Loughborough University
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Understanding drawing: a cognitive account of observational process

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posted on 2014-12-01, 14:51 authored by Michelle Fava
This thesis contributes to theorising observational drawing from a cognitive perspective. Our current understanding of drawing is developing rapidly through artistic and scientific enquiry. However, it remains fragmented because the frames of reference of those modes of enquiry do not coincide. Therefore, the foundations for a truly interdisciplinary understanding of observational drawing are still inceptive. This thesis seeks to add to those foundations by bridging artistic and scientific perspectives on observational process and the cognitive aptitudes underpinning it. The project is based on four case studies of experienced artists drawing processes, with quantitative and qualitative data gathered: timing of eye and hand movements, and artists verbal reports. The data sets are analysed with a generative approach, using behavioural and protocol analysis methods to yield comparative models that describe cognitive strategies for drawing. This forms a grounded framework that elucidates the cognitive activities and competences observational process entails. Cognitive psychological theory is consulted to explain the observed behaviours, and the combined evidence is applied to understanding apparent discrepancies in existing accounts of drawing. In addition, the use of verbal reporting methods in drawing studies is evaluated. The study observes how drawing process involves a segregation of activities that enables efficient use of limited and parametrically constrained cognitive resources. Differing drawing strategies are shown to share common key characteristics; including a staged use of selective visual attention, and the capacity to temporarily postpone critical judgement in order to engage fully in periods of direct perception and action. The autonomy and regularity of those activities, demonstrated by the artists studied, indicate that drawing ability entails tacit self‐knowledge concerning the cognitive and perceptual capacities described in this thesis. This thesis presents drawing as a skill that involves strategic use of visual deconstruction, comparison, analogical transfer and repetitive cycles of construction, evaluation and revision. I argue that drawing skill acquisition and transfer can be facilitated by the elucidation of these processes. As such, this framework for describing and understanding drawing is offered to those who seek to understand, learn or teach observational practice, and to those who are taking a renewed interest in drawing as a tool for thought.


Loughborough University



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • Arts


© Michelle Fava

Publisher statement

This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

Publication date



A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

EThOS Persistent ID



  • en