Thursday, 7 March 2013

Why drawing is like phenomenology (and why I cant do it)

I’m not very good at drawing and any of my efforts to date have been pretty clumsy. The main reason as to why I can’t draw well is that I haven’t learned to look in the appropriate style. David Hockney calls this particular style of looking to draw “eyeballing” which he says is,
The way an artist sits down in front of a sitter and draws or paints a portrait by using his hand and eye alone and nothing else, looking at the figure and then trying to recreate the likeness on the paper or canvas. By doing this he ‘gropes’ for the form he sees before him. (Hockney 2006, p. 23)
Also, I can’t seem to make my hands do what I’d like them to in order to make a satisfactory drawing. I don’t have the technical facility to use the drawing materials effectively. In short, I don’t have what Ernst Gombrich calls a “schema” for drawing.

A colleague once gave me a drawing lesson and I, apparently, made the classic mistake when trying to draw an object. In this case it was a beer glass. I first imagined the immediate experience of the glass as a conceptual object, which in this case was a transparent, open cylinder. I then attempted to rotate that cylinder in my mind’s eye to bring it parallel with the picture surface in order to represent it through drawing lines. The reason that this does not work as a strategy for drawing is that it is the wrong style of looking. This style of looking takes first hand expe­rience and attempts to mediate it conceptually according to a pre-existent shape (such as a cylinder) before attempting to re-present that shape according to the material of the drawing (pencil, paper and so on) and parallel to a picture plane.

The successful drawer, on the other hand, must attend to the specific experience of the object as it is experienced. In short, they have to become a phenomenologist (even if they didn't know it.) They learn to attend to the gaps between things and treat the spaces between elements as something rather than nothing. They must then match their observations with a set of learned procedures and physical actions. The good drawer uses their arms and hands and thumbs and other parts of the body to relate the proportions of the viewed object to their own body. They must bracket (put out of action) a conceptual consideration of the object in favour of grasping its concrete particularity. The drawer must then translate this experience into the medium they have to hand according to the techniques they know.

I find such a style of “eyeballing” and close looking – what I call the drawing style – actually very difficult to do. It is certainly the case that this is not how I experience the world on a day to day basis whereby my natural attitude to things is as something ready to hand to be used or understood. I rarely attend to door frames or tables as significant aesthetic experiences or perceptual conundrums. Even many works of art do not present themselves in such a way too. Recently, for example, I spent a considerable time looking at the Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by van Eyck and marvelling at its complex ico­nography of saints, patrons, angels and so on. I was absorbed by the lustrous surfaces of oil paint. And puzzled by its weirdness. But I did not imagine myself drawing it. I was not in the drawing style of looking. There seemed to be too much going on, a surfeit of richness perhaps, to allow for this.


  1. Where's your piece on Thierry de Duve showing/writing on how Robert Morris's Minimalist 3 L-Beams approach the style of drawing ?

    I was clumsily talking about it to some architecture students today, and would love to pass it onto them?


  2. Hi Adrian, the blog entry is taken from a paper (on drawing and Robert Morris) in De Preester (ed.) Moving Imagination: The Motor Dimension of Imagination in the Arts, (John Benjamins Publishing) -

    You can find the de Duve drawing in his paper in Halsall et al (ed), Rediscovering Aesthetics - there's a link to this on the right of my blog