"Drawing is the simplest way of establishing a [..] vocabulary because it is an instant personal declaration of what is important." Betty Goodwin.
On a few occasions I have been asked why it is that I draw, as though the career I am in the process of crafting for myself has been rationally reasoned and considered. It is a question that, for a long time, I have not taken seriously. I glossed over it with a flippant remark- ‘its the only skill I’ve got’ or something about really wanting to cultivate my terrible posture and poor eyesight. Recently however this question has begun to demand a more considered response. Larger musings, admittedly self-indulgent ones, on who I am at this quarter-century stage of my life have brought me round to thinking through what I do, this thing that has, and will continue, to define much of my life.
I will often say that I draw because I am not musical; that my inability to write a great break-up album forces me to draw it instead. Similarly I might say that it is because I am a poor writer, childish with poetry or dangerously uncoordinated as a dancer. I claim that drawing is my mode of expression by default, that creative failings have led me to plump for this as my outlet. This is all true, in a sense, but it gives short shrift to drawing for, in truth, it is one of the most natural an instinctive forms of expression I can think of. Not for a second do I genuinely feel I have settled for a lesser medium.
Firstly I should establish that whilst I am ‘an illustrator’ I am not talking about illustration here. Drawing is not illustration and illustration is not drawing. Whilst differentiating between the two might verge on the pedantic and is certainly, in many ways, reductive it is also necessary in this context.
When draughtsmen recorded nebulous masses of stars through eighteenth century telescopes or the sinewy capillaries of a lung dissected in a victorian operating theatre they were not drawing. The choices they made in the information they recorded determined contemporary understanding. Their medium was explanatory rather than expressive.
Where, in drawing, the artist allows for minimal interference between the hand, eye and mind, moving between the three with deft swiftness and an almost unconscious intent, the illustrator must, through their own hand, factor in the eye and mind of the viewer. It is the viewer's understanding that must be met before any of the authors creative goals. Whilst expression and creative flair play an integral role in the desirability of an image the onus falls on clarity of message to determine its overall success. The fine artist's goal is often an emotional one and thus they are afforded a freedom of expression that is not always afforded to the illustrator. We are, perhaps, more generous with our reading of fine art image-making because we understand that the artist's message might not be a tangible or concrete one because drawing is so instinctive.
As a caveat this is not to say that illustrators are not artists, nor that a fine artist lacks the capacity to clearly deliver a message. The most successful illustrators marry the two and can create beauty and clarity.
Sketching, which I confess I do rarely at present, is fast and unthinking and and yet you are decision-making the whole time. With every swift stroke across the page you are deciding which parts of your subjects are most important to you. In essence you are re-sculpting one thing into another unconsciously. In filtering visual information from eye to hand you tell a specific story, one that is unique to your way of seeing. Furthermore drawing is hampered by very few obstacles; information travels from eye to brain to hand without having to be compressed into language, rife with barriers and limitations. Feelings that cannot be summarised in words can often be succinctly expressed with the broad stroke of an inky paintbrush or a sweep of pitch-black charcoal. Often drawing feels like taking notes; quickly getting down as much information as possible, keeping a record. My sketchbooks are a mix of images and words but the text rarely feels like ‘writing’ but drawing. There is the feeling of ‘pulling’ something out of the page, shaping it and giving it weight. Whether this occurs with words or pictures is, during the process, almost irrelevant. Instead there is just the feeling of pressing an idea to the page, in whatever form it fits.
For me drawing is a form of thinking. A drawing need never be finished, much as an internal throught need never be formalised into a precise statement. It also benefits from, I believe, an inability to lie. The hand will only do what it can do naturally, there are no dictionaries, no filtered lenses or editing tools to reshape it into a more-perfect thing. If a mistake is made you erase it or paint over it but the ghost of that mistake remains- denting the paper or traceable through the slight relief of paint. In this respect it seems honest. Even those who, perhaps unwisely, attempt to ape the draughtsmanship of another will be betrayed by the habits and limitations of their own hand.
A friend, a talented artist, would always draw with a slight incline to the right (similarly, I suppose as to how I write with a slope to the left). His images slanted, just enough to be noticeable, with the motion his hand made across the paper. This was cause for much consternation from the friend, who was adamant that he would eradicate this foible, this habitual lean. Yet I found it compelling. His slanted drawings were not only beautiful but told the physical story of their production so succinctly as they allowed you to follow the route of his hand across the page with the direction of his line.
To return to exactly ‘why i draw’- I suppose it is party born of a need to expel gathered information, which seems a somewhat clinical way to boil things down. As a person to wanting to store as much as possible as memory I find that drawing acts as a way of purging certain ideas before the clamor for attention in my head becomes too cacophonous. I like that it is, in effect, a quietening which is mirrored by my physical state when working. The process encourages me to to slip into a mode of being that is automatic and relatively unthinking.
Finally then, I draw because I want, in some way, to be known. Not in any genuinely intimate way, I’m not angling for romance or hoping to draw myself a soulmate. Rather I draw for the same reasons that, I believe, anyone makes anythings. It feels like people are huge, enormous in fact and so many are frustrated by the limits of their physical selves that they feel fit to burst; filled with vast swathes of thought and feeling, joys and sadnesses. Every single person is so much bigger and I suppose we fear that the rest of us, the parts not represented by body or speech, will be lost. I draw, then, for this part of me, the majority of me I suppose; because that way it might outlive ‘me’. If drawing is the best way of establishing what is important to us visually then it must go some way towards recording what it important to us internally,
“Subconsciously I want to make myself immortal among men, leave my mark on the earth to compensate for social inadequacy… So I draw.”
R. Crumb, Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me: Robert Crumb Letters 1958-1977