The What is Drawing? Project: Featuring Russ White

What is Drawing?

To complement The What is Painting? Project and further the overall dialogue Neoteric Art introduces The What Is Drawing? Project. The guidelines are the same: I thought it would be intriguing to ask artists this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.

This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.

What Is Drawing?
Featuring Russ White

I’m looking for a good analogy here. If art were a body, let’s say, drawing might be the skeleton. The bones provide structure and support for the flesh on top of them, defining the body’s form while facilitating its movements. The craft of drawing often remains largely unseen in most finished artwork, evident only in how the other media lay on top of it, like so much muscle, fat, and skin. Without that structure, though, the body would collapse in on itself. (And occasionally you come across a work of art that does just that.)

I’ve always thought that, regardless of an artist’s chosen medium, drawing was the first and most important skill that person should develop. Almost by default, it usually is. Most of us have been drawing since before we can remember, scrawling crude shapes and scribbling patches of color even before we could write. Drawing, at its most basic, is a means for us to teach our hands and our eyes to communicate, to work together to recreate what we see in the world. And, even better than that, it’s another way to teach our brains to play, to create new things that no one has ever seen before, to combine shapes, colors, and lines in ways that make no goddamn sense at all. I have had the pleasure of drawing with my young nieces, nephews, and cousins many times at family gatherings (and for a time through the mail, sending hand-drawn postcards back and forth), and the imagination and humor that comes through their drawings is always surprising and delightful.

In the grown-up world of fine art, though, drawing tends to take a back seat to other media. In recent years, certain galleries and museums have begun opening their walls to illustrators and cartoonists, and, to be sure, some curators have devoted their entire careers to “works on paper.” But am I being too sensitive, as an artist who works primarily on paper, when I take that phrase to be just a little bit pejorative? Probably, but the implication seems to be that the works in question are but studies. These are not the real masterpieces. I get it: works on paper are generally limited in scale and don’t stand up to the stresses of time as well as paintings on canvas or sculptures in bronze. And maybe the directness of drawing, so simple a child can do it with a broken crayon, is not as impressive as the technical skills evident in a masterful oil painting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cy Twombly’s giant scribbles were the original inspiration for the sneering cliché “My five-year-old could do that.”

But I’ve seen some amazing drawings in my day, Twombly’s included. Lee Bontecou’s retrospective at the MCA ten years back comes to mind. Her graphite and charcoal works served not just as studies for her sculptures but as finished pieces unto themselves, dark oddities caught somewhere between the sci-fi weirdness of H.R. Giger and the wild mysticism of William Blake’s illustrations.

The breadth of work included in capital D Drawing is overwhelming, really. You could include everything from cartoons to architectural renderings, from Daumier’s editorial lithographs to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s detailed installation proposals; from Grant Wood’s stylized realism to Franz Kline’s stark abstractions. Consider medieval illuminated manuscripts and then jump to Chris Ware’s intricate comic book narratives. Or think of Picasso’s light drawings, themselves reminiscent of Calder’s wire portraits, which are essentially sculptures of drawings (if not drawings themselves).

Which brings us back to the original question: what exactly is drawing? If we are to insist on a definition, the best I got is the act of mark-making. I’m sure that is probably woefully deficient in its simplicity, and I am open to suggestions on how to improve it. Perhaps I should include something about the rendering of line, shape, and tone or about the use of predominantly dry media. (Picasso’s light pen would surely fit that description, yes?) Hell, you can draw in mid-air with your finger and not make a single mark, save the impression in your audience’s mind. Ultimately, this is why I find attempts to define art’s parameters so profoundly boring. You can draw with a brush and you can paint with a marker; who cares whether you consider yourself a painter or a draftsman? You can shit on a shingle and call it art, for all I care. The only question worth asking is whether that art is any good.

The criteria for answering that question are too numerous (and subjective) to catalogue here, suffice it to say that honesty, history, and technical proficiency are good places to start. Honesty comes from making artwork from the heart, whether it’s Alice Neel’s brutally beautiful portraits, Fernando Botero’s endearingly plump figures, or even Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings, which are installed repeatedly and always drawn by other people per the artist’s instructions.

History comes from knowing what came before and what is happening now. Globalized media and now the internet have effectively rendered the “naïve artist” extinct. I’m sorry, you’re not a 19th century folk artist. You gotta know your shit. Go to museums, go to shows, go to the library; at the very least, go to Google. Learn from what others have done, and build upon that foundation.

And finally, there’s technical proficiency, which simply comes with practice. I remember fellow students in middle school art class getting frustrated with their drawing skills and asking me outright “How do you do that?!” The answer is obvious but not terribly helpful, at least in that present moment: you just have to keep drawing. As all good graffiti artists know, if you can write, you can draw. Some people never develop into full-blown realists, stopping short at abstractions, sketches, or caricatures, and that’s fine. I would, however, hold up as more inspiring examples those who do both, who work up to mastering realism and then simplify backwards to fit their needs. Here I’m thinking of Henri Matisse and R. Crumb specifically. If you doubt the latter, look up some of his portraiture. You will see drawing at its absolute finest.

Drawing is fun, it is direct, it is quite possibly the simplest way to visually communicate on a surface. (Ikea manuals may be confusing, but the drawings still make more sense to me than instructions in Swedish.) Drawing can be found on cave walls, on ancient pottery, in the constellations, in the Sunday paper, on people’s bodies, and, even when it might be obscured by paint or stone or bronze or neon, in the greatest works of art ever created. When all else fails, go find a refrigerator with a child’s drawings on it. Sometimes those are pretty great, too.

Caprice ClassicRuss White, Caprice Classic, colored pencil on paper, 42” x 52”, 2015

Russ White is an artist, illustrator, and writer living in Minneapolis. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he describes his earliest memories of church as sitting on the sanctuary floor, using the pew as a desk while he doodled all over the bulletin during each week’s service. Luckily, his parents were very encouraging. After receiving a BA in Studio Arts from Davidson College in North Carolina, White spent ten years in Chicago as both a working artist and a high-end cabinet maker. His work has been featured in galleries, museums, and as illustrations in various publications across the country.

The What is Drawing? Project – More Featuring Artists