I read a story recently where a zen master was painting bamboo with red ink. One of his students told him that was stupid because bamboo isn’t red. To which the master replied, “Oh, right- because bamboo is black?”
This made me laugh because of a similar realization I had as a child. I remember riding in the car, thinking about drawings I had seen- illustrations in books, animations, etc. These drawings all had black lines bordering the shapes and defining key elements. Part of my curiosity was that I couldn’t figure out how black lines shifted as positions changed- as in, the lines that look like such a physical reality in drawings would have to be in near constant motion if they were really bordering all solid things or defining facial expressions, wrinkles, dimples and other surface details. So I was looking around for black lines bordering things.
I remember clearly holding my hand up against the window looking at the edge between my hand and the sky. I was trying to make out the black line, and I think I sincerely thought I would find one if I looked hard enough. I remember looking at the creases of my knuckles, because those often get black lines too in illustrations of hands. The interior of the car was black, and so there were places deep in the shadowed creases where elements joined that were basically black lines, but that didn’t seem to quite count since the base color was black- and even then the light shining on it meant it wasn’t all the same black… I went back to examining my hand against the sky in the background.
I finally had to admit that I could see my hand and the sky behind it was simply where my hand, well, wasn’t. I couldn’t make out a black line. It just was my hand. And what made it my hand was all the hand-characteristics of color, shape, texture, etc. What made the sky behind it sky was the sky-characteristics of color, texture, shape, etc.
Interestingly, this was a hard reality for my little brain to accept and I concentrated on the edge- the very edge of my hand against the blue. I remember feeling a little duped by drawings. If the black lines weren’t real, what were they? It seemed more likely they didn’t exist outside of drawings, this made sense. However, I reasoned that to really draw a hand, one must draw all the “inside parts” of the hand- the fine lines of the skin and the subtle shifts of value. I was probably five years old and this was a daunting discovery.
I wish I had some of my very young drawings to see if I can spot evidence of this thinking in them. I don’t believe I’m the only kid who’s made this discovery, or at least a version of it. Children’s drawings are strange and idiosyncratic because they lack motor skills and a set of symbols, so there’s a rawness to the translation of the visual1. For example, one of my brothers would draw human eyes as though they were gigantic bicycle wheels with elaborate spokes out from the hub of the pupil. What he was looking at was the iris of the eye- the radial colors, peaks and valleys. My untestable hypothesis is that, along my same lines of thinking, he had questioned the “eyes are black dots or white circles with black dots inside” that he was seeing in illustrations and cartoons. He was looking carefully, deeply, deliberately at eyes. I remember him looking very carefully at mine. The drawings are, of course, very strange, but I can’t say that they don’t look like “real” eyes. Why wouldn’t they? Because eyes are just black dots, the zen master would wryly say?
Years later I was taught to draw by bringing values up to the edges of things, letting the contrast of value and mark suggest lines. There are a number of exercises dealing with this- using large flat pieces of charcoal, lifting graphite or charcoal off paper with an eraser, filling in negative space with flat values. It’s a strangely unsteady way to draw, especially if one works without the help of lightly sketched lines that define the borders of things. Lines are fine, but I’ve begun to think of them as a sort of language in drawing. In the same way thoughts can be expressed with many human languages, there are many methods of mark-making that translate the visual, and lines are one of these. They are not what we see, they describe what we see. They are visual words that point to the meaning.
In the case of drawing something, one is interacting with the subject primarily with one sense- sight. As with many things, we can be very unaware that our experience of reality is shaped by filters we have in our minds, like the black lines of a drawing one doesn’t find when looking at one’s own hand.
So, how does one draw without mark making? Or maybe stretch this question- does one, should one, could one draw without mark making?2 I don’t know and, although it’s fun to think about, it’s not currently relevant. The thing is, we live here in this body and with these senses translating information into our minds and our constructed meanings back out. The meanings we build in the act of drawing describe our experience of reality. Or maybe they translate in marks the translation of information filtered through our senses. Don’t be fooled that this somehow inherently negates the meaning. Take a closer look at what meaning is. Being in the space with the subject, seeing it as accurately as possible with as few extra layers as possible, this is what builds connection and deep listening. Which, at least to me, feels meaningful. Use lines, values, shapes and marks to point at your experience, but understand that the bamboo is neither black nor red.
1 Caveat: there is a lot going on in children’s drawings related to much more than simply visually processing. I claim no expertise in child development, just sharing what I’ve observed and how it relates to my thinking on drawing in general.
2 There are artists playing with this idea if you’d like to see someone drawing without mark making. I’m working with a deliberately small definition of drawing to keep this discussion from sprawling too far.