Drawing as a Way of Thinking

Anna Ursyn is a professor and Computer Graphics/Digital Media Area Head at the School of Art and Design, University of Northern Colorado, USA. She combines programming with software and printmaking media, to unify computer generated and painted images, and sculptures.

Drawing, as well as statistics, is a form of a world’s description: a drawing uses a line, while statistics uses means and averages. Communication goes both on visual and verbal levels, and even numbers are translated into lines, for instance to show a bell curve. In art, a line is used in an every medium, from a drawing, printmaking, or painting, to a 3D structure, to define dimensions, so it goes from shapes to forms. A line serves also to decorate. Such lines can be organic such as during Secession, Art Nouveau and Jugend style, or geometric such as in Art Deco or Cubism.

On a computer, a line is a collection of pixels in a digital system of zeros and ones (raster), or a mathematically connected two points following their descriptors (vector). A transition of a pixel from a rectangle into a square can be compared to the invention of a wheel because it eliminated the heavy jagging and a need for anti-aliasing. On a computer, jagged edges on curved lines can be smoothed out with an anti-aliasing technique. Within an analog recording system, a line is defined by a mathematical equation controlled by points and functions. The user can change a curvature, thickness, color, pattern, and a character of a line. As analog line is resolution independent, even a big billboard would be perfect, without any distortions. When sketching, the searching of a line often defines a volume. It is a paradox that we say that a text and time based media and music are linear, while a line can be perceived during any amount of time that a user chooses to spend. You cannot comment on a music composition before you spend as much time as a composer decided the music would last.

When discussing drawing, one may talk (or look at some drawings created by my students) about:



Comics, Comic book

Galt Tomassino: Beaver with Dam (Used with Permission)

Graphic novel

Joel Raynor: Chupo (Used with permission)

Character development




Lindsay Foy: Reef (used with permission)

Games and gaming

Shelby LaFond: Card deck (Used with Permission)


Oksanna Worthington, Used with Permission. This is a wireframe of a chess set that explain the movements of each figure to a novice. The student chose to use the typographic approach.


Data visualization, Small multiples



Sequential art



Moises Gomez: Running Feeling (Used with Permission)

Web tree, Web cloud


Architectural drawing, floor plan for architectural drawing

Abstract graphics

Mathematical equations

Chemical molecules

Physical laws – visual description

Electrical circuit

Road signs





Aaron Pries (Used with Permission)

Poster design

Morgan Hurtago (Used with Permission)

Music notation


Drawing by writing a code

Anna Ursyn: Coded drawing (Used with Permission)

Photosilkscreen after computer code

Anna Ursyn (Used with Permission)

Realistic drawing versus the essence of the object

– among many other options. Also, smartphone images, emoji digital images (emoji exist in various genres, including facial expressions, common objects, places, types of weather, and animals. They are much like emoticons, but emoji are actual pictures instead of typographics.

The way of the repeating and multiplying line attributes is defined by the elements and principles of design. For example, one may use principles of design to guide one’s composition, for example symmetry to show waves of the wind. Allison Wheeler used repetitive lines to present wind, snow, and rain (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Allison Wheeler, Wind, Rain, and Snow. (© 2018. A. Wheeler. Used with permission).

Using dots for rain and snowflakes for snow one may use in a code repetition, transform, and repeat. To create an image of a man, a woman, or both using shapes only (triangles, circles, rectangles) one may use geometric shapes first, then save a file under different name, and add organic shapes, in order to depict and emphasize their unique features. Then one may transform the image into 3D. One may use principles of design to guide own composition, for example scale, proportion, or hierarchy to make one person larger, or emphasis/dominance through the use of color in order to show importance. Then, using the principles of design one may connect codes for people, objects, and a background, so the content would overlap into a composition: people with trees in the background, still life in front, and wind above). The way of using lines in the context of the elements and principles of design is determined by the artist’s temperament.

Both traditional and computing-based illustrations make a great part of our everyday experience including communication, learning, productive work, and artistic activities. It seems that classification of illustrations into particular types or groups would depend on our interest: whether we would inspect techniques, products, or recipients. Some categorize illustration into the techniques such as: drawing, painting, printing and pasting ready images. Many types of traditional illustration have found their continuation in computing based media, especially when accomplished in a digital, interactive, and shared environment. Interaction techniques for digital transfer from the old resources to a currently demanded destination start from the old cut, copy, and paste operations, often without any concern about the copyright issues.

Without doubt, the art of illustration is closely related to printing techniques, even when printing is a final step of the process. A timeline of printing techniques has been listed on Wikipedia, History of Printing (2018) as follows: Woodblock printing (ancient but documented after 200), Movable type (1040), Printing press (1454), Etching (ca. 1500), Mezzotint (1642), Aquatint (1768), Lithography (1796), Chromolithography (1837), Rotary press (1843), Offset printing (1875), Hectograph (1869), Hot metal typesetting (1886), Mimeograph (1886), Photostat and Rectigraph (1907), Screen printing (1907), Spirit duplicator (1923), Dot matrix printer (1925), Xerography (1938), Phototypesetting (1949), Inkjet printing (1951), Dye-sublimation (1957), Laser printing (1969), Thermal printing (c.1972), 3D printing (1981), Solid Ink Printing (1986), and Digital printing (1991).

Drawing is used to organize and communicate in the form of sketches and even interactive sketches.  We used to sketch in order to communicate better and quicker. We can guess the meaning of a shape that was just started. We can make visual memories (on the back of a napkin, as in Roam, 2013), and at the same time we can use a line in a particular, highly specialized way, for instance in the time based media, storyboards, web 3D applications, blueprints, diagrams, web trees, wireframes, etc., often accompanied with a text. However, letters are also defined by lines, and in many cultures calligraphy is considered a high form of art. Type designers apply knowledge of physiology of an eye to create any type eye friendly and make it the most quickly to read a text. Eye tracking techniques (Duchowski, 2007); Bergstrom & Schall, 2014) show the eye movement while reading the text on a page or during the interactive movie watching when the gaze of a viewer is tracked via an eye tracking device.

A vast amount of components used for various drawing materials for different surfaces is transferred to computers to mimic them and then add the computer’s incomparable, undisputed precision by using lines with their repetition and code based transformations. At the same time, computer natives who always have an access to useful devices and applications, make the visual unwritten notes before they even begin to work on a computer. The environmental trends result in discoveries of the self-cleaning (microwaveable) sketchbooks. This continuous correspondence between the visual and verbal contexts erases the division between a notebook and a sketchbook. As a result there is a constant need to visually document ideas and inspirations, which leads to the new ways of thinking and creating.

Abstract concepts are also documented in a linear way as they form signs, symbols, and descriptors. Symbols have a power to replace words. They are used in various areas of life and different disciplines, beginning from transportation (as road signs), architecture and industrial design (as blueprints), through mathematics, sciences such as physics or chemistry (as chemical formulae), to biology (as systematic classification or a DNA visualization). Drawings are valuable as tools for classification. Even in archeology at the excavation sites artists are often hired for drawing artifacts and human remains, because the human eye can see with better depth than a photograph (Labadie, 2018). Furthermore, as documented in numerous dissertations in the fields of instructional technology and nursing, drawings are used as a tool in the processes of memorizing, relaxation, stress management, and spending a pleasant time.

We live in a world described by lines, when we admire the natural beauty of a ladybug or an oak leaf, and then we transfer the nature based organization into libraries available for coders so they may apply shortcuts, or create biology inspired materials, productions, and concepts. Moreover, we are surrounded by the human-made creations, which we unconsciously perceive as symbols and patterns. Considering the importance of a meaning and a context, a circle may have another meaning in the sciences (for example, in an abstract symbol within a structural formula of a chemical compound) than when you teach a geometric approach how to draw animals (where a circle may serve as an abstract symbol of a belly). An oval (or two ovals) in a biological drawing would mean an ape, while it would become an abstract symbol in the context of a chemical structural formula, or a galaxy in astronomical terms. We used to build sets of exchangeable patterns and textures in the form of clip arts, and then users can add or subtract something. Everyone who is or is not classified as an artist may use, buy, sell, and then share the material on social networking.

In similar fashion, we admire mathematical geometrical forms when they are materialized as shapes and forms, contained in various cultures (such as Islamic patterns), or they communicate in a mathematical way (such as fractals) the nature’s sophistication. We search out the eye pleasing notions beyond the golden section and the algorithmic beauty of plants and creatures (Prusinkiewicz, 1991). Technologies allow us mimicking nature to such extent that a fractal based imagery or a photographic rendering provides us with a perfect record. The developments in photonics give us an insight into domains that till now were inaccessible for human eyes in a macro-, micro-, nano-, or pico-scale, including the data from a cosmos as the real time footage of what happens far away. Figure 2 presents the electromagnetic spectrum drawn by Matthew Rodriguez.

Figure 2. Matthew Rodriguez (2012). Wavelengths (in meters) and communication. (© M. Rodriguez, 2012. Used with permission).

 In the course of history people were fascinated with natural events and attempted to record them without instruments using observations of patterns and repetitions. Greek philosophers and mathematicians visually recorded them on a sand to discuss objects and movements resulting from natural events, to discuss concepts, processes, and products along with mathematics and physics behind them.

Abstract concepts often take form of lines supported by their natural beauty. In the time of networking they generate many kinds of artistic competitions such as, for example,

  • Bridges: the Mathematical Connections in Art, Music, and Science (bridges mathart.org) and Mathematical Imagery at the American Mathematical Society (http://www.ams.org/home/page)
  • NanoArt International Festivals, Competitions and NanoArt21 Exhibitions (nanoart21.org)
  • Fractal Art Contests (http://www.fractalartcontests.com/)
  • Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Competitions (https://www.nikonsmallworld.com/).
  • D-ART Art Gallery for the International Conference on Information Visualisation, South Bank University, London, GB

The nature’s disciplined form of behavior, existing along with its unpredictable outbreaks provide the unlimited source for inspiration, creativity, and innovativeness, both in the visual and verbal worlds. We used to build our renderings on information and research, and then we support our efforts with the best will to evaluate our solutions in a nature friendly way through the concepts of sustainability, efficiency, recycling, and the power of communication within our designs. Thus, our knowledge, research, observance, and social awareness gained through learning, sharing, and exchanging would create the new criteria for defining the beauty, practicability, and happiness. Social networking tends to erase the boundary between art, craft, and design due to the individuals’ democratic thinking, audience-based judging, and also the practicality, ergonomic design, and functionality. Advances in material science, recycling ideas, and issues related to factors endangering our planet are continuously changing the way the networked audience, acting as critics and jurors might change our perceptions and preferences.

Moreover, with myriads of applications developed daily, a drawing often take a form of entertainment, and as such it may be spotted as a very important instrument for different actions, from the idea making, through planning, to a project development. At the same time, due to technology developments people gain better opportunities to collaborate with people endowed with talents other than themselves.

Is ability of drawing still important? A question that still appears in discussion on art education is: does an artist who works exclusively in digital media need to possess ability for drawing? Some hold that developing skills with computer software packages eliminates tedious hand-drawing exercises in much the same way that a facility for typing (on a computer or a typewriter) eroded the need to develop calligraphy skills. Others counter with the opinion that only through traditional drawing practices can students develop essential cognitive abilities, particularly the hand-eye coordination that is so frequently cited as lying at the core of art and design ability. Whichever side one’s sympathies lie it is a fact that advances in software have allowed artists to create levels of complexity in their drawing works that rival, but not necessarily replicate, the complexity of traditional practices. For this reason, some in education encourage students to fully immerse themselves in digital technology at the expense of following more traditional routes to skills development.

Do we think in pictures?  Where communication is required we take for granted that including images with text can, in many situations, outperform text alone. Visualization can increase our ability to think: to convey, compare, and evaluate data. Information visualization is often required in order to understand the data we generate because of its sheer volume to read and its complexity. Moreover, visualization of knowledge offers multiple options and solutions in processing information, such as interactivity or usability.

How can digital drawing enhance our means to convey semiotic content? Many view digital technologies as helpful in translating old and new information in visual messages, and through using drawings to present abstract concepts. The creation of digital visualizations or simulations often involves the use of symbols, metaphors and/or caricatures, as synthetic signs that can make a message sharper. Humor may well play an additional role in this. Of course, metaphors are to be found in literature and music as well as the visual arts. They tap into cognitive abilities to abstract the essence of an idea. Many find musical compositions as metaphorical ones. For example, one can envision a continuum encompassing sound qualities; silence, sound, and noise, represented as a grayscale. According to Desain and Honing (1992, 1996), metaphors in music theory inform and shape the ways we theorize about music. In music theory, notions of rhythm, timing and tempo are often associated with physical motion (like walking). While all metaphors support the understanding of an abstract or unfamiliar domain through more familiar concrete domain, visual metaphors uniquely assist in the organizing and structuring of information. They facilitate a recreation of knowledge in the mind of the receiver through making concepts visible (Lakoff, 1990).

Telling stories verbally and visually involves structuring the data toward different metaphorical representations of a person. Creating metaphors for a set of factors that make up a profile or a portrait will allow showing individual features of a portrayed person. In order to portray an imaginary character, one may want to depict a person in a literary way, the artistic way, or in the both ways. One may write a profile (verbal portrait) or convey graphically a mental image (visual portrait) of the chosen person. Imaging mental and emotional processes is truly important in creating visual communication. Depending on the kind of a profile one is working on, whether it would be a personal, cultural, social, political, or psychological portrait, one has to cope with a different set of variables that must be taken into account.

Figure 3 presents a portrait created by Adalia Names.

Figure 3. Adalia Names, A Portrait. (© 2018 A.Names. Used with permission).

Drawings can have strong storytelling properties. By adding visual storytelling to traditional drawing, drawing makers become immersed in a fourth dimension, wandering across time and space. Storytelling by drawing pictures is about delivering emotions: visceral, emphatic, or voyeuristic. When we paint colors on a computer screen we evoke emotional responses from the audience. Animation in storytelling allows us to slice through the time dimension to enhance dramatic actions, show suspenseful obstacles, and build tension before resolving a conflict. Figures and characters offer flexibility in communication path through transformations or by inducing interactivity.

Drawing as storytelling can act as a crucial interface between the visual and the verbal. We might see this capacity in sketches that serve as a starting point to create manga, blogs, and even product and architectural schemes. Such drawings evoke personal experience in the mind of the viewer through received and perceived information. Thus the viewer becomes the co-creator of the art. Digital storytelling can coexist with other techniques such as video, performance with physical and virtual interaction, visual surveillance, motion tracking, and artificial intelligence.

Stories require a ‘container’, as every story needs to be told differently for each medium, be it a graph, animation, web, manga, film, theater, radio, podcast, or comic. The writer needs to tell a story to match the framework, timing and technical requirements of each medium and more and more attention is being given to the narrative part of a visual display. Digital storytelling is becoming an important factor in managing communication in business, education, and training. Teaching drawing and computer graphics is now part of the collaborative interdisciplinary curricula for many art and computer science undergraduates.

Since media offer so many possibilities, the majority of new ideas used to be expanded into the multivariable, multidimensional beyond the xyz coordinate system, interactive with a dynamic environment, science-inspired, and multicultural projects. For these reasons collaborative efforts are in high demand, as supporting the new ideas resulting from participants’ creativity, abstract thinking, and inventiveness.

Drawing and sketching based on research, observation, and note taking is probably the shortest way to get there. So, sketch and draw daily as a way of thinking, and use the camera when some level of accuracy is needed. 


Bergstrom, J. R., & Schall, A. (2014). Eye Tracking in User Experience Design. Morgan Kaufman. UX Matters. Retrieved from https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2014/09/eye-tracking-in-user-experience-design.php

Desain, P., & Honing, H. (1992). Music, Mind, and Machine: Studies in Computer Music, Music Cognition, and Artificial Intelligence (Kennistechnologie). Thesis Pub. ISBN 9051701497

Desain, P., & Honing, H. (1996). Physical motion as a metaphor for timing in music: the final ritard. ICMA, Proceedings of the 1996 International Computer Music Conference, 458-460, San Francisco.

Duchowski, A. T. (2007). Eye Tracking Methodology: Theory and Practice. 2nd Edition. Springer.

John Antoine Labadie, J. A. (2018). Digitally Mediated Art Inspired by Technology Integration: A Personal Journey. In Ursyn, A., Editor (2018). Visual Approaches to Cognitive Education With Technology Integration (Advances in Educational Technologies and Instructional Design) 1st Edition. IGI Global.

Lakoff, G. (1990) The Invariance Hypothesis: Is Abstract Reason Based on Image-Schemas? Cognitive Linguistics, 1(1), 39-74.

No author (2018). History of Printing. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing

Prusinkiewicz, P., Lindenmayer, A., Hanan, J. S., Fracchia, F. D., FowlerD. R., & 2 more (1991). The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants (The Virtual Laboratory). 2nd Printing. Springer.

Tam, D. (2013). The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Expanded Edition). Portfolio Hardcover.



This article is illustrated with works of my students from the University of Northern Colorado.




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One Response to “Drawing as a Way of Thinking”

  1. Avatar
    Sonya Rademeyer
    May 3, 2018 at 11:25 am #

    A very dense article which has certainly expanded my notions of what a line is or might be! There is one idea that I would appreciate some clarity on:

    ‘It is a paradox that we say that a text and time based media and music are linear, while a line can be perceived during any amount of time that a user chooses to spend. You cannot comment on a music composition before you spend as much time as a composer decided the music would last.’

    Could you unpack this idea a bit more ..?

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