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Draw the line at copying? Not him

Stephen Farthing is on a mission to help teach British students how to draw. But what may seem an obvious pursuit for the first Rootstein Hopkins professor of drawing at Chelsea College of Art and Design is, in fact, quite radical.

"Art schools stopped teaching students how to draw because they didn't want to colour students' perception of what it ought to look like.

"But students have been let down because they have been pushed into a culture where they have had to improvise everything," he said.

"It's insulting to imagine that people can't learn by imitation and then 'take it for a walk' afterwards. Picasso did just that."

Professor Farthing is back in his native London after what he describes as a lifetime away. His new research post gives him licence to shape the UK's university art scene - and he is bursting with ideas.

"I'm really very interested in the idea of working with a group of young people and developing a drawing course that takes creativity as its end point rather than its starting point. It's much easier to be inventive when you have a grasp of basic structures and forms."

The first project that will come to fruition is a plan to reinstate copying as the way to teach the basics and to launch creativity from that.

For the Turner project, due to start next month, a series of famous artists and illustrators - Quentin Blake among them - will copy J.M.W. Turner drawings from Tate Britain's archive. Mary Anne Martin, an Oxford University psychologist, will analyse what the artists learn from the experience.

The idea is to produce both an exhibition of contemporary interpretations of Turner's drawings - to be hung in the Tate Modern in September - and an analysis of the value of copying from fine examples as a means of learning to draw.

Professor Farthing hopes to use what he gleans from this project to shape another, more far-reaching inquiry, one that will explore how best to teach drawing at secondary and tertiary educational levels.

Drawing and painting has been his life's work. It began as a way of getting out of reviled piano practice.

"Mr Salmon was a boring, smelly old man, and he gave me a notebook to record how much practice I did.

"I embellished it so much that it became like a nutty professor's manuscript. He loved the drawings and didn't look at how much practice I'd done. I realised then that I had a talent that I certainly didn't have on the piano keys."

He studied painting at the Central Saint Martins School of Art from 1969 to 1973, and then eschewed the temptation to join the Royal Navy - he'd enjoyed sailing as a schoolboy - after getting into the Royal College of Art. This led him to a serious involvement in art and an academic take on it.

"Peter de Francia was a ferocious academic who made girls cry and boys feel weak. He got me reading, looking and thinking a lot harder than I had ever done during my undergraduate degree."

But it was a year's scholarship at the British School in Rome that sealed his fate. "I discovered antiquity and history in Rome," he said.

"When I was a student in the 1970s, everything was to do with looking towards America and modernism and nothing much to do with looking back. I learnt a lot about drawing and painting from antiquity in Rome and my work, inadvertently, became postmodern. They were historical paintings painted in modern language."

More important, he learnt not to fear history. "I have dined with the devil in terms of becoming a modern artist. I have taken hold of history, tried to understand it - and then used and abused it.

"There's a kind of orthodoxy about ways people think you should and should not learn. Copying is an area that's not talked about much.

"As an artist, I'm always intrigued by areas that are unfashionable and apparently on the rubbish heap. That's where you find the interesting stuff. Copying is important in the development of almost everything we do."

Professor Farthing returned from Rome to a visiting lectureship at Canterbury College of Art before receiving an invitation to teach painting at the RCA. His love of academic life, rather than the commercial art world, stems from this time.

Yet, at the same time, a "good career" as an artist was blossoming. His lucky break came when he won a prize for a painting based on a portrait of Louis XV by Hyacinthe Rigaud that he had painted in a patchwork of modern and traditional languages. The Walker Gallery bought the painting, the first he sold.

Though not a household name, he is successful enough to afford a studio on the beach in the sought-after New York seaside resort of the Hamptons - not something the average fine art professor could aspire to.

For the past 15 years he has been running institutions: ten years at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and then the New York Academy of Art in Manhattan.

Professor Farthing is now revelling in being back at the university "coalface".

"I feel in a similar position now to where I started out as an artist," he said.

"Every minute I can spend in the studio is exciting, and I have contact with young people and education rather than the tainted commercial world."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM Central Saint Martins School of Art, London

MY FIRST JOB WAS mowing grass in Regent's Park, then lecturer in painting at Canterbury College of Art

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS balancing teaching and writing with painting and drawing

WHAT I HATE MOST other people's mobile phone conversations

IN TEN YEARS I hope to still be able to run ten miles, have a studio within walking distance of a beach and be painting every day

FAVOURITE (CLEAN) JOKE What do you call a deer with no eyes? No idea. What do you call a deer with no eyes and no legs? Still no idea.

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