Off Piste – Drawing inspiration

Austin Williams on the possibilities and limitations of ‘taking a line for a walk’

August 22, 2013

Source: Alamy

A drawing is a mise en scène that can describe a subject better than 100 photographs. Mind you, it can also be a bloody mess that tells you nothing

As someone who has used hand-drawing in various stages of my architectural career, I am a great advocate of employing it as a tool to express ideas quickly, effectively and creatively on paper. Yes, paper. Remember that?

Drawing is a way to capture a scene, but also a mood, a moment; to express something more than the sum of its parts.

For me, it has a professional function (in that architecture is a visual, intellectual and aesthetic profession), but more importantly as a lay hobbyist it is a simple pleasure. That said, it isn’t that simple and it isn’t all pleasure. Drawing requires swaggering in the face of incipient failure; it is both relaxing and stressful, declarative and chastening. In many ways, it lays one bare. The Lowry syndrome, otherwise known as “I could do better than that”, is a lurking menace or a fatal blow for those brave (or stupid) enough to display their work in public.

At the moment, I live in China (where paper was invented, as most people never tire of telling me), and I have had the pleasure of using hand-crafted paper, calligraphy brushes as well as various inks, even sketching using paper-cut silhouettes. All too often we in the West are set in our ways and forget that there are other tools and media that could stretch us and possibly provide better results. The Chinese infatuation with calligraphy as an art rather than a functional skill, for example, comes with a great deal of Confucian tosh, but is also a useful artistic training ground for coordination, concentration and contemplation – all good techniques that can be applied, developed or channelled.

However, I still come back to pencil or ink line drawings as my favoured technique. Hand-drawing (from sketching to technical drawing) became an essential tool in my professional career – before I turned to academia – as a means of conveying ideas to a client or contractor. This was around 15 years BC (Before Computers) and of late, many people have reverted to a leaded pencil on lined paper to return to the skilful artistry that they sense has been lost because of the ubiquity of the PC. As such, last year’s figures revealed a 7.5 per cent growth in year-on-year pencil sales (although in 2006, The Independent noted that the 700 per cent rise in sales seen that year corresponded with the advent of sudoku, so maybe the relationship is not that straightforward).

Regardless of the statistics, US design critic Norman Weinstein says that “there is something about the pencil that refuses to die”. In fact, it is alive and well and living in a community centre near you. There has been huge growth in seminars, blogs and public debates promoting the joys of hand-drawing. Many more drawing classes tell you how to do it right.

Pencil sketching is a way of trying to capture what you see. More than that, it is a way of committing a scene to paper that includes all the objects that you want to accentuate and the things that maybe you wish you could see. Drawing is all about “viewpoint” and “perspective”, and those words suggest more than just the physical position of the artist. A drawing is a mise en scène that can describe a subject better than a hundred photographs. Mind you, it can also be a bloody mess that tells you nothing. Que sera. That’s the fun.

Graphite, it seems, is the new black. But while it appears that drawing is being rediscovered for its innocent pleasures, I am sad to say that I am highly suspicious of the rediscovery, promotion and lauding of hand-drawing that has emerged in the last few years. The “renaissance du crayon” has been warmly welcomed by many, but it is worth questioning what lies beneath.

On closer inspection it seems that the discussion is less about drawing than the process of drawing, less about the meaning of drawing than the drawing of meaning. For example, the global network known as Urban Sketchers has a mission “connecting people around the world”; while Alain de Botton’s book The Art of Travel advocates drawing as a way of reinvigorating our observational skills so that we may better appreciate our quotidian lives and reaffirm a sense of locality. For him, drawing refreshes our appreciation of the parochial.

So my first worry is that hand-drawing is being promoted as an instrumental policy agenda – a kind of Big Society toolkit. Actually, its form should simply function as a way of passing on ideas from the mind of the artist to the eyes of the receiver, not as a way of transmitting policy objectives. Admittedly, architectural hand-drawing/drafting/sketching is practical and so is very different from the non-functional purposes of “high art”, but all drawing is a mode of expression. Unfortunately, as instrumentalism becomes more common, we are in danger of losing the very thing that I enjoy about hand-drawing: its innocence.

Male model being drawn by an artist

As instrumentalism becomes more common, we are in danger of losing the very thing that I enjoy about hand-drawing: its innocence

Because of the aforementioned “agenda-driven” promotion of drawing – in other words, the notion that people should simply get “involved” or “engaged” in it (as a way of building social capital, so to speak) – there has arisen a belief that anyone can do it.

This is my second concern about the recent rise in the popularity of hand-drawing. In truth, John Ruskin cautioned against such fanciful ideas in The Elements of Drawing: In Three Letters to Beginners back in 1857, where he warned novices against thinking that they could learn drawing “without some hard and disagreeable labour…(and) a certain amount of pains”. Drawing, after all, is a learned skill. While some people can tinker, they may not be very good at it and it is worth letting them know.

I have nothing against hobbyists sketching away or even bad artists amusing themselves, but we should not pretend that they are something they are not, nor that simply “doing a drawing” has some intrinsic value. It is even more important to be honest with novices, who are fully entitled to amuse themselves but should not be indulged in their deficiencies.

My final reason for suspicion is that hand-drawing is often cited in a Luddite fashion as a reaction against the creeping computerisation of the architectural profession. This kind of technophobic advocacy amounts to a longing for a simpler life. Just like the Slow Food movement, the Slow Hand-Drawing movement is a hand-wringing critique of the modern age. Alastair Fuad-Luke, programme leader for the MA in entrepreneurship for creative practice at the Plymouth College of Art, proposes “slow design as a counterbalance to the ‘fastness’ (speed) of the current (industrial and consumer) design paradigm”. Similar arguments are marshalled in favour of drawing as a rejection of the cruel modern world of computer-aided design. Architect Maggie Flickinger notes that “as rumblings of a post-digital age foment, a return to the hand’s value is spreading”.

Admittedly, published artist Alan Dunlop, visiting professor at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment at Robert Gordon University, makes a legitimate observation that no computer-generated image “gets close to the spirit of a great drawing”. But too many others make the assumption that there is something inherently good about “making by hand”, which, for me, is contrary to the labour-saving nature of modernity. Let’s be honest: computers are good; drawing is different. The central point for me is that the fetishisation of a means of production – by pencil, computer, biro or quill – fails to evaluate the content of what is being produced: in many instances, we forget to ask whether it is any good.

Drawing is a straightforward, simple and cheap way of learning how to capture an image or an idea quickly and effectively. A pencil and a drawing pad also enable someone to put down a “sketch” (effectively a mental note) to use as a reference point for more detailed study. This allows the drawer’s imagination the scope to alter a visual representation, to distort a picture of reality, to reimagine a scene. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the 18th-century artist famous for his etchings of Rome, created “dramatic drawings with distorted perspective”, says Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, who curated a retrospective of the Italian’s work at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London earlier in the year. “He creates highly ambiguous spaces…he breaks rules.” However, hand-drawers should know that there are conventions and rules that need to be learned in order to be qualified to break them.

One final admission. In my university in China we see many hundreds of student portfolios from across the country as they apply to study architecture. From these, inter alia, we choose suitable interview candidates. It is not an exaggeration to say that in general, the quality of drawing is astounding. Pencil drawings, watercolours, oil or gouache, it doesn’t seem to matter: the standard is exceptionally high, regardless of whether the student has majored in arts or sciences. If I could draw like that, I would be very happy indeed. However, after looking through a number of the portfolios, it has become apparent that the drawings – of still life fruits, geometric models, ceramic pots and Grecian busts – are the same: the same busts, the same fruit, the same angle, the same drawing.

Chinese school students learn an impressive set of technical skills, but when we test them, it is clear that many have no real ability to draw. In fact, they are taught to draw these particular objects – and only these objects – in a “correct” way. Their still life studies, for example, explore pencil shading; the Impressionist landscapes are carried out in watercolours; and each one displays a beautiful mastery of technique that is hard to fault. This homogenisation of artistic excellence is achieved by teaching each student to draw the same object for days and weeks on end until they “get it right”. By this, I mean that they draw this bottle or that landscape correctly, but if they are asked to draw a different object or scene, very often they can’t or won’t do it. Chinese arts education simply gets students to hone visual memorisation. This is a neat trick and an impressive skill, but it is not the same as free interpretation, which is what sketching – or art – should be about.

Paul Klee famously described a drawing as “simply a line going for a walk” and there is something in that. A stroll can be an aimless meander or a meaningful yomp and we must choose the best tools for the job. As far as I am concerned, hand-drawing is sometimes a means to an end (but not in the instrumental sense); it is a way of conveying abstract ideas quickly and easily (but only if the medium used to convey those ideas is suitable); and it is a nifty way of putting your own spin on things (provided that it is not a misrepresentation of the object under consideration).

Some 200,000 people are attracted to the Campaign for Drawing every year, which is potentially a good thing. It is of no concern to me whether some get turned on to drawing because a 4B pencil is cheaper than an extortionate computer graphics software package. I welcome the renaissance of hand-drawing, even though it has probably come about for the wrong reasons. But we should be wary about the benefits of hand-drawing/drafting/sketching being overclaimed, oversold and overindulged. In essence, hand-drawings should be handy; drafting should be purposeful; and sketching should be simple, pleasurable…and often pointless. That’s why I like it.

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