The Evolution of Drawing
What we see when we look at drawings from prehistory to contemporary times is the desire to communicate, to have language, to help us understand the world around us, leave our mark for future generations, record our time, culture, or our personal view of the world. Drawing is the first written language of man, and to this day it is still one of the most powerful ways in which we communicate.
It is amazing to think of primitive man using burnt wood (charcoal) in caves, drawing on walls to record their existence and lives. Why? Why is this desire to record our lives part of human DNA? One thought is that we aren't able to come to grips with our mortality and, thus, we try to extend our existence into the future. The other thought is that we have the ability to think visually, and act upon that ability.
30,000 BC - Cave Paintings
If we look at history's great artists, scientists, and inventors, we begin to see technology applied to the art of drawing. Da Vinci used the high-tech state of the art technology known as camera obscura. He created wonderful detailed drawings of the human body using this process. The process is simple. You have a dark room with a pinhole in the wall and on the other side of the wall is a light room. If you stand a model in the lit room, it will be projected on the far wall of the dark room upside down. You can then simply, or in the case of Da Vinci exquisitely, draw the form that is being projected. David Hockney has written a wonderful book on the topic, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.
Picasso created drawings with light in mid-air. This is fascinating to look at as you realize that he had only body movement to rely on to complete the drawing. As he created the lines with light, they disappeared as quickly as he moved along the contour. If not for the camera recording the event, we would not see the completed drawing, nor could he. To create this beautiful drawing, he had to rely on his long experience in creating art and his mind's eye. If we remove the camera from the process is there still a drawing?
It is equally amazing to think of the artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1957 requesting and getting permission from Willem de Kooning to erase one of his drawings. What motivated Rauschenberg? What motivated de Kooning? Was it the desire to sensationalize a place in art history or was it to explore the drawing process? I believe it was the latter. Rauschenberg had already erased many of his own drawings, and he expanded the process to erasing a masterwork. For me, this speaks to the process rather than the end results more than any other event in drawing history.
The artist Sol LeWitt evolves drawing to a very different process. He creates his ideas for a drawing by writing detailed instructions and small diagrams for others to execute massive wall drawings. (A draw-by-numbers kit if you would.) He then gets a crew of artists, mainly art students, to execute his plans to the full-scale drawings he intended. You need to see these drawings in person to appreciate how beautiful they are.
Take a close look at Chuck Close’s Stamp Pad Drawing. This drawing was done with a stamp and ink pad. What intrigues me about this drawing is how he must have increased and decreased the ink on the pad to achieve an appropriate tonal range. What Close really understands is the contrast and subtlety needed in values to create a detailed form.
Finally let's take a look at David Hockney’s latest computer drawing. What I find interesting with Hockney’s use of the computer, as a drawing tool, is that it is clearly his work. What I mean by that is, if you did not know that it was created with a computer and you just viewed it as a piece of art, you would still recognize it as a drawing by David Hockney. His aesthetic, subject, and creativity are first and foremost in the work. This would be true if he worked with charcoal, lipstick, mud, light, or a potato in tomato sauce.
In looking at this brief collection of artists who created experimental drawings, we can see that experimental drawings have been around from the beginning of mankind. That first cave dweller experimented with burnt wood on stone and now we do experimental drawing with computers.