Sunday, May 5, 2013

What is drawing?

Today I went looking for a definition of drawing on the internet. I knew deep down that it was a futile task: there is no satisfactory definition of drawing, and no two people have the same idea of what it is. I have my own idea but will save it for later.

Here are some of the definitions I found:

Wikipedia: "Drawing is a form of visual art that makes use of any number of drawing instruments to mark a two-dimensional medium."
[Too vague for me and needs a definition of "drawing instrument"], Marion Boddy-Evans: "In a narrow definition of the term, a drawing is an artwork created from lines or areas of tone created with a dry medium on a piece of paper. For example, graphite pencil, charcoal, colored pencil, pastel, or silverpoint. In a broader definition of the term, a drawing is a two-dimensional artwork created from lines or tone that is dominated by a dry medium but can include wet mediums such as ink, and washes of paint."
[The definition implies that drawing is a function of the medium used which I don't agree with but that's just me]

Merriam-Webster: the art or technique of representing an object or outlining a figure, plan, or sketch by means of lines
[Drawing is not only a linear medium, tone is an important part of it as in the drawing by Piranesi below]

Piranesi, Helmets, dagger, quivers, poker,  signs from the pedestal of the column of Trajan, 1756

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:
"Art or technique of producing images on a surface, usually paper, by means of marks in graphite, ink, chalk, charcoal, or crayon. It is often a preliminary stage to work in other media." (from
[Again, this implies that drawing is a function of the medium used]  to create a picture by making lines with a pen or pencil
[As above] produce (a picture or diagram) by making lines and marks, especially with a pen or pencil, on paper:
[ditto] a graphic representation by lines of an object or idea, as with a pencil; a delineation of form without reference to color; a sketch, plan, or design, especially one made with pen, pencil,or crayon.
[ditto] The art of representing objects or forms on a surface chiefly by means of lines.

And finally the Google definition:


A picture or diagram made with a pencil, pen, or crayon rather than paint, esp. one drawn in monochrome.
The art or skill or making such pictures or diagrams.
design - draft - sketch - picture - draught

By this time I was getting the picture. In fact I'm beginning to think that there is no such entity as drawing after all, or that the word has lost its meaning in the 21st century; or at the very least, that it's not useful to separate drawing from painting. However I do feel that there's a thing which artists do, me included, for which it would be useful to have a word. That's where my idea of drawing comes in: I think of drawing as the art of representing three dimensions, usually but not always on a two-dimensional surface. That's the essence of drawing. The medium and surface are immaterial. The  greater the skill, the more convincing the three-dimensional effect will be. But this is only my personal understanding/definition of drawing, it's of no relevance otherwise.

Prehistoric drawings in Lascaux caves
Piranesi, interior view of the Parthenon commonly known as the Rotunda

It was a relief therefore to leave definitions behind and read the following. I love how this is put and the rest of the article is equally good.

"Ancient and timeless, the practice of drawing cuts across all art disciplines and has a broad and crucial role to play. It exists outside the constraints of fashion and art history, making startling links between the past and the present and reminding us of the continuity in our common humanity. Drawings from the past can look surprisingly modern because, technically and conceptually, we recognize in them qualities that are respected in our own time: spontaneity and simplicity, directness, rawness and expressiveness."
Anne Howeson at;/

[And three dimensions].

Some more links:

TRACEY: What is drawing for?

Some more drawings:

Giacomo Quarenghi, Design of a triumphal arch, 1814

Hokusai, Cranes from "Quick lessons in simplified drawing", 1823.
The minimal marks show the orientation of the birds in space. Not as easy as it looks.

Egon Schiele, View from the Drawing Classroom, 1905

MC Escher, Hands, 1948


My website, my eBay


Casey Klahn said...

I once saw a pretty good definition of drawing, as much as it is possible to define it, here.

Mary Adam said...

ha ha Casey, if only Merriam-Webster et al were as sensible as you! :) Interestingly, soon after posting yesterday I found a recent academic paper by Howard Riley which among other things recognizes the three-dimensional aspect of drawing -- here --
Best regards

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Mary. For me, drawing is one of those frustrating skills like playing the piano as it needs such co-ordination between hand, eye and brain. I've found I can improve with practice though.

I really like that definition from Anne Howeson and how it draws that link between past and present.

Mary Adam said...

It's funny, Catherine, when I started the post it was about learning to draw, not a definition of drawing as such which I know is fraught from past discussions. But somehow there seemed less and less point in thinking about learning to draw unless one had an idea what drawing is. The dictionaries were not helpful, I soon found out. I'm not sure what that's about. Debates about the nature of drawing tend to end badly -- it's really amazing, drawing is such an inoffensive, apolitical sort of thing, I would have thought. Or perhaps not?