3.3 Drawing Machines – Research

My researches into drawing machines have been driven by the different ways in which I could think of making a drawing machine and then seeing if I could find artists making work in that way. I started off by listing the ways of making a drawing machine that I could think of.

A machine has to be powered by some force. This could include:

  • gravity (pendulums)
  • the sun (shadows, analemma, burning with lenses)
  • the wind (records of movement in response to)
  • tides (records of movement in response to, time lapse photography)
  • electricity or clockwork (movement of electrical devices, motors)
  • magnetism (creating patterns with iron filings, rust printing)
  • muscle power (spirograph etc)

Pendulums can used in drawing in very simple ways. You could attach a drawing tool to the end of a piece of string and swing it to draw. However, the support would need to be curved in order for the pen, say, to remain in contact and the marks might be dull and repetitive. Mechanisms have been created which overcome this immediate shortcoming. Harmonograms (or Harmonographs) use a combination of a number of pendulums moving both the support and the pen such than contact is maintained and complex harmonies set up. Motors can be used instead of pendulums. The result can still be very mechanical but the Ivan Moscovich has made some beautiful drawings this was by intervening in the process to pile up the drawings. Anita Chowdray has made a beautiful harmonograph as a piece of sculpture called ‘Iron Genie’ but also as performance, captured in a video here.

Spinning tops are also driven by gravity. I seem to remember a child’s toy where the pivot of a gyroscopic top was replaced by a pen. This is an example of a similar mechanism. As the gyroscope spins down, it becomes erratic creating more interesting, unpredictable marks. This lack of predictability is, for me, an important consideration in making a drawing machine.

Harnessing the wind to make drawings requires identifing something to which a pen or similar can be attached which will move in response to the wind. Tim Knowles used people, walking in response to the wind direction to create ‘Mass Wind Walk‘. He has used an easel and pen to record the movement of tree branches in the wind. In his series ‘Circular Weeping Willow’. He has progressed from a single pen to many pens recording the movement of a single tree (Art – tree drawings – Intro, 2005). He has captured the movement of the wind in other ways such a mapping the movements of a helium balloon. He also uses high speed time lapse photography or long exposure to record the paths drawn out during movement, here of the reflection of the moon dancing on water. His work is some of the most exciting and varied I have found using drawing machines.

Capturing autonomous (ie not the artist’s and not necessarily a machine’s) movement can be achieved in various ways. As a child I used to hold a pen over paper as we travelled and capture the joggles of the car. William Anastasi made ‘pocket drawings’ by folding a paper in his pocket, inserting a pencil into the folds and holding it as he walked (William Anastasi. Untitled (pocket drawings). 1969, 2016). He then extended this to drawing on the subway. He placed a board on his lap and held a pencil in each hand. This became a sort of performance, exciting curiosity (and ridicule) from observers. He played chess each week with John Cage and recorded his journey to meet up each week. John Cage then accompanied him home to watch him draw (Zhou, 2012).

Rauschenberg used a car as a drawing machine in ‘Automobile Type Print ‘ in 1953 (using Cage’s car). As Roberts says in her essay on the work, it can be seen as an action painting, a monoprint,  or/and a performance (Roberts, 2013). After setting up the initial conditions for the work to come into being, Raushenberg has deliberately removed himself from the mark making process. This echoes a work he completed as a student where he captured the footprints of students leaving and entering a building (Roberts). Clearly, in this latter work, elapsed time was a medium as much as paint or ink.

A drawing, in the current context, is, in effect, a visual expression of generated data. Data could also be generated or collected by algorithms such as computer programs, bell ringing methods, dna finger printing, medical data collection, geographical mapping data and countless other sources.

Susan Morris exploits the data collected on an Actiwatch which has worn for five years. This devise records various biometric data which is then used to create tapestries according  an algorithm which assigns colour to levels of activity. This video not only demonstrates the highly digital nature of the data but also the digital control of the looms used in the weaving. A more analog approach can be seen in her ‘Plumb Line Drawing’ 2009, produced by repeatedly flicking a charcoal-laden string against paper. She terms this ‘involuntary drawing’ (Morris, 2012)

A key point shared by all these mechanisms it that they all have some form of intrinsic rhythm, be it simple or extremely complex. It is this rhythm which makes the drawing interesting, but only if it is not too perfect or predictable. Some element of imperfection or unpredictably is important. The context within which the drawing was made is also important to the observer. The Anastasi subway drawings would not hold so much interest if we don’t imagine him with his broad on the journey or that they record a weekly game of chess with Cage. Rauschenberg’s tyre print would be less interesting if we didn’t imagine the car driving over the paint and then the paper. The hand of the artist may be missing or subverted, but the imagination of the artist (and often their sense of fun) is clearly displayed.


Knowles, T – tree drawings – Intro (2005) Available at: http://www.timknowles.co.uk/Work/TreeDrawings/tabid/265/Default.aspx (Accessed: 18 November 2016).

Morris, S. ‘Drawing in the Dark‘, Tate Papers, no.18, Autumn 2012, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/18/drawing-in-the-dark, accessed 18 November 2016.

Roberts, S. (2013) Automobile tire print. Available at: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.296/essay/automobile-tire-print/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
William Anastasi. Untitled (pocket drawings). 1969 (2016) Available at: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/90658?locale=en (Accessed: 18 November 2016).
Zhou, V. (2012) William Anastasi in conversation. Available at: http://notations.aboutdrawing.org/william-anastasi/ (Accessed: 18 November 2016).


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