Line and Essence

Lately, I’ve been looking at some really big ideas. I’d like to focus in on the practice of drawing again, specifically, the work that lines do. I noted an “airiness” in my “Zen drawings” in my post, “The Paradox of Zen Drawing,” a characteristic not shared by all line drawings. How did I achieve this “airiness, if not by mere virtue of their being line drawings?” To what extent does the line play a role in expressing the essence of what is being depicted?

Below are some sketches/drawings of my own, which I’ll use to consider two major elements, quality of line and overall “gesture.”


The above are abstract drawings of kitchenware in pastel, and the below were drawn in color pencils. They are all very static, like they’re in repose, but the pastel drawings are more grainy and less fine.

When composing a line drawing, I learned to really appreciate the fact that all lines have two sides, and each side has an edge; the appearance of which, even from arm’s length, can influence the quality/nature of a drawing. For example, when the edges of the sides of the lines are more smooth, the drawing looks more polished, literally, and has a more refined quality, even though the flow of the lines are the same.

Now, the pastel drawings were drawn on Chinese water color paper, which has the same consistency as tissue paper but is more durable, while the color pencil drawings are drawn on drawing paper (in my sketchbook), and the below drawing was drawn in ink and on paper that feels like parchment paper. The first is much more transparent than the others and is a great contrast to the heaviness of the pastel, while the parchment paper’s weightiness makes it feel more sturdy and matches very well with the quality of the lines. It is the thickness of the lines, supported by the durability of the paper, which expresses the “gesture” of the subject being in repose, even steadfast.


The artist’s hand and approach.

I’m tempted to separate one’s execution from one’s approach, but I’m not sure if I could, in practice. The above was drawn while I was in a particular frame of mind: I was in China (teaching English) and missing home, and maybe my emotional response was to be strong and steadfast. I especially missed my books and access to a local library in which the books were in English. I began thinking about Van Gogh’s drawings of women with their bonnets on. I focused not on the image, per se, in my head, but the feeling I felt when thinking about the image. It wasn’t of strength but it may have been of repose. I can’t find the source image. It may have been a composite of a variety of drawings/paintings by Van Gogh, or, come to think of it, I may have been thinking about a drawing by another artist altogether, Portrait de femme, buste, by Albrecht Durer. In any case, it was a response to both an idea of a drawing by somebody else and to my circumstances.

Gaa Wai at Society6, Bottle 9 x 12, blank

The above was drawn in marker and on drawing paper (in my sketchbook), and the choice to use two different colors was deliberate. I drew this the day before I began drawing my “Zen drawings,” and I was looking at a bottle of soy sauce. I liked the idea of the two lines interacting with each other and being able to see this interaction.

I realize that one’s approach to a drawing includes one’s intent, and that opens up the discussion to… well, everything again. So sticking to my examples…

Gaa Wai at Society6, Dress

For the last two drawings, I used a fine gel pen and they are again from my sketchbook. For the above, I was following the lines (or illusions of various “lines”) of a dress. I liked the idea of it appearing to float in front of a window with the sunlight streaming through its threads and into the room. It wasn’t just the dress that guided me; it was also an idea of the dress and a feeling of nostalgia from the idea.

For the drawing below, I was guided not by an idea or even a particular feeling, not initially; but only the flow of the lines I could see. When I started to see or feel a sense of “airiness,” I began to cheat a little, making up lines or connecting lines I could see with some imaginary ones, knowing that the overall idea would be same. In short, the idea was manifested out of what I could observe by looking at the bag, and from this, I had an “airy” kind of response.

Gaa Wai at Society6, Bag

Frederick Fanck was searching for the essence of his subjects via drawing them. I imagine that, to do so, Franck would have to see a subject as a whole, or an idea of the subject, as opposed to focusing only on a single, visible aspect, but I am only speculating, as Franck’s descriptions of his experiences with Zen drawing were emotional and not technical.

I was deconstructing the appearance of my subjects, by focusing on the lines or illusions of “lines” which I could see. I was not thinking of the bag as a whole, nor did I think of a feeling I could’ve associated with the bag, the way I associated a feeling with the dress, so I can say that my drawing was a response to what I was seeing but not the bag itself.

I want to say I was doing what Franck was doing, but I don’t think I can (or not what he believed he was doing), because what I focused on (lines) was not really a “visible aspect” of my subject; rather, “lines” are the product of some process we’ve developed for perceiving our outer world and, thus, abstract ideas. Zen drawing is supposed to be the practice of one connecting with everything else, and focusing on abstract ideas requires one to look inward in order to create something that is not perceivable outside of oneself.


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