What is Drawing?

After Rauschenberg

I don’t intend to get ‘bogged down’ debating this question. Like Photography, Drawing is polysemous and debates about its ‘meaning’ will probably circle forever around its various forms and applications. I have read/viewed a number of sources already (see below) and have more to read. It is interesting and enjoyable, and I’ll continue to read/reflect as I study, I’m sure. But there is a sense emerging as to the domain in which Drawing (and these debates) exists, leaving me more confident than I was about context.

Artist, Deanna Petherbridge, is quoted in one of the publications below, from a 1991 exhibition catalogue introduction – ‘The Primacy of Drawing, An Artist’s View’: “Drawing is the primal means of symbolic communication”.

Jacques Derrida is quoted in the same essay, from a 1993 publication – ‘Memoirs of the Blind, the Self Portrait and other Ruins’: “The thought of drawing, a certain pensive pose, a memory of the trait that speculates, as in a dream, about its own possibilities. Its potency always develops on the brink of blindness.”

In the contemporary context, Drawing is often identified as a manifestation of a direct line to the human unconscious … something enigmatic, with a touch of magic … often expressing dark moods. This is a kind of drawing that focuses on reflection rather than observation and emphasises the performative and the speculative over the translation of visual experience. There is a temptation, perhaps, to interpret this as something essentially contemporary; that the perception of Drawing changed somewhere between about 1950 and 1990. Then one comes across quotations from Renaissance writer/artist Giorgio Vasari, discussing disegno (both drawing and design, in Italian, apparently) in 1568 e.g.  “… there arises a certain conception and judgement, so that there is formed in the mind that which afterwards, when expressed by the hands is called ‘design’ …”. As I said, these ideas can circle around and around. The course module notes suggest that, in the simplest form, Drawing might be “… leaving a trace of a thoughtful and performative activity …”; and the very first exercise encourages me to think about some unusual drawing activities, temporary drawings, that may have little to do with pencil and paper.

So, my sketchbook now has references to snail drawings and the stains left in a coffee cup, for example. But the image at the top is one of my own temporary drawings – and it might well represent some sort of direct line to my unconscious! Robert Rauschenberg famously requested, in 1953, an original drawing from fellow artist Willem de Kooning, with the express intention of erasing it and presenting the outcome as his own work of art. There is plenty of scope for debate about the pros and cons of what he did, which I don’t intend to explore here. In my case, I took some time to draw in my sketchbook (and it doesn’t matter what I drew, though faint traces remain – another potential characteristic of drawing as a medium) and then erased what I’d drawn. I’ve collected the remains of the erasing activity and fixed them back in the book, inside a transparent ‘wallet’ so that they are both visible and loose. What remains, which can form a new shape every time the page is turned, is, hopefully, “a trace of a thoughtful and performative activity”!

Also maybe time to do some ‘proper’ drawing (tongue firmly in cheek).

Some references:

Drawing as a flexible tool in the post-digital age 2015 Katharine Stout

Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art

‘A continuous incompleteness’ – essay by Brian Fay in this publication

Contemporary Drawing: from 1960s to now – Katharine Stout

‘The Secret of Drawing’ Episodes 1-4 BBCTV 2005 – Andrew Graham-Dixon

First Tutor Conversation


I’ve decided to stay brave and illustrate this blog with my own drawings – this is another exercise from the book I mentioned in my first post, https://stanocadrawing.wordpress.com/2017/08/06/first-blog-post/.

Last week I had the first conversation with Bryan, my tutor for the module. I’ve met him before; and I’m not new to OCA distance learning; so it was probably rather more relaxed than some such first sessions. These are some of the key points that emerged.

  • Bryan recommended that I look at this book ‘Contemporary Drawing: from the 1960s to Now’, by Katherine Stout (it’s on its way); plus this Introduction to the catalogue of the 2015 ‘Drawing Room Biennial (also Katherine Stout), and a supporting curatorial lecture (the first, introductory section). The latter two are both done; and I note that ‘Drawing Room’ seems to be a good online source.
  • He partly recommended these because he knew that I was potentially interested in the physical/digital interface and how drawing might add a new layer to my explorations. He has suggested that I reflect on the related ‘differences’ – which I propose to do in forthcoming posts here.
  • He encouraged me to ‘make lots of work’ – which sounds familiar – to regard everything as preparatory – and to do plenty of comparative work, exploring ‘clashes’. Dully noted; actually having physical sketchbooks is going to be a new experience.
  • I asked him about the very wide range of drawing tools and equipment referred to in the module notes. The message seems to be to certainly explore but not feel compelled to invest either time or money into, say, colour pastels, until/unless I feel the need. Interesting to note that Bryan tends to use a limited range of graphite pencils but a wide range of erasers – drawing is sometimes about removing/refining as well as making marks. I need to ‘experiment with paper’ … and ink, as/when I decide to take the plunge, is described as a ‘high-wire act’ – I can see that!
  • We’ve tentatively set a target of mid-November for me to submit my first assignment; but it’s flexible and I don’t intend to rush the first section of the module.

One thing that Bryan’s reading recommendations have led to is some initial research about ‘Drawing’ – contextual research, that is. I have to resist the temptation to get carried away by that; it’s Drawing One Drawing Skills, not L3 Contextual Studies! But it occurred to me that some reading and reflection about what ‘Drawing’ is could be a good place to start. All being well, that will be the subject for my next reflection on here.

Setting the Scene

Blog Image

The inevitable starting point with this blog has to be ‘Why?’. Why am I about to embark on a ‘Drawing Skills‘ module with the Open College of the Arts? I have recently graduated through the OCA with a BA Photography, First Class Hons; so why back to ‘Level One’ on Drawing? I have stated, more than once and in various contexts, that studying for the BA has transformed me, not into a really good photographer, as one might have expected, but into an Artist. I make images that use a lens, amongst other media, to create something that might be interesting. My work is multi-layered, manipulative, and a combination of digital and physical ‘making’ – there is, I have become aware, much akin to the process of drawing … different from but with similarities. Those differences and similarities may well be explored further in some early reflections, but it is, partly, that exploration that has prompted this study. I can see potential for further ‘layering’ through the making of physical marks – marks that find their way, ultimately, into the digital domain for manipulation; marks on the output from the digital domain; perhaps greater skill and sophistication in the making of marks in the digital domain. I don’t know, yet; this is a process of skill development and the exploration of potential.

I have never ‘really’ drawn. Well, a very long time ago and as something of a time-filler towards the end of my school days (background to that irrelevant now), I did pass the old GCE ‘O’ Level in Art; so I must have done some drawing of some sort, though I can’t remember what. And, naturally, I have produced schematics, living room layout plans, and all such paraphernalia of life. There was a time, too (and I’m not conscious of why I’ve stopped doing it), when I was an incorrigible ‘doodler’ – mainly whilst on the phone and chiefly comprising abstract shapes and forms, as I recall. But, I’ve never ‘really’ drawn. So I needed to do something about that before signing up for this module. I felt that I had to find out what it felt like to put pencil to paper with some sort of intent. Some Amazon research led me to this book, which seemed popular and well-reviewed. I hasten to say that I didn’t choose it because I really thought it would teach me to draw!! It just offered an easy way in. I’ve been working through the exercises over the last 2-3 months and, by the time I was half way through, I knew enough about my own feelings to enroll on Drawing One – Drawing Skills. In other words, I was enjoying the process of making pencil marks on paper and sensing just enough ‘success’ in the outcome. The top two drawings above both emerged from exercises in the book.

From there, I’ve played around with shading and with alternatives to the pencil (bottom right above uses charcoal stick) – and now, here with go with ‘really’ drawing! I have the course material and have read it through; and I’ve had an introductory tutorial hangout session. More reflections and outcomes will follow and there is a loose target of three months for the delivery of my first assignment. We’ll see where it leads.

PS – it has taken a bit of nerve to share those drawings above!