Drawing is not only – as we know – the basis and beginning of all art, architecture and design, but has an even more fundamental actuality, in the definition of what it is to be human. I imply no limitation in this respect – beyond that of their own constraints – to those forms of art that work with objects and events, or that take advantage of the plethora of new technologies available to the creative exercise of the imagination. Neither am I referring to academic drawing – a form of drawing that was developed from the direct study of the antique cast or the living model, whose practice was seen for centuries as a necessary discipline in the proper training of artists. Rather, I want to indicate drawing as one among a number of expressive and communicative activities by means of which humankind has, from its beginnings, registered presence on the earth through the practice of art. These include dance, which formalised gesture, and song, which formalised speech and led to poetry and music.

Drawing began when the first humanoid drew a line with his finger in the soft earth or indented a shape in the sand, or left an imprint in ash of four fingers and a thumb on a cave wall: a mark or a shape was created that had potential meanings of various kinds for other human beings. At that moment homo erectus became homo sapiens. This made possible not only the communication of instrumental information – ‘good hunting that way’/‘water can be found here’ – but also the expression of something about the wonder of actually ‘being-in-the-world’. Heidegger’s compound phrase, with its emphasis on the verb, seems indispensable to our definition of homo sapiens, ‘man who knows’. Awareness of a continuous separable being is the beginning of knowledge; drawing is a primal act of social – i.e. human – awareness. Drawing is a primary way of knowing.

In his essay Use and Sign, the Anglo-Welsh artist-poet, David Jones, himself a beautiful draughtsman, draws a neat and illuminating distinction between Roman militaristics and Latin poetics: ‘At the outset we are concerned to note that the animal we call man is a creature which, from its earliest known beginnings, has consistently shown a duality of behaviour. We feel justified in calling the creature man not only the supreme utilist but the only sacramentalist. The ‘legion’s ordered line’, a thing of total practicality and devastating utility, ordained towards an end as obvious as are the tactics of a beast of prey, confronts us in history along with the ordered line of the hexameter, a thing wholly extra-utile and explicable only as a sign’. We may add that from the beginning the drawn line might act in either capacity.

So we may say that if art is a kind of non-utile play, then homo sapiens is further to be identified with homo ludens. Knowledge and wisdom begin in play, as with language. No less than natural language, which it accompanied into the making of humankind, drawing is crucial to the human project. In the history of all cultures it has been as indispensable to technological mastery as to imaginative understanding of the world. In the visual arts of peoples across the world it has occupied a privileged place, valued as the essential underpinning of other kinds of decorative or pictorial work.

So universal and ubiquitous an art we take for granted. And yet every individual, within every generation and within every culture, must begin again at the beginning. In this, also, drawing is like language: what is inherited as potential must be assimilated into action and developed within the praxis of individual being. How many say ‘I can’t draw’? It would be as true to say ‘I can’t speak’! ‘Drawing,’ wrote the great American sculptor, David Smith, ‘is the most direct, closest to the true self, the most natural celebration of man … it may have been the first celebration of man with his secret self – even before song’. Every human being, to paraphrase Josef Beuys, is a draughtsman. ‘When [Van Gogh] is described as self-taught,’ remarks David Hockney, ‘you have to remember that every person is mostly self-taught about drawing. There is no absolute way to teach it.’

Artists take upon themselves the special responsibility not only of relearning the nature of drawing but of consciously extending its possibilities of expression. Hockney, himself a fine draughtsman, is amazed by Vincent’s ‘sheer graphic invention: the way he made marks, how many different ones there were. He is constantly looking at things, then finding new shorthand ways to suggest them’. For the artist whose impulses are experimental, for whom art is a form of research, drawing becomes a mode of investigation; for all artists it is a means to invention and discovery, an exercise of the creative imagination. ‘For me,’ writes Bridget Riley, ‘drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know … 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.’

Drawing, complicit with the act of looking, informs the eye’s perception, reflects the world into the seeing mind; drawing, complicit with the act of thinking, informs the mind’s conception, refracts the thought into the comprehending world.

Drawing itself is a way of discovering thought. The artist-draughtsman translates what is, in a sense, invisible, that is, not yet seen or known in a certain aspect, and, as marks on a given support – a wall, a piece of paper – renders it actual and visible. Objects in the world of three-dimensional space and light, having a certain colour and form, are reduced to the physical actuality of line, mark and colour on the two-dimensional plane; ideas and projections may similarly find themselves translated from thought into sketch, diagram or visible configuration. Drawing is the making of a sign, a symbol or an imitation in objective form, and no small part of the excitement of drawing, for both draughtsman and spectator, is the magical reduction of visual and mental experience to a sign or symbol which is itself a physical object. We may observe excitement at this objective transformation in children when they draw.

Drawing, then, is a creative technology: by the action of a tool on a material support a new image/object is created: something comes into existence that was not there before, the world is actually changed, and with it our vision of the world is changed. ‘The world is everything that is the case’ wrote Wittgenstein: with every drawing the case is altered! New technologies – being extensions of human functions – create new possibilities of invention, new constructions, new kinds of information, new kinds of mediation and cultural exchange. New technologies grow out of old; drawing accompanies every advance. Every drawing is a proposition of what it is possible to know.

Technologies persist and develop, and drawing is among the oldest. Together with language, it remains the most invaluable. When we look at the cave drawings of Lascaux and Altamira we are looking, actually, at the products of an advanced technology, for human beings had drawn meaningful marks for millennia before then. And when we look at the drawings of Beuys – which look very much like those prehistoric ones in the caves; such similar earth pigments, such similar freedom of line, mark and smudge – we are reminded as to why that ancient technology is still so necessary.

For in the last analysis David Jones’s dichotomy collapses: what is (in his term) sacramental – imaginative non-utile play, the activity of homo ludens/homo sacramentalis – is essential to our identity and thus to our survival as a species: it is indispensably useful. In his obsession with survival, Beuys is a representative modern artist. He recognised (as did artists as different as Malevich, Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Klee, Schwitters and Warhol) that the technologies of art, no less than those of science, mechanics and design, are survival mechanisms, means to knowledge; they are aspects of necessary development and adaptation.

There is nothing made in our world that is not drawn first, and nothing understood without the attention of drawing being at some point paid to it. Drawing is essential to design and science as well as art. Art is a strategy for survival, among others: that is what Beuys sought to remind us by making a myth of his own survival. Skills develop as a response to needs: drawing and language – art and speech – alike are definitive human activities; ways of acting – forms of behaviour – necessary to being.

Adapted from a text to be published in ‘Imagination Rules: How to stop worrying and learn to love modern art’ (Redstone Press, London and Shambhala Publications, Boston, in 2011). David Jones’s ‘Use and Sign’ was published in ‘The Dying Gaul and Other Writings’ (Faber and Faber, London, 1978). David Hockney is quoted from an article in RA Magazine No.106, Spring, 2010; Bridget Riley from ‘At the End of My Pencil’ in London Review of Books, 8 October 2009.

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