David Hockney, in a mentoring project documented in the recently screened More 4 series Close-Up, said, ’Drawing is a core activity for anything…even three-year-old children have a deep desire to make marks.’ Given a choice of students from around the globe to mentor, Hockney picked young Leipzig-based painter Matthias Weischer, partly because his studies were rooted in an East German skills-based work ethic, including drawing, that Hockney laments as being long gone in British art schools. But is he right? Certainly, lots of UK art schools no longer bother with drawing, beyond offering it as part of fine art foundation courses, but a growing demand for and interest in the skill are creating a resurgence that could see it back on the curriculum.
Terry Rosenberg, a senior lecturer in design at Goldsmiths College in London and a life-drawing tutor outside the college, sees the ability to draw as hugely important to design students, but emphasises the skill in terms of practice rather than an acquisition as ’an observation and analysis tool; an ideational tool – to innovate, express and explore ideas; as a tool in teamwork; and in presenting ideas’, he says. Rosenberg welcomes students’ growing interest in the craft. ’For any creative, it’s a useful building block, but as a stochastic process it also helps you to find out things you didn’t know about yourself and your practice, and can bring out all sorts of unexpected things. Sometimes, drawing is a conversation with yourself; sometimes I draw and I don’t know what I’m saying, but I have advanced ideas,’ he says.
A key problem is getting people past the idea of drawing as perfect representation. ’Nobody would ever say “I’m not that good at speaking, so I won’t say anything”, but people do that all the time with drawing,’ says Rosenberg. ’As long as it’s useful, it doesn’t have to be perfect.’
People who can’t draw, or are too shy to draw because they’re not great at it, are missing clarity Calum Pringle, Interaction designer
This is particularly true of design, where the ability to express and explore ideas is greatly advanced by confidence in mark-making. Calum Pringle, an interaction designer working on the future of the open-source operating system Ubuntu for Canonical, says, ’I say I can draw, because I do. There shouldn’t be a definition of what is a good drawing and what isn’t – as a designer you are constantly drawing a lot of low-fidelity rough shapes, figures and patterns that really just help you when you are describing your ideas. I use freehand drawing to doodle ideas, and to communicate these ideas to others. When I sit with my sketchbook and a pencil, it feels like a weight is lifted, and my brain has more capacity to be creative. In meetings, I try to just bring a sketchbook and end up drawing some really rubbish representations of ideas, but I’m more likely to remember it that way than if I had typed a note.’
Rhys Newman, head designer at Nokia Los Angeles and a former pupil of Rosenberg, says he draws all the time – either when he’s on the phone, in meetings or in cafés. He claims he is mainly drawing on a subliminal level. ’They’re like visual thoughts, putting the world together and taking it apart again. He puts his drawings into manila envelopes under different headings, in case they come in handy for future projects. Whether they do or not, they allow him to ’explore and play with connections that are unexpected or seemingly unconnected, which is very important for a designer’, says Rosenberg. How important? ’People who can’t draw, or are too shy to draw because they’re not great at it, are missing clarity in terms of communicating an idea and in terms of understanding an idea yourself. When you sketch something out, people can immediately see if you understand or are “on the same page” as them, and you can then elaborate on an idea with other stakeholders in the design process. Drawing can act as a window into the mind of an interaction designer; without that window you have a harder job defining and describing your idea,’ says Pringle.
Illustrator Jaki Jo agrees. ’I find drawing really important for my process. I’m always scribbling down ideas, mind-maps and quirky drawings. For me, it’s a process of visual research that leads to my illustrations,’ she says.
British Heart Foundation design manager and freelance illustrator Louise Kyme also claims to be a fan of the merits of drawing. ’It gives me pleasure, although it’s hard to define why. Partly, it produces a sense of achievement – creating something on a page. Partly, it’s the feeling of absolute focus that I love – getting into a zone where you can forget everything else. There is an element of pride in creating something unique. I love the feeling of great eye-to-hand co-ordination – doing a good drawing makes me feel like I’ve accomplished the world.’
The renewed interest in the subject will hopefully ensure that young designers will soon be encouraged – and taught – to explore their ideas in this age-old way. And to add weight to the pro-drawing argument, art schools will now have to start offering students value for money for their £9000 tuition fees, as a fix to the lamentable paucity of face-to-face tutor time, lectures and craft skills that so many students currently experience on degree courses.