When I was a kid, I loved drawing. I loved the way it felt to make marks on a page, the sound of the graphite scratching against the paper, the feel of the pencil against my fingers.
I liked the sensation of moving my hand and arm in swooping or looping gestures. And I liked the marks left by these gestures: lines against a surface, the visual contrast and tension. With a little imagination, I could see characters who’d never existed before come to life. But drawing was also an activity that got me in trouble. At school If I had a sheet of paper in front of me, I doodled on it. I would draw in my notebook instead of work on what I was supposed to be doing. Drawing was often seen as an off-task activity. At home, my artistic endeavors were appreciated, but not regarded as something to aspire to. As the child of immigrants, I was encouraged to focus on more serious, scholarly pursuits. I grew up believing that the thing I loved and cared about didn’t really matter. So eventually, I just stopped doing it.
Like me, many children use drawing as a primary way of responding to and representing experiences, ideas, and imaginings. Before we can form words, we make marks on a page to tell stories about who we are and what we care about.
We draw what frightens us, perplexes us, and excites us. Our early drawings were opportunities to examine ourselves in the world, to challenge concepts and beliefs, and to imagine who we might be in the future. As an act, drawing is deeply entangled with literacy development, but doesn’t often receive the same attention or regard as language.
Drawing helps us discover what we know. It gives shape to our often divergent and nonlinear thoughts. It helps us construct new knowledge, by offering a non-verbal approach to thinking through logic and causality. But drawing is also a deeply embodied act that activates the body by privileging sensation and desire over linearity and discursiveness. Drawing emphasizes our subjective rationality, highlights our material constraints, and creates the conditions for surprise and delight. Drawing allows us to sidestep the structures of language to speak without saying, to know without articulating, and to sense without containing. Drawing cares more about how we feel than what we think.
Okay, I never really stopped drawing. I just pushed it to the margins for a long time, and hid it in places other people couldn’t see. I could never really shake it. In fact, there were times when my body seemed to need it. In the darkest of times, I found that drawing in my sketchbook was the only thing that would help me feel better. It didn’t matter how well I drew, and it didn’t matter if anyone even saw it. Drawing helped me be present with my feelings, it helped me endure confounding thoughts, it helped me wait out the darkness for the light. And this is still how it works for me.
Not everything we feel or everything we know can be articulated through language. As a cultural-historical system, language not only gives shape to our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, it tells us what they’ll be as well. In order to share (or prove) what we know or how we feel, we necessarily have to render it in language, an act we all struggle with from time to time. Think about all those times we resort to metaphor to explain that what we mean is more than the words we’re using to say it. We’ve been moving from thoughts to words for so long, it’s easy to believe that the only way to know something, is to put it into language. It’s even easy to mistake thought and language as the same thing.
Can we know something if we can’t say it?
Can we think through drawing?
What are feelings before we’ve named them?
I’m a sucker for cartoon characters. I love how improbable they are. Their impossibility. Their absurdity. As caricatured humans, they also help reveal and uncover the limits of our humanity.
It makes sense to me that cartoon characters would emerge from drawing. It’s true, of course, that drawing can be used to document and look more closely at the world around us. It can be used to uncover the depth of our thoughts, to reveal the complexity of our world. It can be used inquire. But what excites me most is drawing’s ability—through the ambiguity of line—to render the unimaginable in a visible form, free from the constraints of logic or reason. Drawing offers us an opportunity to imagine new trajectories for ourselves and for the world around us. When I draw, I can act on what I sense—those vibrations and movements in my body—without having to figure out what they are or what they mean.
In a few months, my own graphic novel, Red Panda & Moon Bear, comes out. It’s a wish fulfilled for my twelve-year-old self. A book full of monsters and creatures, impossible happenings. It’s also got characters who remind me a lot of myself. They’re silly and irreverent. They care deeply about the people around them. They’re powerful and strong. They know a lot of stuff, but they also make a ton of mistakes. They’re helpful and destructive. Beings of contradiction and ambiguity. Just like all of us. The narrative in this book is itself a kind of line drawing: meandering and diverging. It splits apart, goes in separate directions, rejoins itself later. It moves in odd shapes, full of surprise. It resists logic and reason. It’s motivated not by what should come next, but by what could come next.
Now I’m all grown up—a college professor—and I teach comics and cartooning in a creative writing program. I’ve discovered that people who like to tell stories, often (used to) like drawing as well. I’ve had countless adult students come to my office to confess their desire to go back to drawing. I get to hear stories about drawing with parents as children, making their own comics and zines, and the too-often abandonment of these activities. The older I’ve gotten, the more my actions have been motivated by a desire to retrieve my own past. Like my students, I’m looking for the things I love, and so many of them began in my childhood. Maybe it’s because we’re getting farther and farther away from it. Maybe we’re worried it’ll disappear entirely. Maybe we’re scared to forget. But maybe you still feel that desire to draw, the tingle of excitement in your body. Maybe, when you pick up a comic or watch a cartoon, you get that rushing sensation, that urge to make something. Maybe you left drawing, but drawing never left you.
So, I’ll quote the cartoonist and educator, Lynda Barry: “To all the kids who quit drawing…come back!”
Some drawing and art-making resources:
- Marjorie & Brent Wilson’s book, Teaching Children to Draw, is not just a resource for working with children, but an exploration of what it means to draw.
- Andrea Kantrowitz’s article, Drawn to Discover, details a cognitive approach to drawing. http://www.andreakantrowitz.com/drawn-to-discover.html
- Nick Sousanis’s essay in comics form, The Shape of Our Thoughts, explores the way drawing comics approximates human thought. His book, Unflattening, furthers and continues this conversation. http://spinweaveandcut.com/the-shape-of-our-thoughts/
- Deanna Petherbridge’s, The Primacy of Drawing, is an theoretical and historical text on the ways drawing helps us construct knowledge and the ways we think through drawing.
- Elliot Eisner’s The Arts and the Creation of Mind, is an argument for art-making in an educational context, and draws from a lifetime of research in art education.
- Dave Eggers’ short short story, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, is a great example of the ways we use metaphor to articulate sensations of the body.
- Maxine Greene’s collection of essays, Releasing the Imagination, approaches art-making (including writing and literacy) from a curricular and pedagogical perspective, and situates it as an imaginative endeavor that can be used to construct a more equitable future.
- My article/comic, Drawing with Milo, documents the ways drawing is entangled in the life of a ten-year-old boy. https://educate.bankstreet.edu/occasional-paper-series/vol2013/iss30/12/
Jarod Roselló is a Cuban-American cartoonist, writer, and teacher originally from Miami, Florida. He is the author/artist of the middle grade graphic novel, Red Panda & Moon Bear, and the forthcoming (adult) graphic novel, Those Bears. He teaches fiction and comics in the creative writing program at University of South Florida. You can find him at www.jarodrosello.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @jarodrosello.