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Students drawing in the Cast Courts

Students drawing in the Cast Courts

This resource offers teachers advice, ideas and information for the effective use of drawing in a museum. The suggested drawing activities are all based on the Victoria and Albert Museum but the same approaches could be used elsewhere. There are sections on the following:

  • Warming up
  • Basic elements
  • Drawing methods
  • Find out more

Practical advice on drawing in museums is also given below

The suggested activities are aimed at supporting teaching and learning in Art and Design at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4.

Practical aspects of drawing in museums

In order to protect the objects from damage, most museums have strict regulations governing the use of materials. It is only possible to draw with dry materials on paper, so this is the technique that we concentrate on in this resource. When your students are drawing in the galleries make sure that they do not block passageways.

Students should never touch objects unless specifically invited to do so, for example in the China and  Sculpture gallery and in the British Galleries. This is particularly important when their hands may be dirty from drawing. Students must not rest clipboards on objects, display cases or plinths or lean against them.

Be focused and selective on your visit to a museum, as time is always limited. Students will make better drawings if they are clear about the aims from the outset. It is always tempting to give students the freedom to draw whatever interests them, but this can be counter-productive. They may spend too much time choosing and not enough time drawing or they may select objects simply because they perceive them to be easy to draw. Tell them which galleries they are to work in and what type of drawing to do. They can then exercise choice within a more limited field.

Warming up

Students can feel intimidated by a blank sheet of paper. These two exercises are good to do at the start of a visit to get students making marks and under way.

Taking a line for a walk

The Swiss artist Paul Klee said that drawing was like taking a line for a walk. This maxim can be turned into an activity that gets students drawing quickly and decisively.

It is a good exercise for a group to do together using the same subject. Choose an object that is reasonably large and not too complicated, in a position where your group can be gathered together.

A sculpture of a standing figure works well - try the Cast Courts (Rooms 46a & 46b).

Challenge them to draw the object without taking their pencil off the paper. They can go back over a line or simply 'walk' their pens across the drawing if they need to get from one part to another. The aim is to keep the line going, rather than to produce a careful, studied drawing.

'Diana' by Joseph Nollekens, 1778, Museum no. A.5-1986

'Diana' by Joseph Nollekens, marble, 1778, Museum no. A.5-1986

Line drawing of Nollekens’ sculpture of Diana by a Year 10 pupil

Line drawing of Nollekens’ sculpture of Diana by a Year 10 pupil. The drawing was done in about 15 minutes without taking the pencil off the paper.


This exercise works best in galleries with a variety of types of object, such as the 20th Century gallery (Rooms 70-74) or the British Galleries. Students work in pairs. One partner goes into the gallery and selects an object. The other partner is then taken to the vicinity of the object without being allowed to see it. The partners sit or stand back-to-back. The student who made the selection faces the object and describes its appearance (taking care not to say what kind of object it is).

His or her partner produces a drawing of the object based entirely on the description. This student will then demand to swap roles in order to wreak revenge by choosing a complicated object for the other person to draw. This enjoyable exercise stretches students' observation skills and descriptive vocabulary.


The basic elements

Netsuke carving of a grazing horse, Japan, 18th Century, Museum no. 418-1904

Netsuke carving of a grazing horse, carved and stained ivory, Japan, 18th Century, Museum no. 418-1904

The foundations of drawing are line, light and dark, and colour. The activities below suggest ways of focusing on these elements.

Through thick and thin

The most obvious place in the V&A in which to investigate line is the Ironwork gallery (Rooms 113 and 114). Wrought iron is linear in nature and often varies in width within one piece. You could also work with the intricately carved netsuke (toggles used to attach pouches to the sash of a kimono) in the Japan gallery (Room 45), or with plaster casts of relief sculptures in the Cast Courts (Rooms 46a and 46b).

Ask students to use a thick, thin or medium line according to the thickness of the piece of wrought iron or the depth of the carved incision on a netsuke or relief. Younger students may find it difficult to do this if they have not first practised how to make lines of different weight. Pencil is a very flexible medium with which to investigate line, as you can vary the pressure to produce different thicknesses. It also comes in a variety of grades and can be used sharpened or blunt. Encourage students not to use erasers. If a drawing goes wrong, find something positive to say about it and suggest that the student makes another attempt on the same page if there is room.

Toning up

Tonal scales

Tonal scales, from top to bottom: 2B pencil; black wax crayon; black conté crayon and chalk on grey paper

Ask students to shade a square area in the top left corner of a sheet of paper as heavily as they can. In the top right corner they should shade an area as lightly as they can. They should then fill in the space between these two extremes with further squares of shading, creating a tonal scale from dark to light.

Younger students might need some practice before they get a good range of tones, as they tend to find shading lightly particularly difficult. These tonal scales could be done at school or in the museum. Back at school, you could also try to achieve tonal scales using black conté crayon and white chalk on grey paper. The shading exercise shown above goes from black to grey and then from grey to white. Ask students to draw the outline of a square in the middle - the tone here is the grey of the paper. Proceed as above, using conté crayon to the left of the outline and chalk to the right. The weight applied to the chalk will be in reverse order to the crayon.

Do not use materials like chalk and conté crayon during your museum visit. Students will have enough new experiences to cope with without struggling with an unfamiliar drawing medium.

Keeping in tone

Charcoal tonal study by Graham Bullock

Charcoal tonal study done in the Cast Courts, Graham Bullock, Year 13

While in the museum, limit students to the use of various grades of pencil. This will give them very concrete alternatives for light and dark.

Tell them to use the grey of the paper for medium tones. Students will nearly always find it initially easier to analyse tones in two dimensions rather than in three, so textiles are very suitable subjects.

The China and Japan galleries (Rooms 44 and 45) have a good selection of textiles with a wide range of tones. Discuss one example with the whole group first. Ask them to identify the darkest and lightest tonal areas, then the medium tones.

Give students a viewfinder to help them select a section to draw - plastic slide mounts are a cheap, ready-made option. Stress that the drawings they make should be large in order to give them enough space to record all the variations in tone.

Body tone

Unpainted sculpture carved in stone or cast in plaster is a good subject for this activity. Look at the location of dark, light and medium tones on a piece of sculpture. Relate these to the light source: the parts of the sculpture hit directly by light at 90 degrees will be lightest. Areas struck obliquely or overhung will be darker.

Ask students to draw a small section of the sculpture using black wax crayons. Stress that they are to concentrate on light and dark and texture. The task can be made more challenging by forbidding pupils to draw from outlines, requiring them to build up form solely through the use of tone.

When students have completed a section of sculpture, they can progress to drawing a whole object. Portrait busts are manageable for most. If students squint, they will be able to see the broad distribution of tone without being distracted by details

Students might find it easiest to put down all the areas of dark shadow first. However, they should be careful not to shade too darkly to start with or they will find it difficult to adjust the tonal values if needed. Look in the China gallery (Room 47e), the South-East Asia gallery (Room 47b), and the Cast Courts (Rooms 46a & 46b) for suitable subjects.

Perfect primaries

The Betley Window, 1550-1621, Museum no. C.248-1976

The Betley Window, stained glass panel, 1550-1621, Museum no. C.248-1976

The 20th Century gallery (Rooms 70-74), the British Galleries (Rooms 118-125) and the South Asia gallery (Room 41) are all good for colour work. Many schools have paint trays of the primary colours (red, blue and yellow) to encourage students to mix the exact shade they need. You could apply the same principle when drawing in a museum,  you might want to provide students with two possibilities from each of the primary colours to ensure maximum flexibility - a warm yellow as well as a lemon yellow, and so on.

Back at school, colours can be blended further with a brush by applying white spirit or water as appropriate. Watercolour pencils can be mixed on the page to some extent when in the museum and water added back at school


Colour transparencies

View from the glass staircase in the Glass Gallery

View from the glass staircase in the Glass Gallery

In the Glass gallery (Room 131) ask students to find a part of the display where the objects are arranged in such a way that the colours and the forms appear to overlap. They could cut or tear the basic shapes out of the tissue paper and stick them onto a sheet of white paper in the same order, as the glass objects on the shelf (that is, those furthest away first).

The translucency of the tissue paper will mimic the glass, and overlaid colours will mix optically. Students could then draw on top of the collage to make the colour more exact and add reflections and highlights. This project is most suitable for secondary students as primary students often find tissue paper difficult to work with.

Drawing methods

Drawing to record

Details of motifs in the Ironwork gallery

Details of motifs in the Ironwork gallery, drawn on a sheet divided into eight squares, Year student

You may ask the students to treat the drawings they do on a museum visit as visual research. In that case, the primary aim is to gather information rather than to produce a beautiful drawing.

Little boxes

Give students a sheet divided into a number of squares (four or eight work well). If students use sketchbooks, ask them to draw their own divisions before the visit. At the museum, ask them to draw an example of the same type of pattern or motif in each box.

Try linear patterns in the Ironwork gallery (Rooms 113-114) or natural motifs in the China and Japan galleries (Rooms 42-45). The box format gives the students' research an attractive appearance and has the advantage of allowing them to move on to the next box without abandoning the whole sheet if they get fed up with a drawing.

By the time they have completed the sheet they will probably hardly notice the drawing they felt was unsuccessful.


Instruct students to draw the spaces around and between objects rather than the objects themselves. They can shade in these spaces for emphasis.

Students will become more sensitive to form by focusing on the silhouette of an object without getting bogged down by surface details.

The exercise works best when a number of similar objects are grouped closely together. Some suggestions are hairpins in the China gallery (Room 44) and pots in the Korea gallery (Room 47g).

‘Noah’, armchair designed by Nigel Coates, 1988, Museum no. W.15-1990

‘Noah’, armchair designed by Nigel Coates, steel frame with ash seat, London, 1988, Museum no. W.15-1990

Drawing to analyse

Drawing can be a means of understanding the three dimensional form of an object, working out how a pattern repeats or focusing on details.

Focusing in

Students can record a lot of information about an object by making an outline sketch and a detailed drawing of a small section. For example, when drawing a textile with a repeating pattern, they can highlight one pattern unit (the part that is repeated) in a careful drawing. Similarly, with a piece of furniture they can draw an enlarged detail of a shape, pattern or line alongside a sketch of the whole object. An arrow is useful to indicate where the detail was to be found on the piece of furniture. Students might enjoy using shaped viewfinders to select details - try diamonds, circles or triangles. Use the Textile Study Rooms (Rooms 95-101) or Europe and America 1800-1890 (Rooms 8 and 9).

3D vision

Drawing an object from different viewpoints will help students to understand the whole form. The fact that they can do this in museums emphasises the importance of first-hand research. Books often show only a single viewpoint.

Ask students to choose a three dimensional object that they can draw from more than one viewpoint. They could try a sequence of three of four drawings and gradually work their way round the object.

You might also find it useful to take your students to the Sculpture gallery (Room 111). It explores the making of sculpture and includes, objects and materials that can be handled.

Drawing to develop designs

In the museum students can develop designs on the spot as well as record motifs to develop back at school.

Symmetry and repetition

Interior of the South Asian gallery (Room 41), seen through a geometrical stone window

Interior of the South Asian gallery (Room 41), seen through a geometrical stone window

The stone windows around the central section of the South Asia gallery(Room 41) are designed with repeating or interlocking geometrical shapes and one or more lines of symmetry. Instead of simply copying an existing window design, why not ask students to collect motifs from a selection of windows and combine them within a basic shape according to pre-drawn lines of symmetry?

Students could work on a square window or experiment with hexagons, stars, octagons and crosses.

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