From childhood through a career as an eminent historian and writer, and most recently as an artist, Nell Painter traces drawing in her life.

I’ve missed drawing a lot this summer of my writing, because I love to draw, I need to draw, but I’m utterly incapable of doing two things — writing and drawing — at the same time. And I really have to write right now. But I think about drawing and read about it, at this moment, in Eve Aschheim and Chris Daubert’s lovely little book, Episodes with Wayne Thiebaud, their teacher at the University of California, Davis.

Thiebaud says, “I think everybody should draw. It’s such a terrific way of knowing things and testing what you know. It gives you access to so many things, that we’re just really cheating ourselves not to teach people to draw.” Oh yes yes yes! I was lucky in having real drawing teachers in the New York Studio School and Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.

Nell Painter, Ro, 2008
Ro, 2008

But my love of drawing goes waaaaaaay back into the twentieth century. In this way, drawing visualizes the steps of my life as it changed over the decades.

I no longer have my earliest drawings from childhood, but a few survive from Ghana in West Africa, where I lived with my parents in the 1960s.

Nell Painter, Ghana drawings 1965
Ghana house, Ghana girl, 1965

After Ghana, as a historian, I stopped drawing for many years, but I knitted steadily, my connection to color and texture and pattern. Then, still as a historian, I came back to visual imagery through my scholarship.

First, the feminist abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), who did not read or write but had her photographs taken, confronted me with visual self-fashioning and engendered a chapter in my biography, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol. Then came Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, my history book illustrated with the work of black American artists. I wrote my most recent book, The History of White People, while I was drawing again in art school. I slipped four of my own drawings into this history book, my first steps into my work now, artist’s books.

Nell Painter, thwp p. 26 2008
The History of White People, page 26, 2008

Now I draw with ink, graphite, collage, and computer, toggling back and forth between the manual and the digital in an expanded concept of drawing. Last winter I made Frank on Dark Square Dogs, a digital collage made from a cut-up drawing of mine, a scan of a fragment from a friend’s art, and collage. The only drawing by hand in the piece was several steps back, in the original drawing I cut up.

Nell Painter, Frank on Dark Square Dogs, 2015
Frank on Dark Square Dogs, 2015

I’ll soon be teaching art back at Princeton and expect my students, born digital, to discover even more ways of drawing.


Erratum 11/4/15 : “Frank on Dark Square Dogs, 2015” – current version of the image, and title is correct!

Posted on Categories Art