Schematic drawing made in thinking about (RdgBβ) protein function. Black biro on notebook page

Thinking Through Drawing

I spent yesterday at the Thinking Through Drawing 2012 symposium, at Wimbledon College of Art. I was fortunate to be chosen to give a talk – my first talk at a conference, amusingly on the subject of art rather than science. The subject of the symposium was the use of drawing in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Maths (‘STEAM’). (Whether the Arts should be included in this acronym is another matter entirely.) I took this to be a fantastic opportunity to show my drawings and to consider them as a research tool in science in their own right. My talk was entitled ‘A cycle of drawing in research into life at the molecular level’. The first draft of my paper can be accessed here – the final version will appear in a special issue of the drawing research journal, TRACEY.

Schematic drawing made in thinking about (RdgBβ) protein function. Black biro on notebook page

Having attended quite a number of medical and biological science conferences over the last few years, I was intrigued to see what an ‘arts’ conference would be like. The organisation was much the same: a series of keynote speakers and short talks separated by coffee and lunch breaks. Although science conferences expect to forge new ideas, friendships and collaborations, Thinking Through Drawing not only made conversation, it also made drawings. Several scribes spent the whole meeting making drawings and pinning them to the walls – much like someone keeping minutes, only in a visual form – and drawings by other participants accompanied them. One attendee remarked that it was like a children’s classroom (many of the conference-goers were teachers), and it reminded me of a teenager’s bedroom walls, an artist’s studio or actually the walls of a scientist’s lab. The walls of every laboratory I’ve been in has lots of whiteboards. We constantly have information sent from laboratory suppliers – posters of signalling pathways, restriction enzyme charts and amino acid properties. At conferences, scientists present posters which adorn the walls, corridors and atria of conference venues before finding a permanent home on the walls and corridors adjacent to our labs. In all of these environments the addition of visual materials stimulates discussion and creativity: at a scientific conference the younger participants design and print posters for discussion; at this conference, the visual material was created and fed back into the course of discussion.

So what is drawing? It seemed clear to me and to others in the room that drawing is thinking, researching and investigating. It is not the same as painting or sculpture, for which the final outcome may be clear from the start, although drawings can be three-dimensional or executed in paint. Drawing is a language, just like English is a language. However, unlike spoken or written language, drawings may not be understood by others, or may take on a different meaning to the observer than they do for the maker. (Understanding may be formed by experience.) Alternatively it might be the experience of making the drawing that brings more benefit. (‘Understanding’ and ‘benefit’ are both tenuous.)

My belief is that unlike spoken and written language, drawing is something that cannot – or perhaps should not – be taught. When people state that they “cannot draw”, what they really mean is that they are unable to produce accurate representations from life or a drawing like Rembrandt. Everyone can make marks on a paper or other support. It is the role of teachers, and perhaps artists, to encourage the use of drawing as a research tool. How the drawing should be carried out is a personal process.

It’s interesting to think about drawing ‘quality’. In fact, quality is subjective, assigned on an arbitrary scale, and moreover is irrelevant. Stephen Farthing, in his closing comments, defined life drawing as the lowest form of drawing. What does life drawing ask about the way the body works, what’s underneath the surface? It doesn’t. What do the internal organs look like? How do they function? Indeed, drawing is research. It is exploration.

Lucy Lyons (City & Guilds of London Art School and Nordiskt Sommaruniversitet) gave an interesting account of spending time with scientists in laboratories drawing objects that they worked on every day. She noted resistance at first – I know how stressful the lab environment is from first-hand experience and how busy things can get – but this also demonstrates how little emphasis is put on drawing and really seeing. Lucy recounted how in some cases, the act of drawing changed the way the scientist thought about their research question, and in some cases changed the question itself.

She also described an interactive installation piece that she set up in a gallery, which I thought was interesting. She installed a number of light microscopes in a gallery and placed a petri dish of agar beneath the objective lens. As the exhibition progressed, bacteria from the air, from the skin and clothes of the visitors began to grow on the agar. The visitors were asked to look through the microscope and draw what they saw; the drawings were assembled on the wall and just as the bacterial colonies grew during the exhibition, the drawings grew, spreading down the wall and along the floor. To me, the piece likely worked well as an education piece, highlighting how much a part of our world our natural flora is – and how it is not to be feared! I like the drawing’s organic nature, dynamism and sense of community, which perhaps echoed the growing bacterial colonies.

A symposium organised at this time cannot avoid even the slightest discussion of finances, and this was no exception. For me, the interest was in art vs science research funding. I spoke to one lecturer who was complaining that it was very difficult to receive funding for arts research, and that it was so much easier for science. I remarked, “It is by no means ‘easy’ to get funding for science”. Over the last few years I have written, or been involved in writing, a number of grant applications. I expect I’ll be called ‘too sensitive’ but I can’t help but think about all the sponsored runs, bike-rides and other fundraising initiatives, as well as the tax-payer’s hard-earned pennies, when I write a grant application. Would this be a ‘fair’ use of the peoples’ money? It’s a difficult question to answer. As a scientist, my research could lead to the development of drugs that could potentially save hundreds of peoples’ lives one day. What about research in the arts? If the work has monetary or other value for society (err, define ‘value’?) then it should be funded. If the research is into how money should be spent, then it should be funded. It’s a difficult area and who should pay?

In the last few years, there has been a drive in university research in the UK (STEM subjects) into what is known as ‘translational research’. Universities have hired whole teams of consultants to help academics find ways in which to gain monetary rewards for their research, for example by setting up a biotechnology company or getting a new drug into clinical trials. The capital gains are then used to fund further ‘blue skies’ research. Does this happen in arts research? Perhaps it should.


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