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

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