I have started to revisit some of my thoughts around drawing. I started writing this (below) a few months ago and never got round to editing my thoughts. On re-reading I think there are several issues that need reworking, but some points in relation to the developing of a communal language are I think still useful.
Drawing and Pedagogy
Drawing is so easy to do that it has become an activity that seems to be now focused within the early years of education and for use by groups of the disadvantaged who have perhaps no other release for their creativity. However its very accessibility and lack of barriers to its use should be a reminder of how if used to its full potential, it could still be a powerful tool for communicating our uniquely human experience.
When I first became aware of being taught about drawing I was probably about 12 or 13. My art teacher at school was an ex Saint Martin’s graduate who found himself teaching in a school in the West Midlands. He was keen to engage his students with what he thought were the fundamentals of drawing and to this end he introduced us to Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook. We were encouraged to investigate all the possibilities of dot, line, shape etc etc. I was good at it and realised that the possibilities of permutation were endless and that there was a great game to play here and it was enjoyable in a not un-similar way to the solving of certain maths equations. We also studied observational drawing, where the emphasis was on accuracy and measurement. However the link between the two sorts of drawing was never really explained.
These types of investigations continued throughout my formative education that included the Pre-Diploma Course in Art and Design done post A level and before Dip AD.
The Dip AD introduced a whole new ball game, philosophy and conceptual art. The limitations of Formalism were argued in tutorials and the primacy of concept elevated. In particular this was a time of the dematerialisation of the art object and the late 60s and early 70s saw a rise in socialist thinking which questioned the status of painting as cultural capital because of its ease of use as coinage within the art market. I did very little drawing at this time, and the drawing I did was limited to illustrations for possible art pieces, often using the conventions of engineering drawing.
However after working as a designer for a while, where I had to use drawing as an illustrational tool, I moved into teaching on a Foundation Course in Art and Design. This was a one-year course, designed to prepare students for BA study and was centred on drawing. It was very similar to my Pre-Diploma experience and I was given the opportunity to re-examine drawing from the point of view of the educator.
Over several years of teaching drawing within a passionate team of committed artists I started to evolve my own philosophy of how drawing could be used as a thinking tool. I was becoming more and more convinced as to its unique ability to carry certain concepts and to communicate delicate differences in sensibility. However as my awareness grew, the role of drawing started to be questioned and it started to be moved from the centre of what was being done to the periphery. Instead of an activity that continued throughout the course it became an intense activity at the beginning of the programme. It became the jumping off point for 4 weeks of formal visual language education that went on to look at colour and 3D. This was a mini programme that was designed to take students through the essentials before they started to engage with their own specific interests. Process was now seen as central to the development of a student’s vocabulary and investigations into the precision of the language although seen as still important by the staff, often unacknowledged by the students who were more engaged with the activities than the process of looking. Life drawing was dropped, but no similar observational activity was put in to replace it.
During this time the college introduced a wide range of new technologies, in particular, computers. More time was now being spent on inductions into the wide range of techniques available, from different software programmes, to casting techniques, glass workshops, clay, metal, plastics, print, fibres etc. The focus was on the students developing a personal language and demonstrating that they were thinking like designers or artists. Drawing as a tool seemed much more directly linked to concepts rather than experiences. In particular the fine art students started to use it as if it was a material process to investigate, rather than a tool with which to investigate the world. Some very interesting work was done and it reflected what was going on in the art world itself, but an ability to operate chosen languages of drawing with precision was being lost.
By this time I was working on the degree programmes and the more I saw the students portfolios the more I was becoming aware that drawing as an articulate language was disappearing from most of the feeder courses. The degree programmes themselves were also dropping drawing as students became involved with various new technologies and of course the ever expanding access to computer technology was forcing course leaders to calculate how many students to a computer rather than how much drawing time they had.
Eventually we reached a point when the college principal decided to take away the one remaining specialist drawing studio to give more room to expanding student numbers and at this point I realised the battle to keep drawing within the pedagogic core was well and truly lost. However it also made me realise that if I was to fight back I would have to clarify what drawing’s role was and to provide a theoretical justification for its centrality.
No one seems to question the status of verbal and written language within the educational system. Indeed the college has seen an expansion in the role of academic educational support and now includes academic writing courses and help with literacy at all levels, throughout both FE and HE. The arguments surrounding this were constructed around the need for students to have a precision of language that would help them to articulate degree level thinking. It was of course ironic that that very precision in visual thinking was not seen as being vital too.
The rise of individualism was I felt at the core of the problem. Art within education had been centred on the concept of individual expression for many years. But in contrast the early education of English language was focused on communication. How could someone write an essay or a poem without first learning the language? It was as if students were being taught how to make the sound of words without putting them within a framework of grammar and at higher levels without any test as to what they were communicating. So much of what students were looking at was, “open to interpretation” and indeed the silence of drawing seemed to support this stance. It was only in crits that attempts seemed to be made to address this problem of communication. However the sophistication of analysis within these crits seemed to be focused on how students could move forward within a set of self-developed rules and in essence the crits became solipsistic in nature. It was as if we were using made up game rules that you had to break the code of before being able to engage with how to move forwards. We had in fact become very astute at this, but to the loss of engagement with outsiders who often had no way into these hermeneutic debates. If an essay is not clear a student can be asked to write it again and be given help in construction and sentence structure. Good poetry is grounded in an awareness of the texture of the language and of how a new awareness can be gained by bringing familiar words together in surprising but still understandable combinations. A good critique should therefore help the group as a whole articulate both how a visual language is coming into being and what meanings are capable of being carried by this language.
A proposed curriculum.
I am proposing a return to basics. The basic issue of all language teaching is the fact that you work within a fixed set of meanings. In English the first dictionaries were very important, but before these there would have been a certain common agreement as to what words meant and how to structure the grammar that surrounded them. Where would I find the equivalent for drawing?
For some time I have been interested in phenomenology and embodied mind thinking. In particular the relationship between our physical awareness of the body and how concepts are developed from this experience. At the core of this seemed to me the importance of metaphor and drawing can easily be interpreted through a metaphoric understanding. Not only could drawing be used to reflect an awareness of embodied experience and the way that it underlies the development of complex abstract concepts but I felt very strongly it could also be a graphic embodiment of personal experience.
Lakoff and Johnson (1987) developed a very clear articulation of what they called “image schemas”. It was these schemas that they felt underpinned our ability to develop concepts. For instance ‘Verticality and Balance’ schemas could be seen as at the core of many of the higher-level concepts we have evolved. Drawing is a clearly brilliant way to articulate these ideas. Not only can it be positioned within the same framework physically, it can within that framework be nuanced to the nth degree. The touch of the drawer should be read as the tone of voice or peculiarity of handwriting but what is said or articulated should rely on how the basic elements of the drawing come together.
Rhythm could then be seen not just as a formal element but also as an element that can be read in relation to particular experiences within and without the body. Awareness of the way things move is dependent on compulsion, attraction and blockage schemas, all patterns developed through repeated experiences of phenomena. These experiences are obtained via a combination of senses, visual, oral and touch having primacy. They often reinforce each other, for instance the rhythmic sound change as an object gets nearer or further away, is reinforced by changes in size constancy, tonal weight, as well as linear direction. From these basic components control strategies can be evolved. Properties that can be repeatedly connected with particular objects or experiences allow us to learn. From the learning we see further related patterns as memory, imagination and reason combine to form a synthesis.
Going back to that earlier experience of the formal investigation of marks and lines and objective drawing, you could categorise these as belonging to the two kinds of visual perception as described by Witelo in his De Perspectiva. He was interested in the subject/object relationship. His two kinds of visual perception were on the one hand the grasp of visual forms through what we would call intuition (this could be linked to a particular type of objective drawing based on perceptual responses) and perception together with preceding knowledge. (In this case the links between formal qualities and associated schema).
A simple case would be quantities. Kant described the moment when an intuition of one and many allowed for the development of a concept of counting. He called this an intuition of the bare two oneness. An idea of ‘justice’ perhaps may have started by an initial intuition of unbalanced relationships and what causes them. The frantic zigzag movement of someone trying to escape a predator could be a basic element in the rhythm of fear. All these intuitions arrive from organism/environment interactions and they don’t need any explanation for their existence other than an extension of phenomenological logic.
Perhaps one of the most profound ideas to evolve from bodily awareness is that of the spirit or non-bodily entity. Death or the absence of that spirit of animation has always been an inescapable phenomena for human beings. Because we have a front and a back and our visual organs are positioned so that we cant see behind us, we also have an idea that things that are not seen are not just unknown they are a potential threat. If you watch a bear checking for danger, it will stand on its hind legs and look around to get a better view, our ability to stand on two legs is probably another adaptation to wanting to get a better view. If you start putting the concepts of inability to see something, fear of the unknown, therefore threat of death, with the concept of loss of animated spirit, you can envisage the development of the idea of a difference between two states being visualised as a physical boundary or barrier between states. Our early ancestors envisioned a line or divide between life and death or matter and spirit which was I would argue represented by the cave wall, which could act as a membrane between one state and another; between the world we can see and concepts we cant. The cave painter would work images across the boundary between the two states of the unknown and the known. This boundary would eventually be seen as the divide between our perceptions of physical day-to-day existence and the intellectual abstractions and reflections on our existence. It is also a reflection of the barrier between our own body and that of the world. Self and other.
This long history should not be forgotten and every time an image is constructed on a ground the membrane vibrates with the tension between what is physical and what is mental. Images still arrive as if by magic, impelled by possibilities in exactly the same way shapes suggested by protruding rock formations in dark caves stimulated the imagination of the early painters. The day-to-day experiences may change but the possibilities of bodily metaphor through drawing remain just as potent.
If we need a dictionary of image metaphorical possibilities where can we find one? First of all there is the huge store of drawings done and housed in national collections throughout the world, but there is also the old tradition of people in the business passing down to others how to work in the trade, the how to do it manuals such as those by published by Heck in the 18th century. However most of the how to draw books we now have available are for the amateur and they concentrate on technique rather than the development of metaphorical possibility. Paradoxically resources for the comic book artist are much better, in particular Scott Mcloud’s Understanding Comics includes a clear attempt to start to categorise drawing styles alongside their metaphoric possibilities together with their degree of abstraction or realism, as well as attempting to show how many other aspects of visual and written languages construct meaning. However it is only engaged with a taxonomy of drawing devices and constructional methods and approaches within the comic book tradition and although some of these can be exported for use within other areas there are serious omissions as to how meanings may be constructed within the field of drawing as a whole. Even so it is an interesting model to look at and it has its historical precedents in the works of Durer and other artists who attempted to develop manuals for practice. Above all the physical experience of drawing and how this can carry great metaphorical weight is mainly ignored because most comic book work is printed and this eliminates the artists’ various touches and the restricted size of the comic book page restricts the possible relationships that can be built between drawing size and the human body, the object subject / drawing / body empathy.
If people are going to be affected by any art form they will be most likely to be so if they sense that the communication is viscerally connected to the real world of their experiences. How we make and experience meaning within an art form is therefore closely linked with how we process raw experience. If these experiences are to be communicated we need to go beyond art as something that is about individual feelings and to look at how it works as a learnable language.
Drawing, because it is a stripped down art form, is therefore an excellent arena within which to explore the development of a learnable language. John Dewey’s Art as Experience is probably the most important 20th century formulation of the fact that art reflects back to us our experience of the world. But beyond that art also constructs meanings out of these experiences. Therefore, we could look at a basic progression of events that can lead to a meaningful construction for both the individual and the sub-group within which individuals finds themselves.
One: Our body experiences things and events, both within the body and externally.
Two: In order to be able to make decisions in response to perceived events, we look for patterns within the experiences received. This enables us to predict and make choices for actions.
Three: Because experiences are all received via the body’s sense receptors, the initial understanding of experience is one that relies on the knowledge of our own body.
Four: Once patterns are seen as being useful, we can undertake decision making and if these decisions are clearly beneficial to us, we will memorise them and use responses to them again.
Five: At some point relationships between different patterns are realised. At this point planning can be done, which can predict events based on a combination of several patterns which appear to have consistency and durability.
Six: The recognition of the existence of patterns has to be communicated to others.
Seven: The group starts to take ownership of the idea / concept. One of the key patterns of communication is the testing of different hypotheses by the group. The pattern that is the most robust and therefore the one that might be used to eventually develop a concept, is the one that stands the various tests put upon it by the group.
Eight: The individual and the group feel ‘right’ about what is happening. There is a feeling tone to life that sits around the whole process of this experience, a tone which I can only describe as a sense of “a profound instinctive union with the life stream”. This phrase was Bertrand Russell’s definition of happiness. Group ownership of concepts is central to the development of the feeling tone, but so is the fact that concepts are developed from contact with real, testable situations.
Nine: As awareness of patterns become more complex; this leads to a need to give the patterns meaning in order to cement them into our communicative minds. At his point arises art in the form of narratives, images, rhythmic sounds etc each used to ensure that the experiential patterns of life are embedded within the life tone. This is at the core of what we think of as meaning. However this is not meaning as a propositional statement, it is meaning as a confirmation of experience.
Drawing illustrates the patterns of experience in two ways. It can be used to record the patterns of visual perception and it can be used as an arena within which to investigate patterns of material/body interaction. Often however the two patterns flow into each other, memory being the key factor in their control.
The construction of a moving experience will involve engaging us with all of those experiences that the real world gives us plus a patterning of those experiences within controlling media. If the communication doesn’t deal with these things, others in the audience will not recognise their importance and it will not be a moving experience for them. Most young people fall in love at some point and popular music for our young people overwhelmingly deals with this. It is an experience they are trying to make sense of and how others have dealt with it is part of the learning experience as well as part of the being one with the human community experience. This works so well because of the accuracy of our recording techniques, the voice, music and its unique tone are captured well enough for people to be emotionally moved by the original singer’s words and how they are supported by the music. However the specificity of drawing does not survive translation. For instance size is vital as this gives not only a bodily metaphoric possibility but it also allows for immediate engagement with the physicality of the mark making. Just as so many songs of popular appeal at root owe much to nursery rhymes, so many of our responses to drawings are based in childhood experiences. These experiences with drawing are often however fractured and therefore difficult to build up a meaningful association with. Two areas within which drawing is valued very highly within schools are maths and geography. In maths it’s called geometry and in geography it’s called mapping. Both these types of drawing rely directly on embodied experiences, but of course they are not presented in this way. They carry sophisticated information which we are taught to read. In the art room of course students are expressing themselves, they will definitely not be learning how to use schema to look for patterns of embodied meaning.
Arnheim states, “In the perception of a shape lies the beginning of concept formation”. The meaning is linked to how neural patterns are operated in the brain by the perception of forms.
We can make sense of tiny differences in perceptual information. Each change in perceived information if responded to quickly enough would have meant the difference between survival or death. We have an alert openness to possibilities that therefore can lie at the centre of how drawings may communicate. Infinitely subtle shifts of emphasis can be used to engage an observer in new and for them inexperienced aspects of their previous experiences, this communication deepening the meaning of the experience and in the moment of communication achieving the necessary link with the life stream.
If we were to study Chinese calligraphy, the subtle changes in inking, tonal quality, arm movement, brush manipulation, spatial division, energy of rhythm, dryness or wetness of application, response to surface grain, knowledge of other calligraphers etc are all seen as an essential when trying to read a new piece. Above all perhaps state of mind is being communicated here. How far ‘in tune’ with the subject/experience is the artist? The meaning of any individual drawing being partly to do with how far and in what way an immersion into the life stream has been achieved.
The poetics of drawing are not something that comes easily and the subtlety needed to contain experience only comes through practice. The Zen masters can teach us that. We need to go beyond process in order to become aware and alert to the possibilities that occur when experiencing the experience of drawing. That membrane that exists between the physical and the spiritual world is perhaps the site for this engagement.
Metaphor is at the core of how we read drawing images. Coleridge’s “Likeness in unlikeness” a key to how these metaphors will be read and the body the prime source of their generation. Time spent studying these readings needs to be taken seriously and in the same way students are asked to study the syntax of poetry, I would advocate they spend more time studying the way that drawing’s language can be read and then applied through practice and application.
As Plato stated, “If painters reproduced the true proportions of beautiful forms, the upper parts would seem smaller and the lower parts larger than they ought, because we see the former from a distance the latter from near at hand…Artists therefore give their figures not the actual proportions but those which seem to be right”. By “seem to be right”, I presume he meant that which reflects actual experience, which is time-bound and spatially determined. Real experience is what lies at the core of this and although Plato would argue otherwise, the myth of universal forms doesn’t actually help with getting to grips with the unpredictability of reality.
The differences between what each of us perceives and the fact that there is a commonality of experience, lies at the core of the possibilities of communication within drawing. An allowance of subjectivity leads to a certain generalisation and degrees of ‘realism’ or degrees of ‘abstraction’ all understandable within the context of the essential life experiences of a human being. Moving, eating, breathing, feeling pain, death etc are all possible generators of drawing’s metaphorical potential. Above all drawing reminds us of the feeling tone that is life itself, each mark frozen in its arc of bodily gesture, each element of the drawing reflecting the rhythms of the body that made it.
Therefore I would propose a drawing curriculum centred on how meaning is derived from experience. I would start from scratch (so to speak) with no preconceptions as to what answers could be and would initially focus on how the world is experienced and how our individual responses could lead to communal meanings. Meaning would be found through making, understanding would be left for the academics to construct.
If drawing is to retain its status as a key element of any art student’s education it needs to be re-presented as a pedagogic tool that gives access to the highest levels of both conceptual and material thinking. Rather than being sidelined as a redundant element it needs to be foregrounded once again but with a fresh and rigorous approach, designed to empower and open the minds and eyes of new students.