War has propelled the art of drawing into unlikely uses, as has medicine, architecture, archaeology, film-making, forensic science, and even communication with uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. Being the first ever non-verbal communication, with a forty to fifty thousand year history with us all, drawing is so fundamental to what we are as a species, known for its dominion over, and from within the environment we inhabit, it is perhaps surprisingly easy to gloss over the fact that drawing involves the essential materials of what we come from. Drawing is us.At the most basic level, drawing has mostly involved the prime matter of life on earth: carbon, in the form of burnt vegetable matter. Add to that the by-products of meat-eating, fat, and earth-based pigments and you have paintings.
In the caves of Atapuerca in Spain, where small children’s footprints can be seen in the mud floor as a game of ‘stand-on-your-heels’, the drawings on the walls depict animals.
However they are rarely the same animals as the animal bones that have been excavated from the same caves, so, they aren’t eating the animals that they draw. It has been suggested that this is because drawing itself was not to celebrate the everyday but the exalted, the iconic, and the impressive. One purpose for drawing, but don’t draw the food…
In the nineteenth century, partly as a response to the unreliable state of reconnaissance photography in military campaigns, British soldiers who had trained- as so many were as civilians- to draw, found themselves being asked to reconnoitre an enemy position with a sketchpad and a kepi. Desert warfare presented particular problems for the photographer and his assistant, but a lone draughtsman was able to ‘recce’ a position, draw it and return with a version that could be ‘squared up’ for a platoon to understand the terrain.
Some cave art has been suggested as map-making for hunting mammoth and other perilous prey, and so strangely links up with what a British officer was doing in 1982 whilst fighting Stasi-trained warriors on the Yemen-Oman border: training a whole platoon of draughtsmen to pictorially describe the hilltops, crags and gulleys where shots were to be fired, defensive positions overtaken, and their enemy intercepted. Photographs melted in the heat, and camera lenses scratched in the desert dust.
Yet drawing retains an almost limitless capacity to heal, rather than harm. The therapeutic value of drawing, whether as a way of harmlessly investigating the trauma from afar, or creating an imaginary world away from it, is undaunted by the uses I outline above.
Possibly the most therapeutic use of drawing was the use made of it by Henry Tonks, a drawing master of the Slade School in London who was asked by the leading surgeon of his day to produce images of injured and scarred British soldiers and sailors of World War I.
The purpose was not to record their injuries but to show how they might look after restorative surgery had been used. ‘Symmetry’ as a canon of beauty was merely indicated, in so far as the surgeon could aim at it in his careful reconstruction, and the drawing would point the way.
Hunting, healing, killing and finding. Drawing is us.