal of approval in 2014.

Tuition, resources, and opportunities are offered not just to art students and artists, but also children and adults of all ages and abilities. The motivation behind this is in part to highlight the ability of drawing to help us see the world more clearly and to instigate innovation and true creativity. Goodman is the school’s artistic director and has learnt the importance of drawing from her own career as an artist. “My work is semi-abstract, figurative paintings, but I work from drawings,” she explains. “Drawing from life and using those drawings to inform my work in the studio has always been an important part of my practice.”

Here she explains the reasons behind setting up The Royal Drawing School nearly 20 years ago and how HRH The Prince of Wales’ continued support has allowed the institution to take its teachings beyond the classroom walls.

The Foundation Year at Royal Drawing School Trinity Buoy Wharf (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)

What led you to setting up the Royal Drawing School with His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales in 2000?

Art school and university education around that time seemed to be phasing out drawing as part of the normal practice for fine art students. I'd been teaching at Camberwell where I was a student before and there was very little drawing teaching. I'd had an excellent drawing teacher when I'd been there, so I realised there was going to be a need for it from various art students who are still interested in exploring the language of drawing from life.

I had been teaching drawing for His Royal Highness at the Institute of Architecture, which he’d founded in the 90s. As that was being phased out, we bought a new building in Shoreditch and I asked him if we could start a drawing studio – it didn't even start out as a school initially – and he agreed.

What did it initially set out to be? And how has the school developed over the last 18 years?

Very simply it started out to be a sort of teaching resource mainly for art students in London who weren't able to access good life drawing teaching or drawing on the streets of London. So we started out with quite a small program, for about 40 students. That grew very quickly and I realised that there was a huge need for it both among art students but also the public as a whole, particularly because of where we were based in Shoreditch, which was beginning to be a creative hub in the city. There were a lot of young creatives round there who wanted to draw.

Soon after, we decided that we would start working with children. When David Hockney came to the school, he suggested that we started younger than we were already pitching our teaching at. So we started running programs for state school children around the boroughs of London aged 10–14 years old. Eventually we started a post-graduate course called the Drawing Year and a foundation course, so by this time we were really functioning like any normal university but we weren't running a BA program. We've never done that because we felt it was healthier for students who'd done our foundation course to go out to university somewhere else and then perhaps come back and do the postgrad course if they wanted.

Drawing Year students working in their studios (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)
Drawing Year student in their studio with a tutor (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)

How important has the support of HRH The Prince of Wales been since founding the school?

It's been enormously important because he's supported us without interfering. We've always had a very firm commitment that we are there to support the needs of contemporary art students. I think we've done a very good job at listening to what the students want and need, but also introduce them to things they’d maybe never had exposure to before.

He's really been integral in helping us gain sponsors and also taken an interest in the students' work. For instance, one of my students told me she'd won The Sunday Times watercolour competition last year and she said she came down to her studio in Brixton to find a note from HRH Prince Charles being delivered by the postman to say congratulations. It's a really lovely story but it's also a true story, and he does have that eye for detail. He himself is an extremely creative person not just with his painting but every aspect of his life. I've worked with him for 25 years and I've always been most impressed by the huge creativity that goes into all his work.

What do you think the school offers that's different to other institutions?

I think what we do complements what's offered. We work very closely with other universities so we don't disagree with the way artists are being taught, but what we try and do if students are particularly interested in drawing is suggest they can come to us. We offer support for them to develop that side of their practice. For example, we run free life drawing on a Monday night for all London art students, or they can come to us on a Saturday.

We're not saying there's anything wrong with what's going on elsewhere but some people like a different approach.

HRH The Prince of Wales meets Drawing Year students at the opening of the renamed Royal Drawing School in 2014 (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)
The Foundation Year at Royal Drawing School Trinity Buoy Wharf (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)

Why do you think it's important to dedicate time to learn to draw?

In a therapeutic way, I think drawing is very good for everybody. Particularly in our current culture where there’s so much screen time. I think drawing is a bit like meditation, it's mindful and a great way of staying present.

Also it's a very natural thing for people to do – every child draws. What I've noticed having taught drawing for 30 years is it gives people a different kind of visual confidence if they feel they can draw. Everywhere I go people say to me, "I wish I could draw", and of course they could draw once but people lose their confidence in it. It really doesn't take long to give that confidence back to people.

The school offers courses for adults and children of all ages and abilities, why does it consciously do this?

For adults in particular, there are so many people who are unable to access higher education and all of our courses are subsidised. We also offer a huge range of concessions for art students, the unemployed, OAPs – it's across the board.

Everyone is an artist in their own way, and I think that at the drawing school people have found a home where they’ve been able to develop by pushing their own professional practice or private practice. We try and offer a nurturing and non-judgemental community that's there for everybody. It's very much driven by His Royal Highness – he cares about supporting people who fall through the net, as people know from the work he does with the Prince's Trust.

A life drawing session in Shoreditch studios (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)
Young Artists programme at the Royal Drawing School (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)

What does your role as artistic director entail?

I oversee the curriculum and the development of full-time students and post-graduate and foundation course students. I assess them every term and I do a fair amount of teaching. Also I set the curriculum for the whole school. I make sure that the vision His Royal Highness and I had at the beginning is kept alive in a way. That involves quite a lot of work because we now have 75 members of staff who all come in with a different teaching style or voice and strong ideas. Of course, we try and listen to everyone and I'm not too directive in that way, but I think it's really important to also remind people of our central mission and keep pulling it back to that.

What are some of the challenges you've faced in the past in regards to the Drawing School?

At the beginning, I think we could've been seen as a highly privileged institution that existed to take art students back to the "good old days". We've never really been that though. So the challenge has been around perception. Drawing has always been relevant to artists and will always be relevant, because it's what our hands do – whether we're drawing on an iPad or a sketchbook, it doesn't matter. Although most people instinctively know the importance of teaching drawing and so they've supported us.

Young Artists programme at the Royal Drawing School (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)
Young Artists programme at the Royal Drawing School (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)

What have been some of your favourite moments from the last 18 years?

Getting the Royal name was a big moment for us. In 2014, her Majesty the Queen agreed that we could be called the Royal Drawing School and that's been great for the school as it's been a sort of coming of age, like growing up.

Also, so many of the children we've helped have gone on to bright things. Just now, three people who started on our kids program, were on our foundation course, and then went off to Goldsmiths, Glasgow and Chelsea – they've come back onto the Drawing Year. They've really blossomed as artists and it's great to see how giving them those skills at that very early age has really strengthened them as young artists now.

Young Artists programme at the Royal Drawing School (From the collection of Royal Drawing School)
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