The great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, dubbed ‘the eye of the twentieth century,’ abandoned photography in the last decades of his life to pursue drawing. He had been a painter loosely associated with the Surrealist movement, and is said to have destroyed his own paintings before he took to photography in the 1930s. In a little T&H edition on the master, Clement Cheroux writes that HCB considered the two forms – drawing and photography – to be quite distinct. Photography was for him ‘the spontaneous impulse of a constant visual attentiveness, which grasps the moment and its own eternity.’ Drawing, in contrast, was something that ‘elaborates on what our consciousness has captured of that moment.’ Photography, he said, is an immediate reaction, but drawing, a meditation.
The artist and designer Milton Glaser (of ‘I Heart NY’ fame) in a drawing video recently posted on Open Culture says that drawing for him is a fundamental way of knowing the world, of seeing the world better, an instrument to understand the reality of life. He also highlights the distinction between two ‘games’ of drawing from life (for accuracy) and expressive drawing.
I have noticed that drawing from life makes me more attentive to the world. I suddenly begin to see a whole lot of details in the same scene that my eye hadn’t noticed, or my mind had otherwise not apparently registered (maybe the information goes directly to the subconscious?) But when drawing, we become attentive to everything, or, as Glaser says, it makes one conscious. There is something terribly frustrating at first about drawing from life. And often in between one wants to simply get up and run. But if we overcome that, drawing from life can be very rewarding. In fact, the whole process seems rather similar to the way practitioners write about their experience of ‘mindfulness’ therapy.
It took me several hours of patience, and holding my wandering mind to attention, before I finished this piece.