Abstract Critical

Drawing in Abstract Painting: Ten Perspectives

Graham Boyd, Black Magic, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 131 cm

Graham Boyd, Black Magic, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 131 cm

The Tate’s forthcoming show of Matisse’s Cut Outs serves as a reminder that this artist was one of the two most outstanding draughtsmen of the 20th Century. It doesn’t matter to me that he didn’t consider himself to be an abstractionist, his understanding of the role of drawing, both as an activity in its own right, but also in its relationship to the expressiveness of colour was highly significant. I remember a quote, something like – ‘drawing is the pathway down which colour follows’. Not always the case but an important emphasis. 

In the remarkable development of these paperworks, he managed to achieve a directness and vitality of colour through cutting with scissors into sheets of coloured paper. He thought of this as drawing, whilst also using the analogy of a sculptor cutting into a block of stone or marble. ‘Instead of drawing an outline and filling it in with colour … in which case one modifies the other … I am drawing directly with colour’. There was something so radical about the cutting being instantly involved with colour. Film shows him working with great rapidity – right angles, arabesques, zig-zags, a kind of fluid geometry that seemed at times to flow and when placed interacted with surrounding spaces to evoke light and energy, regardless of figurative or abstract connotations.

I’m not sure if it was Matisse who said: ‘Drawing is a means of making ideas precise…’ but it sounds like his voice.

- Graham Boyd
Recent paintings by Boyd are on display the Gibberd Gallery, Harlow until 28 February

Alice Browne, Overlap, 2013, oil on linen, 52cm x 45cm

Alice Browne, Overlap, 2013, oil on linen, 52cm x 45cm

When I think about it, drawing seems to be an innately abstract act: reducing matter and ideas to a series of lines and symbols for something that we may understand (such as these letters), or simply a trace of the movement a marking tool has taken, presumably at the end of a human hand. I have always enjoyed hand-writing text, and the flow of ink on paper.

Sometimes after creating layers of colour in a painting, I start drawing. I change my grip on the brush and alter the fluidity of the paint. What I chose to do can cut through everything and develop its own readable layer. The lines can be reminiscent of string, wire or fabric, but most often of outlines of a suggested form. They leave space for the imagination to fill, as well as being unequivocal. Drawing for me usually involves instantaneous decision-making between eye/mind and hand, which can be rewarding. On the flip-side, initiating this bold directive can be destructive and very hard to renege on. Drawings can be persistent; no matter how many times I paint over, they remain.

- Alice Browne

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Painting that Began in the Sky, 2013, oil on linen, 47 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Painting that Began in the Sky, 2013, oil on linen, 47 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches

Abstraction frees drawing from the task of description, allowing line to separate spaces rather than outline things, or run through a space without turning one into a solid and the other into a void. I think painters can’t avoid drawing because we have to decide how big the stretcher’s going to be, which is a decision about drawing, space as size and proportion. I have been described as a Geometric Abstractionist but I always say ok but actually my work’s more about arithmetic than geometry: accumulation, division, proportion, repetition. I think these can all be arithmetically expressed and I personally think of them as properties of drawing rather than color.

Agnes Martin’s pencil on gesso grid paintings were probably my first conscious experience of how repetition is also accumulation. Looking at one thing after another prevents them from being the same even as it registers the idea of sameness, the signifier floats away from the signified. One does not see the same square over and over again. One knows that one is doing that, but in practice one’s attention wanders in and out of an indeterminate space, defined as space without definition divided up into equal parts, or possibly made up of equal parts held together by the graphite lines which hold them apart.

Drawing relates the interior to the perimeter of the painting through line, and brings together and holds apart movements made by colors and their application that are also contained or otherwise qualified—released, slowed or accelerated, etc.—by lines or the idea of boundary (the implication of a line). My most recent painting, Painting that began in the sky (2012-2013) is made of four squares within a square, within each of which drawing is used differently. My work has always been about putting things together that don’t go together, and I have always tried to think of painting in terms of color preceding rather than following drawing. Like a lot of my more recent work, Painting that began in the sky is a pink and blue painting. Like all my work, it’s more about movement than anything else, phenomenally speaking. In the bottom left square there’s a somewhat clumsy arabesque, a combination of lines Matisse said could only be seen as a movement, which here happens within rather than on the surface. To which I should add, there is only depth and space in my paintings. I have never seen a painting that could actually be seen as flat, and don’t think it really possible. In the upper left a clearly defined grid, in the upper right a messy one. Colors sink into one another, sit on top one another, differently on the right than on the left. In the bottom right there’s a sky with an horizon—specifically, what I saw out of the right side of the plane coming into Heathrow over the Channel early in the morning.

I think it fair to say that, for me at least, drawing in abstraction has much more to do with movement than with solidity. Lines can stand still as much as move, and do both at the same time, and in abstraction they come into their own as dividers or other abstractions that are experienced as truly weightless. In this, drawing in abstraction acts to facilitate rather than limit color’s ability to be intensity and atmosphere rather than surface. As to solidity and form, that job is done by the stretcher, with which I began this note and which gives shape to the assembly of movements and spaces that face my face. 

- Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
A painter and theorist, Gilbert-Rolfe also works in collaboration with Rebecca Norton as Awkward x 2. They have individual and collaborative paintings in Vivid Painting, at Terrazzo Art Projects, Manhattan until 16 March. 

Alan Gouk, Deep Vinaigrish Bottle Green, 2012, 191 x 420 cm

Alan Gouk, Deep Vinaigrish Bottle Green, 2012, 191 x 420 cm

“As one paints, one draws” (Cézanne) – but the role of drawing in Cézanne’s paintings is a complex issue for experts to unravel. Drawing is the conceptual element in painting; it creates contour, emphasises contour, which is implicitly volumetric (otherwise it is just shading, painterly shading as in Titian).

I’ll just stick to “flurries of brushwork”, which model without contour. “Volume is begotten of flatness, not of volumetric rotundities” – (Patrick Heron). So, when my larger area-shapes reach their perimeters, and butt up against one another, there, drawing of a sort, is created – but if I had begun by outlining them, the only role for colour would have been infilling, as in Frank Stella – and that is the antithesis of my conception of the role of colour.

- Alan Gouk

Robert Linsley, Island Graveyards, 2000

Robert Linsley, Island Graveyards, 2000

Drawing is such a rich and complex topic that it’s hard to be brief, but I think it’s important not to just think of drawing as drawn lines. The Italian word “disegno” means literally drawing, but could also be translated as design, and I think the old masters thought of drawing as also the beautiful grouping of the limbs of figures, and the implicit relation of separated incidents to make large patterns. In Poussin, for example, there is a lot of “drawing” that doesn’t necessarily take the form of visibly drawn lines. When I started to pour paint, at first I thought that the only drawing in my work were the contours of the colour areas, so I started to line them up to make bigger shapes that cut across the negatives, but soon realized that I could access that more suggestive old-masterish way.

In modernism there is always a dance between drawn lines and areas of colour, and of course there are 100,000 ways to choreograph that dance. Pouring gave me my own way – to draw contours, spread colour and design the whole picture in a single gesture. Since I’m not much interested in brushstrokes or tactile surfaces, the edges of the colour patches become infinitesimally small spaces between two empty areas. Empty inside and empty outside, and the life of the picture is the non-existent moving gap between them. I like that a lot.

One of the modernist ways to work line and colour together is to draw colored lines. But to read as a colour, a line has to have some thickness, it can’t be thin like a pen line, or it will read as black anyway, if it’s visible at all. So there is some kind of always changing back and forth between coloured lines and coloured areas. And when a line gets thicker and starts to act as a coloured area it then acquires two more contours. Richard Shiff has interesting things to say about this in his remarks on de Kooning on this site. At some point I realized that sometimes a pour could look like a thick drawn line, and so things got a bit more complicated.

- Robert Linsley
Linsley writes at newabstraction.net


Jeanne Masoero, Magnetic Field XI 2012, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100cm

Jeanne Masoero, Magnetic Field XI 2012, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 100cm

‘Abstract’ for me indicates a whole structure of space as an object, a visual continuum.  In its wide sense, drawing is a search for expressive structures, whatever medium one uses. Line acts as both line and surface, such as the markings on crystals, the layering on metamorphic rocks, map making or the American Indian basket weave patterns. The natural world can be a point of departure, transformed into a new, concrete but unfamiliar object – the “image.” Ambiguity of meaning is explored, and this ambiguous relation to the natural world remains abstract in concept and in the process of making. Any image that would show this ambiguity can be used – a distant view of a landscape, the underside of a thickly veined leaf, a man’s back and so on. The finished painting can distantly allude to these forms but it remains entirely itself and with its own centre of gravity.

- Jeanne Masoero

Rebecca Norton, Die Glocke Shop, oil on linen, 83 x 56 inches

Rebecca Norton, Die Glocke Shop, oil on linen, 83 x 56 inches

What is drawing in abstraction? When asked to write about what drawing in abstraction means to me, I had to ask myself a few questions. What about drawing is being proposed? Am I supposed to be thinking about drawing as in a line, a representation, an illustration of sorts? What if I were instead to think of drawing as a gerund; ‘drawing in’ in connection with allurement, attraction, a prolonged engagement suspended in the absence of dialogue? I could go through history and find examples of drawing in abstraction but, because I do not work through the history of abstraction in my studio, I felt it best not to do that work here either. Instead, I thought about the draw, the attraction, of experiences that inform my paintings in order to present a personal account of what drawing in abstraction means to me.

I want what draws attention to itself. Often times this desire lures me curiously out of place, compelling me to discover something unknown as it reveals itself to me in time. I aspire to produce such encounters in my paintings, filling spaces with light, color and movement, waiting for the moment when a composition impacts all my senses at once and suspends me, uninhibited and vulnerable. I become witness and the builder; it dazzles while continually skirting around my knowing what it is.

I extract sensations from experiences that encapsulate such moments, attempting to reel in that which is outside and inside me into a painting. I want mysterious circumstances to lead my eye around a surface of a painting and bathe me in illuminating spaces that are, and will forever be, uninhabited yet full of empathy. The further I am pulled in the more it elicits a response—an unpredictable, unintended and intimate response—secret to everyone but I who experience it. I want the allure of this, the feeling of this, to be something that can be composed for someone else who, like me, senses it and thinks ‘its speaking to me. This must have been made for me’.

- Rebecca Norton
A painter, Rebecca Norton also works in collaboration with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe as Awkward x 2. They have individual and collaborative paintings in Vivid Painting, at Terrazzo Art Projects, Manhattan until 16 March.

Mark Stone, untitled, oil on canvas

Mark Stone, untitled, oil on canvas

Since the 1960s drawing in Abstraction has been concerned with both process and presence and how those two aspects of drawing engage the Modern. Process usually involves the actual act of the hand moving, the stroke, the gouge, the slash, etc. Presence involves the materials used, the building up of surfaces, the ground, the final object itself. These rather rudimentary techniques of contemporary drawing still take precedence in order to fit into the Modern program of flatness, non-objectivity, surface and side, etc. This defines the ongoing Postmodern institutional doctrine.

I propose that it is far more interesting at this time to use drawing in an entirely different way. Why not engage Abstraction and our very abstract era through older forms of drawing, or rather ignored or disreputable ways of drawing? Why not draw the “things,” objects, forms and life of our abstract world rather than continually rework the defunct and redundant flat surfaces, the non-objective logocentric shapes, and the unsurprising cartographic spatial compositions of the Modern legacy? Why can’t we bring new forms, new light, exciting spaces, and a different visual engagement to the legacy of Abstract drawing using older techniques like sfumato, chiaroscuro, crosshatching, foreshortening, etc? Why not actually draw new Abstract images rather than continually re-produce familiar abstract objects?

- Mark Stone
Mark Stone writes at Henri Art Magazine


David Sweet, Any-Angled Light II, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 127 cm. Photo: Stephen Meredith

David Sweet, Any-Angled Light II, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 127 cm. Photo: Stephen Meredith

Within painting there are two approaches to drawing: Cézanne’s and Matisse’s. Cézanne elongated the Impressionist hog hair dab into a directional, spring-like comma, which he multiplied, spreading its tension throughout the painting. This fused the actions of painting and drawing, building volume and ‘space’ but leaving the outlines or contours of forms indistinct. Matisse kept the functions of drawing and painting separate, linear drawing determining spatial structure. Relaxed paint could then spread up to and even through contours established by drawing. Shapes become more legible, and composition and colour are emphasised.

The tension of Cézanne’s drawing/painting fusion informs Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes. Paintings by de Kooning and Pollock were heavily dependent on this drawing tension, as were Johns and Rauschenberg. Warhol and Pop follow Matisse, as does Stella (after the black paintings). In contemporary terms, ‘gestural’ methods of paint application, which echo Cézanne, tend to be formally limited by the need to maintain all over tautness, but invite ‘spatial’, quasi-landscape, readings by having accents. Tension doesn’t produce ‘shapes’, except those simple ones made by big brushes. Following Matisse means drawing edges, and creating shapes that have a formal function and interact successfully with each other. I’m a student of Matisse.

- David Sweet
David Sweet has curated Colour / Boundary, on show at Gallery North until 21 February

Gary Wragg, Inflections 1-6, 2013, charcoal on canvas, 112” x 110” (284 x 280 cm)

Gary Wragg, Inflections 1-6, 2013, charcoal on canvas, 112” x 110” (284 x 280 cm)

John Hoyland said to me once in the late 1970s: ‘image is everything’. For me it was more a matter of dissolving any image and I have tried in recent years to explore a range and focus of touch. I have been particularly interested in the intimist paintings of Bonnard, Vuillard and some late Matisse interiors from Le Rêve, where the touch is paramount in the expressiveness of the colour, tone, light and structure. More particularly the exquisiteness of touch and its range, speed or slowness, its weight or weightlessness, and viscosity of the paint, the whole range between love and pain, as with the deftest floating on of a delicious ethereal lavender pink in the small Matisse painting of Nude in an Armchair with Greenplant 1936-37 (72.5×60.5cm) so masterfully painted.

Chance and landing up in a mess is where the riches are for me in painting, to locate a personal sense of order. The magnetism of the painted surface invites exploration, the feel of the paint and space stimulates directness void of storytelling. It is as you see it. At times the paintings become overworked, making it a challenge to end up with a fresh statement, where I would like to feel that the painting has precision, luminosity, clarity of inner light, air and colour.

- Gary Wragg

The above is excerpted from “Constant Within The Change: Gary Wragg: Five Decades of Paintings: A Comprehensive Catalogue“. To be published in March 2014 by Sansom & Company, including texts by texts by Hilary Spurling, Matthew Collings, Terence Maloon, Sam Cornish and Stefanie Sachsenmaier.

  1. John Bunker said…


    This could be just what you are looking for! http://drawingroom.org.uk/exhibitions/abstract-drawing
    Have you seen this show? It’s just up the road from you. Includes a lot of sculptors….. Curated by Richard Deacon.
    Maybe AbCrit could run an article on drawing in abstract sculpture………? Or maybe not?

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Thanks John, but I’m not the one looking for the mythic drawing related to abstract art, Sam is. And I was at the opening with Sam and I got the impression he was almost as bored as I was. I have even been back for a second look, but alas, it’s not for me. What do you think?

  2. Gabe said…

    Unfortunate that you don’t like his cut-outs. You’re missing out.

  3. Peter Stott said…

    …Like people have seen form in the ‘Snail’. I bet no form whatsoever has been perceived or conceived of in that picture.

  4. Peter Stott said…

    Never quite understood this Matisse ‘drawing in colour’ thing. He means shaping blocks of colour? Does he mean by drawing, delineation, articulating form in a concrete fashion?

    I don’t like that ‘Snail’ picture, I don’t like anything about it, horrible colours, it’s awful. Even after lots of drugs, only perhaps as a vague precursor to contemporary architecture, maybe. I think his cut-outs are vastly over-rated, as a sort of patsy of the art world.