In every field of human endeavor there is a specific practice that most directly speaks to the fundamental nature of that field. That practice serves as the philosophical manifestation of its arena—not an academic philosophy, but a lived-in, worked-in philosophy. To study philosophy is to study the core of a thing – the why, how, and what – and every discipline has such a core. Literature has poetry, the pure exploration of language and structure; music has the piano, the most versatile and complete of instruments. Science has research, the pursuit of pure understanding. The visual arts have fine art or gallery art, art that exists for its own sake and which explores the formal and conceptual limits of the field. Within fine art, however, there is an even more specific category that most directly touches on the philosophy of art: drawing.
Traditionally, drawing has often been defined in negative terms, by what it is not—a finished piece, a work using a full range of colors, a complex multi-layered work, etc. The contemporary description is more generous: “Drawing as an art form is principally understood to have an essential quality of directness and transparency: Its great strength is the clarity and simplicity through which the viewer can grasp the artist’s actions, ideas, or emotions.” (Drury/Stryker, Ch. 1) This explanation gets at the heart of what drawing does rather dealing with surface questions of medium and appearance. The emphasis on “clarity and simplicity” is a key aspect in understanding drawing as philosophy.
I would like to suggest here that drawing serves as the necessary base or core for art and is the most direct means of studying the theoretical basis of aesthetic experience.
An overview of traditional uses of drawing can be found in Thomas Buser’s History of Drawing. Historically, drawing has been a supporting medium, a preliminary step, a kind of shorthand to communicate with a patron, capture inspiration, and study life. Drawing served as a skeleton which was then built upon with layers of paint or sculpted out of marble. Supportive, however, does not mean inferior, and there are several key ways that drawing served as a necessary core to art in that assisting role. For many artists, drawings were a necessary first step to work out details, poses, and the positions of figures within a larger work. Drawing could serve as a theoretical basis for larger works by allowing the artist to experiment compositionally and explore expressive possibilities. And even when not connected to a larger work, drawing served as a way for the artist to observe and study the nature of reality through sketches.
Not only has drawing been a central pillar of artistic practice throughout the centuries, it has also been a key component of art education. “Drawing has been the primary means by which the tradition of art is passed from generation to generation.” (Buser, Prologue) Today, even as the practice of art-making changes and evolves to encompass almost every kind of activity imaginable, drawing still remains at the core of art education. Teaching drawing is the most expedient way to teach sensitivity and visual awareness because learning to draw sharpens observation, increases perception, and releases self-expression. Learning how to translate your perceptions into an art form, like drawing, is the essence of becoming an artist. “In short, drawing has become the chief means for the education of the visual imagination.” (Buser, Prologue) Just as learning philosophy is a way of learning to think, so too learning to draw is a way of learning to make art.
Drawing works so well as a method of art education and as a conceptual skeleton for other artistic media because it contains within itself all the formal, conceptual, and fundamental elements of art in their most simple and direct form. Gesture, described by Nicolaides in The Natural Way to Draw as the impulse of movement and the essence of object being drawn, is the perfect example. Gesture is intangible but should be present in any kind of figurative work, whether painting, sculpture, photography, etc. But how do artists practice seeing gesture or explore its expressive possibilities? Gesture is most easily identified, experimented with, and expressed through drawing. Drawing is the most direct connection between hand, mind, and eye and allows artists to quickly capture the fleeting and intangible qualities they observe.
When faced with new or challenging modes of art-making, drawing can often provide the key that opens the door to a proper understanding of a work. Drawings can explore the fundamental aspects of an artist’s subject matter, whether conceptual or representational, without the distractions of having to translate impulse into technique. The simplicity of drawing reveals the core of an artist’s work. The early 20th-century German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner understood this when he wrote (under a pseudonym), “If you want to be clear about Kirchner’s peculiar manner of representation, about his forms and his pictorial construction, it is best to examine his drawings.” He understood that beneath all the paint was the structure, the aesthetic philosophy of his work. The color created the expression, subtlety, and depth, but the core of his work was found in his drawings.
The formal elements of art and the conceptual key to other media are easier to see in drawing because it is largely free of the baggage of more traditionally illusionistic media. Even when illusionism was the primary goal of artists, drawings were a place where they could explore gesture, movement, energy, and composition before dealing with illusionistic surface details. Drawing has a genuine and authentic immediacy because it has always been aware, and unashamed, of its own artifice. To quote Matisse, “I have always considered drawing not as an exercise of particular dexterity, but above all as a means of expressing intimate feelings and descriptions of states of being, but a means deliberately simplified so as to give simplicity and spontaneity to the expression, which should speak without clumsiness, directly to the mind of the spectator.” (Matisse, p. 131) Matisse also said: “My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotions. The simplification of the medium allows that.” (Matisse, p. 130)
This is what philosophy does: it speaks directly to the mind of the spectator, getting to the core of the matter. The history of art since the late 19th century is often read as a steady process of stripping art of convention and tradition in an attempt to arrive at the foundation of what art most essentially is. Monet stripped away the artifice of historical imagination in favor of immediate experience; Kandinsky stripped away representation in favor of lyrical expression; Duchamp stripped away craft in favor of concept; Minimalism stripped away everything but the cold fact of material, and Conceptualism stripped away even the comfort of material in pursuit of the pure idea. We are left with the naked skeleton of art, often seen in works of form without function, or concept without form. There is nothing left to strip away.
However, art is not a stripped carcass, and this skeleton has an elegant beauty full of life. Drawing has experienced such a surge in popularity because it is a manifestation of this elegance, containing both the conceptual rigor and direct genuineness that the contemporary artist and viewer crave. Margaret Davidson observes that drawing has become so popular “because artists have discovered that drawing, in its own right, is something unique and different from painting. It is an intense, sensitive, compelling, personal, and utterly direct art from, with its own concepts, characteristics, and techniques.” (Davidson, Introduction)
Drawing has the elasticity and depth to continue to explore the fundamental questions of art, thus manifesting visual philosophy. The beauty of drawing is found not only in its conceptual directness, but in the elegance, beauty, significance, and authenticity of art laid bare. Drawing provides both intellectual depth and aesthetic experience; it has the simplicity and directness to be genuine in an age that is so very aware of the artifice of art. Drawing offers direct answers to many of the questions of what art is and thus speaks more fully to the contemporary generation so interested in this question. Art has been stripped to the bone, dried, and bleached in the wake of Minimalism and Conceptualism, yet reveals its elegant skeleton in drawing. Drawing is the foundation of art and constitutes a practical philosophy that can stand on its own or serve as a theoretical basis or foundation for the diverse practices of the contemporary artist.
1. Drawing: Structure and Vision. Fritz Drury and Joanne Stryker. Pearson, 2008
2. The History of Drawing. Thomas Buser. www.historyofdrawing.com 1999
3. The Natural Way to Draw. Kimon Nicolaides. Mariner Books, 1990
4. Genius 2, Book 2, “Zeichneungen von E.L. Kirchner (The Drawings of E. L Kirchner)” (p.
216-234). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle. 1921.
5. Matisse on Art, “Notes of a Painter on His Drawings” (p.130-132). Henri Matisse. University
of California Press, 1995
6. Contemporary Drawing: Key Concepts and Techniques. Margaret Davidson. Watson-Guptill,