Monday, 31 March 2014

Drawing as a vehicle for carrying several concepts at once

One of the most fascinating things about looking at drawing is that we have a vast time period over which to study it’s various uses. Some of the earliest records of drawings are from over 30,000 years ago and in these drawings some key issues were already being dealt with. 
If we examine the drawings from the caves of Altamira for example, these drawings of animals already attempt to deal with a summation of perceptual experiences, the drawings pick out the clearest animal profiles and highlight main features to aid recognition, but these drawings also attempt to recreate the moment of experience, for instance they indicate mass by being worked over rock surfaces of a similar form to the animals depicted and there is also evidence (Lewis-Williams, 2004) that the whole scenario was lit with flickering flames so that intimations of movement were recreated as an immersive experience, that probably included rhythmic dancing and drumming.  If we are to accept Lewis-Williams’ idea, that there was a connection in the mind of Paleolithic humans between the concept of death and another alternate state that is sensed behind the membrane of the cave wall, then we have to accept the fact that these images also held within them sophisticated concepts of time. Life, (now/the present) is held within the forms of the animals depicted and they can be used to re-enact both past hunts and future possibilities of the hunt. The reenactments being held in the now to emphasize the hunters’ awareness of being alive and yet at the same time, behind the cave wall lies the dead, the past, the animals that have been eaten and become part of the hunters. They have like the hunters’ food disappeared inside, behind the skin of the cave/stomach wall. It is hard for us to think perhaps with the embodied realism of our ancestors but as Johnson and Lakoff have pointed out most of our concepts originate in the construction of body metaphors and even 20,000 or more years ago, these were already being established. In particular three key areas of drawing were often to be found within the same drawing complex: representation, symbolic form and impressions of the hand of the creator. 

Pech Merle spotted horses

Entoptic forms

Perception is a curious business and our ancestors were obviously aware that there are two aspects to perception, the moment of the reception of perceptions from what we could call the outside world and information generated by the brain itself, in particular when deprived of outside stimulus, such as when spending hours in a dark cave. These other forms we now call entoptic images and it has been proposed that these forms allowed us as a species to intimate the use of abstract forms as ways to carry ideas beyond representation and into areas of symbolic form. Perhaps the spots that both fill the interior of the animal and surround it were a response to how spots move when they are generated by the brain. Their movement in the mind becoming a sort of representation of movement and hence 'life'. This is not far away from how we experience a Bridget Riley spot painting.

Bridget Riley

Bressloff (2002) states, "a spontaneous pattern of cortical activity” can result in a “geometry” of … “hallucination” that “reflects the intrinsic architecture of the visual cortex." As much as the world outside is constantly changing, our own internal brain architecture is designed to also be in a constant state of flux, no doubt because it needs to be so in order to establish a state of equilibrium with the fast flow of information coming in and to allow the mind to process this and make decisions as to rapid responses. Our flight or fight mechanisms needed to be refined so that decisions were made almost instantaneously, if not we would not survive. However as soon as external reality doesn’t pose a threat and we have slightly more time on our hands, the brain itself demands activity and it is within this spare capacity that invention, language and the need for communication flowers. 

This constant need for stimulus is something we now inherit and perhaps is why we find it difficult to respond to the way that drawing encodes our understanding of movement and dynamic action. It is a slower, more meditative process in comparison to movement as stimulated by a film or performance, nevertheless once you take the time to understand how drawings can be read, then a whole area of possibility opens out that reaches deeply into the histories of metaphor and the creation of meaning. 

So how can a current understanding of drawing’s languages and their relationship to time be developed?

As has been pointed out Paleolithic humans must have had a sense of time and one could argue that although there is no direct evidence, their verbal languages would have in one way or another have had to develop ways in which to reflect upon this. The same of course can be said of visual languages that would have developed at the same time, however these would work in a different way, and it’s this difference that is important. Art, or the use of visual symbols, can be used as a way to trigger responses to things already stored in the mind. Like verbal language it operates in several ways at once. A symbol does not have to look like what it represents, but it might do. (See Mithen: 1996, p.178) This means that a complex set of readings can be compacted together. For instance a cave wall may hold a lifelike image of an animal, and next to it may be marks that represent ways of tracking it, or places to find it. Complex use of symbols cannot only represent objects, but can represent our relationship to things, such as when or where these things took place or existed. The complexity of symbolic language usually means that one symbol may be used to moderate, or adjust or make new meaning by its relationship with another symbol or symbols. Specific meanings are culturally encoded and the same image can represent different things at different times according to context and sophistication of the observer. This is very important as it allows visual imagery to have the same complexity as verbal language, however because this complexity is compacted into a simultaneity, i.e. we see all the information at once, rather than hear it over a period of time, the way the language operates is different.

The simultaneous layering of symbolic information allows any drawing to operate on several levels at the same time. The fact that all this information is received simultaneously is what is unique to visual languages and what gives them power and mystery. 

Paul McCarthy

When looking at one of McCarthy's drawings from his series of commentaries on Snow White, you can see how the juxtaposition of simultaneous layering of symbolic information allows him to play games with representation that operate on several levels at the same time. The smooth cartoon language of Disney is set out alongside the scrawled language of sexual graffiti, scribbled verbal text sits next to collage cut-outs that themselves lie surrounded by a nest of Abstract Expressionist type marks. Colour is applied almost childishly and yet at times the line drawing is very sophisticated.  The drawing is made on two sheets of paper roughly joined on the horizontal centre line, the images within the bottom half seem to respond to its smaller rectangular shape, suggesting that the original drawing was just that and then McCarthy added the top sheet of paper as another idea occurred or perhaps he had an already existing separate drawing of Snow White that he realised could be attached to the more complicated drawing in the lower section. He was perhaps collaging the two halves of the drawing together and then realised that he needed to join the two halves more forcefully and so made and extended to the top left of the image the crude drawing of a penis and its red end down into the botton half of the drawing.  This unpicking of the making of a drawing is something that helps us to enter the mind of the artist, but we also have to look at and think about how we ourselves would respond to these things. If we had similar crayons, paper, collage materials etc. how would we respond to them? An image of this sort is as much about the proclivities of the artist as about the opportunities available because of the materials at hand. The artist's previous encounters with the world will have shaped his preconceptions and interests, all these things coming together in the time of the drawing's making. 


Bressloff, P. C., Cowan, J. D., Golubitsky, M., Thomas, P. J., & Wiener, M. C. (2002). What geometric visual hallucinations tell us about the visual cortex. Neural Computation, 14(3), 473-491.

Mithen, Steven J. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

See also:

Drawing and time

Friday, 28 March 2014

Resemblance, mimesis and communication

Resemblance is a powerful communication tool. We have experiences and these are coming into our bodies via sense perceptions. Therefore our initial building blocks of sense making are ‘embodied’. The writers Johnson and Lakoff have written extensively on how this works see:

Johnson, M. & Lakoff, G (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought London: Basic Books

Lakoff, G (2003) Metaphors We Live By London: University of Chicago Press

Johnson, M (1990) The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis Of Meaning, Imagination, And Reason London: University of Chicago Press

 The core idea that Johnson and Lakoff develop is that we make meaning by linking things to what we know and the thing we know most about is our own body. They argue that the mind is 'embodied', i.e. that if we were a different shape or size, or if our sense organs were different, like a bat's for example, we would think very differently, therefore the old mind/body divide, as illustrated by Descartes' maxim, 'I think therefore I am', needs rethinking. Taking a concept such as ‘justice’ Johnson and Lakoff trace this back through what they call body schemas. We are very aware of balance because of the fact that we stand on two legs, therefore we spend a lot of time being balanced in order to stand, walk etc. If something goes wrong we are off balance; for instance if we are injured or ill. Of course in extreme cases such as very old age or bad injury, we can’t rise into a balanced position. Gradually an awareness of balance and off balance becomes transferred to an awareness of things being right or wrong. This gradually evolves into a sense of justice and this is why we have a statue of justice with a pair of scales over the Old Bailey law courts. It is this type of connection through resemblance that allows us to develop sophisticated concepts via what can be seen as quite basic similarities.
Statue of Justice Old Bailey law courts

Our first attempts at communication would probably have used likeness and so would therefore the earliest art forms. A stone that perhaps looked like a body or a rockface that looked like an animal. The Grey Man of Merrick is a typical example.

The Grey Man of Merrick
But we have other connections to things that are much more interesting.

Look at this picture of deer tracks. The marks look nothing like a deer, but the experience of watching a deer walk past on muddy ground tells us that these are the marks made by their cloven hooves, therefore a more complicated link is made. These tracks become signs that can stand for a deer. By building on these different types of resemblances we gradually start to build sophisticated languages. A resemblance doesnt have to look the same as something, it simply has to have some form of connection to something.

Analogy is another concept that is central to how ideas associated with mimesis work. An analogy is usually defined as a comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification. Think about those ideas that are ‘more like’ and ‘less like’ something. As humans this is a game we can all participate in, but it is also a game that relies on common experiences. If you have never seen a river you won’t understand an analogy such as ‘time flows like a river’.

Melancholia by Albrecht Durer is an allegory; allegory is often defined as an image that can be interpreted to reveal a secondary meaning, typically a moral or political one. However allegories are constructed by building upon analogies.

Melancholia by Albrecht Durer

So much has been written about this image that I don’t really want to add any more, but it would be interesting to trace the layers of history that lie behind Durer’s imagery, to explore how geometric figures are slowly transformed over time into forms that stand for concepts, how children are used to stand for various concepts from innocence, to the idea of the tabula rasa, or in this case the concept of the accompanying spirit or ‘genius’. Why does the central figure ‘Melancholy’ have wings and how did the keys and money bag hanging from her belt become symbols for power and wealth? What is interesting is perhaps the journey that these things have taken on the road towards becoming symbols. It is a journey that starts with ‘resemblance’ and this is why mimesis is such a rich area within which to explore ideas.  

Keith Coventry: East Street Estate 1994

Going back to Keith Coventry, (see the post before last), the Tate Gallery has this to say about his work:

"Coventry’s painting and sculpture from the 1990s use modernist conventions to reflect abstractly on the social realities of urban life – his ‘Estate Paintings’ mark the rupture between the aspirational aesthetic forms of postwar planning and the failure to realise utopia on a social scale. At the same time the series signifies an optimistic, all-encompassing value system; while falling short of grand expectations for a new order, the ‘Estate Paintings’ commemorate a certain moral and political conviction gradually abandoned by the dismantling of the United Kingdom’s welfare state".

This is a contemporary allegory. Artists are still trying to make allegories and in doing so rely on mimesis in order to build ideas through resemblance. It is for me a key and enduring concept that links contemorary practice back to thousands of years of art history.

Texts and web-sites associated with these last three posts

 Gombrich, E (2006) Art and Illusion

Kamdi, M. M. (2004) Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde London: Routledge

 Donald, M (2002) A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness London: Norton

 Walton, K. L. (1993) Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts New York: Harvard University Press

 Hagberg, G. (1984) Aristotle's "Mimesis" and Abstract Art

Philosophy Vol. 59, No. 229 (Jul., 1984), pp. 365-371: Cambridge University Press

 Hanssen, B. (2000) Walter Benjamin's Other History: Of Stones, Animals, Human Beings, and Angels San Francisco: Uni of California Press

Halliwell, S (2002) The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems  New York: Princeton University Press

 Bolt, B (2007) Material Thinking and the Agency of Matter  Studies in Material Thinking,  Vol. 1, No. 1 (April 2007), ISSN 1177-6234, AUT University


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Other approaches to thinking about mimesis

Mimicry and illusion

Usually when looking at this issue you would start with trompe l'oeil or optical illusions. These visual lies ask questions about the way we perceive the world. There are also different levels of representation skills. For instance when Vasari writes about Giotto, he states that Giotto was the very best artist of his time because he set new standards of making art that looked like the world, however he goes on to say that in his own time, artists such as Michelangelo have far surpassed Giotto’s ability. Vasari sees art as a sort of journey towards ever greater degrees of realism or ability to control verisimilitude. However it’s best to go to Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation’ and read that as a basic starter, it’s a classic text and no art student interested in how visual images work should be able to get to the end of their studies without reading it.

Material thinking, mimesis as association.

In his book The Order of Things, in the chapter The Prose of the World Michel Foucault describes how mimesis or ‘resemblance’ as he would put it used to work historically.

This is his full text:

“Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organised the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them. The universe was folded in upon itself: the earth echoing the sky, faces seeing themselves reflected in the stars, the plants holding within their stems the secrets that were of use to man. Painting imitated space. And representation whether in the service of pleasure or of knowledge was posited as a form of repetition: the theatre of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, its manner of declaring its existence and of formulating its right of speech.

How, at the end of the sixteenth century, and even in the early seventeenth century, was similitude conceived. How did it organise the figures of knowledge? And if the things that resembled one another were indeed infinite in number, can one, at least, establish the forms according to which they might resemble one another?

The semantic web of resemblances in the sixteenth century is extremely rich:

Amicitia, Aequalitas (contractus, consensus, matrimonium, societas, pax et similia),
Consonanti, Concertus, Continuum, Paritas, Proportio, Similitudo, Conjuncto,
Copula. (Foucault, 1970)

Foucault identifies four of these resemblances as essential:

“Convenienta (adjacency, resemblance), Aemulatio (emulation, a sort of convenience freed from the law of place and so able to function, without motion, from a distance), Analogy (convenienta and aemulatio superimposed) and Sympathy, which draws things towards one another in an exterior and visible movement.)”


Glynn is an ex tutor from the college and his writings on Duchamp are wonderful. What perhaps you can get from Glynn’s work is how seamless the move from antiquity to modernism can be. In the end all the great ideas are re-invented over and over again, each time to fit the climate and purposes of the age they reappear within.

Association, resemblance and mimesis

Materials carry concepts associated with their histories and where they come from. For instance charcoal is not only a particular sort of drawing material that operates in a particular way, it also comes with a heavy cultural baggage. It is seen as a type of ‘honorific’ material. You can’t use it without acknowledging its history and how as a medium it is culturally significant. The fact that it is burnt wood is also important, reminiscent of not just fires but the destruction we can create using fire. All of these issues are generated because charcoal can be seen as ‘like’ something else, or it might remind us of an association, therefore it is operating within the Aristotelian tradition of ‘mimesis’. However similar issues occur with other materials, if I draw something using chocolate, our past cultural associations with this material will effect how any drawing made from it is read. All drawing materials can be looked at in this way, paper, threads, inks, metals such a silverpoint, wax etc etc. It is important to fish for the actual issues already identified as well as other potential ‘readings’. For instance you may have identified a particular sort of earth to make a drawing with and because of its associations with the Biblical story of the creation of Adam, other readings may unfold. Adam was made from earth, hence the name "adamah". Adam is cursed by God therefore so is the earth. Adam of course like all of us, eventually returns to the earth from which he was made. Our particular curse is perhaps that we are earthly yet at the same time, because of self-awareness separated from nature. The read may of course be geographical, the earth used coming from a particular place and representing a particular soil. Some soils are red and sandy others grey with clay. Some are good growing soils others parched and lacking life sustaining elements. Not just the materials themselves carry concepts but the ‘finish’ applied to them does the same. High levels of ‘finish’ such as polishing suggest either long-term investment of human labour or machine ‘finish’; both of course carry different connotations. Crafting might be vital, or might be incidental, but again is important to the read. Some materials are gendered, for instance some textile crafts can be read as ‘feminine’, again these issues need to be unpicked. (Read the Subversive Stitch)

Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘Ur’ history can be useful when unpicking several of these issues.  He was very interested in history as a form of allegory. Hanssen (2000, p. 16) suggests that Benjamin’s use of the term ur-history, was to expose the fact that all human acts of signification have an ur-history of historical allegory embedded within them. Therefore any man-made object when examined carefully holds within it stories of its making and these stories are often, according to Benjamin, seen as processes of destruction and transience.  Benjamin once said, “history is a petrified, primordial landscape.” This reading of history as allegory reflects Benjamin’s interest in Marx’s idea of the fetish. Commodity fetishism is a key Marxist concept, this quote taken from Wikipedia is a pretty good summery of what it means, “in a capitalist society, social relations between people—who makes what, who works for whom, the production-time for a commodity, et cetera—are perceived as economic relations among objects, that is, how valuable a given commodity is when compared to another commodity. Therefore, the market exchange of commodities masks (obscures) the true economic character of the human relations of production, between the worker and the capitalist”. (wiki/Commodity_fetishism) Benjamin would point to the fact that any manufactured object would therefore have embedded within it the story of this market exchange, an allegory of how human relationships have been clouded and shaped by Capitalist constructions. When you use a pencil, look at where it is made, the more expensive ones usually have made in Germany on their sides, the cheap ones rarely tell you anything about their provenance.

More thoughts next post

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


A question has been posted in the comments box about mimesis. It's great to see the blog being used as a forum, so do remember if you want to get me to think about an issue use the comments boxes.

This is the actual question, "The main problem i'm pondering is..... where does mimesis sit when it comes to finding the balance between realism and abstraction. How much information do I give to the new copy ?"
Mimesis is a very complex subject and in the time I've got I will have to deal with it in a few different posts, some first thoughts:


One of the most important issues that anyone making a drawing that looks like something has to deal with is the concept of mimesis.

Mimesis operates in a variety of ways when making a drawing (or any other artwork) and these can be broken down into different approaches to thinking about how a dialogue is set up between the ‘real world’, the viewer or perceiver and the drawing itself.

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.
— Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty” 1933

Benjamin is thinking about verbal language here but it applies just as well to visual languages.
Aesthetics, sometimes defined as critical reflections on art, often reflects on perception. Perception is mainly concerned with ‘sensations’ or the sensuous elements, however when perceiving artworks sensation is only part of the picture. Other issues such as the role of memory, emotion or reasoning can play a part, this is why aesthetics has to take into account both psychological and cognitive processes when coming to an understanding of what has been called "sensuous cognition." Baumgarten together with Kant set out the terms by which we now understand aesthetics, one could say the ‘thinking senses’ or as Kant would say, the ‘perceptual embodiment of ideas.’ Kant states that the products of an artist's imagination are essentially mimetic, because they are based on the appearance of nature. He would term nature‘objective reality.’ Kant went further than this and explained that a work of art “does not merely copynature it embodies concepts more fully than any single instance in nature”. (Kamhi, 2004) Donald in his book, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness goes further, he states “Whereas mimicry attempts to render an exact duplicate of an event or phenomenon, and imitation also seeks to copy an original, mimesis adds a new dimension: it re-enacts and re-presents an event or relationship in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way.”(Donald, 2002)
Mimesis is therefore a concept that is not just about copying. It is a concept that suggests that we model our understanding on perceptions or experiences of the real world and when we try and communicate these understandings we reflect back on the way we shape communications using these experiences. In the gap between the experience of reality and reflection upon it we create ‘mimesis’. In making a drawing that ‘looks like something else’ we are operating at a deep level of meaning making.
One of the first dialogues surrounding these issues was set out by Plato. He wasn’t too happy about mimesis, he was worried that it caused confusion between what was real and what wasn’t, he saw it as a type of lie. It could never be as good as the original; it was less than real and therefore removed from the Truth. However Aristotle argued that art adds something, it doesn’t just imitate, it is not like a mirror. He argues that artists select from nature and that this selection has purpose. (By using this argument you could start a debate as to whether or not Duchamp and his selection of the readymade, was simply illustrating the core implication of Aristotle’s concept). An artist, according to Aristotle develops an idea related to reality and this idea is perceived during the perception of the world and afterwards as the perception is thought about and this idea is then shaped into the art object. This definition of mimesis allows for a much wider argument to be developed in relation to the how we might think about art and its relationship with the world. Garry Hagberg opens out these arguments in his article, ‘Aristotle's Mimesis and Abstract Art, in this article he also gives a good account of the basic ideas and issues surrounding the original debate. (This would be a very useful text to read in relation to Stephen’s question)

This is where drawing as a discrete activity can perhaps be used to open this debate out. Because drawing tends towards abstraction, (it reduces the world down to line, tone, mark etc.) you could argue that in comparison to film, video, painting and sculpture it is not very good at imitating reality. Instead of being a tool that facilitates mimicry, it facilitates selection and concept development. For instance if you examine how a contour line works, it creates a concept of the world as much as it actually tells us something about the world. Contours (think of what happens when you draw from the figure using a single continuous line) are invented to help the moment of perception become realised, they don’t create a picture of reality, or mirror it. It has been said many times, but it is always worth repeating, “there is no such thing as a line in nature”.

Because the basic tools of drawing are clearly devices that allow us to abstract information from the world and because mimesis is a key concept in the development of theories about art, (aesthetics) we can start breaking down the various elements that make up a drawing and we can try and unpick how the mimetic facility helps us construct communication with others.

 Compare these two images.

Vija Celmins

Keith Coventry

Both these artists are making a point about art. Celmins work is always 'realistic' and relies on mimesis to give the viewer an entry point into her ideas. The eraser being a key tool of the abstract expressionists that were one of the most powerful art movements around when she started off as an artist. In particular Rauchenberg had made a deeply insightful comment on their work with his 'Erased De Kooning' drawing. Celmins' image is pink and suggests another issue, the lack of women in the Abstract Expressionist ranks. Coventry has copied the plans of an existing housing estate and painted an image that looks like early modernism, (it could almost be a Mondrian), he is using two different types of mimesis, looking like art and looking like life. He points to the fact that Modernism has influenced housing design as much as painting. Both these artists use mimesis to carry ideas, but quite different ones. In the next post I'll try to open out how this works. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Problems with writing about Art

One of the hard things to do when writing about art is to keep the language understandable. Try this if you want to generate an artist's statement quickly. It's interesting how convincing some of these statements are. Writing of this type has been called 'International Art English'. To follow a short history of this new language see  

There was a point to this type of writing, when it started (1970s) 'deconstruction' was seen as the art writer's main role. Writers were trying to build a language that could deal with the way different meanings could be not just picked out by a viewer, but how paintings and other art could be "read as texts", a phrase which itself now sounds very 'IAE'. Like most things this type of writing was a reaction to what went before. Art writing in the 1950s tended to be very flowery and made claims for an art of the time that  were overly romantic and completely unrealistic.  

Picking up an issue from the previous post though, one problem is mimesis. We are hard wired to copy what others do, especially if we aspire to their position in life. Therefore if this type of language is spoken amongst the international art gallery set, and you want to be seen as the type of artist that would fit in, you will begin to echo 'IAE' in the phrases that you use. The writer Pierre Bourdieu explained how this happens in his book 'Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste' which is well worth a read if you want to develop an argument as to how someone might develop such a thing as 'taste'. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Writing about Drawing

One of the things as drawing students you will be asked to do is write about your practice and how you can develop a personal understanding of it. So how can a current understanding of drawing’s languages be developed? One way is to take an idea or concept and look at how it can be used to develop an understanding of existing drawings, then once done you can map that understanding onto your own work.

Simply because I’m very interested in the relationship between time and drawing, I shall develop this post around that.

Time and Drawing

Paleolithic humans must have had a sense of time and one could argue that although there is no direct evidence, their verbal languages would have in one way or another, had to develop ways in which to reflect upon this. The same of course can be said of visual languages that would have developed at the same time, however these would work in a different way, and it’s this difference that is important. Art, or the use of visual symbols, can be used as a way to trigger responses to things already stored in the mind. Like verbal language it operates in several ways at once. A symbol does not have to look like what it represents, but it might do. (See Mithen: 1996, p.178) This means that a complex set of readings can be compacted together. For instance a cave wall may hold a lifelike image of an animal, and next to it may be marks that represent ways of tracking it, or places to find it. Complex use of symbols cannot only represent objects, but can represent our relationship to things, such as when or where these things took place or existed. The complexity of symbolic language usually means that one symbol may be used to moderate, or adjust or make new meaning by its relationship with another symbol or symbols. Specific meanings are culturally encoded and the same image can represent different things at different times according to context and sophistication of the observer. This is very important as it allows visual imagery to have the same complexity as verbal language, however because this complexity is compacted into a simultaneity, i.e. we see all the information at once, rather than hear it over a period of duration, the way the language operates is different.

The simultaneous layering of symbolic information allows any visual artist to operate on several levels at the same time. The fact that all this information is received simultaneously is what is unique to the language and what gives it power and mystery.

In order to see how the language of drawing is constructed and in particular how time can be held within it and at the same time released, we can begin by looking at a selected drawing and unpicking how it works.

The Flute Player by Watteau

‘The Flute Player’ is a typical Watteau drawing from the early 18th century. This sketch was probably done to help him think through the content of one of his paintings. At first glance the simple reading is given to us by cultural clues, the man’s hairstyle, clothing etc. all suggest a time of roughly 300 years ago. However there is a lot more to this drawing. We can start to follow the artist’s focus and interest by reflecting on the various levels of engagement he has with differing elements. Some parts of the figure are barely there, ghosted in to support the main areas of focus, which are the face and the hands. Immediately we notice this we put ourselves back into the position of the maker, we re-live the time of the drawing’s making as our eyes re-trace the artist’s movements as he picks his way around the subject of perception. Finally we realise that one area in particular has been singled out as being the entry point into the drawing, the flute player’s left hand. The dark shading under the fingers helps to also push the space outwards towards the viewer, operating as a type of atmospheric perspective, (dark marks come forward, softer light marks recede) and recreating a moment of spatial awareness that would have been part of the initial experience. Condensed in this one image we have several time based issues operating simultaneously. The first is one of historical time, (the historical past) the second is a time of reenactment, in language we sometimes call this the past perfect progressive tense, as in “he had been drawing”, the third is however the present tense, which is constructed out of the fact that you are actively looking and your eyes scanning the image now, the present tense being what makes the drawing important, it is active today as well as being a record of the past.

So why is this important? Above all it tells us a lot about the human condition. The image embeds within itself a record of a period of skilled concentrated looking. The skill involved here is very important, it takes on average 10,000 hours for a human being to master a skill of this level. (Sennett, 2009) It is a level of accomplishment that means that the actions of the maker have become tacit; the hand is therefore released from the mind’s pressure of having to think about making and the artist can respond to the moment of perception without any barriers. We are therefore far closer to the original perceptual experience and we live as it where, in the same time as the original encounter. This is not the same as the frozen moment of a photograph, it is a layered time, one that opens out to the viewer the longer the image is looked at. The drawer’s decisions becoming more and more transparent to us as we retrace his interest via the changes in focus and attention to details encoded within the marks. In this way we develop another engagement, one with the artist himself and his own engagement with his world and its people. The grammar and syntax of this image are developed by the materials of its construction. The paper ground has a particular granular texture, this being essential to the application of the chalks, which rely on a tough surface on which to pull off tiny fragments of material from the stone-like core of the solid pastels. The touch of the artist is here vital, too much pressure and the mark clogs the grain of the paper, not enough and the trace is too light. The speed of application is also important. Each stroke becomes a sign for the eyes to follow and we track the artists hand with the same skill that our ancestors tracked the spore of a deer, being able to read as much in the differences between mark speed and weight of application, as between the weight of an animal’s imprint in soft ground and the shape and relationship of its hoof-prints as it slows down or breaks into a startled run.

Learning to read the marks that construct a drawing is something that itself takes time. A young hunter would spend several years being instructed how to read the signs of an animal’s track, in the same way a young artist needs to look at many drawings and take time to unravel the story that is frozen in the marks of their making. The more you look the more you see. Look at these marks more closely and you will see that some of them are applied with chalks that have been sharpened so that more fine detail can be picked out and other chalks are used on their sides so that broad areas can be touched in quickly. You start to realise that as the artist’s attention and focus moves his hands follow by choosing different tools or by using the same tool in a different way. When we read poetry we listen for how rhythm changes to reflect mood, or the way particular words are chosen to make us more aware of the complexity of content and how this is reflected in the sound structure of the poem. In the same way the draftsman can vary mood and contextual understanding by these changes in application and the way the ground is manipulated into becoming a space for action.  The construction of visual rhythm is vital as it on the one hand creates life, by giving a visual heartbeat to the work, and at the same time operates as a guidance system for the eyes, pushing vision quickly over certain areas and slowing it down when necessary point of focus are needed. The dark points of shadow under the left hand of the flute player in some ways operating as full stops as well as spatial indicators.

The full stop in a sentence gives us time to breath and get ready to move on, but it also signals that a particular piece of information has been summed up or concluded. These points are vital to the language structure as they indicate a certain closure, the left hand being perhaps what Barthes would term the ‘punctum’ of the image, or as he helpfully put it, that which 'pierces the viewer'. (Barthes, 1993).

A further aspect of language of course is that it can create subtlety and nuance by the use of adverbs and adjectives. These are conditioning and modifying tools and in the case of drawing the choice of implement is vital to this. Chalks have a certain softness in their application, something we can understand if we contrast chalk with other materials. Imagine this drawing done in pen and ink, it would be too harsh, too firm in its tone. Chalk can caress the surface and yet still be controlled well enough to suggest an underlying firmness, the musician’s head clearly has a firm bone structure beneath it. However chalk handled in this way, also suggests a fragility, a gentle light touch, the rapidity of its application further suggesting the rapid passing of time. This brings us to a further, deeper realization of time within the drawing. These fleeting glimpses of a man playing a flute are also a metaphor for the fragility of all our lives. As the man plays he is playing a forgotten tune, one that will drift off and quickly fade away. The drawing’s lightness of touch being one that reminds us of smoke forms drifting through a room or clouds making momentary images as they shape-shift across the sky. Watteau catches a brief moment and holds it for us, but as we bring this moment back into the present through our engagement with it, we are also affected by the realisation of its import. Behind the membrane of the paper surface lays an intuition of the world of the dead and their spirits and for brief moment as we look at this drawing, we can perhaps in our minds touch the surface of the Paleolithic cave wall and from behind it feel the trembling hearts of our long dead ancestors. In some ways every drawing reenacts all the other drawings that have been done since humans first made them over 30,000 years ago. We are still the same species and still have the same short lifespan within which to experience, birth, growing up, maturity, old age and death. The tools we developed to help us get through life were honed to perfection a long time ago, and as part of our realisation of what it is to be alive now, we should celebrate this.

Hopefully as a drawing student you can get an idea of how the interpretation of a single drawing can lead to a way of thinking about much wider issues. I will add other posts about art writing, but you could also send me images of your own drawings and I could look at how a written dialogue could be developed with them too. 

See also:

Drawing and time

Bibliography related to today's post

Drawing Time: 
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (A link to a pdf on Academia dealing with the same subject)

Bhabha, H. (1994). The location of culture. Nueva York, NY EE. UU.: Routledge.

Barthes, R (1993) Camera Lucida London: Vintage

Bressloff, Paul C.; Cowan, Jack D.; Golubitsky, Martin; Thomas, Peter J.; Weiner, Matthew C. (March 2002). What Geometric Visual Hallucinations Tell Us About the Visual Cortex Neural Computation (The MIT Press) 14 (3): 473–491. Available from:

Johnson, M & Lakoff, G (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought London: Basic

Lakoff, G (1981) Metaphors we live by London: University of Chicago Press

Lewis-Williams, D (2004) The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art London: Thames and Hudson

Mithen, S (1996) The Prehistory of the mind London: Phoenix

Sennett, R (2009) The Craftsman London: Penguin

Wednesday, 19 March 2014


Joseph-Benoît Suvée,

The Invention of Drawing, c. 1791. Black and whitechalk on brown paper

This blog was initially set up in order to promote work done within the Fine Art Drawing Strand of the Leeds College of Art BA Fine Art drawing program. It was designed to provide a forum for the discussion of issues related to drawing as a discrete practice. However things change, the Leeds College of Art is now Leeds Arts University, which in essence means that it can now award its own degrees. The BA Fine Art course no longer has a discrete drawing strand, drawing is now regarded as a possible way of solving problems amongst many others, and is subsumed as part of a general fine art course that allows students to make videos, put on performances, paint paintings, do site specific installations, conduct web art projects, create text pieces, make sculpture by carving, modelling or constructing etc. etc.

So why still a blog on drawing? Art has a long history and part of the business of being an artist is to find some sort of thread by which you can attach yourself to that history and drawing can be a very strong thread. But there is a much more important reason and that is that drawing is itself a metaphor for a materialist approach to thinking.

I strongly believe that we need to move away from the idea that drawing is about a medium. Yes we often begin by using a pencil or chalks to draw with, but we can also draw with a computer or mime a shape in thin air. If instead we look at drawing as an activity or process, this changes things and we can see that it is about a particular type of non-verbal and non-numerical thinking.

If we begin with a simple point and a line, that simple point could be a small stone on the ground or a star in the sky, it is a method of defining a starting point. A line can move away from that point and as it does it indicates direction and a linking of one point to another, as well as dividing one side of the line off from another side. Here we have the line as a boundary, an idea that links it to map making, the ability to separate one form from another, to be able to compare distances and or closeness of things and to indicate both ownership, (by enclosure or measurement) and our own position in space. From this basic set of concepts many actions arise. For instance sewing, or threading lines, this process can lead to the development of lines into planes, but also can be seen as a way of knotting or weaving ideas or thoughts together. All ideas need materials to make them real, so a line that is also a length of string, or a thread can make some ideas come into fruition in a different way to a line made by walking through long grass or by incising into rock.

Drawing also has a very useful habit of getting around the stickiness of words. Words can tend to identify things, but in fact things as such don’t really exist, there is only a constant process of change. What a word does is slow time down. For instance, this bottle I have in front of me has a name, it is a ‘glass bottle’, two words that tell me about what it is made from and what its possible function might be. But at some point not too long ago the glass might have been sand on a beach, the paper that tells me it contains orange juice may well have been part of a tree or a cotton rag and I may use the bottle in the very near future as a protruding eye in a sculpture I am making. A drawing is something that helps me both think about what I’m experiencing and experience it. This thinking through drawing is what this blog tries to focus on. It also points you in the direction of current drawing exhibitions, asks questions as to why we think about drawing in the various ways that we do, tries to explore the limits of drawing within a contemporary context, such as where is the line between drawing and film-making or drawing and painting. It looks at how other professions use drawing, such as archaeologists or crime scene investigators and it tries to develop a moral framework within which drawing might become a useful tool for the understanding of those bigger questions, such as how should we relate to each other and the world around us?

There is often a lack of logic to be found in these posts but that is part of the point of the process of keeping the blog. The threads woven by these various posts will fall apart if they are not woven together and in order to weave them together sometimes they need to cross over or under each other in unpredictable ways or link with unexpected other threads to produce a texture that is unique to this particular woven cloth. I will attempt to post at least once a week, but will of course sometimes fail to do that. Feel free to contact me, I can be e mailed at, my current work can be seen at the Leeds Arts University Repository (click 'Browse by Author' button top right). I use Twitter sometimes and Facebook but am not a fan of either. I am an artist rather than an academic, so forgive my intellectual flightiness and lack of research rigor. I am a firm believer in W B Yates’ “I made it out of a mouthful of air”, a statement that shows that he both understood media specificity and the fact that we never know what we are going to do until we have done it. This being something that can apply to a drawing as much as to a conversation, especially a conversation understood as a drawing. Which is where my own drawing practice begins.