Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Defining a "Drawing"

This issue comes up frequently in the gallery, but as of yet has not been resolved, so I'll toss it out there and see if some definitive answer emerges: what constitutes a "drawing"?

My first art world job was working for a secondary market gallery that specializes in works on paper, where I was taught that if it's unique and created through the application of some medium on or to paper (whether ink, graphite, paint, or collage or whatever), it's a "drawing."

Recently in the gallery, however, we discussed whether images made from oil paint on paper were "paintings" or "drawings." Again, I was taught to call them "drawings," but the artist called them "paintings" and I fully understand why. Still, MoMA seems to validate my previous boss's point of view (not sure really):


One of the most comprehensive collections of twentieth-century drawings anywhere, MoMA's holdings bring together more than 6,000 works on
These include a historical range of drawings in pencil, ink, and
charcoal, as well as watercolors, gouaches, collages, and works in

However, The Guardian offers a review of a "drawing" exhibition today that notes the issue is far from settled:

The selection pinpoints one or two prevailing trends, and makes some challenging assumptions about what a drawing might be. Matisse defined it as "putting a line around an idea", for example; while for Roger Ackling it meant scorching an imprint with the aid of a magnifying glass.
So would you help us please? What is a "drawing"? What's not a "drawing"? Can it even be defined, or do we simply let the artist tell us what the category is. And if so, who's going to tell the curators at MoMA?


Anonymous jec said...

Good question! This is a big grey area.

We have to add into the mix the relationship between a particular work and the artist's work as a whole. Does the artist only paint with oil on paper? If so, and the artist considers these "paintings," then I think that's what they are, no?

Also, a definition of drawing that insists that they must be "on paper" is outdated. If the artist makes "drawings" on canvas--or wall surfaces, or fabric, or whatever--and considers these "drawings," then I think we can't call them something else just because they aren't on paper.

4/25/2006 10:42:00 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

I'm not sure the classifications have to be mutually exclusive. Using my own work as an example (particularly my wood works), I often tell people they are:

60% painting
30% sculpture
10% drawing

Of course, I'm pushing an agenda by giving such weight to the painting aspect but as a whole I don't think I could ever place my work in just one bucket. I once had one of these wood pieces accepted in a juried national drawing show... so why can't artwork be a little of both?

The labels seem very limiting to me.

4/25/2006 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous markdixon said...

I have had the same hesitation when categorising whether something is a drawing or painting. I make a lot of works on paper but they are really paintings on paper. I often refer to them as drawings but they do not have many drawing like qualities, other than being on paper.
I just posted 2 small works on paper on my blog and referred to them as paintings, but also considered them drawings as they are studies.
Perhaps, in trying to differentiate between drawing and painting we can consider how the medium is applied to the support. I have often considered drawing to be about line ... works with a lot of linear marks equals drawing? Yeah, it is tricky.

4/25/2006 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I used to paint exclusively on paper. They were my paintings. An opportunity came to exhibit at the Drawing Center, they were my drawings.

4/25/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous edna said...

I think it's a trend to refer to all kinds of random things as drawings - as some kind of mystique-inducing tactic (though it's actually really conservative). Now everything's a "drawing" - mixed media works on paper, wall installations that have any kind of linework in them, drips of paint on the street, runny noses, and dog turds that resemble letters of the alphabet.

If there really are qualities that are inherent to a drawing (such as linework), then the term should apply to any work of art that exhibits those qualities regardless of medium. I don't think there are inherent qualities. I think the historical definition of drawing is a work on paper. For that reason, I think people who insist on calling all sorts of random stuff "drawings" are full of shit and just trying to make their stuff seem more interesting.

4/25/2006 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger chrisjag said...

Depends on whether your talking about "drawing" as a noun or a verb. As a verb, everything invlolves drawing: moving things around, deciding on shapes, etc. As a noun, this is simply a practical question. I agree that "on paper" is not adequate. Seems like Richard Tuttle's work addresses this question. I'm not sure what his work is really about, but seems like he is exploring what a drawing could be.

4/25/2006 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane said...

I've never liked categorizing my work (I usually use the word "assemblage") but for things like grant applications, sometimes it's necessary. In general I find "works on paper" to be a better, more descriptive and inclusive category than "drawing" although I'm grateful that the Drawing Center considers my work to fall under their umbrella. I think the historically significant distinction between oil painting on canvas and everything else is becoming less important.

4/25/2006 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

What is a "drawing"?

Good question! My initial answer to this is to think of a (mostly) linear image created with pen, pencil, charcoal or any other similar implement, usually on paper, but not necessarily. However, in reality, I think drawings can encompass such a wide variety of methods and thoughts that the word drawing almost becomes meaningless. My underpaintings are done with oil, in a reductive manner using a cloth instead of a brush, but the goal is to set up the "drawing" of the image, so I do consider them to be drawings, despite what my personal definitions of drawings are. I think the artist's intent should be important as at least one way to categorize their own work.

4/25/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

My definition would line up with Ed's mostly. But at the end of the day, this doesn't necessarily matter. It's all inconsequential semantics. This field (the arts) enjoys the luxury of loose language.

It's not like mathematics or heavy machinery where an incorrect calculation, pushing the wrong button, or passing someone the incorrect tool could result in costly and even fatal catastrophies!

4/25/2006 12:47:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

An adendum to my knee-jerk dismissal of the question: What is a drawing?

All these categories represent fragments of logic. As an artist you can get some creative mileage by playing games and rearranging these logics. For example, I am currently working on an installation that involves a miniature running ranch fence. This mini-barbed wire fence wanders about the space (walls, floor, ceiling) and is very responsive to whatever architecture it is installed in, over, and around.

Somewhere along the way in studio, I began thinking about this work as a wall drawing rather than a sculptural installation. This was quite useful. The sculptural aspects of the modular fence units have long been resolved. The current challenges in the piece (aside from time intensive fabrication processes (ugh!)) are all about the line of the fence and how it functions in the space.

SO, in light of this, I guess I need to retract some of my previous remark. These definitions are not entirely inconsequential to an artist. They just aren't devistatingly consequential and I still think that we are indeed free in this field to play these semantic and logic games. A luxury not always afforded to others.

4/25/2006 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger sloth said...

I agree with chrisjag; a drawing doesn't have to be on paper to be a drawing. Sol Lewitt calls this a drawing; also this. Category-straddling works give us the chance to open up our strict & narrow definitions.

Now I will crawl way out on a limb.

4/25/2006 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger sloth said...

BTW, my definition is in the form of a yes/no flow chart... can't really do it justice with straight text.

4/25/2006 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

English is such a great language its shades of meaning can rarely be pinned down. Not only does English have far and away more words than any other language on Earth, its most basic words have far more meanings than the simple words in other languages.

"Draw" is one of those words which means so many things it really can't be reduced to a single definition, even when talking about the relatively specialized realm of art.

But to try anyway: "Draw" comes from the Old English and Old Norse words for "to drag." Therefore I'd say any artwork which exhibits having something dragged across its surface qualifies as a drawing. Not all oil painting involves dragging; there's usually some dragging, but there's also blending, a little sculpting, some simple splattering and whacking, maybe dripping. How much of each would lean a work towards being a painting or a drawing (although technically a drawing in oil paint is called a cartoon). Charcoal or Conte (my favorite) doesn't respond well to splattering or whacking -- they're basically media of dragging, i.e. drawing.

There's also a nuance to the meaning of "draw" involving narrowness. A draw can be a narrow canyon, for example. One draws soft metal through a die to make it into wire. So in art terms, I'd say a drawing also needs to include an element of narrowness, as in an outline of a figure, or many narrow lines placed together to make a mass of color.

That said, of course it's a fluid definition. I recently submitted three drawings to Fish or Cut Bait's assignment of doing drawings on paint chips. Two are drawings with lines made by a really soft graphite pencil. I love really soft graphite pencils. The last was done when I discovered my graphite-smeared fingers were leaving prints on the paint chip. I smeared the graphite around. Is that a drawing? Probably. After all, it's pencil of a kind.

If I had to choose, given a piece of art, whether it was a drawing or a painting (or other), I'd start by thinking about whether the work was primarily about lines or areas. I would then think about the media involved. And then I'd consult some sheep's entrails.

4/25/2006 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

The question is interesting, but only as a question. Defining a category only seems useful if you're going to operate against it. To actually "settle" the question seems of little use except for curators who want to know whose professional domain a certain work falls under. I don't care what a work IS, I want to know what it DOES.

4/25/2006 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger esm said...

How about using another art form's method of defining to clarify the drawing question. When defining fiber arts, they fall into the category if they either
-use fiber as the medium
-use any medium in a fabrication method considered to be fiber based (i.e. weaving wire).

Using this kind of analysis, drawings could be either
-any works on paper
-any works that have a 'linear quality'

Sculptures that encompass the linear quality allowed to be drawings. Also paintings on paper would qualify.

It gives flexibility within some context to enable everyone to come to some kind of understanding. I do agree that it is nice to have flexibility, but it is also useful to have parameters in which we can all operate.

4/25/2006 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

There was a similar question posed in (I believe) ARTnews a few months ago: What is a Painting? You'd think a painting was something involving paint, but apparently not.

I wonder how much market forces influence whether something's called a painting or a drawing. Paintings are often more expensive than drawings by the same artist.

4/25/2006 01:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

DilettanteVentures sez:
The question is interesting, but only as a question.... I don't care what a work IS, I want to know what it DOES.

I agree wholeheartedly. Excellent point. Doesn't mean we can't still discuss it, but, yes, who cares what an artwork genre is called?

4/25/2006 01:59:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Lisa Hunter makes a good point: for marketing painting is more highly valued than drawing. This made sense historically - paper is more vulnerable than gessoed canvas to time, weather, etc.

Not so sure this makes sense now, except in some curatorial/categorization way. Works on many surfaces - like synthetic vellums - are drawings but will weather the upcoming surge in temperature from global warming. Might even survive the higher water levels.

As Mark said, most of us call the work in terms which allow it to be shown most frequently. Terms don't really impact practice.

4/25/2006 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

My watercolors are produced on stretched Arches paper - that is, I soak and stretch the paper over thick supports, as one would canvas - and the viewers' reactions are interesting.

Frequently, people initially refer to the works as paintings, but, upon realizing they are on paper, ask me if I consider them paintings or drawings. Personally, I tend to come down more on the painting side of the ledger - it is watercolor paint, after all - but arguments can be made for either. As several commenters have already suggested, the label deosn't really matter....

Or does it? My watercolor paintings are always priced much lower than equivalent sized oils by other unknown Art World quantities; this, despite the fact that the physical structure of paper means it will long outlive canvas (given proper care).

Fortunately, I have other means of income and health insurance: the dreaded day job. For the time being, pricing issues don't bother me too much but, should I manage to generate enough income from painting to one day flee filing and phones, I imagine the definition of "drawing" will take on a new cast.

4/25/2006 02:09:00 PM  
Anonymous edna said...

Terms may not impact practice, but they can manipulate interpretation.

HH - who told you that, with proper care, paper will long outlive canvas? Sounds like someone's yanking your chain, dog. Unless you plan to seal off your drawings in a climate controlled underground bunker.

4/25/2006 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

A drawing is something executed or displayed in a drawing room. (duh)

4/25/2006 02:43:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

I lke "works on paper" because it's concrete and an easy term to apply. This is the one to use if you don't really care about distinctions but need to make them just for order's sake. There are many other aspects to the term "drawing": that it referes to the preparatory, offhand, marginal, structural, etc. But that's why exhibitions can have titles, to make that clear if that's what you care about.

4/25/2006 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger sloth said...

I liking your definition, esm.

(one would think that acid-free 100% cotton paper would have a similar shelf-life to acid-free 100% cotton canvas, no?)

4/25/2006 03:01:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...


If you glued or gessoed your paper, it might have the shelf life of canvas. Raw canvas used with oil paint, yeah, I'd bet on the paper with pencil on it to survive better.

And yes, Edna, I must agree with you that terms impact interpretation, but that impact doesn't much extend into my studio practice. Not too market driven here.

4/25/2006 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...


A number of those artists materials handbooks I read in high school argue that the weave of canvas makes it more prone to disintegration, whereas paper is less prone to break down/decay. During my undergrad years I worked in museum restoration and my boss explained that paper was the stronger, more archival surface, assuming all treatment equal (which, in his case, meant museum standard care).

Foxing - basically organic growth due to oxidation - of paper is another matter altogether, but, assuming the owner doesn't keep the paper in a humid environment, you don't need an air-tight chamber to prevent discoloration via exposure.

4/25/2006 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

In terms of archiving, though, Hungry Hyaena: Canvas breaks down fairly quickly, but can be replaced. Paintings are (if they're worth saving, I imagine) re-lined every hundred years or so (by modern timetables).

Good luck replacing the paper under a pencil drawing.

4/25/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

In order to define the term as something useful for myself, I've always thought of drawing as coming from the idea of 'inscribing,' in that it can be distinguished by its linearity of application. When form is primarily created through a linear means, it resembles drawing. When form is primarily created with shapes, it resembles painting (or sculpture, installation, whatever, etc.). I couldn't care less about the medium used -- art with paint can look like drawing, while art with pen and ink can look like painting. Further, an artwork can be both drawing and painting (and sculpture, or whatever). Of course, whenever something is made with "paint," it can always be considered a "paint"ing, among other things.

To define drawing simply as "works on paper" is probably indefensible.

Edna's point about the current stylishness of terming almost anything a 'drawing' may have something to do with the popularity of the huge drawing show at the Temp-MoMa a few years back. The Williamsburgian hipness of drawing seems related to the slacker/folk movement, as an effort to subvert the historic domination of painting as the most serious medium. When something seems fresh again, suddenly everyone wants to be associated with it. But I doubt the usefulness of attempting to blur every discriptive boundary just for the sake of quasi-avant-guarde transgression. Sometimes terms are just terms and they become less than useful when they lose their meaning.

Now, what I want to know is, what's the difference between a Drawing and a Sketch?

Utrecht seems to think it knows.

4/25/2006 05:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Sky said...

Interesting question this, "what is a drawing?" It could be followed by "And what do you call a person who exclusively produces drawings?" A Drawer? That's the best moniker I could come up with, and without many alternatives, that's what I call myself. For so long, drawing hasn't been considered a significant discipline on its own, but something done in study or preparation for painting, sculpture, or architecture. The understanding of drawings as complete, stand-alone works of art is a fairly recent phenomenon. Even NYFA doesn't quite get it yet, since painting, sculpture, and most other disciplines have their own grant categories, but drawing is still lumped together with printmaking and artists' books.

Drawing has definitely evolved beyond the definition of rendering marks upon a paper support. I've used graphite on wood to create works that no one would deny are drawings. Leaving room for exceptions, such as Vik Muniz' "Clouds", I'd say the support itself matters little, but that drawing usually involves any choice or combination of the following: chalk, pastel, charcoal, conte crayon, pencil crayon, graphite, ink, paper, lines/focus on linear elements.

4/25/2006 05:13:00 PM  
Blogger sloth said...

Do you remember the drawing show "Allegories of Modernism" at MoMA in '92? here's an interesting take by Kimmelman.

4/25/2006 05:17:00 PM  
Anonymous edna said...

Sketches are short skits. Drawings are the act of closing curtains.

4/25/2006 05:18:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

Very interesting things going on in sky pape-land (i look forward to examining your website further). This discussion is why I am so fascinated by "art" as a concept and all of its various contexts as fodder for more "art".

Basically, how many different institutions use a definition of drawing? The art supply industry designates "drawing" and "sketching" into different grades of papers. And art stores separate these items into different sections in the store or catalogue. Universities separate drawing from painting and generally make it exclusively a fundamental learning experience (leaving the more advanced classes as painting designates). Um what else? Oh, you have curators and dealers and collectors and grant panels with their definitions.

It seems artists are rarely too concerned with a hardfast def because they know how slippery it all is(as James noted). Richard Tuttle has asked why have these separate notions, why not simply make something? I like to say I am a maker of things, or I mess with stuff and something results. But anyone or any industry/institution is free and understandable to apply a def if necessary.

4/25/2006 05:42:00 PM  
Anonymous art soldier said...

sky: draftsman

(or, the less sexist: draftsperson)

4/25/2006 06:28:00 PM  
Anonymous sky said...

Draftsman--not an inaccurate label, Art Soldier, but it has the feeling of something more dry and technical, and is mostly associated with architecture. There's the British variant, draughtsman: n.: One who draws plans and sketches of machinery, structures, and places; also, more generally, one who makes drawings of any kind.
And my the one that made me laugh:
Draughtsman n.: One who drinks drams; a tippler.

Thanks for the nod, onesock.

4/25/2006 06:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once upon a time a thing was defined as such-n-such as a 'very' example of that which could extend and open the dialogue, the definition of which the thing found itself as defined.
It's an old way of thinking but still has its merits.

All interesting comments!!!


4/25/2006 09:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...

Drawing is a mode of working, which depends on the implement being used (a pen, a stick of charcoal, etc). The ground (paper, wall, flowerpot) is irrelevant. Painting is done with paint. Some paints could be used in a drawing (for example, thin water color in an ink pen). But using paint with a drawing implement does not make it painting.

With painting, the ground is again irrelevant for the classification (paper, wall, canvas, bridge, etc).

Some artwork consist of both painting and drawing, of course.

I think the only point of confusion comes with "pastel painting". I do not understand why this is called painting, but I realize that this classification is important to the pastel "painters". Perhaps pastel represents an activity that does not really fit in either the category of drawing or painting.

4/26/2006 04:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this a drawing? The eye says "yes", the concept says "no".

4/26/2006 07:22:00 AM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

A friend of mine gave me a definition the other day for drawing. In a museum, drawing is defined by the curatorial department that handles the storage and display of the work. Which is why paintings on paper are considered drawing. The same consevation techniques apply to its storage.

4/26/2006 07:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

In a museum, drawing is defined by the curatorial department that handles the storage and display of the work.

Indeed...that's what I'm referencing with the last line of the post...it does artists little good to redefine this or that a "drawing" if institutions (read: buying institutions) don't agree. Of course they will eventually if something becomes entrenched, but if opportunities are lost in the meanwhile....

4/26/2006 07:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Birdholes are probably different from storage agenda!


4/26/2006 08:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that drawing is any type of mark making with most medium, collage, pencil, ink, cutting out paper, or an arrangement of 3d media like stones and pebbles like any goldsworthy these can all be considered. it could even be something that is not there, something which has been erased but has still left its mark.

5/17/2007 05:54:00 AM  

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