Low-tech, laborious and ancient - it could be the next big thing

Contemporary artists are falling for the charms and challenges of drawing again
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The Independent Online

The ability to draw is one of the three talents I would most like to have. But, strangely, I've never felt particularly interested in artists' drawings. There just didn't seem to be enough bang for the buck. Like many contemporary art aficionados I relegated drawing to the margins of art-making as the gentile activity of princes and rectors, or a useful tool for pain-ters, sculptors and architects. It seemed hardly substantial enough to satisfy on its own.

The ability to draw is one of the three talents I would most like to have. But, strangely, I've never felt particularly interested in artists' drawings. There just didn't seem to be enough bang for the buck. Like many contemporary art aficionados I relegated drawing to the margins of art-making as the gentile activity of princes and rectors, or a useful tool for pain-ters, sculptors and architects. It seemed hardly substantial enough to satisfy on its own.

So when an invitation arrived earlier this year asking me to serve as one of four judges for the fifth annual Cheltenham & Gloucester School of Fine Art Open Drawing Competition, my curiosity prompted me to accept. There was something else at work, too. Having been subjected like everyone else to the unceasing assault of the moving and manipulated image, I had found myself craving the low-tech products of less-mediated connections between hand, mind and eye. And the least mediated and most highly charged connection of all is drawing. "Drawings," said the American sculptor David Smith, "tell the truth about an artist."

David Connearn, the winner of the Cheltenham competition, uses pen and ink, pencil, rubbers and, in one case, an empty Biro to make the drawings which are, since his time as a sculpture student at Camberwell, his sole form of art-making. Connearn says that his drawing is "not a record of any cerebral intention" but "indicates what is going on in and around me." He disowns any interest in what it looks like. For him, it simply registers the conditions of the moment: his emotional state and level of energy; the weight of his touch, the reach of his arm; the temperature and humidity of the air; the quality of the paper he is using. Connearn cites as influences his training as a gymnast, the early drawings of conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (for whom he once worked) and minimalist painter Agnes Martin who for many other artists as well "reinvented" drawing with her large canvasses on which horizontal graphite and coloured pencil lines depict her reactions to the desert landscape in which she lives.

Looking, really looking, at the competition's 1,300 entries with fellow judges Tate curator Anthony Brighton, critic Mel Gooding and the British Council's Head of Visual Arts, Isobel Johnstone, was an interesting lesson. First of all, it was very hard work. Drawing could be deemed the shyest of the arts and, like shy people, requires long and close attention for appreciation. Many of the current crop of younger artists have been conditioned to seek instant gestures of authority, a role that drawing with its quieter, more intimate nature cannot fulfil. And ravenous audiences expect instant gratification. Which may explain why drawing has been side-lined since the 1970s when it was dropped from the curriculum of most art schools. Tracey Emin's current fame rests on the voyeuristic thrill of her My Bed, but she maintains that her sketches and drawings are the crucial core of her artistic life. "I've always drawn," she says, "I tend to do batches in a stream-of-consciousness-way of working. I might make 50 drawings in two days, a few of which are good, most are okay and some are awful, but I like to show them all. They may take only two minutes each to do but that's what I like about it because I don't have time to think. When I was in Berlin recently for a show, I had terrible nightmares, and when I woke up I made drawings of them. Once I'd done the drawings I wasn't affected by the bad dreams anymore." Emin was so keen on drawing at the start of her career that, while the ground-breaking early shows of YBAs were happening in outlying areas of London, she was on a Swiss mountaintop drawing "donkeys and pretty flowers." Then, in 1991, she smashed all her work, all, that is, except for her drawings because, says Emin, "they were my life." Emin's preoccupation with the line reveals itself in her latest work in the form of crochet cotton, neon tube and "reverse" drawings in which she works backwards and arrives at a two-sided drawing created when the ink flows through the paper.

The first of three newly established drawing residencies at Wimbledon School of Art has been given to Vong Phaophanit, better known for his large installations such as the field of rice grains shown at the Tate a few years ago. For him, drawing is a vital part of the process of making his work. Wimbledon now offers the only MA in drawing in the country, and on 30 November launches the nation's only Drawing Centre. Wimbledon's Director of Research William Furlong says that he wants to revive drawing - which is about process - to counteract the pressure of modern art to be concerned with product.

Furlong describes drawing as a "more intimate level of engagement." It is just that level of intimacy which drives some artists to keep their drawings private. The Royal Academy's Norman Rosenthal relates how Michelangelo burned his drawings because they were "his private world." The only works that survived were stolen from his studio. "I love looking at drawings," says Rosenthal, "because they represent an artist's first thoughts."

Recent acquisitions by the British Museum's Keeper of Prints and Drawings, Frances Carey, include works by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Emin and sculptors Richard Deacon and Antony Gormley. Carey has been acquiring 20th-century drawings since her arrival 25 years ago, and her department now supports BM's fastest-growing collection. But she acknowledges that the widespread view of drawing is that it is an "old-fashioned" art that has become "tarnished by its association with a rigid academic tradition."

Many undergraduate art schools have done away with all forms of drawing classes. Stephen Buckley, Head of Fine Arts at the University of Reading, says that some students - particularly those who feel that painting is under threat from electronic media - are now asking for instruction in drawing, even life classes. Some interest fades away, he reports, when they realise how rigorous a discipline drawing is. Buckley characterises the school's policy as the artistic equivalent of the just-in-time method for manufacturing, that young artists should be taught to develop the skills they need to do the work they want to do. Artist and former Chair of Visual Arts at Goldsmith's College Michael Craig-Martin found the drawing classes he had "wonderfully useful." But it's worth noting that the teacher credited with the emergence of the first generation of YBAs felt no need to offer drawing classes to his students because he felt that they would learn not to draw but to "be academic."

Meanwhile, at the Royal College of Art, one of the most passionate advocates for a renewed respect for the discipline of drawing is Professor of Drawing Deanna Petherbridge. "Drawing is after all," she says, "one of the most basic instincts we have." She rephrases Ingres' statement that "drawing is the probity of art" as the strongly-held view that "drawing is the integrity of art," and since 1997 has run a PhD programme and research centre for drawing. She is convinced that the notion of the Duchampian ready-made that superseded drawing has now been taken as far as it can go: "The young will need to learn drawing because, in abandoning it, they have denuded their own vocabulary."

Just over 11,000 people visited last year's CGSFA Open Competition exhibition, now the largest open drawing competition in Britain. According to its director Anita Taylor, this year's work is significantly different from that of the past. The number (and calibre) of submissions is up, and there is more abstract work.

So drawing isn't dead. The Cheltenham results provide reassuring evidence that, despite the pressures at work today, including those of the art market itself, there are those who can delight and trouble or, in Barnett Newman's words, "make it new" with the simple means of the unadorned line.

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