Being invited to join a drawing workshop usually elicits one of two reactions. Either enthusiasm because the person likes to draw or they think the idea sounds interesting or different. The other response is to dismiss the idea completely.
This reaction seems to be prompted by two main preconceptions about drawing. The first is that it is arty or simplistic, a bit of fun so would have no relevance to other more serious research activities.
The other preconception seems to stem surprisingly from fear. ‘But I can’t draw’ or ‘I haven’t drawn for years’ come the plaintiff explanations for foregoing the chance to partake in any workshops. The fear of being seen to be unaccomplished at the seemingly simple yet daunting task of drawing has caused a surprising lack of takers to participate in the project. Yet the response to outcomes, to evidence of the activity of drawing offering a valid method of investigation, and to the activity itself once a person engages in the process is encouragingly positive.
So what is going wrong?
I think the answer is the ‘D’ word, as in the word ‘drawing.’ Drawing is both an outcome and an activity. It is probably most common upon hearing the word drawing to think of it as describing an accomplished object consisting of an artistic convergence of lines, marks and shapes that form something visual on a surface which can be recognized in some way as being what one thinks of in general terms as a drawing.
This ‘drawing’ is a noun. Perhaps less considered is the use of the word ‘drawing’ as a verb, the doing word, drawing as an action, an activity something to participate in. If the first definition, the noun, is the more prominent and the one that sticks in the mind of someone invited to participate, then the expectations that are associated with this noun come into play. These expectations of the outcome of drawing can be unrealistically huge. They tend to start with Leonardo da Vinci and work their way down.
So it seems that when I think I am asking someone to join in a drawing workshop, they think I am saying ‘come and try and draw like Leonardo da Vinci in front of your peers.’ I see the problem.
The workshops focus on drawing as a phenomenological activity. By this, I mean that the activity, the act of looking and drawing as you look at an object, forces you to engage more fully with the object. This takes time and means a relationship has to develop between the viewer and the object. The time allows more attention to be spent looking and drawing. More detail is observed, more things specific to the object become noticed and the experience becomes richer and more personal. Understanding of the object, as an object grows and by ‘drawing your way into understanding’ the encounter, new insights can be achieved. The object is experienced and understood more fully through the activity of drawing it.
But this whole process is a practical and tacit methodology. The skill of looking and ‘touching’ the object or ‘seeing’ it through the tip of the pencil is not always easy. It is one that is best explained by doing. It is a kinaesthetic activity where the information and knowledge gained comes through doing rather than from instruction. In this way, the act of drawing allows someone to participate in actively gaining their own information for themselves rather than passively receive information via information panels or verbal instruction etc.
Spending time drawing a closely observed object is not a hugely complicated idea. It is actually a very simple notion. To begin at the beginning, with the actual object before you and just look and record and interpret your experience of this as it occurs by drawing, is a very humble action. Yet it is one that is often overlooked. Maybe because it is so basic an idea it can be seen as less important than other methods. Technology moves forward and the type of images we are now able to produce through scientific imaging are incredible. But these are not images we as individuals can make. They require training, understanding of equipment, experience knowing how to decipher the shapes and colours created to formulate clear data. We can all however, look at something and make marks on a page with a pencil at the same time. The traditional technology of hand/eye coordination and observational skill combined with the action of moving a pencil across a surface is one that is sometimes seen as being too old fashioned, too boring and simple to warrant consideration. Yet when it is suggested, there is something about the process that causes some people to become anxious and back away.
The outcomes of the activity may vary depending on skill and practice but the phenomenological activity of drawing can offer a valid way for a viewer to engage with, investigate and gain insight into an object in a different way. If the ‘D’ word must be avoided, what can replace it? How can the activity of drawing be explained in terms of a practical valid alternative method for investigating and engaging with objects?