C l  i v e   P o w s e y /  D r a w / P r i n t / P a i n t


(posted on 2 Aug 2023)

A case for drawing vs. making marks

I hope to make a series of posts about drawing, and why I think it is as valuable as many other disciplines, As mentioned somewhere on this site I was never a full time art instructor, but I took my greatest pleasure in teaching when I was sharing what I knew and thought I'd discovered about observational drawing. It was the teaching of the very basics of drawing that I enjoyed most. If drawing were a universe, the very first fractional moments of one's lifetime spent drawing, the Planck Epoch as it were, the very beginning, would be most interesting and energetic, as is allegedly the case with our real universe. I almost envied my students for their 'beginner minds', and working along with them brought back my own beginner mind and the wonder of drawing. For me, everything learned in those first few 'moments' (ie. classes) of pursuing an artistic vision seems to simply scale up. It often seems to me there is no such thing as an 'advanced drawing' class. Advanced drawing is simply taking basic skills of observation, comprehension and dexterity and applying them in a more complex and/or skillful manner.

I make my case for drawing because I studied and then worked at a time when taking the time, thousands upon thousands of hours, to learn how to draw...how to look...how to describe form...was expected of a visual artist. I'm making my case for learning how to draw because I learned how to draw very well, through instruction, practice and years of work. I became a 'delineator of rare skill' as far as the general population is concerned, as did most or many of the artists of my era. Lots of occupations require rare skills, and it seemed and still seems appropriate to me that the occupation of visual artist might require a foundational rare skill and that drawing could provide this. This might be similar to how the skill of solving and producing mathematical problems would be fundamental to the occupation of a physicist even if even if they were to use computational machines.

I draw, so I appreciate and have great respect for drawing. If you don't draw, you can't fully appreciate drawing or have the same kind of respect for it that I, or someone who also knows how to draw well, does. Most of the many contemporary artists/instructors, who suggest that you 'don't need to know how to draw to be an artist', or diminish drawing's value, don't actually know how to draw. This makes sense, in the same way that it makes sense that someone who actually draws well would consider drawing essential to being a visual artist. Both extremes are justifying opportunities provided and choices made to end up either learning to draw, or not learning to draw. In this post, at a deep level, I am justifying the opportunities I was provided and the choices I made that resulted in my learning to draw well. 

I'm trying, above, to acknowledge and inform you of my bias for drawing (because I draw) but also identify the bias of those 'against' drawing. If you are already biased against drawing being an important skill you'll find what I have to say disagreeable or banal. If you do draw well you'll appreciate much of what I struggle to express in this post. If you are sitting on the fence you will have to make a decision about the viability of the contents of this post compared to what detractors of drawing  might suggest. It is important for you to know that the contemporary art world, much like contemporary work places, has become 'de-skilled', that is, recognition and emphasis is now being placed on intellectual knowledge not skills-based knowledge. Perhaps a way of describing this is that it is more important to know how something is done than to actually do it. This often means describing what is being done in words, explaining it, a facility that is emphasized in an academic education. So, if you take the enormous amount of time required to learn how to draw well it will not generally be appreciated or even recognized in the contemporary visual arts, certainly not to the same extent as holding a degree, or better still a post graduate degree in visual art. Strategically, as an artist today, you would do better to not concentrate the enormous amounts of time and energy required to learn how to draw well. I find this distressing and perplexing. Generally, in the contemporary art world, skills like drawing aren't just de-emphasized, they are usually considered menial and quaint at best, and held in derisive contempt at worst.

Referring to drawing as 'mark-making' is a signal of how drawing might have been degraded by the ideology of contemporary art. You could not invent a better term for diminishing the value of drawing. Mark-making might be anything from producing stains on your underwear by shitting yourself to inadvertently leaving blood stains on the carpet in your living room whilst dragging a dead body across it. Why has contemporary art adopted this vague and useless term to describe drawing and painting? Of course, I don't really know, but the fact is anyone can make a mark. But not everyone can draw well. I believe the primary function of this term is to highlight the notion that a vector/curve/line produced by someone with a hard won ability to draw has at best the same value as a scrawl by a non-drawer. As such the term it is utterly demeaning of drawing.

The recurring interest in the alleged genius and creativity of children and naive artists also plays into this notion. Piaget has shown that children's drawing progresses more or less from scribbles, to circular forms, to cephalapodic heads sprouting stick arms then torsos and over the years gradually refine form and complexity. The progress of drawing skills is so similar and predictable that Piaget was able to make estimates of the maturity and age of drawers, at least up until around 10 when most children stop drawing, when, in order to improve further they must deal with three quarter views of their subjects, perspective, and foreshortening. Children's drawing is fascinating, and I'm always interested in their descriptions of form. But it really shouldn't be take seriously as art, regardless of what doting parents think.

Learning to actually draw, vs. making marks, is not easy. Learning how to be an artist should not be easy. Too many people today, coming to art as a kind of self actualizing hobby, later in life particularly, think that they should be able to pick up a stylus or a brush and just let creativity gush out without any kind of apprenticeship or practice. They presume visual art skills, as 'mark-making' suggests, are something that anybody can apply. They take themselves far too seriously for their actual ability. This attitude to visual skill is further facilitated by the notion that what is the most discriminating attribute for a contemporary artist is their academic qualifications. Since anyone can make art it's the academically qualified who are the only ones whose drawing or visual art is significant art, and this is generally justified in the back story of their education revealed in both their credentials and also in signals, 'code words', found in written explanations for that art. These code words might be words like 'informed', 'trans/multi/interdisciplinary', 'research', 'practice', 'intesectionality'. There is also signalling in the content and subject of graduates work that is often based on fashionable and in-vogue social commentary and engineering. These subjects and signals are at the center of a university art education and become a way for graduates to signal to each other and technocrats of their value and worthiness as contemporary artists.

Drawing skill seems a low value signal in today's art world, and I'm neither comfortable or enthusiastic about this perplexing reality. This doesn't mean I think academic, contemporary, ideas-based approaches are without interest or value. I just think the hegemony of academia and word-forward thinking is myopic and misguided for not appreciably recognizing and equally valuing the non academic image-forward thinking, exhibited in skills such as drawing, by working visual artists.

I have experienced personally and intimately how the powers of drawing skills can effect perception, vision, and understanding of the world and can be just as capable of generating ideas as the domain of language.