Searching for Catalysts in the Practice of Drawing

"[...] if I apply a line, e.g. the edge of a black or coloured crayon, a plane is produced [...]


If we had a medium that made it possible to move planes in similar way, we should be able to inscribe an ideal three-dimensional piece of sculpture in space.


But I am afraid that is utopian."


Paul Klee (1961, 103.)

In this exposition, I discuss my recent exploratory drawing practice, with a background in design drawing. I have chosen to study and understand three-dimensional forms through drawing. Animation is looked at as a catalyst with which the forms and the task becomes better understood.


The term 'utopian' reminds me of computer modelling tools, with floating surfaces and the never-ending possibility of re-arranging them, again with the possibility of defining shapes without defining lines first.


I am looking at the alternation or tension between these ends: lines and shapes, still images and animations, while designing the shape of a hand. I discuss what it is to know the shape of an object for the purposes of drawing. I work with catalysis here as a metaphor: one kind of drawing accelerates the development of another kind of drawing.

Animations I-II


The animations in this page were all drawn during the Spring 2018. They were made with the expectation that the creation of an animation would support understanding the form and motion of the hand, and I could distance myself from the lines that make up the forms.


The first concrete outcome of the animation task was to find that the thumb hinge posed a problem. I began to revise and analyze the hand model through the animations presented in this page.

I have chosen to draw hands, as I felt they are complex enough to require study and are able to demonstrate the animation as catalyst in the process of studying.


Blocks, cubes and abstractions can be used to undergird a drawing. This has long been a common advice in design drawing guidance (e.g. Doblin 1956; Lockard 1982) but the mechanism of how this becomes integrated into a drawing practice is less often discussed. Below, I will also discuss how I arrived at this model.


Instead of putting drawings in a specific role within design or art, I am looking at the possibility that drawing shapes and forms could be a process of study in itself, a way of becoming literate in drawing.


In artistic research approaches, animation (e.g. Koski 2014) and drawing blind, drawing multiple drawings repeatedly or focusing on pen motion (e.g. Dobler, 2014) have been utilized to gain further understanding about the object of study, drawing materials or the research process at hand.


Changing the drawing situation can be revealing about one's own drawing practice. For example, Betty Edwards presented drawing tasks, where even a single task can be revealing for the beginner about his or her drawing ability. (Edwards 2012.)


The key idea is to become more intimate with a type of drawing using another type of drawing that is in opposition or even apparently unrelated to the intended drawing.

The drawing process has been described as a talk-back (Schön 1983, 76-79), or a source of new insight (Goldschmidt 2003). Just as the artist researchers demonstrate, it is still fruitful to find more specific ways of how and what can be "talked" to the drawings, in order to get it them to respond in different and intended ways.


In this project, I animate a hand shape, using free-hand drawings, with the aim of making the forms and motion clear and smooth throughout the animation. Because of the animation task I have a reason to pay more attention to the individual lines, but I also a have to care more about how the whole forms are aligned between each frame.


The chosen project then pushes me to define the form with more intensity than I would need to do if I only sketched the image once. For an object in motion (such as the clenching hand) I also need to solve or decide more about the object than if I drew a single image. This could be compared to drawing the interior and the backside of a house with the aim of only drawing the facade.


It has been my choice to study the topic in the way I have described. But I also see that these choices produce situations that I may not have foreseen, and the possibility of catalysis and value often resides in this unforeseen quality.


Animation IV

Six drawings, looped back and forth. This animation addresses the moving thumb element in more clarity.


I felt I needed to draw the hand from memory, and not use references or draw from life directly, although unavoidably the subject of hand relates to observation and understanding of the self.

The background for the Animations I-VI


In an earlier exposition Drawing Exercises (2017) I summarized that a drawing exercise could be seen as an activity where a different kind of drawing is used to enhance another type of drawing or the drawing skill more generally.


Instead of developing more exercises, I have given more attention to reflecting on drawing through drawing, asking whether certain drawing activities could accelerate the understanding of drawing. 


One of the exercises was focused on drawing cubes from multiple angles on the same page. This is already suggestive of motion, or animation.


Although the focus of this exposition is in drawings that advance the study of drawing, obviously other things affect the drawings too. Life drawing would be a clear example of this, and a drawing process of this type would be unthinkable without elements of life drawing in its history.


Yet these recent explorations are so removed from life drawing that I consider it a phase in itself. I attempt to be mindful of other practices that have helped me to redefine my drawing, such as my work with computers and computer modelling.


Artists can explore any drawing tendencies and even seeming unskilledness, or make a virtue out of being ignorant about them. In my current project I am personally interested in clearly defined forms.


Arriving at the drawing tasks


An important point in my recent drawing practice has been a drawing of Lego car I made from memory. (Figure 1) The drawing was made relatively fast, in one session, without making many preliminary guiding lines or other assistive techniques.


This relates to drawing objects for the purposes of eventually building them, or making drawings while building a model. This is something I have already done in the context of furniture and spatial design studies. But only here I began to actively think about reasons why the block car could be drawn from memory and some more complex shapes, such as human bodies, would resist.


The project for drawing the hand became a task of trying to define the shape in a way that would make it more explicit for the purposes of drawing, much like the toy car. This I see as a design process, where the drawings are again concerned with the "buildability" of the outcome, but this time, the object is a human hand.


I have been interested in drawing the human head, and examining Burne Hogarth's manuals (Hogarth 1965, 1970, 1977) on drawing topics. The illustrations there suggested means of exaggerating the shapes sufficiently to make a complex topic understood. (Figures 2-3) Yet it is only after the vividness of the Lego car drawing experience the hand drawing project came into being. 

Drawing knowledge


The artist and researcher Kristina Niedderer presented an overview of different kinds of knowledge in domains of art and design practice. Propositional, procedural and experiential would be the major knowledge types that relate to artistic and practice-led work. (Niedderer, 2007.)


I have given high importance to simplifications and exaggerations that relate to these drawings. These are easier to remember and at the same time they are more effective to show through drawings and animations. Looking my drawings together with the example of Hogarth's illustrations, there could be grounds for saying the study is conducted through drawing and the outcomes of the research are also partly in the drawings.


In the case of the Lego car, it is clear that each of the blocks drawn acted as a memory aid for adding another block, keeping in mind the constraints, connectors and dimensions characteristic of these blocks. The car is built on paper almost as certainly as it could be built virtually in a computer software.


This I interpret as a combination of procedural knowledge that comes with the constrained three-dimensional grid. This knowledge is transportable as item lists and step-by-step guides.


In similar terms, the hand drawing project became a matter of translating the human hand shape to something that can be remembered procedurally, translating it into building blocks so to speak.


It was not enough to design a still hand, but to be also sensitive to the ways a hand can move. In this the correct dimensions and proportions are of less importance than the ways the connections and hinge points are articulated. I chose to concentrate on only two variants, a clenched fist and an open hand with extended fingers, and the motion between these two extremes. (Figures 4 and 5) This part of the process ended with a design of hand (Figure 6) that I began animating at a later stage.


Although a skill always has a tacit component, in reporting processes and learning to draw the tacit should not be highlighted at the expense of procedural and propositional knowledge.

Figure 4.

Sketches of hands, pencil on paper, May 2017. Author's drawing.

Searching the appropriate level of detail for the hand.



I consider my research approach to be practice-led (Smith & Dean 2009). This practice originates from a design background where I learned to apply drawing to goals outside the drawings, such as depicting objects and details for building objects. This in turn fed back to the drawing skill and I noticed I had better grasp of drawing forms.


Practice-led research emphasizes the “inside” perspective of a skilled practitioner finding research questions from the practice, seen through the lens of the practitioner, whereas an "outsider" might not see a question at all. Barbara Bolt discussed Hockney’s study into the use of camera obscura in old masters’ work, arguing for the artists’ knowledge and professional interest as primary to such questions in the domain of art (Bolt, 2007, 27-34).


Barfield (2006) suggests that in as much research is concerned with ontology, this ontology has locatedness and is spatial. According to Barfield, this would mean that art practices also relate to ontological issues through art, contributing to ontological questions through their particular means. Although the building blocks in toys and computer modelling are distinct procedural or propositional knowledge units, the broader domain of arts is concerned with a diversity of spatial ontologies that are not addressed here.


It is clear that my images are loaded with a specific kind of spatiality and a striving towards clarity of form. The builder's grid, the perspective matrix and the procedures, are all invisible matter that relate to drawing's knowing. If some other artist has different goals in this respect, I also suspect the drawing tasks would also take different directions to the ones presented here.


Restating my project in similar terms, as an artist I am interested in the ways illustrators and draftsmen in the past could apparently draw three-dimensional form with precision, yet without relying on reference images or apparatuses.


I also believe that research and knowledge claims in domains of art and design ought not become overtly defined. As Borgdorff says, art research ought not to be limited to explicating non-propositional knowledge, shrinking it to a “decoding exercise” (Borgdorff, 2011).


The approach where different drawings and tasks serve as counterpoints to other drawings, not as exhaustive analyses but possible new openings and re-articulations, evades such finality and in my opinion makes it possible to discuss design and art drawing practices through similar lens. The metaphor of catalysis might be one such lens.

Conclusion: Catalytic drawings

As a researcher I am interested in ways that drawing can become intertwined or equated with a research process, what kind of knowledge operates within the drawing process, and how knowledge might be said to become transmitted through research outcomes, drawing literature and drawings themselves.


I believe that the way drawing skill and knowledge is advanced, resides centrally within the practical acts of drawing. Yet I emphasize that drawing is not only achieved by drawing outcomes directly in the hope that the drawings become “better”. I am fascinated by how thorny issues may be resolved through a drawing project that probes different kinds of drawings.


Such drawings might have exaggerated forms, or apply mechanical metaphors to the drawn motifs, or as in the case of this exposition, animations that seek to address goals that were originally related to single images. This gives a basis to interpret these drawings as catalysts, an accelerator for developing drawing, re-framing the drawing task or identifying problem areas and goals.


To me the value of the concept of catalysis is to appreciate the ways drawing reveals more than was put into it. Although the process can be described as dialogical, the notion of catalysis can give different interpretations and weight to different parts of the process. Any drawing "talks back", but a catalytic drawing has the role of accelerating a particular aspect of understanding or reflection within the drawing practice.



Barfield, N. (2006). Spatial Ontology in Fine Art Practice. Thinking Through Art. In Reflections on Art as Research. Edited by Katy Macleod and Lin Holdridge. New York. Routledge.

Bolt, B. (2007). The Magic is in Handling. In Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Inquiry. United Kingdom, I.B. Tauris. P. 27–34.

Borgdorff, H. (2011). The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research. In The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, edited by Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. P. 44–64.

Dobler, J. (2014). Reflect | React | Redraw. Studies in Material Thinking. Volume 10

Doblin, J. (1956). Perspective: A New System for Designers. New York: Whitney Publications.

Edwards, B. (2012). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence. 4th edition. Great Britain: Souvenir Press.

Goldschmidt, G. (2003). The backtalk of self-generated sketches. Design Issues, 19(1), 72-88.

Heikkinen, T. (2017a) Building Blocks of Drawing. Presented at the Art of Research 2017 conference.

Heikkinen, T. (2017b) Drawing Exercises. RUUKKU Studies in Artistic Research, 7.

Hogarth, B. (1965). Drawing the Human Head. New York, Watson-Guptill.

Hogarth, B. (1970). Dynamic Figure Drawing. New York, Watson-Guptill.

Hogarth, B. (1977). Drawing Dynamic Hands. New York, Watson-Guptill.

Klee, P. (1963). Notebooks Volume 1: The Thinking Eye. London: Lund Humphries.

Lockard, W.K. (1982). Design Drawing. Revised edition. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Koski, K. (2014). Mapping the Female Reproductive System: Arts-based Inquiry of Medical Students’ Anatomy Drawings. Studies in Material Thinking. Volume 10

Niedderer, K. (2007) Mapping the Meaning of Knowledge in Design Research. Proceedings of Nordes nordic design conference 2007: Design Inquiries.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

Smith, H. & Dean, R.T. (2009) Introduction: Practice-led Reseach, Research-led Practice – Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web. Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean (eds.) Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh University Press.

Animation V


19-frame animation, looped. This rotation of the clenched fist is about establishing the coordinate space and exercising the animation technique.

Animation VI


19-frame animation, looped.


I began the session with a more detailed and shaded hand, but as the session proceeded my line became more liberated and I considered the shading an unnecessary toil.


The animation shows some trouble articulating the thumb portion in action. Later I gave it more attention.

Figure 5.

Sketches of hands, pencil on paper, June 2017. Author's drawing.

Figures 2 and 3.

Burne Hogarth’s (1965, 28)(1970, 38) illustrations use exaggerated definition to show difficult anatomical constructions.

Animation III

Five drawings, looped back and forth.

This shows the opening of the fist as a study of the thumb articulation.


With this animation I tried to fix the problems in animations I-II.

Figure 1.

Lego car drawings, pencil and gouache on paper, 2014. Author's drawing.


The car is built on paper, instead of drawing it from life.

Figure 6.

Drawings of hands, pencil on paper, July 2017. Author's drawing.

After these drawings, I started the animation task.

Drawing the animation becomes a routine of switching quickly between the first frame, the previous frame and the current frame. This way the shapes do not wander from frame to frame. 


I am aware of onion skinning and keyframing methods for traditional animation, but my goal is to have a grasp of an imagined object, and not to rely on too many assistive techniques.

Portions of the text have been revised from the paper The Building Blocks of Drawing (Heikkinen 2017a) presented at the Art of Research 2017 conference. [external link]


The animated drawings and discussion and interpretations on them are new.