A Suggested Classification of the Types and Subtypes of Graphic Action

November 1969

A Suggested Classification of the Types and Subtypes of Graphic Action

J. J. Gibson, Cornell University

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There seem to be four main types of graphic act, psychologically considered, and I propose to call them scribbling, doodling, and drawing.

I. Scribbling. The “fundamental graphic act”

ñ The progressive trace culminating in the permanent trace, the latter being a record of the movement of the hand-and-tool (the path).

ñ There is a “display”, but all that is displayed is the set of motions of the graphic tool (no display of optical information about a world).

ñ Graphic records are “frozen gestures.”

ñ Scribbling is the psychological basis of all the other types, “doodling,” writing, depicting, drawing, and all chirographic picture-making. Leads to the development of graphic skill.

II. Doodling. Composing or structuring an array with elements of graphic information, especially lines. Not yet either writing or drawing. Children do it. Also adults. I would include most non-representative painting and drawing under this heading, as well as decorating or graphic embellishing.

III. Writing. Making graphemes to correspond with phonemes, after learning the distinctive features of the letters (or letter combination). Note that handwriting is “frozen gesture” and hence is specific to the person and his style (graphology).

IV. Drawing. (depicting, or picture-making, or painting, or sketching)

ñCan be subdivided (by how the tool is guided) into tracing and free-hand drawing.

ñCan also be subdivided (by whether the limner is perceiving what he draws or is not) into representative picturing and inventive picturing.

a. Tracing. Either (1) the making of traces to coincide with the color patches of an optic array to a fixed eye (Leonardo’s method of painting or drawing in perspective on a transparent picture-plane) or (2) making a trace to coincide with a previously existing trace (by the use of “tracing paper,” that is, copying). This constraint on the trace-making is presumably what keeps the drawing from being “free-hand.” (Note that tracing is not to be confused with trace-making in the sense of scribbling.)

b. Representing proper. Drawing or painting on the basis of a concurrent perception of the object, scene, person, animal, or event represented. Often said to be drawing “from life.” The artist looks back and forth from object to picture-surface. The picture is said to “represent” the object, or “reproduce” the visual perception of it, in some degree. But it need not have optical point-to-point fidelity to the projection on the picture-plane.

c. Inventive picturing. This is drawing or painting without any concurrent perception of an object, scene, person, animal, situation, or event. The artist can not look back and forth from object to picture-surface. This is often said to be drawing “from memory” or “from imagination,” but these terms are very slippery. If the environmental thing exists or has existed, we can say that the artist may have perceived it in the past, and may have a “memory” of it or a memory “image” (engram, trace). But he may simply know it without remembering a perception. If the thing does notexist and never has existed he can have no memory image of it. We are then apt to say it is “imaginary,” but this is obviously a poor term. The picture may still convey optical information, that is communicate from one person to another, without literally representing anything.

The theory that an artist draws a memory image, or an image of imagination, in the same way that he draws an object before him is very debatable. It implies the existence of the “mind’s eye.” But the mind does not have an eye, and there is no little man in the brain. If the image were truly “eidetic” the artist could project it on the picture-surface and simply perform the act called “tracing.” I do not believe that an artist does this. What does he do?

Why Scribbling is the Basic Type of Graphic Act

It is assumed that the human acts of scribbling, daubing, finger-painting, scratching, or modeling are all cases of altering a surface so as to produce a new source of optical stimulation called a display(Senses Considered, Ch. 11). A display continues to be visible after the act creating it has ceased. But display-making is not, at the outset, an act of communication, a social act like writing or drawing. In the child, and in primitive men the watching of the progressive trace (the path of the tip of the graphic tool) culminating in the permanent trace, is presumably motivating in itself. Scribbling begins by displaying handiwork but it also displays certain kinds of graphic information in the form of lines and contours. Lines on paper can correspond to the edges of surfaces in the world. They have geometrical properties like straightness, curvature, bentness, tilt, closedness, discontinuity, intersection, symmetry, etc. that carry information about the layout of surfaces. But lines on paper can also specify graphic symbols. The same geometrical properties that can be combined to depict can also be combined to make alphabetic letters. J. Hochberg’s “psychophysics of pictorial perception” and E. Gibson’s “distinctive features of graphemes” have much in common. The child must learn to differentiate these graphic variables if he is later going to read and write, and to perceive and make drawings. Practice in this kind of discrimination is provided by an advanced form of scribbling, the exercise I have called doodling.