Colin Rhodes

Mario Minichiello

Drawing as Practice

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Drawing is the most versatile tool at an artist's disposal. It informs the production of work in every other medium, from painting and sculpture to video and installation, as well as standing as a thing in its own right. Its practice encompasses a multitude of possibilities, from the most cursory mark-making, intelligible and of use only to the artist, to highly finished objects produced specifically for public consumption. It is precisely this multivalency which makes drawing such a useful tool in the service of the creative process. But the sheer breadth of its possibilities has also led, in recent times, to attempts at taxonomic expansion which render the category all-inclusive and thereby empties it of useful meaning. In other words, there is a school of thought which holds that any preparatory or notational practice, when conducted in relation to art, is covered by the term 'drawing'. This has been made possible by a conflation of the long-held belief that making drawings is commensurate with a kind of 'visual thinking' and the need to accommodate an expanded field of generative media into visual art discourses. However, whilst accepting the usefulness and validity of photography, text, computer image-generation, etc. in the process of how art might come about, it must be recognised that they are not identical with drawing.


For the visual artist, drawing encourages and develops the connection between thinking and doing which must take place at intuitive, as well as more consciously determinative levels. The ability to engage with the world through drawing contains a special and particular cognitive capacity in addition to a set of learned technical skills. At root the purpose of making drawings is to mediate between perception, mental life, and the physical world. It is important to understand that this process is not primarily mechanical. In making a drawing, artists utilise a way of incorporating the world into psychic processes which is shared by no other method of reflection. Drawing does not come out of philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, or scientific method. It is measurable neither by language nor numbers. Thus, in a world which places such a high value on the word and accountability, it appears an imprecise and vaguely-defined methodology. Yet, this is also its strength. Drawing — the drawn image — remains resistant to other forms of analysis and its singularity forces the viewer to engage with it on its own terms. To ignore this is to enact the characteristic and ineluctable failure in comprehension which has contributed to the regular daemonisation of visual images since earliest times.

The practice of drawing is the proper basis of all the visual arts because it provides the most immediate and profound way of engaging cognitively with the act of looking. Artists who do not draw, who have never drawn, produce curiously visually-impoverished work. It is, perhaps, a cliché of the drawing class that good drawing is defined at least as much by what is left out as those details that have been recorded in drawn marks. However, in order to exercise choice — in making or not making a mark; in deciding how to mediate an internal or external stimulus — one must have access to a store of information and possess the ability to discriminate. Qualitative value judgements are central to the process of drawing. And in order to develop this faculty, it is essential to draw from life. Visual acuity grows not only from sustained looking, but also from the act of making marks in relation to the experience of looking. Objects do not reveal themselves fully visually without an effort on the part of the viewer to make sense of their experience through visual representation. Only by bringing together looking and the physical act of interpretation can the artist engage in the process of understanding the relationship of parts to a given whole which is central to the function of all art worthy of the name.

Analytical processes are joined inextricably to a kind of decision-making that arises directly out of practice. In other words, the way in which a drawing unfolds is also dictated, to a greater or lesser extent, by purely pictorial decisions: what is often referred to as the dialogue between hand and eye (an organic metaphor signalling a cognitive function which relies neither on rationality nor emotion). In this way visual perception and motor-reactions are conjoined to produce a kind of knowledge which privileges the image and which is, more especially, fundamentally non-verbal. In this sense drawing is the generic activity for an artist. It is the reason that most people, when declaring themselves not to be artists, inevitably say not, 'I don't know how to make art', but 'I can't draw'. It is also the reason that drawing plays a key role in visual practice outside the traditionally defined territory of Fine Art, such as film, animation, advertising design, architecture, and so on. Only in 'contemporary' Fine Art has drawing been consistently undervalued, or dismissed (despite occasional weak protestations to the contrary). This is why it is always a great pleasure to come across a living artist who is wholeheartedly committed to drawing as practice.

Because the practice of drawing is fundamentally not reliant on conscious reflection or emotionality, artists have often been accused of cold aloofness or prurience where neither are the case. Their interest in objects — in the external world — is subsumed in the mark-making process. If images contain emotional or intellectual content, this is in addition to that content which emerges through the specific cognitive act of drawing. An extreme example might serve to illustrate this. If an artist draws a loved one on their deathbed, this should not be seen as a sign of emotional disconnectedness. On the contrary, it is the affection impulse which provides the initial impetus to seek connection through the artist's most familiar mode of reflection. It is an irony of practice which is also reflection that this effects a kind of withdrawal. Put more crudely, the tendency is always to become 'lost' in the act of drawing.

Pictures, and most especially pictures which contain clear traces of human sensibility and physical action often possess an immediate power to shock or intimidate in western culture which far outstrips that of the written word. This is partly because pictures are enigmatic, even as they appear to offer definition. People often make the mistake of trying to understand pictures as texts, but although they seem to signify, it is difficult to be emphatic about their meaning. At the level of linguistic comprehension they are notoriously imprecise. But they are also compelling. Vision, for most of us, is the primary and most archaic means of apprehending the world. We are conditioned to respond to that which we experience through sight in ways which are analogous to innate responses to stimuli. Verbal or textual representations provide 'necessary' psychic distance by virtue of the impossibility of any response which is unmediated by consciousness. Visual representations, on the other hand, appear to the viewer as simultaneously real and factitious. That is, we recognise them as simple marks on paper, or whatever, but cannot resist the seduction that makes us want to believe in their inherent communicative force. In an age which rejects magic and demands causal explanation, the elusive operations at work in our reactions to drawings can be extremely unsettling. In the face of such a response, the choice of action, if we have one, hovers between rejection and intoxication.

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Colin Rhodes
Reader in Art History and Theory
Loughborough University