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Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic Expression

by Patrick Maynard
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2005
296 pp., illus. 92 b/w. Trade, $59.95/31.50; paper, $29.95/15.50
ISBN: 0801443245; ISBN:0801472806.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute


Patrick Maynard, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, sets the stage for his latest book, Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic Expression, with the thought: "I would not have written [this book] except that drawing has been a part of my life’s activity for my whole life, even when, like a musician looking wistfully at an unused instrument, I have not been able to practice it" (p. xxii). This sentiment, which explains why he was attracted to the subject, fails to express the breadth of Drawing Distinctions. Running approximately 290 double-columned pages, this volume, which is the first philosophical treatise on drawing, explains the bases of meaning in all kinds of drawings (including technical and informational, design, children’s drawings, and art drawings—depictive and non-depictive, East and West). In doing so, Maynard employs far-reaching source material, engaging cognitive and developmental psychology, philosophy, art history and criticism.

Overall, the volume’s sweep is extraordinary. Moreover, as the author surveys the rich and varied practices we can characterize as drawing, he moves easily from the earliest markings on cave walls and the complex technical schematics that make the modern world possible to cartoons, the first efforts of preschoolers, and to the works of skilled draftspeople and great artists. Arguing that drawing is best seen as a "tool-kit," Drawing Distinctions thus adopts an approach that extends far beyond art and representation. Despite the wide reach of the study, there is surprising little empirical research in the book.

Two of the impressive aspects of the study are its goals and organization. Rather than presenting yet another book that equates drawing with art, Maynard aims to show that this more typical equation is far too limited. A systematic, fully philosophical and critical analysis instead places drawings in tandem with theoretical arguments, breaking his careful argued general theory of drawing into four parts. Part I presents the practical importance of all kinds of drawings, reminding the reader that typical treatments omit many aspects of drawing. Parts II-IV then offer a progressive sequence of what he calls the course of drawing, introducing art as a part of this expanded exposition in Parts III and IV.

More specifically, Part I lays the groundwork for seeing drawing in a larger context (i.e., many manufactured items are drawn before they are made and this kind of drawing is hardly representational). The chapters in this section also ask unusual questions (i.e., Could there be a modern world without technical and design drawings?), speak of why there is a paucity of historical drawings, and begin a recurring analysis of perspective and projective systems. Part II proceeds to examine children’s art and seeks to expand beyond the spatial considerations associated with visual perception. Introducing Kendall Walton’s theory of visual depiction and a critical exposition of E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion facilitates the author in navigating the variables, which ranges from Mayan art to Italian wall painting and decorative depiction. It is with Part III that art begins to enter the picture with greater specificity. Here the author develops a case for drawing’s autonomy while further preparing the ground for a consideration of drawing as art. One of the strength’s of the book is the way this section pairs historical ideas with the education and development (as shown in drawing books). Artistic drawing in general, theoretical treatments, and perceptual issues are the three major themes of this section. Part IV brings us to the fullness of drawing in what is perhaps the most ambitious section of the book. Paying close attention to Rembrandt and Cézanne, Maynard offers the view that drawing as depiction can be a creative act, not only an element that exists in addition to depiction.

The degree to which Drawing Distinctions is effective no doubt stems from its ubiquity, which allows it to add some philosophical reflection to the literature of drawing. Still, this highly erudite approach loses some of the texture of art practice and the contextual elements more evident in an art historical analysis. Despite an obvious effort to encompass the mechanics of art, I did not feel it captured that many people draw for the sense of fulfillment it brings them internally. Comprehensive and well illustrated, the author is more successful in revealing the interconnections and developments that unite drawing with other disciplines (i.e., art history, art criticism, cognitive and developmental psychology, and aesthetics) than expressing why people draw. Based on his references to his own experience, it seems Maynard deeply understands how fulfilling the activity is. Still, in my view, the book’s philosophical foundation somewhat undermines this author’s efforts to fully convey what drawing gives to some on a personal level. This is not to suggest there is no mechanism within the text to capture this feeling. I periodically found myself so captivated by the excellent images that I began sketching them to see how they were made. Perhaps this in itself is a recommendation.

Finally, in light of Maynard’s background in philosophy, it is not surprising to find his theory of drawing examines the work of thinkers that include (among others) Booker, Ferguson, Gombrich, Goodman Meder, Panofsky, Rawson, Tufte, Willats, and Wollheim. References to state-of-the-art scientific research would have made the study seem more up-to-date overall. While anyone interested in theories of drawing will find this book an essential reference, practicing artists looking for insight into their love of drawing are apt to find the philosophical framework a bit overwrought. Even as it is clear that Maynard has deep feeling for drawing as a practice, it seems this bold book expresses his experience in arguing philosophically more effectively than his passion for artmaking. Fortunately, particularly in light of the subject matter, theoretical conclusions are accompanied by 92 black and white illustrations that are well chosen and enticing. They serve to underscore the variety and value of drawing in all of its manifestations.



Updated 1st January 2007

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