Think of a bridge across a river. To build such a bridge, one has to begin building toward the center of the river from the land on each side. For the longest time, until the two sides meet, the bridge is a complete failure as a bridge. Before the two sides of the bridge meet, if you drive from either side toward the other side, you ultimately end up in the drink. However, if you keep working on each side, the bridge ultimately becomes a continuous whole rather than two incomplete beginnings.
I think of the relationship between structure and expression in drawings as a similar condition. Early in one’s work, the relationship between the two is unclear, the idea of making a drawing that equally articulates both seems impossible. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in my first year of serious fine art drawing, I saw an original Cezanne drawing of a young boy’s head at the house of a Philadelphia art collector. The drawing beautifully captured and described truths about the structure of the subject. As I began to look at the individual marks that composed this drawing, I was stunned by how freely made and expressive the marks were. They had life and energy purely as marks and were in no way limited in their expressive energy by the structure they conveyed. I knew from that moment that that was the kind of drawing I wanted to be able to make, but how on earth to get there?
What has helped me has been to view the two characteristics, structure and expression as two conditions of study, equally important, that, over time, meet and coexist, neither compromising the intensity of the other. I approach each as the starting point of a bridge. In some drawings, I concentrate on understanding and characterizing aspects of the structure of what I am observing. The drawings that are more oriented toward structure tend to be tighter drawings and my effort focuses on creating legibility. The expressive drawings, on the other hand, are understood to be, not a description, but rather, a reaction. The marks are more about my reactions to the subject than about the subject itself. They are about how I feel, the feelings and movements the subject evokes within me, how I like to make at the moment, the kind of strokes I would use if I had total freedom and didn’t need to control or limit the marks to make a legible description. I still make these marks as a reaction to an observed subject. That is what allows the expressive side of the bridge to build toward the side of structure. That is, I could make really expressive marks without looking at anything, but what interests me is finding or allowing those very same kinds of marks exactly while interacting with both internal and external subject matter.
If I allow myself to approach a subject from both sides, some drawings emphasizing structure and some drawings emphasizing expression, over time each side begins to corrupt the other. More structure surfaces in my expressive drawings. More expression surfaces in the drawings that are biased toward structure. It doesn’t work to try to force a compromise between the two. I need to give expression full primacy in some drawings and structure full primacy in others. Over time, and with lots of experience doing both, the two sides begin moving toward each other. If I’m exceptionally lucky, the sides meet, creating a continuous bridge between the two categories of impulses.
The fact is, the relationship between these two impulses is messy. They can compromise each other and rarely find equal balance. Just like human relationships, the relationship between these two kinds of impulses can be really complicated and often founders. When the relationship works though, when both coexist full on, influenced by but not compromised by the other, then drawing gets really exciting. My drawing teacher, Jerry Buchanan, saw drawing as a superimposition of many simultaneous realities, above all, the reality of the subject and the reality of the maker. I feel, as he did, that without both, a drawing loses the very essence of what makes drawings extraordinary.
Even after thirty-eight years of drawing, the balance I am describing is hard for me to find. Each drawing tends to move more toward one side or the other. I am always trying to reach the middle of the bridge, but more often than not end up closer to one bank than the other. Because my ways of working allow lots of reworking and changes in direction, an individual drawing might move back and forth, being overbalanced toward one side then the other, again and again, as I search for balance between the two impulse. It isn’t easy for me to create the balance I seek. The best I can do is try to give both bodies of impulse full reign, hoping that they end up coexisting rather than destroying each other. One of the great things about drawing is that one can shoot for an ideal time and time again, failing most of the time, and yet still achieve rare moments that at least point toward the possibility of the ideal.
My only closing thought is that if you also value the balance of both impulses in your work, you must let both mature simultaneously. I’ve known many artists who assume that one must master structure first, then expression. If one approaches making that way, an ever growing asymmetry between the impulses grows. The artist gets better and better at structure, while expression remains naive. Once one finally engages expression, it is so far behind structure in its maturity, that structure will suppress expression every time. Expression simply hasn’t the strength to demand equal influence. So I suggest emphasizing both equally from day one, not in every drawing, but rather drawing to drawing. Swing way out toward one, then way out toward the other and keep it up while they find the way to each other. Just as with a literal bridge, the work on each side remains incomplete for quite a while, but eventually the sides meet and create something integrated, flowing, and complete, far stronger than either side on its own.