Drawing History

“We are like flies crawling across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: we cannot see what angels and gods lie underneath the threshold of our perceptions.”

~ William Irwin Thompson (Evil and World Order)

Through drawing, we can see things that are otherwise invisible.

Luiseno red ochre puberty drawings on a cliff face near San Diego, California.

There are myriad reasons people take lines for a walk. Throughout human history we see drawing used for identifying, tagging, marking, tattooing, mapping; drawing as calling, praying, “seeing;” drawing as destruction, as crossing out, as propaganda, signage, mnemonic device, literature, treaties; drawing as sigil magic, medicine, myth-making, prophesy, trap, exorcism, automatism — surrealist automatic drawing. We see Reiki healing symbols drawn in the air above a patient, and Navajo healing symbols drawn on the ground below them. We find drawings as a mere physical feat, such as the cliff-face puberty drawings of Luiseño women in southern California. We might ask, are they rattlesnakes, phalluses, ladders, moons, the Milky Way, or are they symbols for electricity? But when we worry about “iconographic meaning,” we miss the primary meaning, the bodily “kinesthetic meaning,” as Christopher Tilley puts it. We miss the fact that the artist had to fast for three days, travel to the site, make the paint, mark their body, then climb the boulder’s dangerous face with the paint. Who cares what they drew! The drawing is proof that such a transformational journey took place. The red paint is left on the young woman’s body for weeks, and on the stone wall forever.

Honda Ridge, Chumash puberty site near Santa Barbara. See David Robinson’s The mirror of the sun. Surface, mineral applications and interface in California rock art.

What appears naive is actually fully matured — neotenous, like a drawing by Picasso, or like an aged Chihuahua who looks like a wolf fetus. To an initiate, what seems like primitive scratches are in fact pathways to truth, to star charts, to vision magic, to history.

Drawing in Temporal Dimensions

In A World Through Lines, John Berger describes how drawings communicate by using different temporal dimensions or tenses. Present tense drawings are of what we see in front of us — a nude model, a landscape, anything in our waking world. These drawings are used to journal, “interrogate,” and to share our visual world. Conditional tense drawings, on the other hand, record ideas and dreams about what could be, should be and would be. Berger’s example: two people from different language backgrounds at a restaurant communicating on a napkin when they can’t find the words. There is improvisation and laughing. The third type of drawing is past tense, sketches from memory, which is a different kind of dreaming and a different kind of present moment experience. Through this third type of drawing, artists can, according to Berger, exorcize a memory like it’s a demon. We draw “in order to take an image once and for all out of the mind….” Berger says the imagery can be anything — a bug, a Buddha, “sweet, sad, frightening, attractive, or cruel” — but each has its own way of being “unbearable.”

Some drawings contain all three tenses at once, which triggers a new temporal dimension, a new level of communication, a fourth tense — maybe similar to the “fourth person” or “fourth voice” Gerald Vizenor describes appearing in Native American stories and drawings.

Drawing lines is easy, but creating a good drawing is so hard “it makes you crazy.” Visual artist Amy Sillman: “You have to negotiate surface, tone, silhouette, line, space, zone, layer, scale, speed, and mass while interacting with a meta-surface of meaning, text, sign, language, intention, concept, and history.” Indian warriors imprisoned at Fort Marion from 1875–1878 filled old ledger books with exquisite drawings of their dreams, with the line quality and compositions a European or Asian artist would need years of formal education to accomplish.

Medicine Vision by Artist B (Arapaho), Frank Henderson Ledger, circa 1880

Drawing Dreams

Ledger drawing by Black Hawk (Sans Arc Lakota), c. 1880 depicting a horned Thunder Being (Haokah/Destroyer) on a horse-like creature with eagle feet and buffalo horns. The creature’s tail also forms a rainbow and an “entrance to the spirit world.” The dots covering the figure and the horse represent “hail.” Accompanying the picture on the page were the words: “Dream or vision of himself changed to a destroyer and riding a buffalo eagle.” What tense is this?

Drawing Transmotion

Some Native American drawings communicate what Vizenor calls transmotion — “a spirited and visionary sense of natural motion.” According to Vizenor, transmotion is “unmissable” in native drawings, as unmissable as regular motion: a hand moves, a curtain waves, birds fly, men dance; and while these examples of motion touch our ordinary senses and our ordinary minds, transmotion goes beyond the waking senses altogether, to motions and emotions and cosmic gestures; to ancestral memories and animal totems; to ceremonial dances; to motions plugged into currents beyond the individual’s body. Vizenor: “The warriors and their horses are pictured in motion, the artistic transmotion of native sovereignty. The scenes and motion were of memories and consciousness, not poses and motion simulations. The transmotion of ledger art is a creative connection to the motion of horses depicted in winter counts and heraldic hide paintings. The hides and shields are visionary.”

Artist B, Kiowa, 1880, from the Julian Scott Ledger, 7.5 × 12 inches.

Pictured above is a group-induced memory of a delegation of high-ranking Kiowa men who visited a government agent at Fort Sill, c 1870. The first figure, carrying a decorated otter-skin bag, has a distinct painting of a bison head on his chin. A figure near the center is wearing what appears to be a u.s. military dress coat with a saber and scabbard at his hip. He and three other members of the group hold eagle feather fans. Sometimes fans are magical devices used by shamans to scoop up souls and place them back into bodies. Sometimes they are used with smoke and dance to heal. They are also identity markers/ego makers, like the phallic Maya manikin scepters, or tattoos, head-dresses, and gorgets used by Native Americans.

Ledger drawings were story-telling devices, and some were kept secret and safe, like a diary. They have a subversive history of also being associated with scripture and public records kept at a church or courthouse. The fact that native prisoners of war overwrote the ‘official’ records with their own polychromatic, visionary dreams indicates larger realities: resistance, survivance, rape, and colonialism.

Wo Haw, 1877, Between Two Worlds, self-portrait in graphite and crayon on paper. Both animals are breathing visions into Wo Haw’s face, suggesting that dream imagery may come from the more-than-human environment, from places beyond the dreamer’s control.

Puberty Drawings

We can all draw. Babies, without direction, pick up crayons and just go for it. Press play and the brain makes decisions before you even know it. Scribbles come from and communicate with, a very primal, reptilian level in us. When we draw, we are ushered into a creative, nondual “flow state,” where the drawer, the pencil, and the drawing become “one taste” in a moving river of creative expression.

Drawing is like traveling, but it’s also a kind of dancing. Take paper and pen and see creation happen right before your eyes! Meet chaos, and take it for a walk. Drawings can change direction at the speed of thought. And there is a trace of you, a fingerprint, that pours out of your pen and onto the page. If you are drawing what you are seeing, then the line is a record of where your mind has been. Relax the line, relax the mind. With practice, we can move out of the way, and let the drawing happen through us. When I’m outside drawing the landscape, I react to what I see — the contours of the trees tell my hand exactly where to go. Am I doing it, or is the landscape drawing itself through me?

Puffer fish drawing a sand mandala.
Kubric’s primate beginning to see otherwise.

Animals draw. Dolphins supposedly send pictures through their vocalizations. Bees draw maps of the garden through dance. We see evidence of human-made scratches on top of bears’ in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). Did the bears teach us to draw? Did the birds teach us to sing?

Let us zoom out for a moment to take in a larger picture. Drawings come before words in art history. We begin with scratches — pure pattern, pure abstraction — what we see in the 70,000-year-old Blombos petroglyphs and ochre drawings in South Africa; what we see in the 30,000-year-old lions brilliantly cross-hatched on the darkest walls of Chauvet Cave. The animal fat in the paint and lamp-light facilitated the making of images, the seeing of images, and other cultural advances. But wait, we were dancing and singing and speaking in pictures before we could draw them, right? Maybe not. Infants, before they can speak, know how to draw. Scribbling may be a necessary step into language and symbolic thought; it’s a protolanguage, ursprache. As “neurobiological impulse,” and as language instinct, scribbling may be the basis for human notational systems “upon which all self-reflection, or self-organization, depend” (see scribble hypothesis). Making a mark, or filling something in, is about transformation and impermanence, but it’s also about creating something that stays — a trace, a signature, a scratch. There is identity magic in it.

Unknown Lakota artist, c. 1880, from Janet Catherine Berlo’s “Spirit Horses and Thunder Beings: Plains Indian Dream Drawings”

Plains Indian warriors often dreamt of “horses with horns.” In the drawing above, lines of electricity radiate from the spirit’s hands and feet, and we witness other beings come out of the left hand’s effluvium. We see the creative power of drawing; the creative power of spirit.