One of the things that fascinates and vexes me about the practice of contemporary drawing (indeed most image-creating practices) is its fraught relationship with photography. My drawing process for a long time has been to work off of photographic references, creating edited composites where necessary for compositional planning purposes, and just transferring that to a finished product.
Lately, I’m inclined to think this is a very pointless process. If what I seek to accomplish by drawing and painting is to create images, then I could certainly do that much more easily by taking a photo—which is an instantaneous process—rather than by spending a good 4-5 hours recreating the image which at best would be a facsimile of a pixel-perfect digital copy. Nor can the potential to draw surrealistic scenes explain the value of drawing, because Photoshop works just as well.
To reconcile this, I’ve begun thinking about drawing as process rather than outcome. The process of looking carefully at something, paying attention to your surroundings, struggling with the very medium of pencil and pen, and being completely intentional with the marks that are made, is very meditative by nature. In this paradigm of drawing, we’re thinking not about making a beautiful final product, but instead about the act of drawing itself, with the mind focused entirely on being present in the moment.
I’m a huge fan of urban sketching and on-site drawing, and that’s mostly because I view those practices as answers to the short attention span that digital photography breeds. I say digital photography because the process of developing photos from film is also meditative—going into the dark room and working in a set process with the same sequence of chemicals—and has an element of delayed gratification. The official urban sketching manifesto states that you have to be physically present at your location and you aren’t allowed to work from photographic reference. It makes drawing time-bound and process-oriented. And although the final product is still a commodifiable drawing, the process is temporal.
My feelings about what drawing can mean to me might well have changed by the end of the semester. I’m in a digital photography class now and while it’s definitely shown me that there’s more to taking a good photo than pointing and shooting—having to mess with ISO, aperture and shutter speed to name a few—I still feel like photography has an element of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it time sensitivity. And then I suppose that urban sketching trades off some precision in the final product, because if you only draw from life you won’t be able to capture subjects that are transient well.
And in an age where images are ubiquitous and cheaply made, to physically draw something—from a digital photograph reference or otherwise—is almost a radical act, in much the same way that film photography has come back into vogue. To draw is to elevate and to confer significance. The practice stays relevant, though the reasons for its relevance change.
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