Drawing the Human

I know what I meant now in a previous post about needing ‘a human perspective’ on the land and the changes that have occurred in it. As I expected, John Berger has a lot to offer me on why I’m drawing and what I experience when I do it. The book John Berger: Selected Essays (Bloomsbury, 2001) includes the piece ‘Drawing’ from the volume Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960). If anyone has never drawn and wonders what the experience is like, they could do worse than to read the short essay. Berger defines what drawing means to him, as distinct from painting, and takes the reader through his thought process as he sketches a human figure, noting the interplay between the acts of observing and creating the 2D image, between marks made on the paper, subsequent decisions made about the direction of the drawing as it unfolds, and further marks. Above all, this is a process of discovery for the artist, one that takes him beyond the individual and immediate artwork to the fullness of human creativity as such.

As Berger notes, it is a ‘platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking’ (p. 10). This platitude is also true, any artist knows this from experience, but it is not the whole story. What we must consider is how and why we observe so intensely.

Thinking about the ‘how’ makes you realise that the drawing is both an object and a process. It is an artefact (in the noun form, ‘the drawing’) but specifically a man-made artefact that records the process of its creation (it is a noun that points to, at least in English, the verb ‘drawing’). Berger describes this process as having two movements: taking the artist both into the object and over it.

Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until you are, as it were, inside it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become. Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical. Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you. (p. 10)

The drawing is not really a record of the thing as it is; it is a representation of the artist’s experience, one that developed in the period between the first mark put on the paper and the last. It is the material form of a learning process occurring within the artist, its materiality helping the artist to reflect on what they have learned. Without this process of observation and recording, the learning would not have happened, or at least would have been poorer in quality.

Could a machine produce a drawing? Only, I think Berger would argue, if it was capable of learning like a human being. The decisions could not be given in advance. Like a human, the machine would have to make a mark, consider the shape that is developing, confirm or reject ideas before making other marks, and so on. There could be nothing inevitable about the process; failure would have to be possible. More importantly, so would understanding. The successful drawing is not so because it is ‘accurate’, but because the artist has learned something by making it.

I used an online programme to turn one of the photos in the previous post into a sketch.

This is more ‘accurate’ than I would typically aim for, but it is not a drawing according to Berger’s definition, unless the programme in some way learned during the process. Interestingly, the capacity of Artificial Intelligence to make art has long been an area of study and experimentation.

Berger distinguishes between the drawing and the painting, which is not a ‘working drawing’ but a ‘”finished” work’ (p. 11).

A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist’s own needs; a ‘finished’ statue or canvas is essentially a public, presented work — related far more directly to the demands of communication.

It follows from this that there is an equal distinction from the point of view of the spectator. In front of a painting or statue he tends to identify himself with the subject, to interpret the images for their own sake; in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist, using the images to gain the conscious experience of seeing as though through the artist’s own eyes. (p. 11)

A good example of this for me is the difference between Raphael’s sketches of the apostles for his painting the Transfiguration and the version of them in the painting itself (in the middle).

In the sketch, we can see Raphael discovering how the expressions of the apostles looking with compassion at the sufferings of a possessed man — who had been brought to Christ for healing — combine with the quality of the light, which casts a fair proportion of their faces into shade. This play of light has meaning, I think. The top part of the painting depicts Christ risen from the dead, the light coming from him blinding the apostles who lie beneath him; ‘And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’ (Matthew 17). Those same apostles in the bottom half see the afflicted man, try to direct his attention to the vision above, but, as the gospel says, they failed to help him to salvation. When they asked Christ why, he replied it was their lack of faith. They are partly illuminated by the light, but not totally.

But since total immersion in the light blinds them in the transfiguration part of the painting, how could they see the suffering before them unless there was some shade? For me, the sketch is by far the more moving of the two versions. The pathos in the expression of the apostle on the left is unforgettable; I write this as a non-believer in the divinity of Christ for whom the potentially more secular mode of the painting’s lower part is more powerful. I feel that this emotional power and the radical ambiguity introduced by doubt are more evident in the drawing than in the painting.

What happens when we are encouraged to identify with the artist? Following Berger’s distinction between the private drawing and the public painting is the description of his thought processes in drawing a male figure. It is no coincidence that the object drawn and described is a human — for Berger does not anatomize the figure dispassionately, though he has to observe it very carefully in order to draw his subject. This is not a process of objectification, where the object of the drawing is viewed as being less than human. Berger’s experience is one of sympathetic identification with the powers he discerns in his subject; the quotations below are not continuous but pulled from different parts of this section of the essay.

Arbitrary lateral lines taken across his body ran from curves to sharp points — as streams flow from hills to sharp, compressed gulleys in the cliff-face. But of course it was not as simple as that. On his near, relaxed side his fist was clenched and the hardness of his knuckles recalled the hard line of his ribs on the other side — like a cairn on the hills recalling the cliffs. I now began to see the  white surface of the paper, on which I was going to draw, in a different way. (pp. 11–12)

Yet, when I made a mark, somewhere beneath the near ribs, the nature of the page changed again. (p. 12)

As I looked at the model I marvelled at the simple fact that he was solid, that he occupied space, that he was more than the sum total of ten thousand visions of him from ten thousand different viewpoints. (p. 12)

My task now was to coordinate and measure: not to measure by inches as one might measure an ounce of sultanas by counting them, but to measure by rhythm, mass and displacement […] to feel the pressure of my lines and scribbles towards the utmost surface of the paper, as a sailor feels the slackness or tautness of his sail in order to tack close or far from the surface of the wind. (pp. 12–13)

It was no longer a question of just realizing the main vertical stance. I had become involved more intimately with the figure. (p. 13)

I saw that the line down the centre of the torso, from the pit of the neck, between the nipples, over the navel and between the legs, was like the keel of a boat, that the ribs formed a hull and that the near, relaxed leg dragged on its forward movement like a trailing oar. I saw that the arms hanging either side were like the shafts of a cart, and that the outside curve of the weight-bearing thigh was like the iron rim of a figure on a crucifix. Yet such images, although I have chosen them carefully, distort what I am trying to describe. I saw and recognized quite ordinary anatomical facts; but I also felt them physically — as if, in a sense, my nervous system inhabited his body. (p. 13)

Within that last description we find the creative powers that have shaped human history: mankind has built vehicles to travel the earth and also metaphysical religious systems. Marx described religion as ‘the opium of the people’ but also as, in the less often reported part of that formulation, the ‘sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’ (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). If man was created not by God in his image but during the long process of evolution, then we have literally had a hand in our own creation. Our ancestors made decisions that shaped our bodies in particular ways: to eat the fatty animal tissues and viscera that enabled the brain to expand and the gut to shrink. How could we have culture and politics if we were compelled to spend most of our waking hours chewing vegetation? If you accept the ‘running-man theory of evolution’, then our movement over land shaped our form, evolving the physiological features that would make it easier for us to run long distances.

We have also degraded the body, with poor nutrition leading to the diminishing height of working-class men, which was a problem for states when recruiting soldiers, and working conditions that twisted the human frame out of its shape into one that suited the requirements of the machinery then in vogue. From Capital, vol. 1 (Penguin, 1990):

Apart from the daily more threatening advance of the working-class movement, the
limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity as forced the manuring of
English fields with guano. The same blind desire for profit that in the one case exhausted the soil had in the other case seized hold of the vital force of the nation at its
roots. Periodical epidemics speak as clearly on this point as the diminishing military standard of height in France and Germany. (p. 348)

Dr J. T. Arledge, senior physician of the North Staffordshire Infirmary, says:
“The potters as a class, both men and women, represent a degenerated population, both physically and morally. They are, as a rule, stunted in growth, ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived” (p. 355)

Of course, ‘we’ are not collectively responsible for such harm done to humans; it results from class rule and the decisions made by some to exploit others. Some positive developments, such as shortening the length of the working day as described above, aim at stabilizing or furthering the needs of the capitalist class as a whole. While worth having, we have no need to feel grateful to oppressors for such measures and we might do rather better.

To identify with the artist as the drawer, rather than the painting as an object, is to acknowledge the creative power that is ours by birthright, and through which we can shape the world and human life according to positive or negative designs. When Berger drew the man, the line centring the figure was like the keel of a boat, and the artist was like a sailor responding to conditions. In drawing the human, Berger confronts and engages with the creative powers he possesses.

Posted in Art

3 thoughts on “Drawing the Human

  1. As a teacher i’m particularly interested in where you discuss ‘failure as a possibility’ in drawing. The majority of primary children appear to view drawing in the mechanistic way: they aim to produce an accurate replica of the object, and to not do so is deemed as an inability to ‘do’ art and so they give up.

    “But i’m no good at art Miss.”
    “I can’t draw.”

    I really like the freedom and creative potential of not just accepting the possibility of failure but of the fluid and dynamic relationship the grows as the drawer continually reflects as marks are made.

    I wonder if this is something I can explore with my class in the coming year? Will they appreciate their own art more with an increased focus on the choices and creativity involved in the process of drawing rather than simply the end result?


    1. I think so! We sort of reinforce that idea when we give feedback like ‘that really looks like the object’, but verisimilitude is not the only thing in drawing. Skill is good but confidence is at least as important, and anxious drawers will never reach their potential, I think. Some kids will be more interested in colour than form and that’s ok too! Let me know how you get on x


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