UWTSD Professor releases book to help dyslexics and all art students hone their drawing skills


Emeritus Professor Howard Riley at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) has published a new book that aims to help dyslexics and all students of art improve their drawing skills.

UWTSD Professor Emeritus Howard Riley has published a new book that aims to help dyslexics and all students of art improve their drawing skills.

Released following reports in a number of academic journals that art students’ drawing abilities are declining, the book, titled Observational Drawing for Students with Dyslexia, is the result of practical research into the ways that students with dyslexia draw.

Written by UWTSD Emeritus Professor Howard Riley and Qona Rankin, the coordinator for dyslexic students at the Royal College of Art (RCA), the book provides strategies, tips and inspiration to help students with dyslexia hone their drawing ability, but it is also expected to prove useful for non-dyslexic students and for tutors.

“The book is aimed at anyone wanting to improve their drawing, but specifically for dyslexic school students wanting to strengthen their portfolios for entry to art school, and also dyslexic degree students at art school who feel the need to develop their observational drawing,” says Professor Riley.

The book began after Professor Riley and Qona Rankin met at a conference and started discussing whether there might be indicators of dyslexia in the way students draw.

“We decided to explore: we swapped student drawings, each of us only knowing which ones in our own set of drawings were produced by dyslexic students, and applied a set of criteria (indicators of dyslexia) to all drawings,” says Professor Riley. “We were able to identify the dyslexic students in over 70% of cases.”

He adds that it is wrong to assume that dyslexia gives students an advantage when studying drawing.

“Research shows that up to 30% of students at art college can be dyslexic. It was thought that was because they were somehow better attuned to visual work. No – they were acutely attuned to avoiding courses which insisted on written assessment procedures!” he says.

Riley and Qona Rankin’s findings formed the basis of their joint presentation at the Include 2007 conference held at the RCA. The research also featured in several academic publications and attracted interest from academics in other fields: they began working with psychologists from UCL, Middlesex University and the University of Leuven, Belgium.

“From there, I developed a step-by-step practical strategy for improving observational drawing, specifically for dyslexics,” says Professor Riley.

Professor Riley was well-placed to develop such a strategy: a graduate of Hammersmith College of Art, Coventry College of Art and the Royal College of Art, he holds a doctorate of the University of Wales in the practice and pedagogy of drawing. He taught drawing in Australia and Malaysia before teaching in Swansea from 1991-2015, where he was Head of the School of Research & Postgraduate Studies at UWTSD’s Swansea College of Art from 2004-14.

The strategy developed by Professor Riley captured the interest of Jessica Kingsley Publishers and resulted in the publication of the new book. As well as drawing on the expertise of Professor Riley and Qona Rankin, the book also sprang from a series of three-day workshops at the RCA between 2012 and 2016. Students were a controlled mix of dyslexic and non-dyslexic.

“Our primary aim is to provide clear, practical strategies for the improvement of observational drawing for dyslexics, but they work for all school students wanting to strengthen their art school application portfolios, and degree-level students who want to improve their observational drawing,” says Professor Riley. “It may even inform teachers of drawing. There’s research that indicates that the processes involved in observational drawing actually develop other attributes such as judgement of angles, proportion and scale, which are useful to the range of art and design disciplines.”

A spin-off project was a set of Guidelines for a Visual Dissertation, which were accepted by UWTSD and fully supported by Study Skills Support tutors. This sprang from Professor Riley’s realisation, during his supervision of third year dissertations, that some dyslexic students were opting out of honours classification degrees by not submitting a written dissertation.

Observational Drawing for Students with Dyslexia is out now, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 

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