Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Drawing the walk

Following on from my last post, one of the basic similarities among certain non-western drawing traditions, children's drawings, and cartographic mapping, is the idea of contour. Instead of drawing what the subject looks like, the drawer traces an outline of the subject. This can be the cast shadow of a silhouette, the decorated outline of a dream animal in aboriginal bark painting, the most basic outline of a child's drawing, or the bounding of a political or other territory.

The biggest difference between this mode of drawing and "visual drawing" whether that be from a Chinese, European, or other tradition, is that the drawer is not drawing what he or she sees, but is interpreting from that view-field picking out discrete objects, recognizing and repeating their tactile contour. Certainly there are visual clues of overlap and especially of stereoscopic perspective, but the visual field itself is all about light and shadow, saturation, hue, and so forth. This other kind of drawing is about the tactile reality of the thing itself.

A map of a territory, then, is not a drawing of what we see, it is a record of a measurement. As a silhouette traces the profile of a face, as the chalk mark at a crime scene traces the contour of a body, so a drawn boundary is at root record of the land as it is walked across. A map is a drawing not of the seen, but of the traversed.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Of Mermaids and Maps

I was walking down the street on a fine spring afternoon a couple days ago when I walked across a drawing a neighborhood kid had drawn. A few drawings actually, of mermaids. Not bad drawings, but there was something about them made me stop and think.

There is something fundamental and universal about unschooled drawings, whether from cultures without a strong master-apprentice heritage in the visual arts, or from children in our culture who haven't gotten totally caught up in "making it look real." The commonalities look to me like:

• Strong sense of contour. what you draw is the outline of what you are drawing, then fill in identifying features within it.
• Color tends to be used not for representation of optical color but to differentiate parts (if it is used at all).
• Iconic repetition: people draw not what is in front of them, but images of important characters and action items in their story.

I think I'm especially turned on to this because my four-year-old is just getting into drawing recognizable pictures: he draws firefighters with hoses putting out a fire, he draws daddy and him at a concert. What is shown is pretty fundamental, and while the narratives are of course not comparable in complexity to the mythic depth of American Indian or Australian Aboriginal "cartographic" artwork, they have something in common that more "normal" artwork doesn't.

And I think that something is also present in cartographic mapping: the way those firefighters and mermaids are drawn, the way dream animals are drawn... there is something fundamentally in common with cartography, only in cartography it is tied not to individual mythic sensibility but to decidedly un-individual physicality.