Last week I was invited by an old friend, the artist Nina Pope, to join an online Zoom conversation with a long-standing discussion group of artists she has been part of for twenty years. It was a real pleasure to gather with artists who are based all over the country, and have a thoughtful, unhurried conversation with them about some of the things I’ve been reading and thinking and writing about in this blog.
One question that came up has lingered in my mind. We were talking about the differences or similarities between drawing and writing and sharing some observations about our respective ways of working.
As a self-confessed introvert, I’ve long since made my peace with the fact that I do my best thinking when I am off somewhere by myself rather than within the cut and thrust of conversation. But I do love how other people’s ideas and questions spark new thoughts, open new questions, suggest new avenues, sending ripples out that go on long after the conversation has ended. So I have been coming back to this question off and on since then.
Because I often draw and write with basically the same tools – pen and paper. Both writing and drawing this way involve accumulating thousands of small marks; I begin a lot of my writing freehand, in big notebooks, in a scrawling looping longhand script and many of my drawings emerge as dense accumulations of lines, circles, loops.
Here’s a short video I made last year that recorded the process of drawing ‘Squall’. Physically, it’s much the same as writing.
I’m also often exploring the same core subject in both. Most recently, this subject has been the movements of water around me here in Orkney, a starting point that leads to thinking also about time, connection, creativity and place.
Both drawing and writing are ways to entrain the mind’s erratic attention and bring it to bear on a specific subject in a focused way, just as Czsikszentmihalyi explains in his work on the psychology of ‘flow’ states. But the nature of that attention is, I think, subtly different in each.
Attention and writing
Writing invites the mind follow a line to its end, keeps it focussed on shaping a single thought or narrative. In the act of writing the mind chases the moving pen, or the fingers as they fly over the keyboard. When I’m writing I notice that I often feel resistance, distraction, boredom, confusion and I have to gently draw the mind back, again and again and again, to the subject at hand. I’m writing to work something out, to find a connection, to record a place or an event, to understand something that’s puzzling me. Writing is deliberative.
When I sit down to start writing I find there’s often a tougher layer of resistance to break through than with drawing. It’s just as absorbing once I get going, but I can’t maintain the concentration on writing for quite as long as I can when drawing. It’s more mentally tiring somehow.
Drawing is more open, more physical and rhythmical. It involves materials that respond and interact with each other in different and sometimes unpredictable ways. There’s more space in the process. Sometimes it’s a very long process indeed and the whole thing becomes as much about recording time’s passage through the marks left by my repeated movements, as about representing anything visual. Drawing is contemplative.
Drawing is a more porous container for thought than writing. It’s perhaps more holistic. It could be to do with the different flavours of left brain and right brain thought, an idea that makes me want to revisit Ian McGilchrist’s magisterial study on this The Master and His Emissary soon. I can often listen to music or audiobooks when I’m drawing, but never when I’m writing. For writing I need silence. I think that reveals something about the difference between the two processes.
There’s also something comforting about drawing. I’ve drawn regularly since childhood, and I wrote about the space it offered me in my book The Clearing. The South African artist William Kentridge observed this too. When his daughter became seriously ill he found that ‘However terrible I was feeling, after two hours in the studio working there would be a kind of calm. It had to do with the rhythm of physically moving or walking, or making, of dealing with materials, of that conversation between yourself and the object that’s being made on the sheet of paper, and it felt…like a physical comfort’
I find that writing and drawing are in conversation with each other. That conversation, like the one I shared with Nina and her friends the other night, opens up new ideas, curiosities and creative possibilities.