In defence of drawing

I had the excellent good fortune to be gifted this well-considered, eloquently written book which I am currently reading for the second time—


Robert Nelson’s The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique.* Nelson, who works in Monash University’s Faculty of Art and Design in Melbourne, embarks on a project of writing about painting in a way directly connected with, though not wholly confined to, technique. Where art historians have gone ‘into a heady reverential transport which strives—fatefully, I think—to clinch sentiments exceeding comprehension,’ painters—‘the people who know it best’—generally fail to explain that mute something and rely on visual language rather than verbal language (p. 1). Nelson, himself a painter, suggests that rather than insisting that painting is a purely sensual experience or that it forms a text through symbolism, painting itself may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (p. 10). He elaborates (pp. 27-28):

I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.

His firm belief in the interrelation between thought and practice resonates deeply with me, as I have cobbled together an education by pursuing art through traditional atelier-based studies and pursuing ideas through academic studies in philosophy. If we could only talk about painting, its cadences and phrasing, its potency when well-executed, divorced from meaningless statements about transcendence and manifestations.

Recent life drawings in Conte crayon

Recent life drawings in Conté crayon

The chapter on drawing and perception is a particular favourite of mine. Drawing holds a special place in my heart. The precision of drawing, the intimacy of exploring a subject, the sensitivity of lines that investigate the flow and movement and the form, the gradual build-up of tones, the plasticity of the image and the things it reveals to your slowed, deliberate gaze is all a little bit intoxicating. Nelson (p. 52) esteems drawing highly in a modern world that seems to have lost interest in good draughtsmanship: ‘Drawing was (and still is) the tool by which sophisticated societies get things done,’ he argues. ‘Drawing in the sense of design has authority. It determines what is to be done. It is the organ by which instructions are passed down the line of command.’ He refers to this sort of drawing—the kind that precedes construction or manufacture, as synthetic drawing. It allows us to bring new constructs into existence through our ability to imagine and to accurately notate our intentions to change our physical environment.


He equally esteems what he refers to as analytic drawing: the kind that investigates a subject, when one draws from life. He captures the excitement and challenge of drawing from life when he says, ‘There are psychological forces that lead the eye through space. A plethora of mutual directions vibrates between hand and eye as the brain figures out a reasonable and sometimes inspired compromise between what the eye sees and the hand can express’ (p. 82). But beyond this, he talks about the extreme importance such analytic drawing had in a world without easy mechanical or digital reproductions. Drawing was then (and still can be, for those dedicated enough to sit down and give time and thought to it) ‘almost … a way of seeing’ for artists who depended on it every day (p. 61). This captures something distinct about drawing. While it can produce visual records, it is not necessarily the product, the drawing-as-noun, that is of the most significance. Rather, the drawing-as-verb, the process, is a particular kind of engagement that the artist has with the physical world. The drawing artist is afforded a special kind of appreciation of the world, because her seeing is active and bound up in her response, not simply in the receiving of light on the retinas. Nelson (p. 61) asserts: ‘The level of scrutiny that drawing affords is hard to match, and the comprehension that it yields cannot easily be replaced.’

Barbara 1

When we recently held a book club discussion on Annigoni’s defence of drawing, the question came up of what makes a good drawing? What entitles us to make such a judgement, and on what authority do we distinguish between a pleasing drawing and a good one? While open to many styles and interpretations of the physical world, there is undeniably something that makes a drawing good, and there are a great many drawings of questionable quality out there. It is not simply a matter of realism, or of beauty. A fluent line doesn’t always cut it. What tends to set good drawing apart is the evidence of this scrutiny, of a grappling with the information received through the senses, of an application of knowledge about a subject—whether anatomy, or depth, or form, or light.

Nelson (p. 46) approaches the discussion of drawing through the question: is it well drawn? His conclusion is that a well-drawn drawing shows evidence of intelligence. Simple mimicry of outlines does not convey understanding. Direct aping of tones does not demonstrate an investigation of objects receding in space or reflecting light in ways consistent with physics—or of a true appreciation of the configuration of a knee, built of specific and descriptive lumpy bits. We must be honest: are we drawing to fool an ignorant audience, or are we drawing to actively engage with the physical world, audience be damned? Drawing thus becomes firstly a very personal thing, bound up with the act of seeing, and the artefact appreciated by others is but a by-product—not created for them.

Barbara 2

When drawing becomes a function of the person drawing, not a thing for show, it becomes an intellectual exploration and an argument—a personal conviction. Nelson (p. 54) says it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually.’ When an artist owns what he sees through the act of drawing, he asserts an authority through the marks he makes. This brings Nelson to the conclusion that ‘the best drawings are those which have a look of commitment about them.’ And, futher, ‘we are justified in rating as lesser the drawing which resiles from such commitment. We may be disappointed that the perception or feeling is not accorded such dignity; too little ceremony has been bestowed upon the subjective; the intuitive has not been promoted to the institutional. Drawing can do this’ (p. 55).


Drawing is a means of responding intelligently and with dignity to what we see. It isn’t the poor cousin of painting; nor does its relevance stem only from its role in design. As Annigoni himself asserted, ‘The truth is that the deformations of contemporary painters very seldom arise from stylistic requirements forced on the artist by his vision. They merely spring from a confused desire to be controversial, a surprising indifference to the human being and, one might add, a lukewarm commitment to life itself. The result is absolute indifference to form, lack of proper preparation and a heavy dose of sheer ineptitude. This last quality has today, it seems, acquired full rights of citizenship in the realm of art.’

* Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


Glass House Mountains

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

I was fortunate enough to accompany one Tim Miller to the Glasshouse Mountains just north of Brisbane this past week for a spot of landscaping. Tim is an artist well-versed in the particulars of light and colour, and has a formidable body of pastel landscape work behind him. He drove up from his Rockley Studio just outside Bathurst in New South Wales to guest teach at the Atelier for several weeks.

Glass House

Unfazed by the intermittent rain, he set up his box easel in the covered lookout and gleefully set about capturing the ever-changing scene before us—clouds sometimes obscuring the volcanic plug mountains, perched like corks in wine bottles in the red earth, rain sometimes washing the whole view into a pale smear except for the bright green of the scraggly trees directly in front of us. I’m none too familiar with landscaping, so I was happy to watch and to draw, thinking about shapes and layers and tones.

Glass House 1

I took a class with Tim later in the week and learned a thing or two about neutralising colours as they recede while reducing tonal contrast, as well as watching him demonstrate painting a still life. Tim thinks in a relative way about colour, considering how ‘red’ a blue is and how this will shift a hue in a particular way, allowing him to minimise the number of paints in a mix.

You can still take a class with him, next Tuesday evening or Thursday!

c Tim Miller

© Tim Miller


Time and psychology, visually

Dancer studies c Scott Breton

Dancer studies © Scott Breton

Scott Breton, one of my teachers at Atelier Art Classes (and, just quietly, this year’s winner of the AME Bale travelling scholarship), gave a talk about his work at the Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) a couple of Sundays ago. It was thoroughly insightful to see where he’s come from, and what he’s been trying to achieve all this time. I’ve seen a lot of his dark still lives and been surprised at the heaviness of them; a dark psychology radiates from paintings produced by an amiable if serious young man. Consistent reds and blues glow in the passages of paintings that are softly lit. People are cut up as if by time slices, leaping mid-air. Narrative mostly takes the form of sequential figures. And he’s very open to adapting his process, drawing in pencil from life, developing an image digitally before finally painting it in oils. He’s methodical, but obsessed with discovering new methods all the time. Currently, he’s all about the drawing beneath the painting, the drawing as part of the painting. A mysterious mix of artistic attributes.

Dance composition c Scott Breton

Dance composition © Scott Breton

Scott’s talk followed the chronology of his work, beginning with an early painting of a young man dragging the weight of modern art in a gilt frame on his back. He quickly came to realise that he didn’t want to labour over meaning in this way in his work—that meaning can, in fact, be something less readily expressible than social commentary. Many things can be said in words, but some things can’t be said at all—they must simply be seen, and felt. Scott considered the strongest and most resonant part of this early painting to be the execution of the figure itself. Tracing through his early explorations, it was amazing to me to see how the figure alone—bare, exposed, unadorned with symbolism—can be so pregnant with meaning. Another early painting explores this simplicity through the body language of a man (Despair) and a woman (Optimism), conveying a meaning through mood and through that physical language that we all speak. The human form and body language are so expressive, and Scott became concerned with tapping that psychological element.

Optimism and Despair © Scott Breton

Optimism and Despair © Scott Breton

Much of his work is moody, and he openly admits to being inspired by music—directly and indirectly. Older paintings explore the idea of a ‘key change’, as in music, only through colour and form. Drapery changes direction and shifts from blue to red with hushed shadows, and this motif returns again and again in more subtle ways in later still lives, in which the light turns a corner and softly introduces a new key. His current work involves a dancer, who improvises to music he puts on. He draws her trailing around the floor, her hair and woollen dress floating about her, and she becomes a time-worm, creating a circle of temporal selves. These paintings are four-dimensional—incorporating time in a very visual way, not simply through change, but through adjacent moments sliding into one another.

Jacaranda harvest © Scott Breton

Jacaranda harvest © Scott Breton

Seeing where your teacher has come from and where they are going is a pretty special thing. Scott thinks so deeply and brings so much conceptually to his work, though not in the manner usual to modern art. His concepts are more directly connected to the process of painting, pushing the medium to express things best represented visually.

Swing by his blog for updates on his dancers and other work. Or sign up for a class with him on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights!



Secret history © Samantha Groenestyn

Secret history © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve just emerged from a solid twelve-week intensive at the Atelier Art Classes in Brisbane. A re-cap: Tuesday to Thursday, 9.30am to 9.30pm; Friday till midday, Saturday 10am to 4pm; at the turn of the new year, an open Monday class as well. I’ll admit to a little Friday night painting as well. In short, my time has been thoroughly accounted for, and I’ve had little left for much else. I’m well and truly a part of the furniture.


I’ve got a multitude of projects on the go. There’s a little yellow still life in the works, on the tail of this book and wine one. I’m experimenting with composition through books, smoking implements and liquor. A rough pipe and philosophy book established the process, and from there I’ve been introducing more difficult elements and puzzling out a lot of the problems on my own. I work some pencil thumbnails, trying to improve on my compositions, taking the final one to a serious tonal study. I paint up a raw umber underpainting, improving on my tonal decisions, and then block in the whole painting in colour, usually with only a light and shadow version of each colour. At this stage the painting looks somewhat complete, and the rest happens without too much pain as I push the details—introducing fall-off of light, reflections and playing with edges. I’m doing these with Ryan, who really invigorates his paintings with bold colours, and I’m enjoying the methodical approach and the vibrant results—though my own gouache work is very colourful, I feel apprehensive in bringing this sort of chroma to my oils, where my instinct is always to neutralise. I neutralise my gouache quite a lot, but the medium is so high-chroma to begin with that it’s forgiving in this way. We work under a yellow light, so I’m embracing the warmth this can introduce to a painting.

Flayed figure

Flayed figure

Ryan is extremely interested in space in a composition, and has been giving me lots of ways of attacking composition. Much of it is intuitive—arrangements just feel right—but he’s given me a vocabulary to explain that sense. We’ve drawn webs of thirds and quarters and stars over Vermeers, and thought about the ratios of tone and what mood this can bring to a painting. We’ve played around with objects and drawn them and redrawn them and cropped them—square, wherever possible! I’m fascinated with this idea of constructing a little landscape of objects, rather than just finding a pleasing arrangement in the world. There is narrative in the construction that is a step beyond simple discovery in the natural world. I love how Nelson* (p. 12) describes it: ‘Composition is an expressive resource, not a formalist absolute.’

Life drawing

I’ve worked through Scott’s form drawing course, which has been eye-opening every step of the way. Scott is extremely systematic, and hands each new student a wad of notes describing his approach and the way he thinks drawing plays out in the mind. His system is built on an analogy of gears, which he introduces stage by stage, such that the student can fall back on any of the earlier, more basic gears at any time when appealing to accuracy. There is always somewhere to start—Scott is a master at providing ways to start—some ways more optimal than others, but all applicable, and, most importantly, all able to be integrated once the student is well-versed in them. Life drawing becomes a breeze with all these tools in one’s belt.


Initially we thought a lot about the angles of hips and shoulders, but gradually we were building figures with interlocking blocks, and later we were hanging these blocks off gestural lines. We’re always exploring anatomy as we explore the lines tracing into the limbs, and some days we spend entire poses concentrating on single limbs and their own gestures and counter-rhythms.

Life drawing

I’m going to continue with Scott’s Tuesday classes. He throws exercises at me in an effort to break my brain, and usually I’ve finished the day mentally exhausted, unable to work through the problem any further. We’ve investigated the proportions of heads from the cast and from the model, then drawn hundreds of them from imagination, encasing them in blocks, applying perspective, tilting them at all angles. We’ve drawn cylinder- and block-people, and then drawn them, thinking three-dimensionally, from the cast but imagining the cast turned ninety degrees, or one-eighty degrees. We’ve looked at planes and cross-contours, and rendered according to these planes and across the form or along it. We’ve thought spatially by carving flat silhouettes of models out of slabs of charcoal using an eraser. Probably the best thing Scott has taught me is that you can always invent a new way to get at knowledge. He’s incredibly inventive, and he spends plenty of time building the contraptions to illustrate his points and to give his students a new way in to a problem.


I’ve struggled with Nick’s approach, and had to acknowledge that after a year, his way of working isn’t intuitive to me. I really have to work at it to triangulate perfectly accurate outlines, and, actually, I lose interest when this is the end goal. Accuracy is undeniably important to me, but perhaps not when it interferes with the life of the drawing or painting. Nick does have an incredible library, however, and I’ve spent many an hour learning about Australian art history—Meldrum, Lambert, Vida Lahey and countless others—as well as investigating the likes of Sargent and Rembrandt and Whistler. Nick is thrilled with history, and many of his books have a history of their own which he seeks out like a detective. I was a complete new-comer to art history until he thrust these books on me, and I’ve absorbed a lot through his guided tour and discussion over copious pots of loose-leaf tea.


My schedule is going to look a little different now, and hopefully incorporate some more illustration time. I’ve taken a week to myself to breathe a little, to digest and do some drawing for pleasure about town. Some exciting new things are happening, and my new routine is possibly going to be my most productive and art-filled yet.


* Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.