Originally published 2013, in Rae Johnson’s Paradise Now

Elemental Drawing

The practice of drawing is thriving. The engaging works in this exhibition [Berlin, 2013] demonstrate the continued relevance of this medium. Yet, over the last century or so proportionally fewer and fewer artists display any allegiance to or talent in the traditional media of drawing and painting. Many other modes of visual expression have been developed during this period, from photography to cinema. These facts together with the recent explosion of digital technology might suggest, falsely, that drawing is on the way to becoming obsolete. So why is drawing still relevant in this electronic age? What follows is a meditation on drawing centred on answering this question.

The earliest known drawings are found in the Chauvet cave along the river Ardèche in the south of France. Best estimates suggest the images of animals (e.g., of bison, bears, lions and rhinos) in this cave date from 32,000 BC, during the last ice age. Although readily identifiable as primitive the drawings are nonetheless accomplished. Further, as the director of France’s Centre National de Préhistoire Jean-Michel Geneste observes, the drawings demonstrate a breakthrough in human culture as examples of figuration, the depiction of specific objects or types of object. As such they possess the power to evoke the past and they do this far better than words.[1] This power is largely invisible to us because of the ubiquity of figuration today, but to the Aurignacian people of Europe who produced the drawings in the Chauvet cave it would likely have been intoxicating.

Key to figuration that characterises these cave drawings is selecting the depicted objects salient features, that is, the features that represent the object. It is impossible to draw indiscriminately in this sense, simply to depict anything or everything one sees. Drawing involves selection through the act of looking at an object. It can therefore be understood as a way of looking or observing. This understanding of drawing is bruited by the painter David Hockney, for example, who, in an interview with art critic Ossian Ward, remarks: “People seem to think that if you point a camera, it gets exactly what’s there, but it doesn’t,…I always said that you teach drawing because it is teaching people to look harder – you can see more.”[2] And in another interview with television presenter Ellie Harrison, Hockney explains that looking “is a more positive act than you think. It’s something you have to decide to do, otherwise you just scan it.”[3]

It is helpful to make clear the distinction between scanning and looking to which Hockney alludes. Scanning is processing visual information mechanically and as such it is not discriminatory. When, for example, the camera on the Mars exploration rover Spirit scans the planet’s surface it does not distinguish between the geological features in its field. The visual information it gathers does not include identification of individual features or objects – these do not exist for the scanner/camera. By contrast, looking necessarily involves identifying features in the visual field. Why that is so is not obvious, so let’s look at this central claim more closely.

Consideration of the transcendental idealism of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant is an apt heuristic here.[4] The world in itself, i.e., that as it is thought to exist independently of our experiences, Kant argues, has no structure – we provide the structure through what he calls our intuitions, which consist in a spatiotemporal framework. The best way to understand this claim is to think of how space and time are not ‘things’ we experience, i.e., perceive, but rather they describe a necessary precondition to our having experiences at all. To borrow one of Kant’s examples, when we watch a boat move down a river its position relative to the bank at each moment is not given to us, rather we each provide the necessary spatial and temporal ordering of this experience ourselves.[5] But according to Kant this sensibility alone is not enough for us to have experiences, that is, to see, hear, feel, etc. things. In addition experience requires what he calls the faculty of Understanding. To experience things as such entails understanding them, that is, having concepts of them. Here concept is best construed broadly to mean being ready or poised to act according to what matters to us. So, for example, one could have the concept of ‘apple’ insofar as one ‘understands’ this type of thing in the world as food – being poised to pick it, eat it and so on – it doesn’t require one to understand the word ‘apple’ (or ‘pomme’ etc.). To have sensory experiences is to interact with the world in this respect.

Now, whether one accepts Kant’s idealism or not he does point to an important truth about experience, namely, how we experience the world is not given to us. To see something, for example, is not to process visual information mechanically, i.e., scan it. And in accordance with this basic insight, things in the world are individuated – distinguished one from another – by us. We don’t see the world as already divided into the things and features we can then go on to  identify, e.g., tables, dogs, green etc. In general, to have a sensory experience is to understand the world aspectually, as something or as having some feature.

Now we are in a position to appreciate more fully Hockney’s observation that drawing something demands looking in a concentrated manner, ‘looking harder’ as he puts it. In order to draw something it is necessary to understand it as such and to grasp it spatially. For example when we see Jastrow’s famous drawing of the figure below, we see it as something.


But what is it we see? Is it a rabbit’s head or a duck’s head? Clearly we can see it as either, but interestingly we cannot see it as both things simultaneously. Consequently to draw an image that can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck requires seeing it as one of these things at each moment. The ambiguity of this image is a challenge to produce. It involves thinking hard, making a few marks and seeing them first as a rabbit’s ear, say, and then as a duck’s bill. Drawing, then, is visual thinking. When we draw something we are not in essence processing visual information but are instead engaged in coming to know the world, understanding it visually. Drawing as visual representation demands one to look at the world with some aspect in mind, and what that aspect is needs to be worked out. Even an artist who draws abstractly must focus on the marks she makes in terms of their formal features, e.g., their perceived spatial relations and their shapes and colours (with apologies to Clement Greenberg and his celebration of flatness).

While drawing an intelligible image requires seeing it as something or as having some feature at any moment, the example of Jastrow’s duck-rabbit image shows that we do not have to see or interpret the resultant image as one thing in particular. This image is ambiguous for that reason. But seldom when we look at things in nature do they seem ambiguous to us. Ordinarily when we look we strive for particularity in this sense. For example, I look out my window and see the sky as clouded and stop my perceiving at that point. Only very occasionally might I stare at the clouds and focus on their amorphous shapes. But even then I am inclined to see a cloud’s shape as like a particular thing. Drawing concretises the act of interpreting what one sees. One is forced to interpret one’s visual field as something specific in order to produce an image. In other words, one is confronted by choice. When one draws an image one chooses to draw it as something or other. Kant called such an act of interpretation an exercise in the faculty of the Imagination. Having a choice, however, is not the same thing as exercising it. As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, at each moment we are free to do an endless variety of things, but we very often act in bad faith, namely, act inauthentically, e.g., according to a socially constructed rule of behaviour.

For Kant the hallmark of an artist, or what he called a ‘genius’, is the ability to break free from the very concepts which allow us to produce an image. The artist embraces this freedom of choice. Kant calls this the free play of the faculty of the imagination. By this measure the artist opens up the visual world to her viewer to see things in a new way. As is often remarked about Vincent van Gogh, for example, after seeing his paintings and drawings one sees sunflowers, cypress trees and his other subjects in a new light.

The psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist has recently outlined a way of understanding Kant’s notion of free play in contemporary neurophysiological and cognitive terms. McGilchrist points out the common distinction between two types of knowledge. We can know something either by acquaintance or factually. The former consists in experiencing something directly and the latter is theoretical in nature, that is, it concerns knowing that the thing in question has certain features. So, for example, one might know someone called ‘Dorothy’ in the sense of having met her and also know her in the sense of knowing facts about her, e.g., she was born in May 1975, is a school teacher and so on. Factual knowledge of something involves the application of concepts, understanding it as such-and-such. By contrast knowledge by acquaintance is more intuitive, concerned with the thing as a whole. What one comes to know about something by encountering it is not reducible to words – it is personal (or ‘carnal’ as McGilchrist describes it) and therefore not properly communicable by words.[6] These ways of knowing, McGilchrist argues, reflect a profound difference in the way the two hemispheres of our brain operate. Knowing something factually involves processes in the brain’s left hemisphere, which concerns itself with regulating experiences, that is, categorising and ordering them under rules. It is this side of the brain where most of the language-based processing goes on. But when we first experience something it is the right hemisphere that is most active – the side of the brain that processes experiences holistically, rather than analysing them conceptually in the way the left side does. Listening to or playing music epitomises the sort of activity that primarily concerns processes in the right hemisphere.

Drawing the duck-rabbit image engages both these types of cognitive processes associated with their respective hemispheres. And the act of drawing quite generally requires grasping the image holistically, through processes mainly located in the right side of the brain, and seeing it not as this or that thing but as an image simpliciter. It is being able to see things in this way, coming to know it by acquaintance, that makes room for what Kant calls free play. Drawing the sky, for example, requires looking at what we see before us in a conceptually unmediated fashion rather than seeing the sky as clouded, i.e., simply putting it under a concept and going no further in our thinking.  The right hemisphere where such visual thinking primarily occurs is, as McGilchrist observes, the centre of our emotional responses to experiences.[7] A successful drawing, therefore, engages both the artist and the viewer above all on an emotional level, or what is often described as in a spiritual manner, that is, in a way that is ineffable.

This spiritual dimension to drawing relates back to the Chauvet cave drawings. In Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams Geneste remarks on how different the Aurignacian people’s worldview was from our own. As they saw it one thing could turn into another, e.g., a person might transform into a lion – a slant on reality famously echoed by classical Greek and Roman mythology, as recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses for example. For these animistic people the world was less material than spiritual. This way of seeing things lends itself to imaginative interpretations of the visual world more readily than it does for us, steeped in our materialist scientific worldview, thereby enabling them to exploit the inherent creative power of drawing more easily.  We clearly live in a far more conceptually cluttered world than the Aurignacian people and are therefore more inclined to see the world under concepts – to think of the world factually rather than holistically, i.e., in more spirtual terms. But still we naturally apprehend the world in both ways and as such drawing plays an important role in our understanding the world as a whole.

Above, we have come to see that drawing is the most rudimentary method of thinking visually, and in this respect it is elemental. It is not one of many competing ways of expressing ourselves visually, as I had suggested originally. Rather, drawing is best understood as a fundamental way of thinking which is expanded by technologies such as photography and digital illustration programs. And it is for this reason that drawing is as relevant and fresh today as it has been since its development all those years ago.

copyright hughalcock 2016

[1] Communicated by Geneste in Werner Herzog’s film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2011

[2] Time Out: London, 2012, ‹http://www.timeout.com/london/feature/2155/interview-david-hockney›.

[3] Countryfile, BBC One, UK, originally broadcast 8th Jan 2012.

[4] Idealism in this philosophical sense is the view that reality is at least in part constructed by us, i.e., is mind dependent.

[5] See Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, A192-3/B237-8.

[6] See McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2009 (especially chapters 2 & 3).

[7] See McGilchrist, p. 59.


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