Drawing as a principle medium, or, “why I love drawing” (Part One)

a drawing at 3 stages

As an artist I’ve always been drawing, even when my professed medium has been painting, collage & assemblage, photography, or printmaking.

“I still come closest to success with drawing.”

Paul Klee, .

It’s been said before that drawing trains the eye in observation and composition, and helps develop a personal visual vocabulary, but all these seem to imply that drawing is nothing but a training exercise—a warm-up before the main event.

Recent drawing by Paul Watson

1. One of my Blindfolded Seeress drawings in its early stages

I think this misses the fundamental importance of drawing as a medium in itself, at least for my artistic practice. Relegating drawing to a subsidiary role to—for example—painting is as erroneous as dismissing painting as merely “colouring in”.

It probably sounds like I’m getting a bit defensive about drawing, and I’ll plead guilty to that. Drawing is still looked down upon by both galleries and art collectors as a “lower” form of art. Whether this is because drawings generally command a lower financial price or whether they’re less expensive because they’re considered as mere artistic training exercises or preparatory work for painting is up for question, but I suspect it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. As hinted at in the first few lines of this post, I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past.

Recent drawing by Paul Watson

2. The same drawing after some additional work

I now understand that drawing underlies everything I do as an artist.

This is my conclusion: drawing forms the spine of my artistic practice, a central core that everything else hangs off or is derived from. Every piece of non-drawing artwork feeds back into my drawings, informing them and enabling my drawing practice to progress and grow.

This is not meant to propose a new hierarchy of artforms, with all other media being seen as subsidiary to drawing. That would be as wrong as the “traditional” demotion of drawing to a supporting role. I simply view drawing as the continuous thread that binds all my work together.

This is not a unique view these days:

“The most recent revival of drawing as a primary medium for making art began in the mid-1990s, and, over the past decade, it has revealed the versatility of this sometimes trivialised mode of production.”

Matthew Biro, .

“As far as I can tell, there’s been a real change in the past 15 years. Key artists—William Kentridge, Raymond Pettibon, Jim Shaw, Toba Khedoori, Kara Walker, to mention just a few—have chosen drawing as their principle medium or as a significant part of a multi-disciplined practice.”

Kate Macfarlane, .

Going back to the 1960s, artists such as Eva Hesse were explicit in their insistence on drawing as a primary medium.

Mark-making is the basis of drawing. These marks can have a huge range—clean and strictly linear or textured and tonal, loose and gestural or structured and controlled—but it’s still all mark-making.

Recent drawing by Paul Watson

3. Nearly finished

I love William Kentridge’s description of drawing with charcoal, which very closely matches my feeling of my own process, even if the results are very different:

“This process [of drawing] is usually very fast to begin with. I work with charcoal and charcoal dust, and within the first minute, the large expanse of white paper can be turned into a dirty grey. I'll put lines across it, finding vague geographies of where things will go, and then the process of drawing is the remaining hours or days it takes to work through the drawing.”

William Kentridge, .

This idea of “finding vague geographies” is an interesting one, and it echoes throughout a lot of other artists’ descriptions of drawing as an exciting and exploratory process, as illustrated by the following quote-fest:

“Sketches always have more vitality than paintings because you're finding things out through doing them.”

Paula Rego

“Drawing is rather like playing chess: your mind races ahead of the moves that you eventually make.”

David Hockney,

“Drawing is putting a line around an idea.”

Henri Matisse

So drawing lends itself to experimentation. In part two (coming at some point in the not-too-distant future) I’ll be looking in more detail at other artists who have used drawing as a primary medium.


  1. Biro, M. (). Contemporary developments in drawing. Contemporary 21, 83 (Special issue on Drawing), 20-23.
  2. Cashdan, M., & Krause C. (). Vitamin D2: New perspectives in drawing. London: Phaidon Press.
  3. Grant, C. (). David Hockney's instant iPad art. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11666162.
  4. Kantor, J., & Zabel, I. (). Vitamin D: New perspectives in drawing. London: Phaidon Press.
  5. Kentridge, W. (). Artist William Kentridge on charcoal drawing. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/sep/19/charcoal-drawing-william-kentridge.
  6. Klee, F. (Ed.). (). The diaries of Paul Klee: -. (Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published )
  7. Petherbridge, D. (). The primacy of drawing: histories and theories of practice. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  8. Shariatmadari, D. (). Drawing lessons: David Shariatmadari talks to George Negroponte and Kate Macfarlane. Contemporary 21, 83 (Special issue on Drawing), 14-19.
  9. de Zegher, C. (). Drawing as Primary Medium [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.walkerart.org/channel/2006/drawing-as-primary-medium.

Note: The finished drawing can be seen (properly photographed!) in my drawing gallery on this site.