Drawing or painting; painting or drawing?

For my final assignment I found I really wanted to execute this in acrylics; but was this drawing, and if it wasn’t, what made it different?

Intuitively, I could see no real difference, especially as somewhere in Drawing1 I was being asked to ‘paint with pastels’, while in Practice of Painting at least one exercise is about ‘drawing with paint’.

If I draw in the traditional sense, it is with an implement that on the whole is short and resilient, while if I paint I am using a tool that is often longer and has a flexible component at the end (excluding palette knives). I am using the same hand/eye/brain coordination and gestural learning for both; the same looking and seeing. The main difference seems to be drying time and the precision that comes from rigidity.

Julian Bell, in What is Painting? (2017)  seems to support my view, arguing that “Painting is the manner of production that distinguishes [these] flat things from other sorts of marked surfaces. As does drawing, the only difference is the implement.”

Artists such as Picasso and Rego blur the boundaries by either doing both or combining the two techniques in one piece of work, which gets the differentiation no further forward. I turned to cognitive science. This is an abstract from Rosenbaum’s 2017 book, Knowing Hands:

Whenever you get dressed, carry objects, write, draw, or gesture, you express knowledge about how to get things done with your hands. Ironically, that knowledge is often difficult to express. Typically, you can’t say what you know. Still, it would be enormously useful to identify the knowledge underlying manual control. The design of equipment and transportation systems might better anticipate the abilities and limitations of users, and methods of teaching and rehabilitating skills might also improve. This book, the first on the cognitive psychology of manual control, uncovers the hidden knowledge that hands express. Organized around key topics in this emerging area, including the role of the will in manual control, illusions concerning hand position sense, and the coordination of manual actions with others, Knowing Hands explains the planning and control of manual actions in everyday life.

I can relate to this. When I learned to drive it was in a vehicle with the handbrake on the right, squeezed between the seat and the door. I passed in one more conventionally set out and subsequently drove a variety of different cars, one a Renault 4 with its gears operated by an umbrella handle coming out of the dashboard, and latterly an electric Leaf which is also my first automatic. The point is that I didn’t learn to drive one specific kind of car, I learned the principles of  operating and driving a powered vehicle, transferable skills that rise above the specific to encompass the over-arching. It seems to me that the argument about whether drawing and painting are doing the same thing or something different can be considered in a similar frame. Where the operator is the same, the process will be essentially the same, moderated only by the choice of medium (three gears, six, none) and implement (Vauxhall, Tesla, Mini).

One of our tutors, Bryan Eccleshall, has begun delivering bite-sized tutorials via Instagram. When I asked about this issue, he said two things that particularly struck me. The first was a distinction between line and field. Line, he said, is exemplified by Pollock who despite being a painter of abstracts, nevertheless makes those works by applying paint in line form. Rothko, another painter of abstracts, essentially uses paint to create an overall field of colour.

The argument then is whether or not Pollock is ‘drawing’ and Eccleshall, while acknowledging the wider debate, expressed the view that it was maybe not helpful to box processes into categories, much as we may feel driven to do so. That art is not either or, it is both.

I am put in mind of Simon Baron-Cohen’s thesis that autism often expresses itself in extreme systematising, and that this tendency is more predominant in men than women. I wonder then, if the prevalence of men in the upper echelons of art drives this debate while women are thinking, well am I bovvered?


Paula Rego – biography and legacy. Unattributed and undated. The Art Story. [online] Available at https://www.theartstory.org/artist/rego-paula/life-and-legacy/. Accessed 4 May 2020.

Paula Rego. Wikipedia. [online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paula_Rego. Accessed 4 May 2020.

Picasso: known as a painter but who also made staggeringly simple line drawings. http://www.pablopicasso.net/drawings/

Bell, J., 2017. What is Painting? Thames and Hudson P 22.

Rosenbaum, D.A., 2017. Knowing Hands: the cognitive psychology of manual control. Cambridge University Press.

Eccleshall, B. 2020. Mini tutorial: painting and/or drawing? Instagram. [online] Available at https://www.instagram.com/p/B_Rw52QFAju/ Accessed 4 May 2020.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2009) Autism: the empathising-systematising (E-S) theory. The Year in Cognitive Science. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1156. Pp 68-80.

3 thoughts on “Drawing or painting; painting or drawing?

  1. Nicely discussed, I came to the personal conclusion that all mark making whether with a chisel, pencil, brush, and what ever media wet or dry is all drawing. Painting on the other hand is jus one of many specific forms of drawing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Admittedly I haven’t given this the kind of attention I know some will have invested but my personal conclusion is why is it even a thing? It feels like a rather pointless thought experiment designed to separate artistic effort on somewhat spurious grounds. And when people make delineations they tend also to ascribe more worth to one than the other, which feels potentially pernicious. So to return to my concluding remark – drawing or painting, am I bovvered?


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