Writing L O R E T T A . S T A P L E S



Visual Research

U dot I, Inc.




Last fall, I enrolled in a beginning drawing class. After 11 years designing software interfaces, I was growing weary of all that clicking and dragging. Newly relocated to New York City after four years teaching design, my days as an eBusiness consultant were now consumed by email and teleconferences. Something was amiss in all that high-tech interaction. Some part of me had had enough. I wanted to get back to the basics. The basics of what, I didn't quite know, but I did know I was weary of the ongoing intermediation of my eyes and hands. I knew I didn't want typing or mousing or a cool blue light staring me in the face. Drawing seemed like it might be just the thing. And it was.

I drew with charcoal, soft vine and compressed--thin sticks like branches, squared off stubs, big blocky lengths of burnt wood.

Drawing was slow. Slower. Slower than the computer. Slow because of the sheer resistance of the paper, in contrast to the slipperiness of the virtual page. Slow because no computation augmented the directness of my marks. Slow because there were no undos, no control points, no show or hides, no snap-to grids, no layer management, no copy-and-pastes. Slow because my eyes followed the edges of the forms I drew as if there were time to do so (there was time in the three-hour session). Slow because my hand moved as slowly as my eyes following the forms I observed. Slow because observation was demanded. Slow because nothing began or ended quite as discretely as the pixels I was used to editing. Slow because the entire context of history and medium that I now engaged emerged out of a different time, a different world. Slow because in this particular setting I was allowed to dwell in the moments as they unfolded in the act of drawing. Where else in the world would I have been allowed to do so, sheltered in collective company and under the watchful eye of an unhurried teacher?

Somehow the speed of drawing always felt mysteriously appropriate. A one-minute pose yielded exactly a one-minute drawing. And the drawing felt complete in all its one-minuteness. The same with five, ten, and twenty minutes. None of my drawings felt unfinished to me. Conversely, everything I'd produced on the computer as of late felt incomplete, as though demanding a level of polish and finality that I never had time for, ironically, despite all that computational quickness. What was it about microprocessing speed that disincented me? It was as though the smallness of my human effort was no match for the vast potential enabled by those ever-efficient megahertz. It discouraged me. I could never master all the computer was capable of, nor did I feel the desire to do so. And while every artist comes to terms with the gulf between one's own creative capacities and what-the-medium-is-capable-of, somehow I'm sure that the gulf with this particular medium is unlike any other.

Then there was the out-of-the-box problem.

In the year before, I'd produced a couple of computer models for sculptures I was eager to make. But for some reason, I couldn't seem to get them out of the box (the CPU) and into the world. All that interfacing. Inputs and outputs. Cables and devices. Preparing files for stereolithographed output. Yes, this was technological magic. I just didn't want to do it. It's not where I wanted my time to go. The sculptures are languishing in the box still, mere digital files. I'll get them out eventually though.

In drawing, there's no box to be inside or outside of. No phantasm to make real. In my drawing, nothing was pre- or post-. Nothing fx-driven. There was just the drawing, nothing more, nothing less. I hadn't known completeness like this in so long.

Sometimes while drawing I would experience an analogy to my computer-based experiences. Following a form while doing a contour drawing, I'd notice my attention jumping ahead, from the top of the model's head to the shoulder, for instance. My vision traversing like this, from point to point, I understood vectors--the plotting of two points joined by an elegantly fitted line. Plotting points like this gave me an appreciation of graphs and planes, Cartesian coordinates and mapping. But it showed me too, the artifice of systematized seeing, because drawing was so much more than picture planes and plotted points. Drawing was looking for something and finding it in the looking.

I hadn't really drawn much before, and in general, my experiences had been discouraging, daunting. In a drawing class twenty years before, I stared bewildered at the model before me. Somehow I was to transpose her to the sheet in front of me, with no guidance from my teacher (who appreciated my "sincerity" of line). But my sincere lines were fraught with anxiety and apprehension, and my struggles to map the figure to the plane yielded an unconvincing scene, embarrassing to my fellow students and me.

Somehow, this time in drawing I let my eyes and hand wander and grope for something. This wasn't an exercise in transposition, in plotting points on a plane. This wasn't a mapping exercise. I tried to find a form in a tangle of lines and was content to let my tangle of lines be the starting place for the form I was seeking to find. Years ago, I thought a good drawing resulted from foreknowledge, awareness of how to see something or do something. Now I was discovering that a good drawing required nothing in particular ahead of time. Nothing about form or vision or media. Nothing about software or hardware. Nothing about geometry or Cartesian space or XYZ. Just the willingness to look and see if something might be found in the looking.

I was used to staying clean. The grime of charcoal was new to me. I'd return home from class smudgy. I liked it. All that smudging left a friendly trace of where I'd been, in sharp contrast to an Edit menu undo--that cleanly deceptive erasure of trace and with it, time, as if nothing had ever happened in the first place. Charcoal was all about laying bare everything that had transpired. All the decisions and reworking. Doubt. Hesitation. To witness a completed drawing was to see a final form enveloped lovingly in its web of tentative states.

I realize that in all of this I'm talking about drawing as though it doesn't happen in the computer. Of course it does. Artists and designers have always engaged technology and pushed the boundaries of its possibilities. I don't mean to dismiss those efforts as "not drawing," but I do mean to make a distinction between the "experiential physics" of drawing through the computer and what I might call "disintermediated" drawing--that is, drawing with "traditional" media. They are distinct kinds of physical experience: one, predominantly tethered, the attachment between mouse and machine; the other prosthetic, the drawing implement hand-held and thus more an extension of the hand. "The digital" has so convinced us of the interchangeability of things that we risk losing sight of such fundamental distinctions. Lived experience is precisely situated in the world, and the situational differences modulate our senses in very different ways.

What I most embrace in drawing is the physics of a kind of relationship I'd lost sight of. When I draw it's as though I'm remembering--in a very direct, bodily way--something about the very nature of being in the world, seeing and touching the world. Through drawing I get at contemplation and action, history and the moment, all at once. I meet everything right on the page.


©2002 Loretta Staples