What is a Drawing?

This is the simplest of little drawings, yet I look at it all the time. The pig is startled and the little bell on a rope is falling off to the side. What’s going on? I know that a pig with a bell is a traditional symbol of obscenity. So is this repentance? Or a realization?

What is a drawing? Everyone knows what a drawing is, right? Actually, I doubt that most people know what a drawing really is. I don’t think most people know what a drawing is because most people haven’t tried to make a serious drawing since they were children. (I find it strange that children are exceptionally serious about their drawings, whereas adults, when they make them, treat their drawings very flippantly.)

I’m not above quoting the great Neko Case.

In my thought, I make a distinction between drawings and sketches. Most people keep sketchbooks (most people who do that kind of thing, anyway). I tend to keep drawingbooks, not sketchbooks. I’m not knocking the sketchbooks, I’ve used them myself; I just want to make distinctions. In my mind, sketches are quick, disposable things that are in the service of something else. Maybe the artist is working out a problem, making preliminaries for a larger work, or maybe just killing time. Who knows? The point is that drawings are something else altogether. They are far more than simple attempts to make a picture–some flowers, a ship or a bowl of fruit or something. Drawings, in my thought, are far more perilous than that; they come from somewhere inside the artist that is not always clear to him. The have the ability to clarify what is obscure and to obfuscate what, on the surface, seems clear. Drawings are windows, mirrors, pictures. God, in speaking through the prophet, Hosea, says, “I have used similitudes.” Whatever else this passage may mean, it at least means that God also sometimes uses pictures to speak.


Self portrait. I was having a hard time. I still look at this one and think it over.

Most of us recognize that there are books that we can read and reread many times, each time gaining from the experience. There are many films that bear up to multiple viewings and deep reflection. We all know of music that becomes richer to us the more intimately we know it. The thing that elevates these things, that makes a book literature, a movie film or a tune music is art. This is not news to anyone. However, what most people do not realize is that art works on the artist as well as the viewer. There is a sense in which the artwork is more than the sum of the parts that the artist puts into it. Powerful drawings can be as revelatory to the artist who made them as much as they are to anyone else.

I recall speaking to a friend who is in possession of a drawing of mine. You see, I made a drawing on linoleum for him to cut out and print. He had taken a very long time to make this print and I had not seen the drawing at all while he was working on it. Once he had finally finished the print and shown it to me, I told him that seeing that drawing come back to me after he had been working on it for so long was like seeing a child after having sent him out to live in the world on his own. He comes back looking similar, but with more experience. This is one way of looking at a drawing. It is a thing that takes on a life of its own quite apart from the artist who made it.

Here’s another self portrait done right on the heels of the other one. Again, I was having a hard time and I still look at this one when things are hard. To me, it distills some of my feelings and puts them into a picture that I can meditate on.

Many of my drawings take a very long time to make. I labor over them. I talk to them, and I listen to what they say back to me. There is a constant dialogue going on between me and the drawing (if I’m doing it right). Here’s the way it works; the guy doing the drawing (me) starts off with some harebrained scheme for an image and starts making marks. Then the drawing starts to take shape. STARTS to take shape. It’s important at this point that I step back and look at this protean mess I’ve made and try to see what is happening. What does the drawing need to be complete? What is happening–apart from my intentions–with the drawing? Are there new directions that are being suggested by the confluence of lines and colors? Ideally, I pay attention to all of these things–I listen to the drawing.

Romans 9. That which I would, that I do not.

The same friend from above recently looked over a series of drawings that I had made several years ago. These drawings were of a very personal nature; I had made them in reaction to a great personal tragedy. He was quiet as he looked through the dozen or so images. As we went through them again together, he started making some comments, but really more than comments, he started asking a lot of questions. He was seeing these drawings for the first time and so had no preconceived notions of what they were “about”. As I talked and tried to answer his questions, he would at times disagree and point to other drawings in the series that perhaps contradicted what I was telling him. This surprised me. What I discovered was that these drawings were functioning and coalescing in ways that I did not foresee or intend.

That which I would not, that I do.

A colleague once told me about his father who was a music critic. His father told him that when trying to understand a certain piece of music, the musician is the last person you want to talk to! He said that musicians rarely understand where their music comes from or what it is doing. I don’t know how true this is or if it was hyperbole. But I do know that when I get distance from my drawings and I look at them through other people’s eyes, I begin to understand that I don’t always understand what’s going on in my artwork.

Drawings beget drawings. Good drawings are fertile things; they suggest, whisper to the artist new directions that he had not considered before. They aren’t preparatory for anything else, they are complete in themselves. And yet, this is not entirely true. They are complete like a man and a woman are complete in a marriage; they desire to add to their completeness or to reproduce themselves. New drawings in the future will be in conversation with old drawings from the past, they will inform each other and interpret each other. They will also work on the artist and change him. He will love his drawings. Not in the sense that he thinks they look incredible or that they are some achievement in artistic virtuosity, but in the sense that a piece of him has been put into them and that piece has taken on a life of its own.

Hoo boy.

It is a profound joy to look at a drawing that I have made and to see it as a thing that stands apart from me, to be able to look at it and think about it and discover new things that I did not know I had put into it. The very best of drawings continue to speak long after the pencil has been put down and the artist has moved on to something else. At the beginning of this essay, I asked what a drawing is. It is an object made by an artist that exists apart from the artist and in some ways apart from his intentions. It takes pieces from the artist and uses them to make something new that communicates with and confounds its viewers. A drawing is a mystery.


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