(Who cares) What drawing is

(Catalogue essay from Just Draw, Newcastle Regional Gallery and Bathurst Regional Gallery, 2016, by Matilda Michell)

Hand Studies
Hand Studies, 42 x 59 cm, red chalk on paper, 2015

The notion that art cannot be taught has gained such currency in recent times that we are in danger of convincing artists that there is no point in attempting to acquire new skills. The single biggest problem I encounter as a teacher, is that people perceive the deficiencies in their skills as unalterable aspects of their artistic personality or style. This idea is dangerous, as it prevents the student from moving forwards and restricts their capacity to express themselves coherently.

The problem is at its worst in tertiary institutions because of the relatively short time frame between entering the school as a novice and leaving it again three years later as a fully fledged ‘artist’. Art is a slow game and rushing students into weighty conceptual concerns before they’ve mastered the basics can be seriously detrimental to the evolution of their work. The prevalence of the ‘art cannot be taught’ approach has a number of knock on effects that persist well beyond the official study period.

A student goes to art school to learn to draw. The student begins by trying to draw an apple. As is natural, he struggles with simple proportions, accuracy and rendering form convincingly. While he is wrestling with these basics, a tutor comes by and demands to know WHY he is drawing the apple. The tutor questions the student’s approach to drawing and accuses him of irrelevance and failure to contribute anything new to the grand narrative of art. Confused, the student re-evaluates his drawing. It looks amateurish and dull, like a study exercise rather than a work of art.

The tutor encourages the student to draw quickly and without looking at his page. The result is heavy, dark and clumsy but seems confident in its mistakes and is superficially more pleasing than the student’s previous tentative attempts to render the apple. The student becomes preoccupied with style, with HOW he is drawing. He begins to confuse the standard errors arising from his lack of experience with stylistic expression and is praised for it. His ‘style’ becomes one dictated by the limits of his skills and is likely to look very much like that of his classmates.

He has now learnt to think of his drawing as something essentially out of his control, and to rely on gimmicks and tricks to feign a confidence he has not earned and does not understand. The technical skills of drawing come to be thought of as inherited rather than learnt, and so the student makes no attempt to improve his basic skills. On the occasions when he does, the results are disappointing. They look tentative, maybe childish or amateur or clumsy. They look, in fact, like student works.

The student complains frequently of having ‘overworked’ his drawings, not realising that the process of developing the drawing has merely revealed existing deficiencies rather than created them. He strives instead to complete things in a kind of frenzied, ill considered rush. He varies his media often and arbitrarily. Because he has no real control over what he does, he assumes that his emotional state will have an effect on the expression of the drawing. He is now paying very little attention to the drawing itself and concerns himself primarily with his own thoughts and feelings as he draws, assuming they will automatically transmit to the viewer.

Increasingly desperate to show his relevance and originality, the student abandons any attempt to depict his apple using traditional techniques. What is he to do? Perhaps he could draw with the apple? Apple makes a poor pigment … but it is certainly novel. Or perhaps he could draw the apple and then erase it. The end result wouldn’t really communicate anything to the viewer, but the accompanying artist statement could explain why they ought to find it interesting.

Eventually, it is very likely that the student will come to concern himself with a very grand sounding question. ‘What is drawing?’ This question is increasingly taking precedence in modern drawing rhetoric. It sounds initially like a very important question, one that we should all be interested in finding an answer to.

But what does it really matter what drawing is? To the artist driven by the desire to express something of life, defining the means he uses is pretty irrelevant. He will use whatever media are necessary to communicate most effectively. Is there any pressing reason why we need a clear definition for what drawing is? The only conceivable motivation is to establish a boundary, which can then be broken. “Pushing the boundaries” is an acceptable substitute for having something meaningful to say. And, in the absence of the necessary skills to interpret the world, the artist is obliged to take drawing itself as his subject; an endlessly self referential and suffocatingly narrow brief. What we should really be interested in, is not what drawing is, but what it has to say about the world we live in; and to do that, artists need all the skills they can get. While there is certainly some truth in the old adage that art cannot be taught, it does not necessarily follow that none of the associated skills can be taught either. We will produce better, stronger, more original artists if we give students an art education that provides them with a comprehensive skill set and not one that actively discourages students from acquiring new skills.