Monday, February 09, 2015

How to draw and sketch in an art gallery or museum #1

This is the first in a series of posts about drawing and sketching in art galleries and museums.

There are rules which are generally applicable for what you can and cannot do when wanting to draw or sketch and, below, I highlight what these are.

I've also reviewed all the public (ie on the website) statements about rules relating to drawing and sketching in the major art galleries and other museums in London.

These have enabled me to highlight a number of interesting conclusions - not least that a number of them have no public statement about what's allowed re. drawing and sketching inside the gallery or museum.  Lots about copyright, lots about photography and zilch about sketching!

Drawing and Sketching in Art Galleries and Museums

Below are the general principles observed by most art galleries and museums.
So if you want a quick checklist of what rules are most likely to be applicable read on!

They're interspersed by sketches I've done in London.

The PLUS Points

  • In general, art activities are encouraged and supported by art galleries and museums.
    • It's a traditional activity of students wanting to learn.
    • Many art galleries and museums encourage people to draw from paintings
    • However that support for drawing and sketching is expressed in different ways
  • Many art galleries and museums provide free sketching stools. These aren't always obvious and sometimes you have to ask where they are. At weekends and other busy times it's not unusual for them to go very fast!

Wallace Collection - Judy and the horses
11.5" x 17", pen and sepia ink in Daler Rowney Sketchbook

The MAJOR Concerns

  • Artworks MUST be protected. Hence here are some of the usual rules:
    • Dry media only - pencils and coloured pencils are fine (but charcoals and pastels can be messy and some galleries don't like then)
    • Liquid/wet media is very often banned. Hence paints, marker pens and bottles of ink are very often not allowed in museums - mainly because these have more scope to cause permanent damage very fast if used/thrown on a painting or sculpture
    • Do not lean on the artwork
    • Some museums won't allow backpacks
  • Health and safety of ALL visitors is very important
    • It's essential to be considerate of others and advisable to be polite to the security people
    • Keep the floors clear of obstructions which people might fall over
    • If you're in a high traffic area (such as a popular temporary exhibition) you might well be prohibited from sketching or get moved on

TIPS for safe sketching

I've been sketching in art galleries and museums for years and years. I've learned a few things in that time about how to sketch effectively and without comment and not get thrown out!

Below is a set of tips about "how to sketch" rather than "what to sketch".  A lot of this is common sense - however these pointers are not always obvious to everybody - hence the list

How to sketch in art galleries and museums

  • Always check the rules for sketching before you go - what applies in one museum might be quite different in the next one you visit
  • Take dry media and leave the paints and/or permanent media at home
    • graphite and coloured pencils are both fine - but make sure you take a canister or a bag for any pencil shavings
    • pen and ink is can be OK (but marker pens are not. Very often what they seek to exclude is anything that makes a permanent mark)
    • use a selection of water-brushes for different tonal washes
    • paints are generally not OK - however there are ways round this. If you prefer to use watercolour, try taking watercolour pencils and use a water brush
    • in very general terms you can use in a gallery whatever the museum's education department allows children to use in a gallery
  • Do NOT be a nuisance and do NOT be messy
    • use wax crayons and hard pastels (no dust) rather than soft pastels or charcoal
    • charcoal is NOT OK everywhere - check before you set off
    • don't litter your surroundings with all your bits and bobs or create a mess!
  • Do NOT create a risk or a hazard 
    • try and be unobtrusive e.g. choose a position which is unlikely to obstruct traffic flow or the view of the art by others. Using one of the museum benches to sit on will rarely attract comment
    • to draw the architecture / interior I recommend you stand (or use a sketching stool to sit) in a corner or with your back to the wall 
    • never ever leave coats or bags on the floor or anything people might trip over or skid on
    • don't be "an arty farty fool" - now is not the time to try and be the centre of attention and draw a crowd! 
  • Do NOT obstruct the view of other visitors eg sit on a sketching stool beneath a painting rather than stand in front of it - allow people to look over your head
  • If asked, explain to the security person what you are doing
    • Be clear what the museum policies state is allowed. It's often useful to print off a copy before you go as not all security people are well informed about what is and is not allowed.  
    • In general, avoid drawing security people unless you've asked permission!
  • If you want to use media not on their list - try writing and explaining what you want to do and seek a licence to 'paint' in the museum. Licences are awarded but these very often only go to "bona fide" artists and art school students.
  • Do also sketch outside! Don't forget that the architecture and environment of an art gallery or museum also provides excellent subjects for drawing and sketching

The Rules

Today I'm highlighting the rules for specific museums in London - and highlight in red the materials and/or behaviour which might get you stopped / thrown out!

This will be followed by rules for specific museums and art galleries in:
  • the rest of the UK
  • the USA 
  • Australia
Please let me know if there are any museums or art galleries you want to know the guidelines for - or can provide feedback on their practices - particularly if these are "odd".

The Rules in the UK (London)

Everything that follows relates to independent sketching in a Gallery - NOT formal and/or priced opportunities to participate in education classes and workshops.

What's been interesting about this review of the rules is the extent to which
  • some art galleries and museums do NOT recognise that independent sketching is an age-old practice related to both enjoyment, learning and the development of skills.
  • galleries and museums are more focused on selling priced classes and workshops rather than encouraging independent study through drawing and sketching. 
  • That said, nobody is forbidding sketching - except in the temporary exhibitions.

See also The Top Ten Museums in London. (You can see more of my sketches on my travel sketchbook blog)

In general admission to a gallery is free but there are often charges for admission to exhibitions - and sketching in priced exhibitions of often discouraged.

British Museum

  • The "Visitor Regulations" (see link below) could be a lot more helpful in providing advice to people planning to visit BEFORE people leave home!  How difficult is it to put the rules about the use of art media, stools and easels on the website?
17.3 You are welcome to draw and sketch in our galleries but you should consult our Visitors’ Information Desk about the rules for the use of art media, stools and easels within the Museum.
  • You must not cause, annoyance or disturbance to other visitors or create a risk to any of the exhibits e.g. Do not leave bags lying around while sketching
You must not leave any of your property unattended at any time in the Museum, including in any outdoor areas. We reserve the right to have unattended property removed and/or destroyed without warning in the interests of safety and security.
My sketch of Monet's painting of Antibes at the Courtauld Gallery
pencil and coloured pencils

Courtauld Gallery

  • In my opinion, this is one of the most pleasant galleries in which to sketch in London. Their advice is precise
  • acceptable media - Fine-tipped pens; all pencils; wood or plastic encased pastels/charcoal or crayons
  • media not permitted - Paint or other wet materials; charcoal; permanent markers; fixative spray; oil pastels not encased in wood or plastic.
  • Backpacks cannot be worn on the back but can be stored in a locker (but numbers are limited)
    • Useful Links:

    My sketch of children drawing a Turner at the National Gallery
    pen and coloured pencils

    National Gallery

    • Sketching is encouraged. You can bring your own stool or borrow one of theirs
    • Media they prefer - a hand-held pad of paper, pencil, graphite stick or felt-tipped pens
    • Media they don't like - pastels, wax crayons, charcoal and fountain pen
    • sketching in temporary exhibitions and displays may not be allowed (this seems more likely to be due to numbers of visitors rather than not at all as it's at the discretion of "the warding staff")
    • sketching is not allowed in Sainsbury Wing exhibitions (which is interesting because I've sketched in these exhibitions in the past - however I've sat on the fixed benches and used coloured pencils to do this. I suspect this is about traffic issues)
    • Painting in the Galleries is a whole different ballgame and you need to make a formal application for permission
    If you wish to use paint, or other oil/water-based media, request an application form from:

    National Portrait Gallery

    • The NPG has a statement about photography but says precisely nothing about sketching in the galleries
    • Lots of formal opportunities for education - but nothing that fosters and encourages independent drawing and sketching by individuals.
    • Useful Links: 

    My sketch of one of the Dodos at the Natural History Museum

    Natural History Museum

    • Absolutely no guidance on sketching on the website - although lots of references to sketching and sketchbooks in relation to the collections
    • It's never ever been a problem and lots of people have sketched at the Natural History Museum in the past. Use your common sense and follow general guidelines outlined above re sketching in art galleries and museums - and take your own stool.
    • Useful Links:

    Royal Academy of Arts

    • Great at explaining access facilities for those in groups, with schools, families and those with some form of disability - but there's a lack of recognition for the ordinary independent sketcher wanting to sketch in exhibitions
    • Sketching stools are available but can be difficult to find
    • Useful Links: 
    Sketching Sargent at the RA
    (coloured pencils)

    Science Museum

    • Lots of interesting objects and shapes to sketch
    • Examples of ways in which drawing have been used in relation to science in the collection
    • Sketching by children is encouraged - eg see Speed Sketching
    • No statement about sketching in the museum
    • Useful Links: 

    Tate Britain / Modern

    • Tate Britain are generous in their provision of sketching stools although they do sometimes seem to end up in the wrong place
    • While photography in the paying exhibitions is not allowed, it appears that sketching in paying exhibitions is tolerated - as in sketching stools are located next to the entrance to exhibitions and one frequently sees people sketching
    • Media NOT allowed in the galleries - charcoal, pastels, permanent markers and water colour or oil paint is not allowed in the galleries 
    • I like this one - it's the only gallery which promotes this
    Please respect the rights of other visitors to quiet contemplation and study

    Victoria and Albert Museum

    We are happy for you to sketch and use photography throughout most of the museum, but please do so respectfully
    • Sketching is OK and you can borrow stools - BUT 
      • no sketching in temporary exhibitions
      • media permitted: Only graphite pencils and coloured pencils are allowed for drawing in the galleries
      • media prohibited in all galleries: wet media, spray paints, adhesives and fixatives
      • do not trace / do not rub
      • never ever lean on an object, case or plinth
    • Don't create an obstruction and be considerate of others
    • Useful links

    Wallace Collection 

    • Extensive information about their activities and art classes - but no statement or advice about sketching in the galleries. Sketching stools are available.
    • I've sketched in the Wallace without a problem in the past
    • (Note: their art classes are popular and get book up fast)
      Useful Links: 

    Horniman Museum 


    1. This is such a useful article and makes me dream at the same time...of places I'd like to visit and sketch. My favorite places so far: the Coptic Museum in Cairo and the Bardo Museum in Tunisia. However, I'm strictly a fair-weather sketcher and the Bardo isn't heated in winter! (in case anyone is considering it).

    2. This is a useful article for anyone who has not considered sketching in museums. I have been sketching in museums in Canada, mostly in Montreal and I think these guidelines would apply equally here.


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