Some Thoughts On Drawing

Drawing, by its very nature, is an act of faith. A drawing is a unique creature that must continually ask of its creator the indulgence to persevere and persist in believing that its fulfillment is worthwhile. The finished drawing is rarely the finished product; rather, it serves as the documentation of a journey taken in the mind and sensibility of the artist, a crude adventurer’s map charted in the moments of discovery.

At their most accessible, drawings give the viewer access to the course of exploration between the chasm of the blank page and the landscape of lines or scumbled charcoal smudges that comprise an image. Other drawings are more akin to Coleridge’s vision of Kubla Kahn: fleeting, spectacular glimpses into a fantastic surreality that only exists instantaneously in the imagination. Both types have equal potential to become utterly captivating and decadently entrancing.

Academically-trained artists begin with drawing as the first – and primary – discipline because it allows for the most direct connection between materials and self. Drawing is the physical manifestation of the Cartesian self, declaring with each contour and gradient of tone, “I am, I am.”

More than words, drawing represents man’s fundamental split between being of the world and inhabiting a sentient mind. From the earliest marks scratched in sand or painted on cave walls, man has used drawing to mark the separation of inner subjectivity and physical experience, an interface that allows us passage between the two. The calligraphic emergence of writing cannot be coincidental to man’s ability, through drawing, to reflect upon and express what it is, and eventually what it means, to be alive.

Michelangelo Buonarotti. Study for the Libyan Sibyl, 1511CE, chalk on paper, 290x210mm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In its economy of language, drawing retains an immediacy and, if deployed effectively, urgency of communication. Through drawing it is possible to see the essence of an idea, the core components that convey meaning. At times this meaning may not even be fully understood by the artist, who acts by a creative compulsion, yet demonstrates through drawing’s liminal qualities what the Romantic writers called the interior of the heart. One cannot view Michelangelo’s careful, sprezzatura cross-hatching without understanding his singular, industrious focus, nor the meditative, repetitive iterations of figures drawn obsessively in later life without recognizing they are an ephemeral treatise on mortality. In Michelangelo’s marks, a fervor most similar to spiritual devotion becomes apparent, with drawing serving as a visible prayer or incantation. It is also clear that Michelangelo’s faith was not misplaced in drawing.

Michelangelo Buonarotti. Christ Crucified between the Virgin and Nicodemus, c. 1552-54, black chalk, brown wash and white lead on paper, 433x290cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

It can be an enormous challenge to face the vast expanse and sucking void of the unmarked page, and by extension, the sprawling complexities of existence. Art students like to use the shorthand of horror vacui, but it is a more nuanced and demanding task to place one’s trust in drawing. One satisfactory transaction in drawing does not in any way guarantee future success in using its delicate, tenuous devices to hammer down meaning. An artist must continually face the uncertainty of drawing as a sufficient language, spurned forward only by tenacious faith that the marks will coalesce into some visual signifier or ambient carrier of sensation.

In this way, though they are humble and easily discarded, drawings may represent some of the bravest, most ardent acts of man, embodiments of the purest kind of faith.