Experimental Knowledge and Tacit Drawing

Rough sketches, which are born in an instant in the heat of inspiration, express the idea of their author in a few strokes, while too much effort and diligence sometimes saps the vitality and powers of those who never know when to leave off.  Renaissance artist and art historian, Giorgio Vasari


Little has ever been said about drawing as a skill borne of unspoken and intuitive know-how and its striking connection to other forms of tacit knowledge in fields such as science and technology.  Vasari describes the execution of a drawing (he is namely speaking of the Mannerists) as highly intellectual and inspired act that is so natural, it seems effortless.  Dare we say that knowledge as remotely related could be so closely connected?  Or even utter that both rely upon intuition?


Students learn the Scientific Method in school, the model of presumed objectivity going back to the Enlightment, only to learn that the best of discoveries happen on this more personal path.  So too happens the invention of a style in the epochs of Western art history.  From the Renaissance to the 19th Century, artists learned by following a regimen of objective observation and methodic copying.  As artists achieved this level of perfection, then they demonstrated their personal finesse. 


The eminent neurophysiologist, Roger Granit, wrote described this uniqueness of the discoverer of an artist, no differently than a scientist or any kind of discoverer, as “keeping track of one’s identity”; that is “listening to the working of one’s mind.”  (“Discovery and Understanding,” Ann Rev Physiology, 24, 1 (1972))


Like an experimental scientist, a lifetime’s work of accomplishment followed a process of invention – an endless experimentation of trial and error, which was like a sequence of questioning and answers, but not so much linear as a technique of making connections among a dispersal of perceived fragments of reality. 


In the sketches of the High Renaissance Master, Raphael, to his Mannerist successor Pontormo, and finally Ingres of the 19th Century, we observe this unique invention of paradigms of style.  Notice how one learned from the next and in copying their predecessor, their mastery amounted to this near unthinking definition of their own stylistic schema.  In a way, this invention of their own mental models required at first competency of traditional styles, but then a breakthrough into something defined by the uniqueness of their own perceptions of reality. 

Raphael, Study for Two Female Figures, 1517.jpg
Pontormo, Female Nude, 16th C.jpeg
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Study for Grande Odalisque, 1814.jpg


And now, back to the tacit dimension of this process of discovery: the artist like the experimental scientist achieves this kind of inner path in a way no differently than a professional skier masters a difficult course. What begins as an observation skill is carried out as an embodied act.  For an artist, this is the execution of a drawing.  For a scientist, this is the observation of the phenomena of reality, which then take shape in some material form. 


Discoverers of any kind are such detectives and learn through training and practice just how to attain this knowledge that surpasses explanation and is innate, almost like Vasari described drawing – an unthinkable performance.