Work > Writing

Why Draw?
By Tim Parsley

Recently a woman who was looking at one of my drawn portraits turned to me and asked incredulously, “How do you draw a nose?” Not sure whether or not her question was rhetorical, I simply smiled in response. She persisted: “No, really. How do you draw a nose?” I realized she was serious – she really wanted me to tell her, then and there, how to draw a human nose! The problem was, I didn’t know how to answer her. And I teach people how to draw! Noses even!

I believe part of the problem I had answering her came from the nature of her question: It was too independently and suddenly specific. By this I mean that it came from a conception of drawing that is more or less divorced from what drawing actually is. Revealed by her incredulity is the romantic notion that artists are magicians and that what we do is comprised of a series of up-the-sleeve secret tricks that are good for wowing audiences, but when revealed, de-mystify the moment with their pragmatic simplicity (“Oh, now I see how it’s done.”) Inherent in this conception about drawing is the idea that in order to draw something, “First you do this, then this, then this… add a little of this… and voila! you have a nose!” I’m sure Bob Ross is to blame.

How to explain what drawing is all about? How to convey that drawing is more than just the accumulation of a set of technical skills that add up to the illusion of magic? That it is the result of an entrenched discipline of searching, discovering, failing, succeeding… through the tip of a pencil? That it is more about the pursuit of drawing a nose than actually drawing it? I think I answered her with a limp, “Well, you just focus on the abstract parts and piece it together…” to which she gave me a flat look in response.
Perhaps the problem with the question about how to draw a nose is its starting point. The question should not be “How do you draw a nose?” but rather, “Why draw a nose?” For people who draw regularly, this is a question we are more at home with – and can answer more fluidly. “Why draw?” gets more at the ongoing, investigative process behind a drawing. It taps into the life of drawing that is the context for specific drawings.
We draw in order to see. To the non-drawer, this is counter-intuitive and seems to place an interfering activity between the eye and the object seen. After all, if the goal is seeing – why not just look? But to draw is to slow our seeing, think about our seeing, and hopefully, over time, understand what we are seeing. John Berger puts it well:

“For the artist drawing is discovery. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true. It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.”

Through this immersion into the act of drawing regularly, of creating drawing after drawing, the artist soon forms a trail of understanding. Just pick up an artist’s sketchbook and walk through the searches, detours, dead ends, and discoveries to see that drawing is a personal journey more than a technical production. Berger confirms, “A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – seen, remembered or imagined.”

It’s true – drawing is discovery, often full of surprises. In fact, many artists talk about drawing as if the drawing itself is doing the leading, showing the artist new possibilities. Philip Guston once described the potential surprise of a drawing that leads the artist beyond merely formulaic technique, and instead is about an immersive, give-and-take relationship with the drawing:

“Let’s say you spend ten, fifteen minutes on this, and as it’s getting going there’s a growing feeling that something’s there, it’s happening, this is it. Your heart starts patting, your face gets a little red. You know it’s getting there. So then you’ll do certain things, coming from knowledge of the strength of the drawing, to make it more this or more that… That’s a good drawing. I didn’t know that was going to happen. And that turns out to be a very structured firm little drawing. Quivering, something quivering through the whole thing.”

For as invigorating as this can be at times, drawing can also be a painful process. It can unearth our artistic weaknesses. At the beginning of a drawing class I warn my students, “Drawing will reveal your weak points as an artist. Trust that this is a good thing.” Canonical advice to the person who draws: You draw a good nose by drawing a thousand bad noses.

“For me, drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know. This is alarming even to the point of momentary panic. Only experience reassures me that this encounter with my own ignorance – with the unknown – is my chosen and particular task, and provided I can make the required effort the rewards may reach the unimaginable. It is as though there is an eye at the end of my pencil, which tries, independently of my personal general-purpose eye, to penetrate a kind of obscuring veil or thickness. To break down this thickness, this deadening opacity, to elicit some particle of clarity or insight, is what I want to do.”

The discipline of drawing is a painfully wonderful practice. Over time, it has the potential to create more than great works of art; it can create great artists. Lashing ourselves to the sheet of paper, through a humble pencil, locates our focus on the transference of visual information between the drawing and that which is being drawn. We become the bridge, reaching across the expanse and bringing back, recording with each stroke what has been seen. Doing this enough times will change you. I am not waxing hyperbolic when I say that drawing is a transformational activity. Navigating the space between the drawing and the thing-which-is-drawn means we form a relationship with both. This cultivates an outer and inner awareness of the world we inhabit. Through drawing, we don’t just notice – we see.

Of course, enough of this seeing, and we might actually create some nice drawings too. But this is not primarily the point of drawing. The point – the why of drawing – is to submit ourselves to the kind of practice that attunes us visually to the world around. As artists we are charged with the responsibility to see things clearly and report back what we have observed. This cannot be done at a glance.

Our drawings, then, are the evidence of our looking. They are the trail left by our journey. Or, as Peter Steinhart puts it in his book, The Undressed Art: Why We Draw:

“It is not the finished drawing that counts. It is the time spent outside oneself, of which the drawing is merely a record, the ticket stub in your pocket after the concert.”

How do you draw a nose? I suppose there are technical answers to this question. After all, noses are drawn – and usually drawn in a certain way.

Why draw a nose? is a more relevant question, however. To see. To understand. To become the kind of artist whose drawings are born out of a life of looking.

(1) Berger, John. Berger on Drawing. Jim Savage (ed.) Occasional Press: Aghabullogue, Co. Cork, Ireland, 2008, p.3.
(2) Guston, Philip. “On Drawing.” Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations. Clark Coolidge (ed.) University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 2011, p. 257.
(3) Riley, Bridget. “At the End of My Pencil.” London Review of Books. Vol. 31 No. 19, October 8, 2009.
(4) Steinhart, Peter. The Undressed Art: Why We Draw. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2004, p. 69.

Why Draw?

Originally published as introduction for
International Drawing Annual 5
(Manifest Press, 2010)