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Outlines: The Beauty of Mark Making

Draw (v.) c. 1200, spelling alteration of Old English dragan “to drag, to draw, protract” (class VI strong verb; past tense drog, past participle dragen), from Proto-Germanic *dragan “to draw, pull” (source also of Old Norse draga “to draw,” Old Saxon dragan, Old Frisian draga, Middle Dutch draghen, Old High German tragen, German tragen “to carry, bear”)


Pablo Picasso Bull lithographs, 1945

There is something so hopelessly intimate about drawings. I love them. I love all of mine and I love everyone else’s, I love the failures as much as I adore the ones that are right. I love them as much as I love people. Both are fragile, impermanent, vulnerable- easily torn, broken, rubbed out or washed away.

Drawings are a time capsule of our individual natures. Following a line across a page can teach us so much; the strength in a hand, the tension in a shoulder perhaps brought about by a stressful day, a heavy bag, an early morning stiffness before the studio has warmed up (the chill wind blowing through the window off an Amsterdam canal).


But what is drawing in its verbal sense? It is the action of gaining the essential qualities from an object. To draw water from a well, to draw a conclusion or to draw up a legal document. All three examples show drawing being used to extract necessity from chaos (interestingly this is only true in the English language, more often the term when referring to art sways closer to design).


In art too, the figurative mark making shows us drawing out the truth of something. Drawing from life allows us to explore and understand what is in front of us. It allows an artist to work through their difficulties. A visceral reminder of a difficult point in time. The anger in a failed attempt at foreshortening like a swear word recorded four hundred years ago. And when drawing from the imagination, we draw out something from our subconscious. Through the act of drawing, we create a reality from something entirely abstract- the image coming directly from the imagined. As a process, drawing forces us to study both the external and the internal with a much deeper focus. Drawing gives us a hypersensitivity in our visual reality. In my opinion, everyone should be drawing. Or at least, everyone should be looking; looking with greater depth and richness.


King’s College London Early Development Study.


The creation of the figurative from the abstract (and visa versa) is surely proof that drawing is freer than language. It is certainly the original form of communication. Humans learn the language of the line before any legible words. Babies scrape fingers through upturned bowls of food, dragging lines through the mess; tiny children scribble down on paper almost illegible depictions of ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’ and ‘house.’


36,000 year old drawings at the Chauvet Cave in the south of France. Photo credit David Huguet

To push this idea further, could we see the language of the line not only as the language we all learn in our earliest development, but in fact, the oldest existing language? Could it be that it is the only ancient language still with practical use in our modern times?

Writing before writing.

These two means of communication, drawing and writing, are inextricably intertwined. We use them both as a way of relaying our personal interpretations, fictions or truths to those around us. Often both are used as a way of extracting something internal, even the very act can make us feel lighter. This ability to displace the three-dimensional onto the two-dimensional is our greatest invention (imagine us, walking deities with pencil in one hand).

And if drawing is the original form of communication, then writing as we now know it is a direct evolution from it. The written word has drawing deep-rooted in its ancestry. How fascinating a family tree. Rothko being related to Shelley, Giovanni Bellini sharing the lineage of a whole shelf of Hemingways. Yes, we read words, but for so long too we have been reading paintings.


Studies for the Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo, c.1510-11, Metropolitan Museum of Art


I was moved to write this when I had my own sketchbook stolen. In the weeks since this event, in an attempt to lighten such a keen loss, I decided to redefine drawing to myself as a process, the importance being the action rather than the end result. It’s like running, you know, we don’t grieve the ground we cover. My own drawings are trash now I’m sure (perhaps they always were), in a landfill somewhere, or, more optimistically, all pulped up and ready for their metamorphosis. From blank page to head spill to recyclable straw? To coffee cup? To new bleached pages of new empty sketchbook? No matter. Remember; drawing is a process. Drawing is an act. Draw always, draw more.

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