Contemporary Drawing: Key Concepts and Techniques
Drawing has changed. Even the most cursory glance at some of the recent books and show catalogs—such as The Drawing Book: A Survey of Drawing: The Primary Means of Expression (2005); Drawing Now: Eight Propositions (2002); and even Contemporary American Realist Drawings: The Jalane and Richard Davidson Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (1999)—show us drawings that are new and different, and show us an interest in drawing that is unprecedented.
This new, contemporary drawing is its own art form, and is no longer merely preparatory to painting or sculpture. Why is this happening? I think it is because artists have discovered that drawing, in its own right, is something unique and different from painting. It is an intense, sensitive, compelling, personal, and utterly direct art form, one with its own concepts, characteristics, and techniques. It is these main concepts of contemporary drawing, and their specific characteristics, that I am writing about in this book.
“Contemporary drawing” is a phrase that covers any and all drawing—realist, abstract, modernist, post-modernist—from 1950 to the present. It is not governed by any particular imagery, but instead by the understanding, held by all contemporary drawing artists, that the choices with which they contend, the choices that pertain to the concepts outlined in this book—surface, mark-making, space, composition, scale, materials, and intentionality—are essential for the delivery of the image and meaning of the drawing, or are themselves the image and meaning. These issues are not about what is drawn, though they certainly affect that. Instead they relate to how something is drawn: what material is used, on what surface, at what scale, using what kind of mark, incorporating what kind of space, and involving what compositional structure. This separation of the “how” from the “what” is, in my opinion, what makes contemporary drawing so significant and able to stand on its own. Regardless of whether the final image is recognizable or unrecognizable, these issues—which artists must sort through, and about which they make their choices—are known as abstract issues. To arrive at the finished image, artists must work out how they are going to draw, not just what they are going to draw. To be a contemporary drawing artist it is necessary to be aware of this, and to work with these abstract issues constantly.
The most important overarching concept of contemporary drawing is intentionality. The artists who create contemporary drawings work consciously and intentionally, making specific choices for specific reasons. Everything about contemporary drawing that makes it what it is comes from choice, from artists choosing one surface over another, one scale over another, one material over another. The reasons why artists make these choices vary, but there is always some kind of reason, some kind of logic, some kind of plan, and it is this logic and reason, this act of making choices intentionally and of planning, that is at the heart of contemporary drawing. Intentionality is an odd thing because it does not predict or preclude any particular kind of imagery. Every contemporary drawing artist behaves intentionally, even those who try to create randomly and without forethought. Choosing to do things randomly or letting chance guide your hand is still choosing, it is still an intentional act.
The first concept discussed in the chapters that follow is the drawing artist’s deliberate choice of surface. What the surface is determines the nature of the mark. Furthermore, a focus on both the surface and the mark and the relationship between the two is one of hallmarks of contemporary drawing, and one of the most fundamental abstract issues drawing artists deal with. I believe this concept started with Georges Seurat, who developed his own stand-alone drawing style. Seurat’s distinctive manner depended on using the nature of a certain textured paper to actively influence his black conté crayon marks, resulting in drawings that shimmer with crepuscular light, that are as much about the relationship of the marks to the surface as they are about the various subjects he drew. Artists today have taken the surface/mark relationship further by working on many other surfaces besides paper, including wood, glass, plant materials, stone, and cloth.
The second concept covered is mark-making, including discussions about the nature of different marks and the reasons behind different kinds of mark-making. One distinguishing feature of contemporary drawing is the choice being made by some artists of the source of the mark-making. Some artists let natural forces produce, or help produce, their drawing marks. Others look for cultural influences to map out or even control their mark-making. Many combine those two factors into a third realm of mark-making, wherein they set up the parameters but cannot foresee the outcome. Still others use machines to aid them in their drawings, with the machines sometimes being the mark-making tool and other times an aid to the artist’s hand. These decisions to let outside forces influence the marks are made for a variety of reasons, and result in a huge variety of images, but they are all contemporary choices that add a significant layer of meaning to the drawings.
Third, as modern artists developed different kinds of space in painting (i.e., deliberately flat, deliberately giving the illusion of dimensional space, both flat and illusional together, and actually three-dimensional), contemporary drawing artists have pursued these different concepts further, in ways particular to both the materials and the techniques of drawing. The relationship between space and surface is a key thing, as well as the artists’ intentions with illusion and reality.
The concept of space is incomplete without an examination of the fourth concept presented here: composition. Composition is a structure of one kind or another within which artists present their imagery and clarify their ideas. I will discuss two main compositional structures—the traditional and the modern—both of which keenly relate to space, and both of which are used by contemporary drawing artists.
Fifth is the fascinating concept of scale. Not until recently have drawing artists explored the respective realms of the very big and the very small drawings. Scale is a subject that I have approached from three points of view: how the scale relates to the artist, how the scale relates to the mark (which has to be quite different, depending on the size of the drawing), and how the scale relates to the viewer of the art, upon whom the impact is, maybe, the greatest.
Sixth is the concept of materials. The subject of paper, the most traditional surface used in drawing, is vast and varied—and with so many choices in fibers, textures, and colors, many artists choose to work just with paper. Thus, the materials chapter is devoted to the world of papers. (Since many contemporary drawing artists work on surfaces other than paper—in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of contemporary drawing—these materials are discussed in the various other chapters where these artists appear.) In addition, contemporary artists have many options of tools, with some made to create dry marks and some to create wet marks. Histories of these materials are provided, along with charts of various tools and a paper terminology list, all meant to help in knowing what to buy and how to buy.
The seventh thing I cover in this book is not really a concept, but rather an observation. Some artists today are crossing media boundaries, making drawings that are also sculptures, drawings that incorporate printmaking and video, or film/drawing mixtures that fit into both categories, and therefore are blurring the lines of distinction. There is plenty of legitimate argument about whether these works qualify as drawings. My point is that maybe the distinctions are less important than the art, and so if you find that following the direction the art is taking you means going outside the boundaries, well, do it. In the end, the boundaries don’t matter.
The eighth concept is intentionality, mentioned earlier. It is the thing that pulls this all together. For although these concepts are presented separately, they all interlock. Mark-making, for instance, is completely entwined with surface and with materials, not to mention scale and composition. The state of mind that sorts it all out and makes each concept understandable to artists and viewers as well is intentionality. Intentionality is something that must be learned, and then practiced on one’s own art, and when looking at other art.
Included in each of the chapters in this book is an in-depth discussion about a specific technique. This is, after all, a book by a drawing artist for other drawing artists and for those who like drawings, and so I wanted to present more than concepts, but techniques as well. Like much of what is great about drawing, these technique presentations are mostly quite simple, but within each simple technique is depth and complexity, depending on how far you want to take it. That will, of course, be entirely up to you.
Drawing has come into its own, with contemporary drawing artists and viewers alike aware of how the abstract, formal issues are up front in drawing, fundamental to every decision and every move. This understanding is seen in artists today who work in vastly different sizes, with a large range of materials, on a wide variety of surfaces, producing every kind of image—from abstract to real and from temporary to eternal. The concepts followed, and the intentionality exercised, are the hallmarks that signify the value and uniqueness of this art form.
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