The last three posts, Drawing for Designers, So, where does sketching come from anyway? part 1 and part 2 have been focusing on summarizing the chapter titled A brief history of designers’ drawings from the book Drawing for Designers by Alan Pipes. In this post, I will finalize my summary of this chapter.

In the previous post we discussed Pipes’ definition of drawing:

A drawing is thus a a means of externalizing a concept, but it is also a very personal statement; it is something much more than just an arrangement of marks on paper. A drawing is an analog of the real thing; a stylized collection of symbols, assumptions, and learned shorthand than can be read, or misinterpreted, just like writing.

The quote prompted the following questions:

If so much is addressed and considered through drawing [sketching] should we really continue to leave its teaching to only visual arts students? Should we not learn to at least draw simple things? Or simple thoughts?

I am not sure when the education system separated subject matters— this is probably something I will be researching in the next few days. But, if education in the Renaissance implied a comprehensive and inclusive way of teaching through thinking, calculations, and observations that even included drawing and dance, then what is the advantage of separating subjects in education? I have yet to inquire on this more. However, drawing was not only taught to those who were devoted to the arts. It was taught with the purpose to learn to observe and study the world around us.

If we take that premise as true, then we need to also consider how was it taught and how its teaching has changed. Pipes gives us a simple break down of this evolution. He talks first about codification, geometric versus naturalistic, form follows function method, modernist design, and lastly the joy of drawing. Let’s talk first about the codification.


According to Pipes, the “codification of drawing began in the Renaissance but it was perfected in the textbooks of the 19th century…” He does not offer much detail about the Renaissance teaching or methods. Rather, he jumps to the 18th-19th centuries. He offers the example of the line and how to look at the line based on the teaching of William Robson’s Grammigraphia (1799). Based on the excerpt Pipes provides from the book, it was very rigid. A line, according to Robson, could only be perpendicular, horizontal, oblique, and curve. Anything else is a combination of these four. Since the line was a continuation of a point and a point can only proceed four ways, the shapes inferred from these were “angle, square, circle, ellipse, oval, pyramid, serpentine, weaving, and spiral.” According to Pipes the implication was that “drawing from observation began to take a back seat.”

Politics also played a role in the teaching of drawing. I have always stated that regardless of what we pretend, the arts are political. But I digress. During the time of Napoleonic wars, “German states, especially Prussia adopted the ideas of… Johann Heinrich Pestalozi (1746-1827). This method of teaching drawing was also based on geometric forms.

Between Pestalozi’s ideas and the ideas of James Nasmyth, a member of the Edinburgh Aesthetic Club, a visual grammar that relied on basic shapes to understand the world and  “appropriate to the technology” was developed.” Thus giving way to what we consider, according to Pipes, “conventional art.” Drawing was linear, crisp and free of values.

Geometric versus naturalistic drawing

There were dissenters to the teaching of drawing in a conventional way or relying only on  geometry. In this section Pipes points two major dissenters: John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Ruskin, according to Pipes called geometric drawing a savagery in favor of impressionistic drawing.

Geometric drawing was rational, pointed to a future with the machine and technology and naturalistic drawing pointed to the past and “the cult of the vernacular.” However, the teaching of drawing based on geometry continued.

According to Pipe, “by the end of the 19th century” things changed. Drawing became an extension of painting. Pipes cites Cézanne:

Drawing and paintings are no longer different factors: as one paints, one draws. The more harmony there is in the colors, the more precise the drawing becomes.

What I find interesting here is that drawing from observation in our time has taken a back seat as well. I offer this statement in non-judgemental way. Thinking through the resurgence of sketching, drawing, visual note taking, sketchnoting, and even free hand lettering, acute observation is not as relevant in the realm of personal expression.

Let’s look at the form follows function method.

Form follows function

The Bauhaus taught art and design. I was pleased to find the following statement from Pipes because the moment I learned about the Montessori philosophy in 2006, I saw the parallels with design education:

This German movement had many sources, which included the “education through art” teachings of the Italian doctor Maria Montessori.

The teaching manifesto of the Bauhaus stated that though “art could not be taught”, craftsmanship could. Drawing was taught separately to “sculpture, metalwork, cabinet-making, painting, and decorating, printing, and weaving.” The teaching of drawing included free hand sketching from memory and imagination as well as the traditional still life, landscape, and composition.

Jonathan Itten (1888-1967) taught drawing but based on what Pipes explains, in a very different way. Itten taught from the belief that form and color should be “understood both intuitively and objectively.” For example, before drawing a circle, students needed to experience it through a variety of ways: swinging their arms, gestures, and modeled in clay. The “sensuous appreciation of the quality of materials… would lead to an understanding on both an intellectual and emotional level…”

Students were made to absorb the qualities of materials by touching, handling, and drawing from memory , and to create new textures by montage and collage.

With the arrival of Lázló Moholy-Nagy, the teaching of drawing became linked to design. He was a major influence is transforming the existing classes in “laboratories… and norms for mass production.” The idea was to create “prototypes that would serve as guides to craftsmen and industry, rather than drawings.” This is perhaps the official initiation of sketches as we know them today: to serve as maps that lead us to the final product.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was also instrumental in how drawing became more integrated in the Bauhaus. With a return to observational drawing and a search for precise representation “not of the external appearance, but of constructive elements… An education in clearly observing and clearly reproducing relationships, where 2D phenomena are an introductory step leading to the three-dimensional.”

As we can see, regardless of the different approaches to teaching drawing, sketching, as we know it today, is a form of drawing, a form of noting, a form of observing, and a form of communication. A sketch depends on the drawing of lines and shapes, albeit simple ones, to extend an idea to another. Let’s look at what Pipes says about Modernist Design.

Modernist design

Things took a twist and according to Pipes, drawing became an obscure step, albeit still present, in the design process. Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) successfully created a sketch diagram of a baby stroller demonstrating that “an object of beauty could be manufactured from straight-machine parts.” However, Walter Gropius felt that art and design were “fundamentally different to mix successfully” in industrial production. A more poignant statement was stated by Georg Muche 91895-1986):

… The limits of technology are determined by reality, but art can only attain heights if it sets its aims in the realm of the ideal.

Drawing was then “relegated to a necessary but relatively unimportant component of the design process.” By the 1960’s design was systematized and relying more on a word-game problem solving skill. Drawing was seen as “too intuitive and obvious to offer real help.” And sketches and drawing though never left the design process, “were invisible.”

The joy of drawing

Post-Modernism, on the other hand, brought drawing back into the picture. According to Pipes though not discussed in the manifestos of Post-Modern art groups, drawings were present and relevant. Pipes mentions the Memphis group, based in Milan, led by Ettore Sottass (1917-) and other designers such as Michele de Lucchi and George Sowden who successfully introduced color, pattern, and ornament to design.

Hence, drawing has since come back to take a central part in the arts. But not just in the arts. Studies have been developed in which it has been proven that drawing (or sketching) have benefits such as improving retention.

The introduction of the computer and programs facilitate model making, sketching, and representation. Not only because it may be a faster execution, but also because it creates realistic and polished representations. Drawing and sketching, though reintroduced during Post-Modernism, in my opinion still lack the importance they deserve. Perhaps we only look at drawing and sketching in art and design schools, colleges, or departments as a way to reach a solution. But I want to look at drawing and sketching as a way of thinking, as a practice to be maintained, and as a serious and legitimate expression of a visual language. Drawing in sketching or drawing as sketching should be taught and promoted because of the benefits to memory and to put it simply, as a way to think.

To be continued…