In the past few months, drawing has become a very important part of my life, for various reasons. Whether or not the final result is accomplished in the traditional sense, I’ve found the act of trying to really look at something, and then using the movement of my hands to attempt to create a representation of it, to be very fulfilling. And I started to think, what is it about drawing - the process of observing something and trying to trace its form or capture in some way its essence - that can have an impact on your life? Why draw?
I’m not pretending to have mastered the skill of drawing (or unravelling what drawing even is), but I have been musing about why drawing is important. It’s not the first time the question has been asked, so I’ve used the wise words of various artists to help me think it through.
1. Drawing is a way of seeing more fully
"I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen" - Frederick Franck
Frederick Franck’s ‘Apple tree’
I remember my art teacher at school telling me that drawing is 98% about looking and only 2% putting pencil to paper, which is encouraging because it implies anyone can learn to draw (lots of books have been written about how you can develop the technical skills involved in the 2% of ‘putting pencil to paper’) – as long as you can learn to really see things.
I’ve definitely still got a lot to learn about how to see things properly, and also to develop the skills to communicate that on paper. Helpfully, Betty Edwards (author of ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’) has broken the ‘seeing’ down into five ‘perceptions’: of edges, spaces, relationships, of light (and shadow), and of the whole (or gestalt).
I interpret that to mean that if you can look at an object, or scene, and understand it from all of those points of view – even before you’ve made a single mark – you are, in a way, drawing. I remember sitting on a mossy log in a pine forest in Scotland when I was twelve, and spending ten minutes in one spot, observing that space – tracing the lines, following the shadows, smelling it and being there. I didn’t draw on paper at all, but I do have a mental drawing of that place because that process of delineating the scene has created a lasting image in my memory.
“It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again… A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – either seen, remembered or imagined.” John Berger
For me, the main idea that stands out here is that the kind of seeing required to draw is an especially rich way of looking at things. Once you can perceive things in that way, you’ll be able to see more in everything and everyone, not just the subject you’ve chosen to draw – and from there you’ll have a unique sensibility to see how wonderful, intriguing and exciting the world is:
“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible” – Oscar Wilde
2. Drawing is a life-line
Through that process of looking closely, I think drawing the world around you is one way of connecting to it, or of grounding yourself in it.
‘A drawing is simply a line going for a walk’ – Paul Klee
‘The artist is the confidant of nature. … Every flower has a cordial word which nature directs towards him’ – Auguste Rodin
Maybe drawing (or really seeing) your environment is a way of linking to it in some sort of dialogue. It’s a means of interacting with your surroundings and relating to the life around you.
Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Dandelion Line’ and Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’
3. It’s About Time
"Drawing takes time. A line has time in it.” – David Hockney
To draw a picture involves making a choice to invest time in creating it. So many people have asked me: “How long did it take? How do you find the time?” But I’ve found that it’s well worth investing that time, because how often does time go by without you having a record or a mark of what you did during that time? I like how the drawings capture in a visible way the time you spent on them. And if you get in ‘flow’, then time flies when you’re drawing.
“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” – Georgia O’Keefe
4. It’s a Meditation
“Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Observational drawing is like a meditation because it involves focussing on something in the present, real, in front of you – your brain isn’t dwelling on things in the past or worrying about the future. In meditation focusing on the breath is a way of bringing your mind to the most present thing there is, the physicality of your body right now. Drawing focuses your attention on what you can see right now, and in so doing creates a similar sort of space or respite for your mind.
“Drawing is a kind of hypnotism: one looks in such a way at the model, that he comes and takes a seat on the paper.” – Picasso
I don’t mean that you stop thinking at all when you’re drawing – it’s more like the concentration required allows for different kinds of thoughts to run through your head.
"Drawing is putting a line around an idea." - Matisse
5. It’s a therapy
As a result of the time it takes and the kind of space for thinking it provides, drawing has a capacity to heal. If you’re trying to understand something in your life, or if something difficult has happened to you, drawing can be an empowering way of making a visible reminder of something you created yourself. In the middle of all the mess there may be, you can say: “I made that”.
“I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever.” – Beatrix Potter
“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.” - Vincent Van Gogh
Van Gogh’s ‘Wheat field with crows’
6. It’s a way of making (or finding) your mark
“Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.” – Matisse
Drawing is a way of making your mark, inside-out. The choices you make whilst making your drawing (conscious or not) follow your way of seeing and so your drawings are an outward expression of you.
“Drawing is the artist's most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality." – Degas
Just as your signature is a mark you make to knowingly represent you, a mark that says “Yes, this is me, and I agree”, so your drawings can confirm you.
In the Altamira caves in Spain, 18,000 years ago, people drew the animals they hunted and stamped their handprints on stone walls.
7. Drawing keeps you young :)
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – Picasso
Drawing is a recreation: you’re playing with what you see and the marks you make to create something new. In this way, by drawing you can recover your inner child-artist, and so, by my logic, drawing is one way of staying young or becoming young again!
E.H. Shepherd’s drawing of Piglet ‘wondering if it would be this year, next year, sometime, or never’