Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice

by D.B. Dowd (interview)

D.B. Dowd, professor of art and American culture studies at Washington University and faculty director of the D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library, writes that drawing is above all else a tool for learning. This beautifully printed book covers drawing as a means of discovery and communication, confusion between visual modes, a nostalgic look at the field of illustration, and musings about the teaching of art.

Visual Modes

Important to the discussion in this book in the distinction between the “glyphic” and “vedutic” visual modes from which the graphic and painterly sensibilities emerge. The following is an amalgam of charts that appear on pages 53 and 146.

Visual Mode Glyphic Vedutic
Visual Vocabulary Linear Tonal
Spatial Presentation Schematic Volumetric
Communicative Approach Indicative Descriptive
Visual Production Symbol Image
Digital Association Vector-based Pixel-based
Platemaking Requirement Line Art Halftone
Color Printing Approach Spot Color CMYK

“Egyptian hieroglyphs… are discrete pictorial units… In typeface design, glyphs are extra characters, like ligatures and currency symbols (€,¥)… Logos are glyphic in character… Historically grounded in proto-writing, glyphic images are fashioned for purposes of primary communication.”

“The best glyphic drawing can be breathtakingly lucid, elegant, preternaturally attuned to shifts in weight and density, delightfully inventive, strikingly dramatic, and above all… coherent… In my view, information and identity designers, classic comic artists, and contemporary hand-letterers do some of the best work in this realm. Such work tends to combine a quality of surprise—something wonderfully seen—with a strong analytical sense.”

Category Errors

“We should not see the contending sensibilities as absolutes… They coexist in many objects, practitioners, and careers, and often tussle for dominance.” That said, it’s important to use the right device for the task at hand.

The author observes the dysfunction when license plates migrate from the realm of graphic to painterly, using the example of a decorative Ohio plate. “The function of the artifact—the reason it exists at all—is to identify the vehicle to civil authorities, possibly while moving at high speeds. The critical design challenge is to provide separation between the alphanumeric information and the visual field upon which it appears… The plate is at war with its own function. The truly critical value relationships, between the letters/numbers and the field—blue against white—is undermined by other value contrasts, hue shifts, and variable saturation levels in ‘the picture.’”

Likewise, “the integrity of symbolic form is undermined by casual computer users who confuse the languages of pixels and vectors. This occurs when amateur designers use type in digital-imaging programs, unmooring letterforms from their vectorized ‘plans’… Why lament the shoddy treatment of letterforms? Symbolic integrity transcends questions of mere taste. Intelligibility, coherence, sobriety, and grace are positive contributions to the public commons. The well-made thing matters.”

“Digital tools tend to magnify, even aggrandize, half-baked visual ideas.”

The Process of Drawing

“To say that I ‘work to understand’ means that I mark the surface of my paper with a soft pencil, trying to find the right angle, distance, convergence. I don’t yet know: I draw through the form. I must repeat a given mark five or six times. If you look closely at da Vinci’s drawings, you will find the same thing: a thicket of lines, with the right one pulled out over time, through emphasis. Not didactically, but as discovery. The drawing is a byproduct. The process demands responsive tools that reward variable emphasis. I press harder, I get a fatter, darker mark. Soft drawing pencils, vine charcoal, litho crayons all do the trick.”

“A competently executed drawing of a plant will tend to isolate its salient features; whereas the found photography on the Internet has captured and compressed information willy-nilly.”

Illustration and Cartooning

“The emergence of illustration as a profession in the nineteenth century parallels an expansion of mass literacy… Financially speaking, during the explosive growth in periodical publishing from 1860 to 1940, successful illustrators did well… Leyendecker, Rockwell, and Parrish became household names.” Another illustrator featured in the book is Alfred Charles Parker whose “most famous and long-running project was a series of covers for the Ladies’ Home Journal, grandmother of the women’s magazines, founded in 1883.”

Although many of the early illustrators were trained as oil painters, a rift developed between fine art (autonomous, disinterested)  and commercial art (contingent, serving a client). “Clement Greenberg published ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ [in 1939] in Partisan Review, characterizing popular print as the rearguard, opposed to the avant-garde. Greenberg sought to explain and strengthen the position of art in a world swamped by mass culture. To the latter he assigned the label kitsch, using a then obscure German word for garish or tasteless mass-reproduced three-dimensional copies of artworks.”

Dowd conducted an informal study “to measure the incidence of illustration/illustrators and cartooning/cartoonists in high cultural output… Using the calendar year 2008 as the given interval, we counted more than 5,200 individual exhibitions, publications, and art history courses.” Fewer than 4% of the data points covered illustration or cartooning—commercial artists continue to be snubbed.

“Broadly speaking, in rare cases when works of illustration are held to be culturally or aesthetically meritorious, they are celebrated for having transcended illustration. When such works do appear in high cultural contexts, their roots in publishing are often actively suppressed… Though I consider myself a graphic connoisseur, I decline to argue for illustrations as Art. Illustrations are best regarded—and most appropriately apprehended—as cultural artifacts with aesthetic properties, not objets d’art.”


“Students have had too little engagement with drawing as thinking or planning, which is how most people actually use it… The reason to study drawing is fundamentally, resoundingly humane. It’s the quickest route known to a confrontation with ignorance. Habits of casual assumption cannot survive an afternoon of drawing objects or plants on a table. The act of reporting from the physical world soon reveals how little we know, and tests our ability to discern structure.”

“A course of study in drawing should be occupied by fundamental questions of observation, perception, conception, knowledge, and representation—in other words, with epistemological inquiry. Thus, today’s Drawing 101 needs to be reconceived. In some institutions, that process has begun. The motives are practical: Students vote with their feet.”

“People write and speak of the ‘post-studio-artist.’ It seems clear that we face a crisis of relevance in art education. Enrollments are down… Meanwhile, design programs continue to grow, due to expanding opportunities and increase cultural currency.”

“The modern university has thrived on specialization, which has been patrolled and presided over by academic disciplines, consolidated into departments. Much of the important work of the coming decades will happen in the spaces between fields. As things stand in American universities, departments are incentivized to stay within themselves and protect their borders. The fertile interstices will remain relatively unmolested if we do not overcome the tyranny of categories. Blended pursuits may show the way.”

Dowd, D. B. Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice. St. Louis, MO: Spartan Holiday Books, in Association with the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum, 2018. Buy from

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