What is Drawing?

Reflections on the definition of drawing based on the Introduction to “Vitamin D”¹

“To draw is to be human.”

With this statement Emma Dexter begins the text leading the reader’s thoughts to cave paintings (notice the term “paintings” here) as the earliest form of human image making and expression. Humans draw and have always drawn, be it historically or in the life of an individual. Children have a natural interest for it and in them we might glimpse something of the early humans’ relationship to drawing. It has, no doubt, something magical about it. And looking at those images in the caves gives us a strong feeling of connection with the people who made them and saw them. Dexter cites Picasso describing art as a “form of magic, designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by  giving form to our terrors as well as our desires…”(Dexter (2005) p.6) . Rowan Williams, in A History of the World in a 100 Objects, also speaks about art as having deeper meaning to the early humans, deeper than, as he puts it, “managing animals or granting success in hunting”. He says art for these early humans is about “entering fully into the flow of life”, about “being at home in the world at a deeper level” and about “how to be here and now”(McGregor (2010). 9:36-10:33). I like these views very much and think that on some level they are still true today. Art can have an immediacy of expression that connects us – artists or viewers – to our surrounding world and to each other. There is a very nice scene in the animated film How to Train your Dragon, where the boy Hiccup and the dragon Toothless make their first connection over a drawing. The dragon reveals himself not as a mindless monster but as a sentient being.

So yes, art is part of our very being as humans. But I would say “art”, not “drawing”.


How drawing is not like painting

The introduction then takes up different aspects of drawing trying to carve out what drawing is and how it is separated from other art forms. Dexter starts with the “primal, elemental character” of drawing, the “simplicity and purity of the blank sheet of paper”and the “honesty and transparency” of the act of drawing. She puts these in contrast to (oil?)painting, where, as a rule, the ground is covered completely and the process of building up the painting is obscured – where as a drawing uses the relationship of line and supporting background and “wears its mistakes and errors on its sleeve”. Drawing, as the quickest medium, can protect the intensity of the thought, Dexter cites art critic Jean Fisher. In this view drawing is seen as having an immediacy, informality and an intimacy that painting is lacking. Following on from there the implications become quite philosophical when she cites Michael Newman: “each stroke is a sign of withdrawal”, “drawing (…) re-enacts desire and loss”, or when she states that drawing is characterised by an “eternal incompletion”.

Although I can see that drawing can be immediate, informal and intimate I cannot help feeling that this is not all there is to it. And I don’t see why painting as such (and indeed any other art form) should not be immediate, informal or intimate. The further this line of thought is driven the less I understand it and the more I think it confines drawing and robs it of its freedom. Painting, too.

This is strange because whilst drawing is presented as an immediate and direct, quick form of art – which I find limiting – the term is also stretched to encompass almost any medium, from sculpture to landscape art, video, photography… If I understand correctly the connecting element is the line (although I am not sure if the line is a defining element of drawing, there are other ways of mark making in drawing). Where the element of mark making can be seen as a line – be it trodden grass on a meadow (like  in Richard Long’s Line Made by Walking), or Monika Grzymala’s spacial drawings made with duct tape or branches in a room the art work could be called a drawing. This, too, is not a new thought considering ancient landscape art such as the White Horse at Uffington. But I feel I have misgivings to stretch the term drawing to photography and video. I wonder what the point is. Why is it important to define drawing to the point of limiting it, or to stretch it and call something a drawing just because it has certain properties normally associated with drawing? I see that by doing this and asking the question What is drawing?, or more to the point What can drawing be?, an artist can open up to new ways of expression and is invited to think outside the box. However, I do not think that we win very much by actually drawing a demarcation line between drawing and say painting . Quite the contrary. It will always imply generalisations that either make the term too wide so it won’t mean anything very much, or too tight excluding too much. I prefer a zone where different art forms meet each other, converge and overlap freely, where elements of art making can be used without having to comply to any predetermined set that can be combined into a “drawing” as opposed to a “painting”. As I believe it is actually done by artists. But in literature it seems art is separated into boxes.

My own understanding of what drawing is is very fuzzy. It has to do with dry materials, such as charcoal or graphite; with line; with immediacy, yes, and spontaneity like in sketching; also, strangely, with lack of colour; with representation. But as soon as I think one of the above I invariably find examples that contradict it. Obviously drawing can be done with wet materials and paint; the line is only one of many ways of making marks; drawings can be very thought-through and built up in layers as much as any painting; there is nothing strange with colour drawings or with abstract drawings. As soon as I try to pin it down, it slips through my fingers.

Dexter says drawings are “eternally incomplete”, she speaks of paintings having, as opposed to drawings, a filled in background and covering up their “coming into being”. But in the book, there are drawings by e.g. Graham Little in coloured pencil with nothing incomplete about them, nothing immediate and sketchy. There are very few lines, too. Following Dexter’s indicators they should be paintings, if it were not for the medium which makes them drawings, intuitively, as indeed Dexter says they are.

Graham Little, Untitled (2004) above and Untitled (2005) below, Source: Dexter (2005)

But then again: what about the soft pastel portraits by Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757)? Does the medium make these drawings? In this case, I would say not, they feel more like paintings, although the way she handles the background has characteristics of a drawing. She made these portraits of visitors to Venice who had not the time to wait for an oil painting (Stockstad 2008). So one could argue that to all intents and purposes, they were paintings.

Rosalba Carriera.JPG
Rosalba Carriera, Charles Sackville, 2nd Duke of Dorset, 1730. Source: Stockstad (2008)

On the other hand, there is Joan Miró who’s oil paintings have quite a few of the characteristics usually attributed to drawings.


So where does that leave me with the definition of drawing? As mentioned above, I would like to refrain from a clear definition and instead try and find characteristics a drawing can have. This leaves more room for drawing to be given complete expression. I am thinking of Wittgenstein’s concept of Family Resemblance. He states that some words get their meaning from a set of common features that are present in various meanings of the word, and not in others, “but the general overlapping mesh of these features is where the word gets its meaning” (Philosophy-index). He takes “game” as an example: some games have rules, some don’t, some are played in teams, some not, some need, say, a ball, some don’t. No single thing is common to all uses of the word, and yet, the word “game” has a meaning. I think, “drawing” or “painting” are words like this and do therefore not need to be confined by a rigid definition.



  1. Dexter, E. (2005) Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. London: Phaidon Press
  2. McGregor, Neil (2010) A History of the World in a 100 Objects. Episode 4: Swimming Reindeer. BBC Radio 4.
  3. How to Train your Dragon, DreamWorks, 2010
  4. Stockstad, M. Cothren M.W.: Art History. Pearson Education Inc, USA 2008 (5th Edition)
  5. http://www.philosophy-index.com/wittgenstein/family-resemblance/



6 thoughts on “What is Drawing?

  1. Your remarks about Richard Long’s Line Made by Walking remind me of one of my favorite poems which is by the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado. This is a translation in English:
    “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.”
    Source: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/34610.Antonio_Machado


  2. Sounds like a book I need to read! I am currently reading ‘Making and Drawing’ which also contains a lot of interesting perspectives on drawing.


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