Drawing with the Eye, Drawing with the Body

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In chapter six of The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (public library), James Elkins turns to the opposite of seeing, to blindness.  He reflects on the act of drawing, which involves the sense of touch and tension in the body as much as it does our vision.  He writes:

Making a drawing is a wonderful way to experience the varieties of blindness.  Because it depends on touch, all picture making is in some degree blind.  There is the light contact of the pencil on paper, the wet friction of the brush against canvas, the hard push of the engraving needle cutting into copper.  When an artist is concentrating, trying to feel the exact pressure of the lead and even the texture of the paper as the pencil skips across its surface, then vision is occulded.  It can take a lifetime of practice to even begin to control the delicate or forceful meeting of pencil and paper, the stickiness and weight of a paintbrushful of color, or the sensitive motions of an ink brush.  Drawing is strongly tactile, both in the way it is made and the way it is seen (220).

Two shading exercises of the eyes of the icon of the Holy Face on the cover of
 Recovering the Icon: The Life and Works of Leonid Ouspensky by Patrick Doolan

He discusses how an artist, a person who draws, experiences viewing a drawing through his or her body:

Yet we are habitually oblivious to these meeting places of mind and musculature.  Only artists routinely look at pictures with eyes sharpened for these nuances.  After a few years of practicing drawing, the sight of a drawing becomes an exquisite reminder of the act of drawing.  For that reason it is easy to tell an artist from an art historian by the way she responds to a drawing.  A historian, trained with books and color slides, will stand at a respectful distance and look without moving.  An artist, at home with gestures, will want to move a hand over the drawing, repeating the gentleness of the marks that made it, reliving the drag of the brush or the push of the pencil.  The drawing has become its bodily response, and the body moves in blind obedience to what it senses on the page (227).

St. Athanasius

Shading exercise of the garments and book near the right hand of St. Athanasius

Shading exercise of the left hand of Saint Athanasius raised in blessing.

In earlier chapters, Elkins considered the nature of seeing bodies and seeing faces.