Monday, 1 February 2016

Is drawing a language?

There are several different arguments surrounding the notion of drawing as a language, but after working as an artist that makes drawings for well over 40 years I thought I might as well add my pennyworth.
In terms of verbal languages, I have only learnt two of them. My native Black Country dialect, where both intonation and vocabulary were specific to a very small geographical area, which had words in it's vocabulary like ‘tranculments’ that I have not found elsewhere, and my educated English that I perfected when I left the area, because if I was to advance in my chosen profession I had to appear ‘educated’.I learnt both these verbal languages by imitation and repetition. As new words came into my vocabulary I would try them out and if I was successful in using them to communicate concepts I would use them more. I am still adding new words and more importantly new ways of putting the words together. I learn by listening and reading, for instance this week I have been reading Ali Smith’s‘Artful’ a wonderful book that has shown me how I could begin to mix different writing languages together and yet still maintain an overall ‘voice’. Not only has her book helped me think about my own writing style, she has made me think more carefully about how I construct visual images. She has made me see the poetry in ‘skimming’ between personal anecdote, to a re-reading of Dickens via the poetry of Shakespeare, whilst a 1960s pop single’s lyrics ghost their way into the sub-text of a thought.
Although reading someone like Ali Smith can help me think about how sophisticated a written or verbal language might be, it doesn’t change the fact that I cant read or listen with any understanding to someone writing or speaking in Russian or Chinese. This points to something fundamental; language is a representational system that uses learned conventional signs or schemas to express concepts. ‘These schemas are stored in memory and can be combined to create infinitely possible novel expressions’. (Cohn, 2012, p. 169) The key issue is that these schemas are learnt.
So lets look at my visual ‘languages’. I had learnt a certain type of ‘observational drawing’ language before I left school, this language relied on making representations of what I was looking at, flowers, other schoolboys, local landscapes, still-lives and above all glass bottles, by copying what I was looking at using a certain type of pencil shading.

Typical shaded bottle drawing, that within its set of conventions would get a good mark

This shading tended to be ‘smoothed’ out, as it appeared at the time that you got more praise the better you got at making smooth transitions. The model for these drawings was the school art-room wall of excellence. You saw what had been picked out as good and if you had enough hand eye control and were actually interested in the work, you realised you could emulate the best and even try to be better.  Once it was seen that you could control 'shading' you were given a more complex task which was to set out the relationship between objects. It was only at this point that you began to see that the complexity of a drawing situation, was strangly mirrored by a growing simplicity in the final look of a drawing. The penny took a while to drop, but eventually I realised that 'abstraction' was at the core of this process and that abstraction demanded you activly looking for something, in this case (below) simple geometric relationships. Shading was in effect giving you everything and nothing at the same time.

Alongside this observational drawing language I was also introduced to Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, so I began to use point, line and plane as separate formal elements within a purely abstract investigation. I was shown the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian and other artists so that I had clear models to learn from.

Alongside these school languages I also developed a ‘cartoon’ or street language, one picked up from newspaper cartoonists such as Giles and the various artists who worked for the Topper, Beano, Eagle and many other boys comics of the 1950s, and the what were then new American imports such as DC comics. This visual education would flower in the early 60s, with the arrival of Marvel comics and the visual excitement of Jack Kirby.

If you look at this academic drawing of an arm below, you will see that the artist has worked hard to show you how the muscles of the arm connect.

However if you look atr the same area of the body in a Jack Kirby drawing you will see that there is no correspondence with reality.

Kirby made me realise that all you had to do was develop a 'convincing' language, your drawing didnt necessarily have to be right. I still use the lesson I learnt from Kirby, he taught me a whole new way of thinking about 'rightness' in a drawing.

When I worked at Round Oak steelworks I learnt a more technical language, the use of rulers, compass, set-squares and French-curves allowed me to describe machine parts and this language I further refined when I went to work as an industrial interior designer on leaving art college. It was a specialised language, and it was very precise, I could send a drawing to a technical team who could build something from my drawings.

On going to art college I was first of all told my existing drawing language was very poor and that I needed to learn a new one. Pencil shading was too imprecise and had no emotive range. I learnt to develop a much wider range of marks, (this enabling me to think more carefully about emotional register) and learnt to think more deeply about form, learning to use drawing languages that much more accurately described the experience of understanding a 3D form, such as the use of cross-contour drawing, chiaroscuro to add emotional intensity as well as form modeling, the use of measurement within a perceptual search, to suggest both accuracy and indeterminacy at the same time, the use of one, two and three point perspective to give conviction and authority to both individual forms and the space that they sat in etc. each new expressive tool was regarded as part of the overall language of drawing. However some aspects of the language were given more emphasis than others, for instance copying using pencil shading was seen as a very dumb language, but gestural liveliness was regarded as a language akin to music. The models for all of these various languages were images shown in slide talks given by staff, the studio walls whereby critiques were used to highlight best practice and of course art books and magazines, which in my day were mainly illustrated in black and white. In this way you learnt the various registers of visual language, each one learnt within a special situation that highlighted what the language was best at describing or communicating. For instance in order to examine perspective and the construction of precise line drawing, there would be a still life built in the studio that often had a gridded floor-plan and objects to draw that were composed of cube like units, together with cones, cylinders and spheres, i.e. objects that were made of geometric elements that could be seen to have edges between significant surfaces. Drawings that explored rhythm and energetic marks were restricted to the moving model or trying to draw moving water in the landscape. If you were looking for mass within a perceptual search for space, you might well be asked to explore this in the life room. You would be told 'it's not what it is, it's where it is'.

The life room was where I began to realise what Kirby was doing and what we were being asked to do was very similar. You were searching for something and when you found it, it had a certain conviction or authority. In the case of the drawing above, the lines searching for relationships are fused with the marks searching for mass, the figure and the space it sits in arriving together.
You gradually became aware that you needed to choose your language carefully in order to be able to express something about the character of what you were looking at. In a written language this would I presume be choosing to use a poetic register to write about a particular feeling such as loss or nostalgia but switching to a more journalistic style to report on what happened when you went to the post office to renew your car tax.
These languages were I would argue learnt in exactly the same way as a verbal language, however the native speakers of these visual languages were the art tutors and artists that I was at the time coming to see as my new ‘family’ and if I wanted to belong to this family I would have to learn the language.

The image above shows Victor Pasmore teaching at the Scarborough art summer school, and the work surrounding him was to be very typical of work produced in Foundation courses throughout the country in the 60s and 70s and this was the case when I entered what was then a  pre-diploma course in Wolverhamption in the late 1960s. Even though individuality and expression were seen as very important, it seemed to me that drawings done in art college at the time were actually very conventionalized. The best students were like those good at ‘foreign languages’, very good at picking up on what was going on around them and being able to ‘ape’ the look and feel of the visual language used, (Austin would call this pretense behaviour) and then if they were bright enough going on to be able to use these languages with a certain level of ‘understanding, (pretense behaviour assimilated as Austin would also say).
So if all the languages of drawing (and therefore I would argue, painting, sculpture and other various mixed media art forms) are actually learnt conventions, where does the art come in? Again I would argue that it’s very similar to the development of all other learnt languages. The more you look at the language you use, the more you become aware of it, the more you use it the more adept you become at controlling its nuances. The reason I was enjoying Ali Smith’s writing was that she was really playing with the written form and making me re-think about it again. I.e. the more we engage with others trying to make sense of a way of communicating, the more we will learn about the possibilities of using any particular communication platform. Of course you also need experience of the world in order to have things to say, but it is in the eloquence of what’s said, the way that the language is used so that things are remembered because of a special conjunction of elements or the way that a new perspective can be opened by shifting the format, that will be at the end of the day the most important thing. We all have experiences, they are impossible to avoid, but not everyone can communicate how their experiences can become universal, how their particular ‘petit sensations’ can be made into something that another individual can not only understand but feel an emotional connection with.
However I also feel that there are certain power brokers out there that ‘privilege’ certain visual languages over others. At one point film wasn’t regarded as a proper art form, neither was photography, in the English speaking world the comic book format was regarded as one for children, not so of course in Japan and there are always arguments and debates as to what constitutes good writing or the best of fine art. I suppose that at the end of the day all you can do is keep trying to say what you want to say, and to keep trying to understand your medium, the more art you look at the bigger your visual vocabulary will be, and like a writer, the more you become aware of other ‘voices’ the more your own voice can be honed. 
It's interesting to compare how the two traditions of writing and drawing are taught.  To begin with we have to acquire the basic skills, in writing I can still remember shaping the individual letters over and over again, and then once you could accurately draw the individual letters and put them together to make words, you then had to learn to join them together, to move on to 'joined-up writing'.

This before spelling, syntax, meaning etc. was ever discussed. However we then started spelling 'Bs', which were based around the learning of spellings by rote and then of course as you learnt your words you had to practice reading and certain set books were given, 'Janet and John' in my case. Once the basics were over, only then did you begin to think about writing something with content and when you did it might be to write a poem, or to write a passage about a set subject. Basically writing was seen as something that took years of practice to develop. Drawing on the other hand was initially just something you did, you were given crayons to play with and then occasionally you were asked to draw something, often for special occasions, an Easter card or a Christmas card, you probably did more drawing on the covers of your exercise books than in any set session. I remember in a history class being asked to draw a castle, but because drawing was seen as something you just could or couldn't do, there was no support or help for those that couldn't manage this, simply praise for those who could.  So no wonder drawing seems to lag behind literature in terms of nuance and sophistication. Ali Smith takes it for granted that her readers can not only read but that they are aware of a wide range of approaches to writing and the work of many other writers; her job is to uncover unearthed connections or little heard voices that only become known when someone like her points them out.  She is aware that the language of writing is an ever changing, morphing one, one that still echoes with the poetry of Shakespeare but that now has to acknowledge the rhythms of rap and the poetry of newspaper prose. It is in the unique mix of the moment and of the place that makes for exciting new writing, each writer has both a command of their own personal voice, and an awareness of how that voice sits alongside a plurality of others.  
The artist however is in a different position. Because so few people ever learn how to draw, there is a much smaller pool of people to draw from who can appreciate what a good drawing is. This is why  so many people 'like' drawings that look like photographs, they mistake one thing for another, its as if people mistook writing for sound recordings. A sound recording has a one to one, what is called 'indexical' relationship with reality, writing doesn't and we don't expect it to, but sometimes we do write sentences that are meant to echo speech patterns, we call this writing dialogue, but we never expect it to be exactly the same as a sound recording. This is because we have a very sophisticated awareness of what the written language is, and we are forced to use it, just as I am using it now, to explain all sorts of things as well as to communicate emotion and of course tell stories. 
So back in the world of drawing do we see the same things happening? I think so. I think we still see echoes of great draftsmen like Rembrandt or Goya in the way we depict people. But these echoes are mixed in with forms and shapes seen in comic books and newspaper cartoons. The rise of Manga has perhaps now pushed Disney into the background, but simple icon forms, like smiley faces and emoticons are now much more prominent in the visual arena.  We also have the total domination of lens based images. We see images made by a camera everywhere and these become the standards against which we measure other images. This has distorted our understanding of drawing, because it has in effect for most of us replaced drawing as a way to describe the world. Therefore, the important thing is how will this mix be refined and focused in order to create a visual language for someone making art today? What is interesting is that if you go to a creative writing class it will be accepted that you will have something to say, but what will happen is that you will be exposed to more and more complex forms of saying it. How does first, second or third person viewpoint change things? What if you write from the point of view of the objects in the room and not the people? Could you combine voices by using William Burroughs type cut-up techniques? Creative writing classes use tried and tested ways of tapping into how people can articulate what they want to say. Visual art forms seem in comparison to be so wide and open that it's often hard to know where to start. So on the one hand we have far less basic teaching in visual language and on the other the forms and formats possible are much wider and much more open to being broken and re-formed into new hybrid forms.
You will still find lots of 'how to' books, and these will follow an old formula, and provide you with basic schemas from which to approach the simplification of a complex reality. In this case we can see two very similar sets of drawing schemas for heads.

Working from an established model has been at the core of an artist's training for a 1,000 years, these drawings below are Durer's attempt to find a formula for facial proportions.

How to draw books are often derided as leading to cliché and stylistic dead ends, however people have to start somewhere, and from my experience these types of books can help a beginner sort out how to approach different drawing situations. But only as a primer, and not to be used as a crutch. However without the basic structures given to me when I began writing my letter forms, I would not have been able to write very well and as I draw now, I’m well aware of how more than 50 years ago, I avidly devoured those 'how to draw' books and used them to help me clarify some very basic drawing mistakes. For instance, the middle set of how to draw a head images above show you how to simplify and how to see the head as a simple mass. This helps you escape from the trap of drawings eyes, noses and mouths as symbols, and you are forced to begin thinking about locating features around a form.

So don't panic. Take things one at a time, think about how long it took to learn to speak and write English and then try and apply the same focus to learning visual languages. Try to look at as much art as possible, just as you would read around if you want to write, look at a wide range of art and over as wide a cultural and historical period as possible, try not to have favourites and try to work out why something may have survived to now sit in an art gallery as a famous work of art or why something in a contemporary art magazine is being cited as being good, even if you don't like the work. Above all draw, and draw again and again and dont be 'snotty' about basic drawing primers. 

One basic introduction to creative writing is to make the writer write and write and write. To keep writing until their hand aches and they feel they can't go on any more. But in doing this so many people realise that they do have a voice and that the hand knows this perhaps more than the mind. This is the same with drawing. You sometimes have to push it and push it, to draw as if there is no tomorrow, and to take on different styles and approaches, not to copy them but to appreciate how and why they work, so you can then use different elements from these other approaches to gradually and slowly build up a personal language that will be able to say what you want it to say, to look as you want it to look and to communicate things with a degree of sophistication and knowingness that is common to all rich communications in whatever language they are addressed in. 
I still use the skills in technical drawing I learnt as an apprentice, I find that some things are best explained that way, but of course many other things are impossible to say in the language of an isometric projection, the point being, without in the first place learning the language, I would not have the visual 'words' to say what I wanted to see. 

For a much more academic investigation of these issues see:
Cohn, N (2012) Explaining ‘I Can’t Draw’: Parallels between the Structure and Development of Language and Drawing Human Development 2012; 55:167–192 Available at:

 Find J L Austin's 'How to do things with words' here

I first read Austin when I was at Art College in Newport and his writing made me aware of how little we think about how languages actually work. 

Smith, A.  (2012) Artful London: Penguin 

Paul Klee's notebooks

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