Untangling Drawing. Part One: Tracing shadows.

An investigation into the language of drawing is a hairy endeavour. At the heart of it are two main questions: What is drawing? And what does it do?

Tracing Shadows

In Michael Newman’s essay for the book The stage of drawing: Gesture and act (2003), he starts by exploring Pliny’s story about the potter’s daughter who traces the outline of her beloved’s shadow on the wall in order to preserve a memory of him when he goes away. The focus of Pliny’s story is that her father then presses clay to this outline in order to create relief portrait, but Newman draws attention to the daughter’s original act as being the primary representation.

What the daughter does is depict something that is fleeting, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. Newman suggests that she may use this as memento and therefore as a substitute, but I disagree with this statement, a shadow is not a person (Newman refers to Pierce’s “indexical” sign – that is a sign that refers to what it signifies by virtue of being related to it), when she drew it on the wall the daughter would have already been turned away from her lover. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. It is an imperfect double, even before she draws it, and so is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence. “Drawing, with each stroke, re-enacts desire and loss” (Newman, 2003, p. 95). There is no substitute, only a trace.

So what is a trace exactly? Tim Ingold, author of Lines: A brief history (2007) defines it in this way: “In our terms the trace is any enduring mark left on a solid surface by a continuous movement” (p. 43), Newman however struggles with the definition, questioning whether traces and marks are the same thing or not:

Is the mark itself a trace? Or the trace of a trace?  Or a mark from which the trace withdraws?  Or the effacement of the trace? At stake in these questions is the relation of the drawn mark to the one who leaves it and the one who receives it. (Newman, 2003, p. 94)

Newman goes on to suggest that the mark is a prescise gesture that obliterates the trace (2003, p. 95) but perhaps that is a subtle difference, could it be that the mark is the lasting visual manifestation of the trace, and therefore related very closely and almost indistinguiable from it?

To me the trace is a haunting, it is a copy, but not a substitute. In the act of re-presentation, the subject is re-created (translated) and becomes something other. It refers to what is absent, at the same time as being present as something different. The trace is irrevocably linked to drawing because both operate within a liminal space, the knife-edge between presence and absense.


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