Explore #WeAreOCA
Skip Navigation

A History of Drawing in Four Paragraphs

The Open College of the Arts’ fine art courses place an emphasis on the practice of drawing as a means of exploring, experimenting and honing your skills as an artist in your media and genres of preference. In this article we look at the history of drawing as a practice and art form in its own right. 

1. The Early History of Drawing


A history of Drawing: Lascaux cave painting
By Prof saxx – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2846254

In looking at the history of art in general and drawing in particular, we will go right back to the earliest examples. The first known drawings are cave paintings, the most famous (although not necessarily the oldest) of which are those in Lascaux, France. Such early examples of mark making were clearly designed to communicate a message, but the aesthetic quality of these communications was transparently demonstrated in the earliest of marks, not just in cave paintings, but also in symbols produced in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), and later in Egypt and China. In non-Western societies art, calligraphy and craft have always been enmeshed, and drawing as communication is something that is universal, and through history remains a constant reason for picking up a mark making tool. The ‘reasons’ for drawing through the ages, the struggles with drawing conventions and styles, while not remaining static, are still pertinent in the 21st century. There is today, a resurgence of interest in drawing, and a re-examination of the role of drawing, and the history of drawing, in the field of art.
Leonardo da Vinci - presumed self-portrait - WGA12798.jpg
By Leonardo da Vinci – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15497207

2. The invention of paper, and drawing as a tool

The next stage in the history of drawing begins with the invention of its most common substrate; paper. It was not until around 1300 that paper as we know it existed and not until around 1500 that drawing paper was created. Before that, the concept of ‘sketching’ or preliminary drawings did not exist. The artist/artisan working from Byzantium through to the medieval world were producing images to the glory of God, using conventions that were based on simple geometrics, and were working directly onto specially prepared boards or parchments, using copybooks and imagery that was carried down through the ages. The 15th century was a time of dramatic change with the beginnings of the Renaissance. The rediscovery of classical art, a new interest in science, the development of artistic patronage, and the new role of the artist as a profession were the key factors driving the the huge expansion in the concept of drawing. Instead of being just a craft skill, drawing became a tool with which to investigate the natural world, and most importantly a way of artists expressing their own views of the world around them. Drawing became a tool for design and experiment, and with the advent of a system to describe the three dimensional world: linear perspective, later in the 15th century, the boundaries of drawing expanded phenomenally. Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo pushed drawing towards descriptions and visions of nature, dissecting bodies to investigate the detail of the bone and muscle under human skin. Brunelleschi used drawing to design the most incredible new architecture, using his new perspective system, while the Renaissance artist Pisanello created beautiful drawings of animals that stand in their own right as works of art.

3. The introduction of rules and diversified approaches

Gustav Klimt: Two Female Nudes Standing
By Gustav Klimt – Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40186717

In this third stage in the history of drawing, we look at the introduction of rules to the discipline. During the sixteenth century with the rise of the academies, drawing training became rigid, and trainee artists were asked to copy classical statues and other artists’ work to learn how to draw. Formulae were prescribed for facial and bodily expressions and the ‘rules’ for portraying people were very tight and controlled by the mid 17th century, as exemplified in the French Academies. By the 18th century there was rebellion against the strictures of the academy and many artist enthusiastically adopted the softer and freer stylistic licence provided by the Romantic movement in art. By the 19th century there were two definite streams of art practice, exemplified in the drawings and paintings of Ingres (highly contrived, rigorous classical work) and Courbet: naturalistic, who wanted to portray the harsh realism of the world and work directly from nature. This was the beginning of the move to much greater diversification in approaches to drawing, though the rigid academies approach persisted right through into the 20th century in parallel to many more innovative approaches to drawing (and painting). Reform was patchy but persistent, the Vienna secession pushed some reform in art training: throughout the campaigns of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, whose stunning work is still popular today. The drawings of these two are so intensely different from just being about observation and copying. Their drawings are about personal expression, feeling, pathology. By now, drawing could be used to aid the expression of personal feelings, or have a whole range of other purposes. The invention and popular dissemination of photography had a fundamental effect on artists’ drawing. The need to copy ‘reality’ had lessened, the camera could do that. The Impressionists in particular experimented with a range of drawing media, previously frowned on. Charcoal, inks, graphite became common currency for drawing. Now paper was available in much bigger sizes, and with the advent of abstraction early in the 20th century, the role of drawing was challenged again, so that the ‘making of marks’ of all kinds became honoured, and the process of drawing became something of interest, rather than just the output.

4. Drawing in the 21st Century

Now, in the 21st century, drawing can be anything. The reasons for drawing are so disparate it is impossible to encapsulate its role in a paragraph. This freedom in drawing is both exciting and terrifying. As a budding artist, as someone interested in studying drawing, it is important to understand the history of drawing and the meandering path of development drawing has taken. It is also important to have control of the media you use, and to be able to interpret what you see, and communicate it effectively in drawing. To be able to do this, you still have to observe, observe, observe, and practice practice, practice.
If you’re interested in the history of art, you can study individual Art History courses with the college to gain an in-depth appreciation and knowledge of the Fine Arts. If you’re interested in drawing and fine art as a practice, you can now study a full BA (Hons) Degree in Drawing through the OCA as well as the less specific BA (Hons) Fine Art or Painting degrees on offer.

Posted by author: Jane Parry
Share this post:

3 thoughts on “A History of Drawing in Four Paragraphs

  • Cave paintings – are they designed to communicate something? Since they’re underground and in darkness I wonder who they could have been intended for. I’ve always thought of them as being a form of sympathetic magic, a way of summoning up something, connecting unseen with seen.

  • I believe the Australian aborigines cave art is older than that found in Lascaux, France – some of it is 50,000 to 60,000 years old. An overseas friend when told there was nothing old in Australia commented, “you have the oldest art galleries in the world.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to blog listings