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What is drawing?
(San Francisco Studio School, July 26, 2007)

I was asked to discuss the importance of drawing to the visual artist's practice.

But what is drawing?

I usually have answered that a drawing simply is a work on paper that is not a print or some other mediated image. So I have mostly defined drawing by the media alone.

When asked what I do as an artist, I always say that I make paintings, drawings, and prints, as well as other visual interventions (trying to refer also to my work in performance and film as well.)

But really the media does not define what drawing is. Drawing is the core, the lifeblood, the force, at the center of what I understand as art making in the visual realm.

So what is this 'drawing'? Drawing is, as I said, the life force that flows out of our very bodies and organizes whatever visual manifestations we realize. At the core of painting is drawing. And the same is true for sculpture. And for whatever it is worth, it also true for printmaking and photography in addition to the list of other medias where art works are created.

So then what is good drawing? Good drawing is being able to articulate, being able to be clear, intentional, and true.

But what do I mean by 'true'? What I mean is being able to be a clear channel: to be able to bring through the full impulse of being or of the universe, either one or both. Really the two can never be separated.

I will risk the statement that most artists today do not learn to draw, or should I say, to draw well? Learning to draw takes time. And I believe most young artists these days are not taking the time. I think they do not because there are available to them so many easy ways to lay down images without drawing.

What is wrong with this? I would only say that this kind of image making lacks the qualities I stated above: articulateness, intention, and the clear channel that we value in all great art.

At this point I do not want you to get me wrong. I do not consider being able to render the figure (for example) in a classical 19th Century mode necessarily an example of good quality drawing. Learning to draw in the older traditions may or may not lead to good quality drawing. There is, I would argue, no one path leading to quality. And I would even argue that hard or long effort does not necessarily lead to quality. I would argue that the qualities of sincerity and integrity are essential. One artist may find a short path to 'good' drawing and another may have a very long route. That is just the way it is.

I also want to be clear that I am not talking about talent when I speak of quality. Some people have the 'talent' of rendering forms or likenesses in a way that others 'recognize' and may call 'good'. But this is not quality drawing. Talent is a God given gift. It could be for rendering likenesses or for handling materials or for composing for example, but this is not what defines good drawing. A gift can serve the artist in his/her pursuit, or it can be an obstruction. The qualities that I mentioned of sincerity, integrity, as well as intelligence, will determine along with experience the quality of what an artist does.

And so there is the 'practice' of drawing. What is the practice? It is the every day use of drawing. It can be literally putting pencil to paper each day. Or it can be doing something else discerning or discrimating. Also some people need to practice more than others. That is just the way it is. But I would say that the practice of drawing is essential to the art making process.

I use drawing in part to do what I call attunement. I do not make paintings from drawings. In my creative process I work in phases. I like to compare these phases to waves or seasons. I like the image of ebb and flow or of the cycles of the year or of the moon to illustrate what I mean. I will have periods when I am very active and productive followed by periods when I am more reflective and inward. I produce bodies of work in this manner. When I am in a productive period, I will draw in the earlier stages, and by drawing I mean working on paper. I like to say that my drawing leads me. I draw each day, and with it I explore. My drawing guides me.

So what is this drawing I am talking about? I do literally mean working on paper. These drawings are, as I said, attunement. They tune me, focus me, and help me see. This process will lead me to working on canvas in oil paint, another process I love and aspire to. When I paint, I am simply extending the process I was following into another media (drawing). Since I do not make paintings from drawings, the paintings flow from the drawing process. That is all that changes. And so I am still drawing but in a different media. The distinction of media is not that great. Furthermore you will see that many of my drawings on paper are with ink with brush. When I paint, I am drawing. When I am drawing, I am painting.

My prints come last as the wave's energy begins to spread. Printmaking is a more extended process for me as the energy begins to wind down and is calmer, more considered and reflective. Drawing is still at the core of the prints though. Technicalities simply take over in a more extended fashion. I could talk about printmaking in more detail at another time if you like.

Often people say that my prints look like drawings. And also people have said that my paintings look like drawings, that they are not paintings, but drawings in oil. To that I always can point to many of the great painters I admire. I love the great Japanese painter Sesshu's work, not to mention many of the greats from the recent past: Matisse, Pollock, for example. My admiration for these artists is not on the basis of what media or category they fall into. It is on the quality alone of their works: i.e.: their articulateness (clarity), their intentionality (strength), their truth (vision and authenticity). These are then qualities of good drawing.

We do not need to have strict definitions of Art by media.

I want to hasten to say that I love drawings. And so we are back to the definition of drawing by media.. Yes, a drawing is a thing on paper. Do I care if it is a 'study' or a 'sketch'? No. I care if I experience a thing of beauty, if it moves me, if it is expressive of the sublime, the profound, and so forth.

Both one mark on a paper or a very labored textured work can do just that. What matters is THAT the experience happens to me, not how it happens. Drawing, as I said, is the life's blood of art making. It is at the core. And this is the reason for studying drawing. Drawing is inextricably tied to meaning. An artist should never be drawing by rote. The artist should always be searching, inquiring, questioning as she/he draws. This is what is interesting about drawing and why it should be at the core of every visual art practice from the student to the most experienced artist.

The product and process of drawing cannot be separated. And drawing, like Art itself, knows no limit.


Post script: Can drawing be taught?
Yes and no.
Drawing is not a skill.
But can drawing be taught?
By pointing the way. Even perhaps by pointing a finger.
Drawing cannot be taught.
Drawing is ineffable (like Art itself).

Whenever you think you know how to draw, you are wrong. It eludes you. (And yet you know what good drawing is, and you can point to it.)


Post script: what about color?
Color is the heart of the matter.
Black and white ARE colors.


Post script: What is painting?
Painting is the mystery.


Post script: Do I think that drawings are always any less great works of art that paintings, or for that matter, sculptures, or prints, photographs, or other works in other media like film or performance?