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What is drawing?

I have this conversation with students time after time about how a practitioner can explore what they perceive to be drawing. It can be a really interesting or frustrating chat – I genuinely do love to hear what others see drawing as, and what they themselves do in response to that word. Some like to really explore and experiment, whereas others just want to perfect a certain technique, or maybe don’t feel they want to or can push those boundaries. For me, drawing is a translation, from one view to another. When people say they ‘can’t draw’, I find this frustrating as I think everyone can- it’s just what they believe their translations to be viewed as. I actually find that a slightly skewed version of say, a chair and table set, could be far more interesting that a study painstakingly drawn in HB as it offers that personal viewpoint and approach.
I think I felt encouraged to write this post because I often feel that students are very limited in their approach to drawing. I used to be guilty of this too at some point- sticking with comfortable media, at a comfortable scale…but it didn’t get me very far in those early days of finding my feet and aesthetic. What I really hope for my students is that they allow themselves to let go of their perceptions and really experiment with their drawings; push media boundaries, explore scale, work on a variety of surfaces, mix media and take risks.
Studying an art course especially gives you that chance and freedom to investigate, you sometimes don’t get that chance too often again once commissions start coming in for a certain style, or you are employed to work to specific briefs. Hopefully whatever paths you all take beyond the OCA you will find the time to still experiment and try new approaches, but whilst studying you absolutely should continuously embrace new possibilities! Eventually you will find your aesthetic but it will only truly come after you have eliminated techniques and built on others- only then will you be making fully informed and confident decisions.
I have listed a few practitioners that I personally feel push the concept of a ‘drawing’ and I hope it makes you think a little bit about what new things you could try with your own visual recordings. (Please note- opinions are my own, I don’t expect everyone to agree!)
Stacy Brafield is a textile artist who works across a variety of media. I particularly appreciate these installations where she has ‘drawn’ with video cassette tape as I love the bold and confident line quality. I used to set drawing tasks with students asking them to draw on a wall/floor/external space with electrical tape and this always produced some really great responses.

Debbie Smyth creates textural drawings using thread and pins- also showing that to draw you don’t always require conventional drawing materials.

Margaret Boozer is an artist choosing to explore surface and imagery using raw materials such as dirt. Her pieces have a beautiful range of surface, line and tonal qualities and show that you can create work from the natural materials around us. I chose to show her piece Red Dirt Drawing because I admire the translation of geometric forms using this material.
I wanted to include Alison Carlier because she surprised a lot of art critics by winning the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2014 with an audio piece. She explores the concept of drawing through sound and I find it a really interesting approach; again proving that drawing isn’t just putting pen to paper sometimes. Drawing can also be time based (film)- so many possibilities! Please do go research her audio work- this is String Drawing:

I chose to include the work of Pae White and Gabriel Dawe because I like their use of drawing with thread in a much larger scale and using the lines to transform a space. I often encourage students to push their scale (if even to decide they actually hate working big and then find a scale they prefer!) and whilst I’m not suggesting to go this large, it is food for thought as to how the drawn line can differ across different sized surfaces/spaces.

Pae White

Gabriel Dawe

Tim Knowles’ Tree Drawings offer a really interesting concept of having no control over the drawn line. For one series in this group he attached traditional drawing tools to the bottom of weeping willow tree branches and allowed the elements to dictate the marks created. The movement of wind and motion of the branches created some really beautiful and sensitive drawn pieces. Could you create your own drawing tool? Myself and some old colleagues used to set this task and got really great results- one I specifically remember was a student who used ink coated tumble dryer beads to roll onto a variety of papers, the drawings were really great and had energy that she may not have been able to capture without abandoning total control.
Tim Knowles

Tim Knowles

I really like the surfaces created by Ula Einstein; she plays with various techniques to explore sensitive and delicate drawings. I chose to include her piece Kosmos to offer another drawing media- using heat and fire (being very careful obviously!!) to make marks.
Ula Einstein
Another artist pushing the boundaries of what drawing media/surface is is Hong Yi. She explores using materials such as burnt bamboo chopsticks, coffee cup stains and socks to create murals and portraits. What items in your everyday life could you use to create a mark?
Hong Yi

Hong Yi

Hopefully this post has given you some food for thought, and to maybe inspire a wider approach to our own practice too!

Posted by author: Faye Hall
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20 thoughts on “What is drawing?

  • Thanks Faye I’m doing the drawing BA and have noticed that this question comes up a lot (only yesterday on the Facebook page) and thanks for the examples definitely interesting and does clarify what drawing can be – lots of scope for me as I know that I need to at sometime polish the boundaries out and really explore drawing in a much more wider sense

  • Thanks Faye. A really interesting and thought provoking article. I am trying to push my ideas on what drawing is and wish to continue to do so .

  • Thanks for this article Faye which reinforces what I have learnt through Drawing 2. Now on Mixed Media I see many opportunities for these alternative drawing methods. Great fun experimenting.

  • Thanks for sharing Faye, very worth to see contemporary context of drawing beyond traditional line and tone mimetic drawings. My tutor suggested me to look at the journal ‘Drawing: Research, Theory, Practice’ (available from: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/drtp) to extend my perspectives.
    It is very much a space exploration relating back to our exploration as an infant after ‘release from the womb’

    • Just a quick note to say that this journal is — as far as I can tell — available through the UCA portal that has recently become available to OCA students and staff.

  • I watched a Water Boatman (beetle) drawing on the still surface of a pond. Drawing with great speed, the patterns evolved in all directions, but disappeared almost immediately.
    Why was he doing it?

      • Insects as artists! This morning slugs had drawn a lace-like design over slabs of stone, catching the morning sunlight in a silver network.
        (I am not sure if slugs are insects, or something else?)

  • Thank you for a very inspiring article Faye! For me as a drawing/painting student it is very exciting to see the examples of the textile artists. I have definately new things to try out now!

  • Thanks for this, Faye; I’m also new to Drawing 1, but with the slight twist that I’ve just graduated on the BA Photography. I have already been struck by some of the similarities with the ‘What is Photography?’ debate that rumbles on! The ‘answer’, in both cases, seems to be that it is the debate that is useful and inspiring, not the existence of an ‘answer’. For what it’s worth, this was my own recent blog on the question – https://stanocadrawing.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/what-is-drawing/

  • After reading your article and the student responses I think I will mow my lawn. Or may be I will draw. The lawn with my My mower!
    Whatch this space

  • I read your article with interest. I notice that the examples you choose are all about making a mark. However, drawing has to be more than making a mark. for example, if I scratch a scab, I make a mark but this is not a drawing. Or when I have had a shower, I leave a mark on the floor of the shower but this is not a drawing .So is your definition that a drawing is a drawing when I make a mark and call it a drawing? ie labelling is everything? If I scratch my scab and photograph it and call it a drawing, it is a drawing? I notice you do not engage with whether something is a ‘good’ mark. You might respond perhaps by arguing that this is a modernist question and that ‘good’ or ‘bad’ should not be criterion applied to art.
    I am only second guessing: but I disagree with some who might argue that we should not judge because we will inevitably apply biased criterion. I think we can decide on the criterion and ask:..is it a good mark? My marks made on my skin after scratching the scab are not ‘good’ marks and nor are my marks left in the shower. They are not good marks because they do not ask ‘good’ questions about the world or our place in it. they may ask questions about ‘what is drawing?’ but this leads to a circular and sterile argument that brings us back to marks and doesn’t lead us anywhere.

    • It’s so hard isn’t it- it’s a HUGE subject area to discuss. It’s also hard because who am I to say what marks are ‘good’? It is very much down to personal taste- I just wanted to touch on that drawing doesn’t have to be what some people perceive in the traditional sense. On a side note- there is a textile artist who creates marks in her skin using needles and thread- check out Eliza Bennett! Proving that the surface can also be of great interest. Perhaps the marks on your own skin are more interesting than you thought..!

  • I made a drawing with a tailors tracing wheel & graphite dust in the holes after reading this – a bit out there for me – the idea was prompted both by this post and by learning of the Raphael’s use of pounce bags and pinholes – so inspired by the new and the old.
    You mention finding one’s aesthetic – well, the Red Dirt Drawing attracts me for the sheer charm of the texture. I respond to the earthy raw materials. Also the thread/pin drawings because they speak of patience in the face of exacting intricate thread work, something I know about.
    But when you say “drawing is a translation, from one view to another” this doesn’t strike me as an attempt at an all encompassing definition, why do we need one anyway, you offer multi-definitions here which is why I would like to take the question mark from your title to make it a statement.
    I wonder if it is possible to come up with 3000 ways to make a drawing in line with the 3000 definitions of art detailed in A New Dictionary of Art https://weareoca.com/subject/fine-art/book-review-new-dictionary-art/ which is effectively anti-definition.
    Thanks for the post and the links in the replies

    • Ooo I would love to see that piece! And I don’t think we do need an all encompassing definition- the question mark is there as I personally do wonder what other people see drawing as.

  • Faye : Thanks for stirring us up about drawing. I enjoyed the comments – how did the lawn turn out John? Hope the mower drew something other than a straight line? O

  • fAYE : Thanks for stirring us up about drawing, and I much enjoy the comments too. Did the lawn-mower manage anything new, John, or just straight lines? Our sheep draw /tread weird lines through the fields – obviously purposeful rather than spontaneous drawing.

  • An early exercise in drawing1 Was making marks with all sorts of materials. I enjoyed dropping black treacle on to a white dish and wobbling it around, then added seeds and water. thyey made some fascinating marks. Once in a class drew a nude with thick coffee, charcoal and fingers. it worked well and was a softer effect than I had got previously. recently the snow drew an amazing line of trees on my windows. what about the starlings/

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