Featured Image Credit: from The Novices of Sais, illustrated by Paul Klee, 1802
I have spent the past ten years trying to make myself sit still and draw, but I’m no good at it. Ten years in, I still have the skill of a talentless child. Drawing remains utterly mysterious.
This despite the fact that drawing is, in its way, amazingly easy. All it requires, at this stage of the game, is a piece of paper, a pencil, and an eraser. It can be done almost anywhere, almost any time, with any object as subject, any topic, small or large, that I can look at for a minute, from near or at a distance. Leaf; tree; landscape: wall; building; skyline. The only mandate is to draw what I see. But even the simplest subject presents such an excess of complexity, such a confusion of line and shape and shade. How does a drawing depict a thing?
A sketch is a simple statement, unadorned. A white surface takes a black line, born of graphite or ink, turning a mute nullity into a tentative message. How does the artist know where to look to pick out the defining lines? In the fingers of a nimble draftsman, a pencil creates the world, line by line, gesture by distinct gesture. Sometimes the strokes are rough and smudgy, feathered with texture or the repetitive motion of a hand scratching scenes into life. Sometimes the draftsman has a clear, almost childlike style, brief perfect bands of dark revealing the edges and corners of some small and precise reality.
I have, as of yet, no style, no particular process, no talent, no common thread. It’s just that once in a while, I sit down and try to draw the world onto paper. As John Berger says, it’s “a form of probing.” My drawings always fail, each “in its own unforeseeable and particular way.” I also sometimes succeed, just a little bit. This success is a thrill, a form of transcription, a puzzle and a mood and a repeated motion.
I never thought about how blind I was until I started to try to draw. The process both teaches and unravels, sends me back to the blurry vision of a newborn baby, trying to make out shapes and patterns. There are no lines, no edges, in nature, not even in the built environment, seen from a distance. There are only vague colors, fading into and out of one another.
It is nearly impossible to see the world, every pebble and raindrop, in its own fullness and ineffability, its boundaries and lack of boundaries. I watch it, try to capture it, or what it used to be, as my perspective shifts, or the wind blows the world awry, sending once-solid things into the disarray of entropy. In such unfavorable conditions, what can I expect myself to see? Drawing forces you into vision, demanding that you pick out some essential line to define the amorphousness of space. It requires careful discernment, a willingness to walk a thin line between abstraction and inexhaustible detail.
The compromise is the key. First you capture the structure, then you lay in the nitty-gritty. You have to keep working it over. The more you finesse it, the more it becomes intricate, complicated, beautiful, full of subtle information. Difficult, maybe. Sometimes even absurd. (Think of Brice Marden and his attempt to get the white page fully black. Any draftsman [even an amateur!] can appreciate the desire behind the attempt, the need to wrest opacity from the recalcitrant pencil, the wrestling with tools and materials, the attempt at a kind of mastery, despite the futility and even nihilism of the gesture.)
It is easier, to me at least, to draw buildings than it is to draw flowers. The man-made is easier to mimic than the organic, for being more precise and repetitive. And besides, squares and rectangles are beautiful, too. The cantilevered intersection of planes, the Modernist home, the downtown fountains, the buildings of a skyline standing at right angles to the world.
Fifteen minutes from my house, down a long loud car-crowded stretch of Powell Boulevard, is the Ross Island Bridge, a colorless piece of engineering where I like to go to sketch the skyline. From this waypoint I see the stair-step silhouette of downtown buildings, the brown bend of the river, the bullet-shaped boats, the fat concrete legs of other bridges. In the distance, miniature cars and trucks crawl along the double decks of Interstate 5 as it curls away to the north.
Amidst the bass and whoosh of massive eighteen-wheelers flying by behind me, I rest my notebook on the broad cement railing and sharpen my pencil. The shavings fly away into the wettish wind like little birds.
I touch the dry pencil tip to the bright, cold paper; I try to distill the living, moving world down to one loose line along a mute page.
I use my pencil as a walking stick, leading me into this inscrutable act of translation. My eyes are like an ear that picks out a simple song from the cacophany of the morning scene; my pencil is the voice that sings it back to me. Momentous as it feels – every time! – to mar the white paper, the discovery is not in that first mark, but in the image as it reveals itself beneath my fingers. It is in the working and reworking that something glorious, something alarming, begins to happen. My inept hand is cold in its fingerless glove; my fingertips, graphite-blackened, build and blend. Slowly, a shape emerges, the definite contours of the facades as they intersect, the bridge arcing in front, the river running toward the page’s empty corner.
Drawing is not a finished form. It is preliminary, exploratory. Up until a certain point in the history of Western art, drawings were used only for practice and as studies for paintings, never as ends in themselves. Some artists, nonetheless, are primarily draftsmen.
Paul Klee made over 9000 works in his lifetime, over half of which are drawings. Will Grohmann published Klee’s drawings in 1934, but the edition was confiscated by the Gestapo, and Grohmann had to wait 25 years to publish them again, in 1960. In Paul Klee: Drawings, Grohmann writes, “Things visible are for him no more than isolated instances. There are many other truths still to be discovered.” Thus Klee in his mature years drew more in the vein of whimsical abstraction than from observation of these “isolated instances.” In an essay on drawing from 1918, Klee wrote that “The pictorial work originates in movement, is itself a record of movement, and is perceived in movement.” In 1922, he restated this more concisely: “No work is primarily a product, something that is; it is first and foremost a creation, something in process of being born.”
It is this ongoing momentum of the form that makes drawing so magnetic. In an interview published with a collection of his drawings by the Whitney Museum, Brice Marden recalls being in art school in Boston and being told that “there isn’t a major artist in New York who really concentrates on making finished drawings.” This prompted in Marden a lifelong love of drawing as an end in itself. “It seems to me the more fluent the drawing, the more it can express your ideas,” Marden says.
Neither Klee nor, later, Marden drew primarily from life, nor in a realistic style. Each had passed beyond the adolescent marvel of sketching from life, and on to the mature expressive possibilities of pure line. While at the Bauhaus, Klee taught his students that they, as Grohmann put it, “must learn how to see behind the facade of appearances, to grasp the thing by its roots.”
To grasp the thing at all remains a miracle to me. Appearance is itself so unstable, so multifaceted and indistinct: seeing is neither believing nor knowing, but merely inferring one of a thousand possible forms, made manifest in a thousand differing details, hashed out in the pregnant language of lines.
When I actually sit down and do it, I find that drawing requires such a meditative concentration, such a focus on an act of pure translation, from eye to hand to pencil to paper, one after the next, over and over, that it admits of none of the neurotic self-doubt that attends my non-drawn life. It requires a kind of attention allowed only to monks and mystics, a singling out of the most elemental of details to weave together into a knot of reference, of resemblance: an act of magic.
Berger calls this an “exercise in orientation” and writes, “When I’m drawing, I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light.” There is a way in which the elemental nature of the project, arising partly through intention and partly through some instinctual process of wayfinding, reveals the contours of the reality that yet elude the pencil.
Drawing continues to teach me about what the great polymath Gregory Bateson called “the pattern which connects.” Drawing reveals the geometry of organic growth, point giving way to line, line to shape, shape to meaning. This is a lesson in roundness, in softened corners, in cells proliferating to fill in spaces and build up bodies.
Drawing has given me a deeper feel for a number of mysteries of nature: aggregation, accumulation, complexification; directionality, intent movement, accident and innovation, consistency, repetition, scale, and internal relations – that is, relationality and relativity and relativism, all rolled into one; evolution, the organic transmission of information.
But is drawing a form of communication? This amounts to asking if there is some hard line of disjuncture between communication and expression, between expression and representation, between representation and understanding. I lick the tip of my finger and use the moisture to shade a slash of charcoal into a dark spread of shadow, to contrast with the white shine of light. This middle ground is immanent between the ideal facts of black and white: the world exists between the curved margin of solid objects and empty space.
The deep reality, as Klee insisted, is in the unending movement of working and reworking. It’s the energy that I put into it that draws it out into existence, the moment and what I notice about the moment.
Rachel Chenven Powers has written about science and the environment for Earthzine. She recently received her MFA in nonfiction from Portland State University, where she received the Tom Bates Prize for Essay in 2016. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two children.