Outlines, Gimpel Fils, London

Pen and pencil point the way

In 1995, Michael Craig-Martin curated an excellent exhibition, Drawing the Line, which brought together drawings from prehistory to the present, placing them in unusual juxtapositions that encouraged the viewer to reappraise many of the works. Craig-Martin claimed that drawings are "the great secret of art: vast in number, mostly unknown, often thought of as secondary, rarely reproduced, and, because of their sensitivity to light, seldom seen".

Part of what attracted him to drawings was their characteristics of modesty and intimacy, qualities that accord with modern sensibilities. Drawings also have a spontaneity that is essentially different from the worked, formal composition of a painting.

The outline has a double role. It marks the surface of the paper or canvas, while establishing a structure that allows the viewer to contemplate a particular object. Within the drawing, there is a sense of experimentation and directness, as well as a certain rawness, which appeals to the contemporary mindset. For the drawing functions as a mental map; it delineates the passage of creativity, revealing the artist's processes, vulnerabilities and fragilities. Within the drawing there is no place to hide; hiatuses, erasures and doubts are all visible. It is as close as possible to getting inside the artist's head.

Now Gimpel Fils has come up with its own version of the idea, bringing together art works made since the late 1940s. But, being a commercial exhibition, the range of work is rather more restricted and, unlike the original Craig-Martin show, there aren't the same interesting pairings and juxtapositions that encourage comparison between very disparate drawings, the old and the new.

Robert Adams's Figure Studies of 1949 reveal the figure in movement and have the quality of Eadweard Muybridge photographs. The viewer is able to follow the development of his marks and shapes as his sketches become increasingly abstract, while Claude Heath's drawings, images of Ben Nevis (contact prints on fibre paper, made in 2006) look like black and white diagrams of internal circuitry or neural pathways.

By contrast, the layered black ink drawings on tracing paper by Hannah Maybank have the quality of architectural or draughtsman's plans and mark the intersection between the initial idea and its completion as final painting.

It takes a bit of looking to realise that the outline of Julian Opie's black "flocked" painting reveals the human figure through a minimum of graphic lines that have removed all extraneous detail, while Andrew McDonald's DVD John and the Machine, with its scratchy animated lines, conveys something of the quality of William Kentridge's surreal animations but without his sociopolitical subtext.

Patrick Caulfield's 1973 Paris Separates, a black and white striped awning above a shop front painted with meticulous care in oil on board, is a witty melding of text and visuals and still looks surprisingly modern.

But it is Ben Nicholson's etchings, with their economy of line and their meditations of form and balance, that are among the most satisfying works in the show. And Craig-Martin himself makes a guest appearance with his Untitled (Self Portrait No 6) of 2005, which demonstrates that, for him, the outline is an essential artistic tool. Through the linking of disparate everyday objects, such as a shoe, a camera, a pair of sun glasses and a table, he invites us to reconsider how we perceive our ordinary, daily world, which, through familiarity, we hardly see.

Drawings have a tendency to feel fresh and modern whatever period they come from. This is largely because of the quality of economy that we have come to value and associate with 20th- and 21st-century art. Yet all too often they are seen as an afterthought, modest "secondary" works that are merely the preparations to the finale of the painting. An artist who practises or works in drawing is often dismissed as a mere draughtsman. This exhibition reminds us that that is certainly not the case.

To 5 April (020-7493 2488)