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Drawing as a Way of Knowing in Art and Science

Drawing as a Way of Knowing in Art and Science

by Gemma Anderson


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Available for Pre-Order. This item will be available on June 15, 2019

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781789380576
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 06/15/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 275
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gemma Anderson is a research fellow at the University of Exeter in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology and the Living Systems Institute, and a lecturer in drawing at Falmouth University.

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On drawing as a way of knowing

This chapter focuses on drawing as a way of knowing that requires engagement with scientific collections and specimens. As an artist, I have been working with museum specimens since 2006, mainly studying the resemblance between animal, mineral and vegetable species through the collections of The Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens and University College London. This work has been based on the hypothesis that a group of underlying morphological characteristics (forms and symmetries) are shared by animal, mineral and vegetable species.

Although this work is nested in the emerging field of 'drawing research', it is distinctive in its proposal of observational and conceptual drawing practice as a way of knowing form and formative process, as inspired by Goethe's morphology. Thus, the recursive nature of this research relates to what Daniel Zeller identifies as a goal of artistic research 'to discover a new vocabulary and new rules that can be incorporated back into the process, like a feedback loop, allowing the cycle to expand and evolve' (Zeller 2011).

Artistic research generally, and drawing in particular, is now recognized as a form of interrogation (Holert 2011). In this work, I employ drawing as a method to interrogate the forms, symmetries and formations of animal, mineral and vegetable structures and to offer 'artistic visualization as critique' (Ambrosio 2014: 134–37). Building on this initial framework, more specific details of how these methods have been developed and then shared with others are outlined in each of the subsequent chapters of this book.

A short note on objectivity

At this point, let me elaborate on the concept of objectivity, which will assist the understanding of the nature of this artistic practice within a scientific context. The purpose here is not to critique science or to diminish its aspirations, but to encourage a thoughtful understanding of its nature and to make the links between scientific practice and artistic practice clearer: artistic practice cannot be purely subjective just as scientific practice cannot be purely objective; rather, both have elements of subjectivity and objectivity at the same time.

If we look back a few centuries, the Enlightenment programme depended on the disenchantment of nature (Ravetz 1989: 105), but it did not depend on objectivity, at least not as we conceive the term today. Daston and Galison propose that objectivity was introduced around 1830 as a conceptual framework for looking, seeing and representing that lasted until the middle of the twentieth century (2010: 371). They also establish that rather than objectivity being an enduring foundational framework within which scientists have always operated, it actually only lasted for around one hundred years before being replaced in the mid-twentieth century by the idea of the 'trained judgment' of skilled experts who have undergone an educational and practical training programme appropriate to their chosen field (Daston and Galison 2010: 309–63). In Art, Science and Cultural Understanding, Brett Wilson refers to Daston and Galison (2010: 260–61) when he describes the sustained attachment to the concept of objectivity, saying that

[...] the frequently-repeated sentiments of contemporary scientists that their theories and experimental work are all based on some form of 'objective reality' that can be independently accessed by carefully structured experiments and the removal of personal bias is a position that effectively conflates two separate philosophical stances: that of structural objectivity, as outlined above, coupled to scientific realism, which claims that scientific theories are not just useful, but true in some sort of absolute sense.

(Wilson et al. 2014: 15)

Science now seems to be abandoning the idea of an absolute and unchanging truth as implied by disembodied scientific realism, and relies instead on a more flexible narrative based on internal consistency, testability and falsifiability.

Drawing as a way of knowing

In what follows, I open a discussion of drawing, touching upon various subjects: drawing and decision-making, observational drawing, drawing and memory, drawing and the tacit, drawing and the haptic. This discussion aims to build a rationale for drawing as a way of knowing. As a practice that can generate and communicate knowledge across disciplines, drawing is employed throughout this work to investigate, synthesize and communicate the shared forms and symmetries of animal, mineral and vegetable species. The process of drawing can 'make visible' (Klee 1973: 21) relations between things that otherwise remain invisible. As an embodied, volitional activity, drawing involves more than can be expressed in language. The later section 'Drawing and the tacit' aims to capture the explicit aspects of this connection and to account for aspects of the practice that resist systematic description.

This matrix provides an overview of the range of methods involved in this study, which are discussed in detail in the following sections.

Drawing and decision-making

When reflecting on the personal and experience-led drawing process, in which the subject and the object are constantly being negotiated, I am reminded of Nietzsche's statement: 'There are no facts, only interpretations' (Nietzsche 2011: 89). Scientific work often aims to neutralize any subjective mediation involved in interpretation, whereas in this work the subjectivity of drawing enables the selection of what is interpreted whilst remaining connected to the observation of 'objective' morphological characteristics. Drawing creates a communicable common ground where these morphological characteristics can be negotiated and re-positioned, and this is a useful exercise for art as well as science. In this way, drawing offers a particular form of objectivity: one that allows for the priorities of the individual. The lived character of drawing experience requires a first-person perspective on the object of study. Also the interplay between subjective and objective work is central to this practice, which will sometimes be described from a first-person perspective.

In Objectivity, Daston and Galison identify concrete practices of abstract reason by Enlightenment naturalists as 'selecting, comparing, judging, generalizing' (2010: 70). Drawing involves continuous selective decision-making over time, and feedback between the drawer and the drawn. As the driver of the drawing, the human is both the technology and the mediator. Drawing – as mediation – is different to a photograph or digital image because there is no (non-biological) mechanism or external process between the drawer and the drawn. Drawing requires the drawer to select salient information (Anderson 2014a), which varies depending on individual experience. The drawing process also involves feedback: as dynamic sensory transference from the optic to the kinaesthetic to the haptic that requires concentration and interactive decision-making.

Observational drawing

Goethe describes how 'every act of looking leads to observation, observation to reflection, reflection to combination, in every attentive look on nature we already theorize' (Goethe in Seamon 1998: 57). Concentrated observation within the act of drawing creates new perceptual knowledge. Morphological information can be observed in detail, thus activating the process of comparison; each form observed stimulates a new understanding and joins a 'bank' of formal knowledge in the observer's mind. Each new drawing experience then triggers a different formal memory 'stored' in this 'bank'.

Analogies emerge through the act of drawing, allowing resemblance to be discovered rather than invented. Observational drawing therefore allows for the comparison of what is already known and what is observed, and for extending this comparison until what is known, what is drawn and what is observed are relatively consistent, a process that can take years of practice to establish.

The practice of observational drawing, its immediacy, simplicity, open-endedness and spontaneity, enables a heightened awareness of the morphological characteristics in nature. This awareness leads to an ability to quickly recognize morphological characteristics shared across species, which is crucial to the process of working with vast museum collections and busy museum curators to find specimens. Drawing morphological characteristics (of forms and symmetry) approximates to the notation of an isomorphic alphabet: a writing of form, but without the syntax of language. Nelson Goodman's research on notational systems and different sign-systems could provide further context for this kind of visual notational scheme (1976).

Observation consists of the zooming in and zooming out of details. Although it is possible to draw a complete specimen over time (consisting of many morphological parts composited together), the eye cannot perceive all morphological details simultaneously. This is why a drawing, as a medium that can select and represent salient features of morphological characteristics and the whole simultaneously, holds a unique epistemological value. Therefore, any single drawing represents multiple and continuous observational acts of focusing in and out through the connected movement of the hand and the eye, which form a drawn image over time. The drawing then offers a view of an object that is otherwise impossible without the time endured in the patient act of drawing, and allows us to observe and compare details simultaneously.

Drawing museum specimens from life is always an experiment because the individual nature of the specimen can be very unpredictable. The individual variations of specimens bring challenges and surprises to the work, and also to any process of classification (true of both scientific taxonomy and this artistic research). What occurs is an improvised response motivated by ideas and observations, which are reified through engaging with the real. One morphological character can be compared to another and through drawing body parts can merge, transplant and exchange as form takes precedence over scale. In this improvisation, morphology suggests art, and the lengthy and patient observations are rewarded through a joyful and creative experiment in drawing, each with its own individual modifications. Goethe insisted that this combination of insight and synthetic judgement required the observer to detect 'the idea in the observation' (Goethe in Daston and Galison 2010: 233), which approximates to what I have just described. Building on this idea of 'the idea in the observation', Daston and Galison consider that the qualifications necessary to see like a naturalist include synthesis, adding that 'to see like a naturalist required more than just sharp senses: a capacious memory, the ability to analyse and synthesize impressions, as well as the patience and talent to extract the typical from the storehouse of natural particulars' (2010: 58). In the space of the page, the physical distance between museum specimens, normally housed in different parts of the museum, is confounded and allows for 'extra-scientific' comparisons revealing general patterns and processes at different scales and in different orders of being.

Observation, mediation and memory

Drawings can become powerful 'aide memoires' as the result of drawn experience that accumulates as a kind of memory bank of perceptual experiences, which can then be recalled by further drawing experience. In this way, drawing can function as a mnemonic device, which is created and sustained by practice. An important aspect of human memory is the visual sense – viewing a drawing post-production can transport the drawer back to the centre of the experience. Drawing is therefore a way of transforming invisible experience into visible, material and embodied knowledge, which in turn transforms further experience. Drawing exercises the mind through a process that does not cling to any object, but rather transforms through objects of study with emphasis on a creative engagement in the process. As John Berger motioned 'a drawing is an autobiographical record of one's discovery of an event – either seen, remembered or imagined [...] A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see' (Berger 2013). This transformation propels thought towards the next stage of investigative experience. The drawing process challenges the impulse to attach, name and possess and to fade the present into the past prematurely. Drawing therefore extends the ability to experience a subject in and through real time in order to achieve a qualitative object that is the result of its own unique process of making, which cannot be obtained through a quantified exchange.

In the case of the photograph, the camera mediates – and how much agency directs the image from behind the camera is a debate that cannot be fully addressed here. Aspects of the photographic experience are externalized through mediation and therefore impact the observer's work in a different way to drawing experience. Sontag offers an interesting reflection on these differences, 'people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs, [...] the photographic image eclipses other forms of understanding [...] To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture' (2001: 94). It is the length of time spent through drawing experience that increases this ability to 'call up a picture' from the depths of our memory. There are two thoughts here: first the camera mediates through mechanism whereas the drawing mediates through organism, and second that drawing generally takes more time. Drawing tells a story and helps us, as Sontag emphasizes 'to call up a picture'. Viewing a drawing is a way of recalling 'a story' that activates the connection between memory and embodied experience as opposed to recalling an instantaneous picture.

As a process requiring sustained engagement and feedback, drawing is less mechanistic than engagement through a device like a camera or a computer program, in which aspects of the process happen without human interaction. With mechanization some of the mediating process is beyond the reach of human creativity. Photography can freeze an instance, creating a time slice of the dynamic world, whereas drawing can open and unfold an experience through an engagement with a series of connected moments.

Through the act of drawing, time and space are contained and mediated by the drawn line. Drawing allows for an expansion of the subject through a time-based practice. The following is an excerpt from my journal, reflecting on practice:

In the duration of drawing, the past presses against the present enabling a new form to emerge. The process of observational drawing slows the tempo of my visual and embodied experience and provides a contrast to the contemporary 'digital' speed, enabling a strong, time-based connection between the drawer and the drawn. These different speeds, a kind of multi-temporality, are intrinsic to the result of producing different kinds of knowledge. Drawing provides space for thought to form, for decompression and release which is essential for the creation of new ideas.

(Anderson, journal entry, 2014)

One way of looking at drawing is to see it as a honing of the human being as an instrument suitable for scientific or artistic work, an idea that is important to the process of Goethean observation: 'For Goethe, the human being is the most powerful and exact instrument if we take the trouble to sufficiently refine our sensibilities' (Goethe and Naydler 1996: 23). In the dynamic process of drawing, then, the drawer is the mediating instrument as the eye constantly moves over areas of contrast in the dynamic process of seeing. The eye navigates the object searching for lines, structures and patterns, for dark, light and colour. Drawings not only represent the subject they describe but also the embodied human experience of the seeing process itself.

Drawing and the tacit

Michael Polanyi summarizes the idea of tacit knowledge in his work The Tacit Dimension with the assertion that 'we can know more than we can tell' (1967: 4). By this he implies that there is knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated by verbal means, and suggests that all knowledge is rooted in some kind of tacit knowledge. Polanyi tells us that tacit knowledge can be acquired without language and this is part of the reason why it can be difficult to share and to describe. Observation and drawing combine to form tacit and language-less knowledge of the specimen. Therefore drawing, like observation, is its own teacher. Polanyi also tells us that the key to acquiring tacit knowledge is experience and that without some form of shared experience it is difficult for this knowledge to be disseminated. The drawing practices generated through my research can only be shared within a relevant and situated context. As a method for creating an appropriate context, workshops have proven an integral part of the work. The realization of the full potential of drawing as a way of knowing requires the engagement of the drawer, or what Polanyi refers to as 'the knowing subject' (1967).


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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Chapter 1: On drawing as a way of knowing
Chapter 2: On drawing practice in science
Chapter 3: Drawing resemblances and Isomorphology
Chapter 4: Drawing with Goethe’s morphology
Chapter 5: Dynamic form: Klee as artist and morphologist
Chapter 6: Mathematics and art: Notes from an artistic collaboration
Chapter 7: Isomorphogenesis: Drawing a dynamic morphology
Chapter 8: The Cornwall Morphology and Drawing Centre