Drawing As A Language

2014  Drawing language sketch

I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of this concept (I think that it was in one of Shoo Rayner’s Youtube videos, but I can’t remember which one), but I thought that – for today – I’d talk about the whole idea of drawing as a type of language.

This might sound strange at first glance since language is something that usually involves words. But, in essence, language is anything that can communicate ideas between two or more people. So, using this definition – drawing is a type of language. In fact, it’s one of the best types of language that there is.

Yes, you can’t always express extremely complex ideas through drawings – but at the same time, drawing is one of the closest things that we have to a truly universal language.

For example, instructions for some types of DIY furniture usually feature diagrams as well as badly-translated (or completely absent) English instructions. If it wasn’t for the diagrams, most English-speaking people probably wouldn’t know how to build it.

Likewise, if you buy a comic when you’re on holiday in another country – then you can still enjoy the illustrations (and get a general sense of the story), even if you can only barely understand some of the dialogue.

Not only that, like any language, drawing has it’s own variations, “accents” and dialects too.

For example, one of the most popular “dialects” of drawing across the world at the moment is anime/manga-style drawing. And even this has it’s own variety of “accents” – eg: everything from super-cute “kawaii” manga to the much more “realistic” drawing style used in a series like “Cowboy Bebop” etc…

But, there are literally hundreds of other widely-used drawing styles out there (eg: “realistic” styles, ligne clair, art nouveau etc…) and, best of all, you can even develop one that is uniquely yours. I mean, what other languages are there in the world where you can choose or even create your own “accent” or “dialect”?

Another reason why drawing is such a great form of language is because it is much more direct than written or spoken language can ever be. When you want to talk or write about something, you usually have to picture what you want to talk about in your mind and then find a way to turn this mental image into words. Well, with drawing, you can just “cut out the middleman” and put whatever is in your brain directly onto the page.

So, why isn’t drawing more widely seen as a type of language?

Well, apart from the fact that it can be harder to express more complex ideas through drawings alone and that (unlike most languages) there is no spoken form of drawing, I’d argue that it mostly has to do with the perceived learning curve involved.

Getting fluent in any language is a difficult and time-consuming process (and that includes your native language too – I mean, you probably weren’t exactly fluent in it from the moment you were born, were you?), and drawing is no exception to this. In order to become even vaguely close to “fluent” in drawing, you have to put in a lot of practice and spend years working on it.

I mean, I’m probably still nowhere near there yet – but here’s a comparison of one of my recent drawings and one from 2010 – so that you can see the difference that regular practice can make:

Here’s where I am now:

"City Rain" By C. A. Brown

“City Rain” By C. A. Brown

And here’s where I was back in 2010:

"Hydraulophone and Sousveillance " By C. A. Brown [November 2010]

“Hydraulophone and Sousveillance ” By C. A. Brown [November 2010]

The difference between learning drawing and learning verbal/written languages is that it is a lot more of a practical process. You can’t just listen to audiobooks, watch TV shows about it and read instructional books, you have to learn drawing by actually doing it. A lot. Over several years.

Because getting even vaguely “good” at drawing is as difficult as learning how to speak another language fluently, there’s also this idea that drawing is something that only “artists” do. That it’s more of a specialist skill than a practical way of expressing ideas. And it’s easy to see why people might think this when the types of drawings that they see most often are high-quality “professional” ones.

I mean, if the only examples of – say – French you ever heard were eloquent pieces of poetry read very quickly by native speakers, then it’d probably make you think that French was almost impossible to learn. Well, as many people who have been to school in the UK will testify, it isn’t.

Yes, fluent French might take years of practice to learn – but basic French can be learnt relatively easily.

So, you don’t have to be “fluent” in drawing in order to communicate with it. As long as you know the basics, then you can still functionally express yourself fairly well through drawing.

And, let’s face it, most people have at least some very basic level of drawing ability – even if you can just draw boxes and stick figures, then you can still express yourself at least slightly well through drawing.

If you don’t believe me, then take a look at a popular webcomic called XKCD. The art in it is incredibly simple and it still illustrates what is happening in the comic very well.

So, yes, drawing is a language. You don’t have to become “fluent” in it to use it (but it helps if you do) and it can be one of the best ways of making yourself understood.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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