The history of drawing

When the beginner illustrator starts to create art, he or she quickly realizes that there is not only one way to draw to express his or her talent. The different techniques and artistic practices have evolved enormously over time, and from primitive art to realistic still life, through engraving, comics or contemporary art, among others, there is a multitude of styles from which modern artists still draw their inspiration. Thus, in the schools of fine arts, the disciplines taught transmit knowledge on the evolution of artistic practice, so that students can draw innovative graphic works of art, borrowing from various and varied influences. For amateur artists, going to museums and seeing exhibitions, both generalist, such as the Louvre, and modern art, including the Museum of Primitive Art, among other collections on display, allows students to discover and understand the different artistic currents that have marked history, and that allow them to understand the basics of drawing. There is not only one way to draw, and it is important to discover the history of art in order to learn drawing in its entirety and be creative.

The simplicity of pencil and paper, the power of a graphic tablet

Materials and equipment that have evolved

At the beginning of history, the manufacture of paper was not known to mankind. The first men made their art and their drawings directly on rocks and walls, using colors from natural elements. The drawing therefore had to adapt to the surface, and the precision that could be brought to it, with tools as rudimentary as one's own hand, or other rocks and sticks dipped in color, depended strongly on the support on which one drew. With the creation of papyrus in Ancient Egypt, a first evolution took place. These sheets, made from plants, allowed the development of real writing and drawing tools, with a primitive brush, dipped in a natural ink, allowing to write and draw more precisely. However, throughout antiquity, the use of wax tablets is still legion, and it is really only from the 2nd century that we see the appearance of paper, as we know it, from China. From this moment, the techniques of paper production will evolve and the tools to write and draw will evolve at the same time, with the silver points, the fountain pen, the graphite pen, ... Today, because of its low cost of production and its practicality, the graphite pencil (or paper pencil), has really imposed itself to draw. But with the advent of the computer and computing, we see more and more graphic tablets appear. These allow you to draw on a graphic software, thanks to a work support, corresponding to the sheet to draw, and a digital pen. This new material allows now to computerize its works, to share them to the greatest number thanks to Internet, but also to use many techniques developed during all the history of the drawing, with little material thanks to the digital brushes that the graphic software provides. This has also brought a new way of working, with the eyes no longer fixed on the tip of the pencil, but on the computer screen, to be able to see what is being drawn in real time. After 2,000 years of a culture of writing and drawing on paper, this hand-eye coordination is however not the most natural for the designer starting with digital material, and that is why hybrid graphic tablets, called scanners, like the Repaper by ISKN, offer to draw in the traditional way, thanks to a sheet of paper fixed directly on the tablet, and a standard pencil equipped with a magnetic ring, retranscribing all its movements in the slightest detail to the graphic device. It is thus possible, with this type of tools, to link the drawing on paper and the advantages of digital. Paper still has a long way to go, and it remains the most natural way of working with drawing for humans.

The history of drawing in a few periods

Prehistory: the beginnings of graphic art

The first drawings of humanity discovered during an archaeological mission are estimated to be more than 70,000 years old. The practice of drawing was still totally primitive at that time, and corresponded more to simple geometric forms than to a real representation of objects or living organisms. A first evolution of the drawing was visible with those found in the caves of Lascaux for example, which could see the main lines concerning the graphic arts being drawn. These illustrations, symbols of the practice of a primitive art, and put forward in archaeology, will be the basis of artistic and pictorial techniques that will accompany the history of humanity. At that time, according to archaeologists, the works were not made with the aim of producing an artistic drawing, but more to tell scenes of life, writing did not yet exist at that time. Thus, we find hunting scenes, and many works of figurative art, showing animals or anthropomorphic representations. Obviously, in such a long period, one cannot reduce primitive art to what has just been stated, and it is interesting to go to a museum that houses a permanent exhibition on this subject, in order to discover all its facets.

Antiquity: an artistic production put in the foreground

At the beginning of the antiquity, the drawing keeps mainly its practical function. Drawing was used above all to make oneself understood, being used at first in the Mesopotamian cuneiform writing, which uses pictorial symbols, or in hieroglyphics, which can be defined as a figurative writing, and one also continued to draw in order to tell scenes of daily life, or great mythological passages, with elements and bodies drawn without perspective, the bust often in front, and the head in profile. However, we are beginning to see these stories adapted for decoration on everyday objects, such as pottery, various objects, or even on large wall frescoes. The drawing thus became more and more decorative, with an artistic purpose, but it also became more precise, as the tools evolved, the metal point (often of an alloy of silver and copper) having been able to gain in finesse in the works. Antiquity is also a period in history where art was strongly emphasized. Numerous schools teaching sculpture and drawing were created, which allowed a great improvement of techniques for several thousand years.

The beginnings of the Middle Ages: the drawing anchored in the religion

At the beginning until the middle of the Middle Ages, the drawing is more realistic. If the lines remain linear, they are more and more done with a pen, a brush and always with a silver point. We begin to glimpse the effects of shadows made with hatching, but also the birth of perspective, which will be developed at the end of this era. The proportions of the bodies still seem uncertain in some respects, but the details become more precise, with draping effects on clothes, or the movements which are also more varied in the poses of the characters. This is also the time of illumination. On the books considered as the most precious, the texts are decorated with numerous illustrations, entering the category of decorative arts. This family of art will be very used at this time, the drawing being especially used to illustrate how much religion is important, the individuals of this period of history often not knowing how to read or write. It was therefore an excellent means of communication for preachers, and the art school or drawing school, to learn to draw, was mainly reserved for religious people. This influence can be found in the painting and drawing of the time, with an artistic model turned around God, and leaving little room for the human being as such.

The Renaissance: a great revolution and a return to the roots

At the end of the Middle Ages, all the graphic arts were to undergo a refinement that would bring about a real revolution in the way of drawing. The teaching of arts was standardized outside the Church, and an evolution of thought, as well as new tools such as graphite, charcoal or the black stone pencil, led to the evolution of drawing and painting. During this period, we will gradually leave the decorative art of the Middle Ages, whose vocation was to disseminate religion, to enter into more worked visuals, serving to be admired. Numerous art schools and workshops were created, and taking drawing classes became the privilege of the nobility. The painters will then leave the traditional religious iconography, by putting the human being at the center of their works, and the fascination of the artists of this time for the antiquity, will cause a thorough study of the human body and the natural history. The great art schools of the time followed this philosophy, and the learning of drawing was done more and more around live models, in order to perfect one's pencil strokes, to paint and draw realistic sketches. Shadows, depth, perspective and the search for perfect proportions were at the center of the approach of this period. During the Renaissance, great drawings and paintings were produced, representing scenes from the Bible, whose main characters were humanized, in a style inspired by ancient statues, and commissions for realistic portraits by the nobility became more and more frequent. Many works are from this period, and the technique as well as the remarkable side of the paintings, makes that we can find a great number of them in the collections of the museums, but also in the most famous buildings of the time, as on the domes of the cathedrals erected during this period, among others.

From the 17th to the 20th century: drawing is popularized

The art of drawing and painting having known its apogee during the Renaissance, it was, during this period, left in the hands of the aristocracy having the means to be trained in graphic arts. But it is with the appearance of graphite that drawing will become popular in many social strata. Many artists from the working classes or from the old bourgeoisie who had lost their superbness would emerge. Thus, from a drawing and a classical painting, directly coming from the Renaissance, we will see other styles, such as impressionism and post-impressionism, develop. The human being will be represented less and less in a romantic way, and the elements of everyday life will be more and more at the center of the sketches of the draftsmen. Modern painting will break the codes during the 19th and 20th centuries, with an innovative painting, sometimes abstract, and drawing will take its place as a major art by developing, especially in the press, but also in comics and manga.

And now?

Today, as we have seen with the evolution of drawing materials, drawing is open to everyone, and it is possible, without drawing classes, without painting classes and without particular art classes, to practice mixed techniques, combining graphite pencil drawing with oil painting, charcoal or engraving. This is mainly due to the graphic tablets, and to all the new computer programs allowing illustrators, beginners or not, to make a sketch without limits, with only their digital work surface and a stylus as tools. If drawing has mainly evolved to adapt to digital graphics and to the work of the computer designer, becoming an illustrator today does not only involve the computer, and many people wish to continue using paper, the primitive sensations that the pencil, linked to a standard sheet of paper, provide, remaining the most natural for humans. We can see it with comic book illustrators, or with mangaka (the creator of manga drawings), who use traditional tools to draw their drawings, but also with the launch of hybrid graphic tablets, like the Repaper by ISKN, which propose to link digital and paper, by allowing to draw on a standard sheet of paper, while having the sketch perfectly reproduced on the digital software. To become an illustrator or a designer today, and to know how to draw, it is necessary to learn all the past techniques, all the traditional specificities, in order to reach a mix of know-how that will give innovative and modern results. But the draftsman must also be initiated into the digital world, the Internet becoming indispensable if he wants to see the exhibition of his works in the world, digital platforms replacing more and more art galleries and museums in order to acquire visibility and notoriety.


Drawing has undergone a great evolution over time. If today we have total freedom to learn and create drawings of all kinds, especially thanks to the use of digital technology, which allows access to many tools, with little equipment, great trends have marked the history, and have developed in parallel to the material available to designers of each era. In order to remain creative, one must keep an open mind, and mastering modern tools can be a real plus.

The simplicity of pencil and paper, the power of a graphic tablet
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