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What Is Expressive Drawing?

See how the master of the technique helps students find their creative mojo

When most people think about drawing, the first thing that comes to mind is the work of da Vinci, Michelangelo and other Old Masters. Expressive drawing, by contrast, comes from a tradition focused on breaking through the limitations of classical art and exploring freer, more intimate forms of expression.

Traditionally, drawing has served two purposes in Western culture: to document appearances and to tell stories. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prompted in part by the invention of photography, the pioneers of the Modernist movement (such as Cezanne, Picasso and Kandinsky, to name a few) started experimenting with alternative, more introspective approaches to art-making.

These great figures, writes artist Steve Aimone in his book Expressive Drawing, "challenged the assumptions of the Renaissance tradition: Rather than focusing on appearances in the visible world, Modernism argued that art can be about the unseen — it can give form to the formless. In other words, drawings can be about internal realities (feelings, imagination, fantasies, dreams, the spirit), experiences that transcend or underlie the purely visible."

Expressive drawing builds on this revolutionary insight and goes one step further. Through a series of simple exercises, based on the discoveries of the Modernists and their descendants — notably Abstract Expressionists such as Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning — Aimone has created a freewheeling, deeply personal approach to drawing that's accessible to anyone interested in exploring his or her "unseen" world in a direct and honest way.

And you don't have to be especially "gifted" to get started. Expressive drawing takes you "back to the spontaneity, the worry-free expressive nature you had as a child," says Aimone.  "Except now you’ve got a lifetime's history to bring to the process and integrate with it."

That's why this type of drawing is particularly attractive to adult learners. "Usually people who are older are no longer as fearful about looking silly," he says. "They're more interested in reflecting on themselves and their lives, and that's what this work is all about. Every time people do this kind of drawing, they're doing it from a very personal source."

That's not all. "Traditional drawings communicate the appearance of things from a fixed point of view at a frozen moment in time," Aimone adds. "Expressive drawing is about experiencing life from many points of view — all contained in the same drawing. It's a composite portrait of your emotions as they develop over time."

Read more about Aimone's book.