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Why Do We Draw?

To gather this insight, a simple survey was conducted of faculty at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (see IRB approval letter in appendices). The survey consisted of only one question: why do we draw? Participants (who were solicited through emails generated by participating university department offices and gave their consent to having their responses used in this thesis by responding) were asked to answer the question in any way they wished and to include in their response their area of expertise or discipline. While the total number of responses was small (only 45), they were submitted by disciplines as diverse as human development, agriculture, engineering, business, creative writing, economics, and molecular biology (see fig. 4). The responses ranged from quick and concise to thorough and detailed, and from personal to professional, and, perhaps because of the protective cover of anonymity, they were all quite candid (a full 20% of respondents cited “doodling” during meetings to prevent boredom). While the exact content of the responses varied, it was quickly evident that similarities exist in the way these differing disciplines utilize drawing. These similarities led to the organization of five categories of the uses of drawing: expression, comprehension, documentation, communication, and generation. The following comments are particularly telling of the type of drawing which they precede.


fig. 4. responses from non-design disciplines: comprehension (40%), communication (58%), expression (27%), documentation (20%), and generation (7%).


“Drawing offers a vehicle for human expression, emotion, desire, deviance, and CATHARSIS. There you go, Drawing is cathartic.” - Survey #1

“We draw to express immediate feelings or to reflect on feelings from the past or connections between the two.” - Survey #14

“I think there is an impulse for creativity from a very early age that some of us engage in more than others.” - Survey #38

“The inspirational reasons for drawing are to express myself in an artistic fashion.” - Survey #42

Roughly one-quarter of the total responses (27%) mentioned that drawing was a means of expression, with those responses being split almost equally between emotional expression and creative expression (one response did not clarify). Some of the participants who cited drawing as a method of creative expression clarified that it was a way for children to be artistically expressive, while there was frequent mention of using drawing as emotional release for adults during therapy sessions.


“I draw to simplify concepts.” - Survey #3

“Sometimes I draw for myself — to help myself understand or process information.” - Survey #18

“Most people seem to perceive a graphic form better than text or numeric forms. I belong to those people.” - Survey #24

For the purposes of categorization, the term “comprehension” is used to include drawing as a way of clarifying what is being heard or observed as well as to make abstract concepts more concrete and understandable; drawing as a tool for comprehension was the second-most frequent mode of drawing among the participants surveyed (40% of the total responses). In this mode, drawing becomes a tool for interpreting and storing information — for internalizing information. 


“To save a copy of something when I need to remember size, shape, function and interaction.” - Survey #34

“In my discipline (plant pathology) I primarily draw to record structures of microbes, their measurements, shape, etc.” - Survey #27

“Other times it was completely functional, such as building plans for my tree house.” - Survey #41

Drawing is also an effective means of recording observations, and making notes of specific, detailed information for the purposes of consulting those drawings again later to recall that information; 20% of all responses mentioned that they draw in order to document something about their profession.


“To communicate or express ideas or information.” - Survey #32

“Also, I often want a drawing to convey a message to a broad audience or an audience who has limited time to receive my message.” - Survey #35

“In my field, scientists draw mainly to share the information or facts or research findings to other colleagues.” - Survey #23

The use of drawing for communicating was identified by the majority of survey participants (58%). Often, responses stated that drawings were used when demonstrating something to others (like when illustrating how to do something), or in place of words when either the correct words cannot be recalled or when, as one respondent described, “our descriptive techniques are inadequate.”


“To better conceptualize and develop concepts.” - Survey #22

In clarifying survey results, the term “generation” is used to describe a mode of drawing in which the actual act of drawing is integral to the discovery and development of new ideas. One of the clearest statements of using drawing as a generative tool came from a molecular biologist: “Many times it helps us think of new connections and synthesize new ideas.” This type of drawing received the lowest number of responses (7%).


These survey results lead to the conclusion that drawing is common across disciplines but the modes in which we draw — and therefore our reliance on drawing in our problem-solving process — are weighted differently. Many professions that draw do so with the intention of either internalizing information individually, or documenting information so that it can be transferred (communicated) to others. Expressive drawing, however, involves the act of getting ideas and emotions out, but is seldom utilized in non-art-related disciplines (with exceptions such as therapy and child development). What then of generative drawing? Perhaps it could be said that generative drawing is the synthesis of all four, comprehension and expression, documentation and communication, and has the ability to lead to each of the other modes when the need arises. Figure 5 displays these five different types of drawing uses arranged along two dimensions of measurement: internal-external and abstract-concrete. The internal-external axis compares whether the end product of the drawing mode is for the individual creating the drawing or for others outside of the artist, while the abstract-concrete axis is used to qualify the content of the drawings. If generative drawing contains elements of the other drawing modes, then it belongs at the intersection of these modes as represented in the chart (fig. 5).


fig. 5. chart comparing drawing modes on internal-external and abstract-concrete. Generation is superimposed on the intersection showing that it leads to the other modes.

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