Drawing out ideas

Every designer can harp back to their roots by sketching, so to inspire you Neil Churcher draws on examples

‘We all went to art school because at one point we could draw,’ says illustrator and tutor at the Royal College of Art Marion Deuchars. ‘Then somewhere along the line, some of us stop.’

Deuchars is alluding to a kind of drawing that is the raw material of the sketchbook – that live, on-the-spot recording of a scene or the capture of an interesting character. Sketchbook drawing was traditionally evidence that a designer was visually informed. A fat sketchbook was proof of design skill as well as productivity.

But such practices no longer seem to be at the forefront of designers’ interests. Computer-led design has literally eroded away its importance and replaced it with the values of digital visualisation. No salvation rests with illustration, because here, drawing is, on the whole, a tool to help visualise constructed ideas rather than an end in itself.

If drawing’s prowess has diminished, I wanted to investigate where it had gone. I found that it still survives more as a subculture and, when exposed, can be the topic of strong values and still churn up gripping work.

The house of illustrator and self-confessed ‘drawer’ Lucinda Rogers is literally full of drawings. Sketches and framed works are crammed into every available space. Rogers is unusual because she both exhibits drawings and illustrates to commission.

Her last exhibition at the Dot Gallery @ Oxo in London’s Oxo Tower Wharf contained a series of drawings capturing Ground Zero in New York directly after the events of 11 September last year.

‘I think I am an illustrator, but I tend to differentiate between illustrations and drawings,’ says Rogers, ‘I think because I draw off my own bat rather than by commission. The term illustration is slightly confining for this type of work. Drawings exhibited and bought by somebody off the wall means that you are bypassing commissioned illustration. If you mention illustration to any gallery owner, they will quickly turn on their heels. They would think of it as fine art. I tend to use the term drawings.’

Rogers studied illustration at (the then) St Martins School of Art in London, but continued to draw personal reportage-style sketches in parallel to her illustration work.

‘I used to be commissioned to illustrate a travel page in the Independent on Sunday based on cities,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t go to Istanbul or Delhi so I had to construct an illustration using references and fabricate the image. I eventually felt I wanted to do reportage, so I told the Independent on Sunday art director Jo Dale that I really wanted her to send me somewhere.’

Dale came up with a series on British chefs. ‘I had to go around the country drawing these chefs in their restaurants so that’s how I started reportage,’ says Rogers.

Reportage allowed Rogers to consolidate her ‘on the spot’ drawing from life with her illustration work. The two became one. Rogers continued to work without commissionsí especially during annual drawing trips to New York. This led to a series of drawings completed in the aftermath of 11 September, which has given her non-commissioned work a whole new dimension.

‘If you stare at a place for a long time, you remember tiny things about it. You feel quite intimate with the place,’ says Rogers, who has been drawing in New York since 1988. ‘It’s like knowing someone’s face really well.

‘When 11 September happened, I felt the physical effect quite badly. At some level, I wanted to draw it, or draw something to do with what had happened. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt that I had been representing the place for so long that I wanted to represent this event.

A friend who was working at Ground Zero, the site previously occupied by the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, suggested Rogers came with her to do some drawings there.

‘I never had official permission, but everyone seemed quite happy about me being there,’ says Rogers. ‘They had an extreme policy on photography, but I wasn’t perceived as a threat. They didn’t want any kind of sensationalism, and maybe there is something quiet and old-fashioned about drawing that seemed to go along with the back-to-basics thing evident at Ground Zero.’

Rogers witnessed the removal of the wreckage and collection of bodies and body parts to the morgue, where they were recorded in an ominously large book, the atmosphere set by a backdrop of tired volunteer workers, firemen and paramedics.

‘I didn’t know what to do with the drawingsí’ says Rogers. ‘I knew that they should be some form of record, but only after the event. It’s an extreme form of reportage that I’d love to do again. Someone saw my show [of the Ground Zero drawings at Oxo Tower] and said that I should go to Afghanistan, having themselves been over there for three months. You realise that there are many possibilities.’

All Rogers’ work has the strength to produce a tangible impression of the subject. The Ground Zero drawings, though, seem to work on another level, perhaps because the subject is greater than any everyday experience. It’s also because they seem to record moments of intense concentration by the drawer. Rogers remembers the adrenaline rush that enabled her to work wide awake at 4am, because the subject was constantly compelling.

Discussing these issues with Deuchars, while looking over a series of her sketchbooks – the kind of work not usually shown to the public – the subject centres around the fascination with the process of drawing, a subject that Deuchars also seems fascinated with.

‘It just honesty, says Deuchars. ‘It’s not about applying any logic to it apart from looking and editing what you’re drawing. It’s a slightly subconscious process. You’re doing this for yourself, you’re not thinking how it’s going to be interpreted. As an illustration you would ask yourself “How is that going to be perceived?” or “How will it be understood?”.’

We look at one of her drawings of a market-seller displaying his wares on a sheet on the ground that Deuchars sketched in Cuba. It is a recording that she later used to create an illustration featuring objects on display. The illustration is a distillation of the sketch. The illustration is visually balanced and interesting, but the sketch somehow seems to have more elements to the story. It seems to retain more. It’s a good example of how drawing informs illustration and design, but doesn’t seem to explain what gets lost in the process.

Deuchars suggests that it is because the process in drawing is different than in design, closer to a less considered form of creating things, a rawness that any design process may eradicate. ‘It’s directly eye to hand,’ says Deuchars of sketching. ‘When you start a drawing, you have no idea whether it’s good until it is finished. You have to let it go on its own journey. What you have to do is to start it without thinking, like reading a book and finishing it.’

Carter Wong Tomlin director Phil Carter is another sketchbook drawer. As a graphic designer, Carter’s sketchbook work is potentially separated from his everyday work, but he insists that the symbiosis between sketching and design is strong.

‘I draw a lot while I’m away and also draw on a daily basis,’ says Carter. ‘I stop off at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park on my way to work and draw. It’s a good way to start off the day and even end it.’

Again, a back-to-basics drawing process seems to generate an underlying worth that Carter values. ‘I like to photograph and draw as it keeps me visually aware.’ he says. ‘And I think design is difficult if you’re not visually aware. Drawing says a lot more than capturing ideas in other ways on a lot of occasions.’

The drawing ethic allows Carter to relate design process to craft, something that he suggests is threaded though the company. ‘Drawing is a skill that is sadly being lost and it’s an element of craft that is very important,’ he says. ‘We [at Carter Wong Tomlin] look for people who draw. I always ask students if they have sketchbooks as we like people who are informed by drawing.’

It is a value that Carter suggests crosses over to clients. ‘We present very rough drawn visuals to clients rather than finished-looking computer visuals,’ he says, ‘because clients don’t feel so threatened by them.’

Even if drawing has been reduced to a subculture rather than perceived as a prime skillbase, I’m not afraid that drawing skills will disappear altogether. Certainly Rogers’ recent work for Graphic Thought Facility and Scarlet Productions for a Bloomberg event, including sketches on paper cups and plates, and Deuchars’ drawings for British Design & Art Direction’s Annual Review, designed by Vince Frost of Frost Design, shows how drawing can be used as design in itself. Drawing suddenly seems to be a flipside of computer-generated design and, therefore, more and more valid as an alternative.

Importantly, I think all designers appreciate and feel a bond with the drawings they see. In fact, we have all had a hand in drawing, as children and even older, drawing is as intrinsic to learning as maths or playing the recorder and you can’t remove that.

Neil Churcher is co-founder of London digital design consultancy Edwards Churcher, though he originally studied graphic design and is an avid drawer

Latest articles