How We Learn To Draw

April 21, 2021 Updated: April 21, 2021

An Interview with New Masters Academy Founder Joshua Jacobo

Many of us have been inspired to pick up a drawing pencil at some point in our lives. We may have been motivated to capture the beauty of a scene or depict a vision in our head, or perhaps, tempted by a row of instructional art books that sat unassumingly on the bookstore’s shelves. As children, we were all given crayons and markers to experiment in a world of colors and lines.

One thing remains certain: Drawing can powerfully welcome us into new worlds, worlds that would otherwise remain trapped in our imagination. The question is, how does anyone really learn to draw?

Joshua Jacobo is the founder of the reputable online art school, New Masters Academy. For Jacobo, the key that began to unlock the mystery of drawing was his trip to Florence, Italy, 15 years ago. His interest in art ignited when he walked through the Casa Buonarroti, a museum dedicated to the art of Michelangelo. Taken by the exquisite craftsmanship of these masterful artworks, Jacobo felt a calling; he wanted to learn this craft. He left the museum that day with an armful of art books and a resonant purpose.

“I first taught myself how to draw from the corpus of Michelangelo’s work, which are four huge books published in the 1970s,” Jacobo said. Nearly every Michelangelo drawing on record is displayed in these editions. Jacobo copied drawing after drawing, sometimes repeating the same one multiple times.

“Drawing used to be taught by copying other master drawings,” he said. “Only in the last 100 years has it become a less common method of instruction.”

Through copying Michelangelo’s works, Jacobo studied the process of how Michelangelo achieved such sensitivity in his drawings. Learning the methods of the old masters proved to be highly effective and Jacobo’s drawing ability improved rapidly. He developed the ability to analyze Michelangelo’s drawings in order to learn the most from them.

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Photography by Caleb Jacobo

“Try to reverse engineer the thinking that went behind the piece,” Jacobo said. “What kind of movement of the hand, what speed, what material was used? Try to move your body in a way that gets a similar feeling in the drawing.”

Jacobo emphasized that it takes a series of trials and errors to feel the rhythm of the gestures, and through perseverance and repetition, muscle memory can be acquired.

“At first your lines may be scratchy and not graceful,” Jacobo explained, “until you realize you need to draw from your shoulder and wrists. What we often don’t think about in drawing, painting, and sculpture is that in a way it’s just like dance—there are no shortcuts for the body. The body has to move in certain ways for the lines to work properly.”

Art is both a powerful tool of expression and a craft to be taken seriously. In a fast-paced, modern world, a subtle fog of detachment often looms over us. We can take comfort knowing that a deeper sense of connection is available when we tap into the knowledge of artists who excelled before us. Akin to studying music, it is essential to study the history and works of the masters in order to reach our highest potential.

Studies of the past provide us with a more grounded footing for what we do in the present. Isaac Newton famously said in his letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can advance more by looking at the entire tradition of what we are pursuing.

Jacobo’s personal, in-depth art studies led him to a book of etchings, devised in 1608, by Renaissance artist Ordardo Fialetti. Fialetti was a highly skilled painter and printmaker who apprenticed with Giovanni Battista Cremonini and later studied with the master Tintoretto in Venice, Italy.

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Odoardo Fialetti, c. 1608 (New Masters Academy)

At the time when Fialetti studied art, training was still highly exclusive. Aspiring artists predominantly learned their craft at apprenticeship workshops. However, the technology of etching changed this. Fialetti’s book of etchings was a first of its kind and it shifted art education by making technical training accessible to a wider group of learners. The book of etchings ultimately advanced the study of art to the next stage: learning from manuals.

“They based the idea of step-by-step drawing on calligraphy, following in the tradition of calligraphy manuals,” Jacobo said. When you look at one of Fialetti’s etchings, his sweeping lines and precise cross-hatching explain the form in a symphony of marks. Some are short, some long, and all seem to move with effortless gusto along the paper.

Joshua called out a note of thanks to the museum curators who took the time to make these masterworks available to the public. We can now find a deeper connection to the history of this craft because of their efforts to digitize these etchings. What was once only available in workshops, and later in select books, is now accessible, worldwide, to an even wider group of students.

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Odoardo Fialetti, c. 1608 (New Masters Academy)

Jacobo is continuing in the tradition of these old masters by offering studies of master copies through New Master Academy. The online Master Monday series is an interactive study group of master drawings. He guides students through their own master copies, providing feedback and suggestions on how they may approach these important lessons with a keen, analytical eye. “If we think of it as a craft, then we can get down to business,” Jacobo said.

Jacobo humbly expressed that he is simply the guide, while the master, whose works are being copied, is the teacher. The popularity of this study group has encouraged nearly 1,000 participants to connect with the traditions of art. Every Monday morning, this enthusiastic group of budding artists comes together to perpetuate this worthy tradition, to develop their technical skills, and recognize the beauty that emerges from this craft.

“Every line has a movement, a gesture. But as you’re seeing these lines and you start to draw them; you can see how every single line has an intention. They are like different notes and different instrumentalists coming together as part of an orchestra, playing towards one composition.

“That composition is about movement; it’s about roundness versus straight. It’s about twisting. It’s about the expression and feeling,” Jacobo said during one of his Master Monday lectures.

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Odoardo Fialetti, c. 1608 (New Masters Academy)

Jacobo encourages students of all levels to diligently study the works of the Renaissance Masters who remain at the pinnacle of mastery in this art form. Students have an unparalleled advantage when they supplement these fundamental classical studies with drawing from nature and imagination.

The aim of New Masters Academy is to nurture a community of artists who are inspired by the traditions of classical art, to then carry forth the tradition and become the “new masters.” Jacobo finds great joy watching students improve their skills using the timeless methods and techniques that have been gifted to us from the predecessors of this artistic tradition.

“You have a right to this knowledge,” he said. “We don’t have to figure it all out on our own.”

Though it may seem like advice for practicing artists, we can all benefit from looking to the past to navigate our own futures. Whether the aim is to create works of art, or seek any other pursuit toward mastery, a similar perspective carries across every skill. When we search into the lineage of mastery in any one tradition, we can discover a world of inspiration and guidance waiting to be unveiled!

Sarah Hodges is a freelance writer currently based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Before becoming a writer, she studied fine arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, The Grand Central Atelier in New York, and The Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. Her inspiration for classical art first came from her grandfather, who is a contemporary realist painter in Hawaii.