Abstract Critical

Digital Drawing: from Zero to Hero

Written by Michael Shaw

Noughts and ones; that’s where it starts in theory, at least if we strictly apply the letter of the law. Things cannot be digital unless brought to life through binary means and thus the computer. Accordingly, a chronology of digital drawing should commence with the advent of programmable computer graphics in the 1960s, with artists such as John Whitney. Yet, if we concede a more expansive view of what digital drawing might be, then a lineage can be traced further back. Whilst the two bit switches that drive computer software can be considered the nuts and bolts of digital architecture, then the pixel is its visual consequence. It is how we see what the computer is instructed to show us. Intriguingly, this statement reveals the disconnect between process and outcome that distinguishes digital drawing from its traditional counterpart.

A certain familiarity pervades the highlights of traditional means of drawing, be it one of Leonardo da Vinci’s maelstrom drawings of storms or his turbulent eddies of flowing water; sinuous Zen calligraphy; Joseph Beuys’s delicately spectral pencil drawings; or Richard Serra’s canvases that are thickly coated with paint-stick, and become an equivalent for mass that is drawn directly on the wall. What unites these divergent forms of drawing is how they result from the hand applying pigmented matter to a planar substrate, usually, but not exclusively paper. Thus, the hand crafted drawing, as well as describing its subject, records the physical motion and pressure of the fingers, hand and beyond. Indeed, it can be considered a frozen document of the whole body’s kinesis, in which the means of delivery and its production are one.

Digital drawing has no need for this model; the computed means of its making are dislocated from the screen or device which facilitates its eventual presentation. Of greater intrigue is the eradication of the human body and its motion from the drawn artefact. Anyone having drawn at art school or in front of the life-model appreciates full well the difference between drawing sitting down, hunched up or upright on two feet, free to move and breath and use the whole body to draw, rather than just the wrist at best. The computer not only negates the need for actual movement, it is wholly indifferent to it. At least, this is the case with the mouse as the input device; whereby staccato movements in approximately an inch square can be scaled and translated infinitely. Admittedly, touch screens, gps, gyroscopes and motion capture sensors, such as those exploited by certain games machines, may bring us full circle before long.

In being relieved of the strict relationship between human motion and the linear trace as its consequence, digital drawing can, as previously mentioned, be perceived to have a lineage that precedes the invention of the computer. Early progenitors include for example, Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator, 1930, through which the artist sought to create the effect of a photogram in motion by relying on mechanical, rather than physical movement, to draw. Consisting of a panoply of highly polished metal perforated discs, a sliding ball, glass spiral and various other linear elements. It was lit from within its central core by a powerful light and rotated by a motor to project a series of constantly changing shadows and reflections onto its surroundings; thus drawing itself on the architecture. The artist went further in the dematerialisation of drawing by creating a film derived from the visual effects of his machine. As Sebastiano Barassi notes, Light Play: Black, White and Grey, 1930 “is completely virtual, just a projection of light”[i]. As such, it was a prognostic foretaste of Anthony McCall’s light projections cum drawings, which occupy and animate actual space through static and moving lines of light, some of which are now plotted in the computer and projected digitally.


MOHOLY-NAGY László Light Play – Black, White and Grey, 1930 Film with music, 6 min Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Ann Arbor, Michigan ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011

A decade prior to Moholy-Nagy’s filmic translation of his kinetic sculpture to film, experiments were already underway in abstract animation. The basic struggle to get anything on screen meant that films such as Lightplay – Opus I, 1921 by Walter Ruttmann and Rhythmus 21, 1921 by Hans Richter are relatively simple when compared to Pixar’s current output. Richter’s film in particular seems geometrically blocky and starkly reductive at times; or what might even be described retrospectively as, pixelated. They therefore share a visual connection with some of the earliest computer games, such as the pong tennis games on the Binatone. Despite their fairly basic appearance, these early animations of line and shape retain a vitality due to their visual poetry and exciting incorporation of the fourth dimension; a temporal trait that is central to much digital drawing; with all of its attendant problems and opportunities of start, middle and end, rhythm, cadence and tempo etc.

Naturally, with the invention of the computer, digital drawing could get going for real; or unreal, if you like. John Whitney was one of the pioneers in creating computer graphics, and he eventually set aside commercial imperatives during an artist’s residency at IBM in the mid 1960s, where his abstract animations came to the fore. The most notable of his works include the psychedelic Arabesque, 1975. Many early digital artworks are understandably preoccupied with an exploration of clean colours, dazzling effects of things whizzing around the screen and a general predilection for what might be described as, ‘digital eye candy’, including complex patterns, transforms and fractals. Proportionately less attention was given initially to the binary replication of traditional drawing media. However, exceptions include Charles Csuri, whose earliest drawings in the mid 1960s were outputted using computer controlled plotters. His explorations have continued into the Twenty-First century, with recent time based generative works exploring digital calligraphy.

The explosion in home computing in the 1990s and the arrival of software such as Photoshop, Illustrator and other CAD packages made the power of digital technologies much more widely available, if not ubiquitous. The current proliferation of hand-held computing devices and smart-phones, allied to the internet means content can be delivered pretty much anywhere, and at any time. Whilst knowledge of computer programming is deliberately not a requirement of successfully operating these packages, programming has also shed some of its nerdy aura. The emergence of relatively user friendly languages and platforms such as VVVV and Processing have led to digital branches of generative art, where the computer has replaced mechanical devices, such as Jean Tinguely’s 1960s drawing machines.

In digital generative artworks, the creative process resides in writing the code and/or algorithms that allows variables such as the motion, geometry, colour, shape and linear qualities of drawn visuals to be altered over time. Basic rules are often used, but iterated a great number of times to build up complex works. Once computed into being, the question then arises of how to deliver or present them for public viewing? Clearly, the world wide web eliminates many borders, including those of nation and time; not to mention circumventing the traditional gallery system. Some artists’ digital drawing is rooted in this universality, including Leonardo Soraas, whose Dreamlines translates web searches into a drawing that almost seems hand drawn, but changes in a continual state of flux. Produced by 1,500 particles in perpetual motion, they reveal or obscure lines of the original source image, so that familiar visual motifs float to the surface in a dream-like fashion. Part collage, part drawing and part photograph, it is curiously addictive and generates a stream of quite beautiful images.

Marius Watz, Grid Distortions, 2008

Most generative works gain a certain autonomy from the artist’s control once the script has been set running, including the intriguing drawings engineered by Marius Watz. Interestingly, Watz sometimes translates the digital results back into physical drawings by means of laser cutting and etching plywood, as in his Grid Distortions, 2008.

Eno Henze, THF3, 2007

Another artist apparently somewhat dissatisfied with the digital realm as the exclusive means of disseminating its output, is Eno Henze. His Human Factor drawings are generated by software, yet have the spectral quality of chiffon fabric, as though composed by multiple gossamer threads that seem painstakingly drawn by extra sharp coloured crayons. For the artist this series “emphasises the aspect of a machine made drawing. I tried to develop forms that look so divergent and error strewn and unique, that you would think they are made by a human. But at the same time there is such a great number of these lines aligned in such precision, that only a ma­chine can achieve. Teach a machine to draw like a human and see what happens …”. In Henze’s work, the almost infinite scalability of digital is strikingly apparent, as some pieces have been blown up and printed at a huge scale to command entire gallery walls. In works such as Ambushes, 2008, the pixel is freed from the screen to take on architectural characteristics.

Eno Henze HF3, 2007 Red Ambush, 2008

One might argue that the pixel at its most basic level relates to the square canvas of the Supremacist and one face of the Minimalists’ cube. However, the complexity of its potential composition in relation to millions of compatriots, and how this can change twenty-four times a second, renders it a sophisticated tool in the arsenal of artists. But where does that leave drawing today? I would argue that the very qualities that distinguish digital drawing from its traditional predecessor, are precisely what makes it potentially so interesting. Whilst it still requires something physical to view it, the stuffness of the drawing has become virtual and thus almost infinitely scalable; along with being almost universally deliverable, networks and satellites permitting. Additionally, independent from the motion of the body and its habits and limits, the computer can incite new forms. Indeed, it is unsurprising that the most inventive form generation going on today, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor apart, occurs in architectural practices such as those run by Shigeru Ban, Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito, to mention but a few. Indeed, architecture has welcomed computer aided design and exploits complex parametric modelling and generative scripting such as Grasshopper within Rhino3D, whereas sculpture has not; by and large remaining a manufacturing operation. In contrast, architecture seems a paradigm of the digital definition of line, structure, volume and mass, and therefore leads the way in digital drawing and its possibilities.

Whilst the digital realm is undoubtedly seductive, there’s something vitally human to traditional modes of drawing; whereby the workings are present, the smudges and rubbing out, the mistakes and errors. Somehow, in the cleaned up realm of the digital, where infinite cut, copy and paste are available and where perfection can be honed for as long as time and patience permits, something appears to have gone missing. Something of human frailty and the dirt that accrues under our fingernails. And perhaps this is the challenge for today’s artists, particularly those picking up the baton having grown up and studied within a digital world: how to humanise it. How to draw dirty in the digital realm.













www.centerforvisualmusic.org CVAM – Centre for visual art and music

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ac/tracey/ Tracey – Journal of Contemporary Drawing


[i] Lodder, C. & Hsmmer, M. (2004) Immaterial: Brancusi, Gabo, Moholy-Nagy. Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. p42.

  1. Pip Dickens said…

    This is a very well written article and the references are fresh, intriguing and apt. Very sound knowledge of digital histories and applications too, Mike. I think the point is well made about using digital technology but advancing parameters through skill and knowledge of programming ‘the beast’ to do what you will it to do. I still recall the early computer days when to get it to do anything you actually had to programme it and, therefore, understand absolutely how a computer works! Also, having worked with architects it is a joy to come away from a meeting room strewn with sketches on yellow tissue paper – such is the way of communicating possibilities that have not yet been born – there is something very satisfying about this kind of thinking through drawing. The physical dynamic and sense of time and place that exists in human brain-to-hand (or body) drawing still surpasses, in my view, the clinical yet often fantastic possibilities of the digital. The danger with digital, perhaps, is in over reliance of the parameters of the kit which, ultimately, can restrict both intentions and experimental forays and, worse, turn drawing into designing.

  2. Anthony Carr said…

    Interesting article Mike.
    I feel the same could be said about digital photography, when compared to traditional film photography. I still find digital photography lacks that grubiness, that certain something you speak of. Most ‘failed’ digital photographs never get seen, instead are deleted, so quite often supposed mistakes are lost. When in fact those very mistakes could be the most interesting photograph taken that day.

    One difference perhaps between computer aided drawing and traditional drawing is that both seem to be able to co-inhabit as different genres. Whereas digital photography seems to be steam-rolling over tradional photography in a way.

    Thanks for the thoughts Mike