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Art & artists

Drawing as a language

— October 2012

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Charles Avery, Untitled (The Port at Onomatopoeia)

Drawing Projects. An Exploration of the Language of Drawing

Mick Maslen and Jack Southern

Drawing Projects is aptly sub-titled  An Exploration of the Language of Drawing. Good art teaching and theorizing depends on effective verbal and visual communication and drawing. This is essentially visual thinking, possessing both a language of graphic marks and a terminology which explains drawing. The terminology – line, mark, tone, space, and so on – is not especially difficult to learn and it facilitates skill development when the terms are applied to discussion of studio exercises, experiments and projects. 

Problems emerge when teaching environments are prescriptive and formulaic, making drawing serve anticipated results all too often related to imitating the world of appearances.  This is the area where the market for how to draw portraits, trees or family pets operates, but mercifully this is not where Mick Maslen and Jack Southern direct their efforts.

The authors are experienced teacher-practitioners who have found a balance between theorizing drawing and developing projects that explore graphic creativity.  The book has an interesting origin.  The Guardian and Observer newspapers have a fine reputation for the small guides they produce periodically and the guide to Drawing (September 2009) contained contributions from Maslen and Southern.  They developed their ideas into workshop projects and, after reflecting on them and talking with participants and professional contemporary artists, they shaped a diverse body of evidence into an accessible, insightful and well-illustrated publication. It is hands-on but never simplistic in the articulation of drawing concepts.

Having been marginalized in art institutions in the late 20th-century, drawing re-emerged as a central concern of art courses after freeing itself from a narrow definition related to imitating appearances.  It is once again acknowledged, as it was in the Renaissance, as both process and product, a means of rendering concepts in visual language, developing studies and building knowledge that may find articulation in other two- and three-dimensional forms or may result in drawings as autonomous works of art. Drawing establishes a dialogue with all art and design practices, as well as serving disciplines such as science, engineering and medicine. 

Much serious research on drawing history and theory has been published in recent years but Drawing Projects does not compete with The Primacy of Drawing (Deanna Petherbridge 2010), Drawing Now (Laura Hoptman 2002), or The Drawing Book (ed. Tania Kovats 2007). Its objectives are essentially practical. It follows a similar design to The Drawing Book, also published by Black Dog Publishing, and is generously spaced and comprehensively illustrated with studio shots, works by a few relevant historical drawers such as Leonardo and Van Gogh, as well as many examples by the contemporary artists who contribute conversations (the authors prefer this term to ‘interviews’).  In essence, the book takes up the challenge of revitalizing the drawing manual, important in institutions of the past, and argues that the language of drawing is anything but restrictive and is, indeed, both essential in today’s image-dense popular culture and central to art and design.

There are several irritating lapses. The text quotes some shrewd and perceptive comments by artists, designers and writers, so why are the sources not cited? Few readers will bother to google Bruce Mau to discover that the Canadian designer’s pithy remark on problem solving, ‘The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question’, is located in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth (1998). While academics probably know who Cornelia Parker is and the public has heard about the controversies generated by Jake and Dinos Chapman, many readers will not know the artists whose discussions and work make important contributions to the book.  Short biographies would have been useful.  So too would a more comprehensive glossary, especially give the title of the book and its emphasis on language.

What emerges powerfully in Drawing Projects is the enthusiasm of Maslen and Southern for teaching and for drawing as a meaningful activity which seldom fails to deliver insights into the behaviour of the eye-hand-mind.  The process of drawing also yields the things we call ‘drawings’. The projects tested in workshops and now offered to readers suggest ways of creating new expressive forms. An exercise based on touch (drawing is not merely the product of vision) or the use of two pencils bound together enhances concentration but introduces an element of chance. The results of the workshops, documented in illustrations, and the range of media, subjects and mark-making of the contemporary artists whose work is reproduced should do much to convince novice drawers that anyone can draw, while also challenging art students and teachers to extend their relationships with drawing.

Drawing is a visual language and like all languages its expressive vocabulary develops, changes and acquires new meanings.  It is a serious and personalized process of enquiry relevant to many professional activities but perhaps, despite its manifold applications, its most primary function is that it contributes to human development and social communication while offering fulfilling experiences.

Drawing Projects. An Exploration of the Language of Drawing by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern is published by Black Dog Publishing 2011. 240 pp.,  340 colour and mono illus.ISBN 978 1 907317 25 5


Marion Arnold
Loughborough University
Art historian and artist
Loughborough University publishes Tracey, an electronic journal dedicated to the presentation of drawing and discussion of drawing practice

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