Can You Draw? by William Dolan


My dad was a draftsman. He wanted to be an artist, but his dad, an Air Force Colonel and lawyer wanted his children to be doctors and lawyers. Despite his desire to be the next Tolouse Latrec, he also needed to do something practical with his talent. So, with that in mind, he studied industrial design at a major Midwestern university. It was there, that he was taught to wield quill pens, inking bows and other tools of the drawing trade.

He knows how to draw a line. In fact, the sole objective of one course was to gain the ability to draw a straight line that does not vary at all in width from start to finish. This was done with an inking bow. The instructor would inspect the lines the students drew with a magnifying glass. He was ruthless in his expectations. Thicker areas of adjacent lines will bleed together and fill in gaps that need to exist.

With a T-square and proper drafting table, a straight line is not hard to draw. However, a consistent line weight is not. The natural desire is to start out slow, speed up as the line progresses and slow down as the artist reaches the finishing point. This leads to a line that is thick on the ends and thin in the middle. A complex drawing made up of lines of changing line weight will not reproduce well.

This is important because art is a communicative medium. If it does not communicate, the artist’s intent, it could cause confusion. In this case, it’s the engineer’s intent and that could cost thousands of dollars in rebuilding, redrawing, lawsuits, etc.

I didn’t go to art school, but rather, studied at a traditional university. I was introduced to painting in various mediums. I learned and practiced valuable drawing skills that enabled me to become a better artist, which in turn, helped me to become a professional artist. Stretching canvases, sizing paper, applying grounds were also part of the curriculum. There was even an anatomy class. The idea was that to be a visual artist, one had to master certain skills in order to successfully communicate visually.

During this time, however, the art schools were pushing idea over ability. It was more important to study French Theory, than learn how to draw. There was even a “deskilling” of artists, as Mark Staff Brandl put it in his recent Bad at Sports interview. “Paint with your [opposite] hand and use lots of turpentine.” Art students were taught to go out of their way to be bad. The important thing was to be able to discuss your ideas well. It didn’t matter if the visuals were poorly done.

This has not really happened in other disciplines. Writers still learn how to use the tools of language. Musicians still use a certain set of rules, even when they break or bend the rules. If music followed the same path as art, we’d be listening to a lot of stuff that sounded like the Shaggs. If literature followed that path, we’d all be reading stuff that makes as much sense as lorem ipsum.

So why does visual art have to suck? Duchamp’s point has been made, over and over again by so many artists. It’s gotten to the point where the discussions of theories are not even interesting. This is a shame when the discussion is actually good and valid.

It’s time to stop hiding poor art skills behind artspeak. Work on expressing yourself in visual terms. Use line, color, shape, and composition to tell your story. Know how to use your materials. Even if you do have a solid philosophical construct to discuss, good visuals will only make it stronger.