Part 5: Contextual research – Ambiguity in art literature

From my mind map I was excited to look into ambiguity in drawing, what and how it is and how it could help e in my drawing approach.

Definition of Ambiguity: Lack of definition , lack of resolution (Sawdon ed al, 2015)

Dalmau, M. (2003) ‘Ambiguity as a conceptual framework for Design

Based on the publication of Gaver, Beaver, Benford (2003) Dalmau investigates the different systems for ambiguity in interactive design. This research is based on a three kind heuristic as the Ambiguity of Information, Content, and Relationship. More in-depth the publication goes into the experience levels related to the use of the designed work: awareness, learning, and play.

Ambiguity heuristic:

  • Information: imprecise representation, over interpretation, inconsistencies, casting doubt
  • Content: incompatible content, blocking expected functionality
  • Relationship: unaccustomed roles, not explaining to the users, disturbing side effects

The experiences levels are defined as:

  • Awareness: exhibiting recognition influenced by emotions and intellect
  • Learning: processing of encountered information
  • Play: engage in a creative and productive sense, project ones inner narratives

These categories do apply for design of computer-human interactions, but as a translation to drawing I can see the following key learnings:

  1. Observing an subject creates first an awareness and leads towards interpretation. Engaging with drawing (playing) and learning from the drawing process (experimentation and exploration) leads towards a visualisation of he subject. How I make the drawing, how precise/imprecise I depict forms (lack of definition), will lead towards a more or less ambiguous drawing.
  2. Concealing, overlapping, multilayering, and distortion of forms will enable me an ambiguous act of drawing (process, playing, learning).
  3. The viewer of the drawing will go eventually through a similar process (awareness) based on their own emotions and feelings as well as their own experiences.

Willats, J. (2006) ‘Ambiguity in Drawing

Willats looks in this publication on three systems, sources that will lead toward ambiguity: Drawing system, Denotation system, and mark system. He takes a major reference to the work of E.H. Gombrich (2002) ‘Art and Illusion‘.

He defines the three systems as:

  • Drawing system: spatial relationship of objects in the scene and their corresponding relationship on the picture surface. Here perspective drawing, oblique projections play the key role.
    De Chiroco’s work ‘Mystery and Melancholy of the Street’ 1914 is an examples of drawing system ambiguity. The cubists used this ambiguous drawing system to depict  all different viewpoints of an object into one picture plane.
  • Denotation system: this determines what the features of a scene do stand for. Usually in a line drawing the lines denote edges, contours, or indicate hair etc.
    Paul Klee’s work ‘Old Steamer‘, 1922 (in: Gombrich, 2002, p. 223) do represent this kind of ambiguous system.
  • Mark system: this system represent so called ‘picture primitives’ (smallest units of meaning within a representation – quite a theoretical concept). Here the line can represent an idea, abstraction. A line can denote a form, a contour (like the entire shape of a face) or just small strokes that add up to a form. Also drawing in white on black ground belongs to this kind of ambiguous system as it contradicts the usually believe that white represent light, top of hills, and black dark and depressions.
    Georges Braque’s work ‘Still Life: The Table‘, 1928 (in: Gombrich, 2002, p. 239) is an example of this kind of ambiguous system. Here black patches describe highlight, some outlines are dark on light ground, some are light on dark ground (inversions of tonal contrast).

Through the way one draws, what the intention of depiction is, how the marks are applied, and in what relationship the various elements are interacting with each other, the whole drawing becomes ambiguous. Therefore ambiguity is an intrinsic feature of a drawing.

Harty, D,. Sawdon, P. (2012) ‘The Taste of tree?

In this project Harty and Sawdon tried to explore possible ways of drawing the ‘taste of a tree’. With regards to phenomenology (structure of experience, perception, and consciousness) the intention was to ‘[to]walk(ing) around [the tree] observing the colour, texture, outline, breathing, mind and body absorbing tree, drawing through sensation the memory of the encounter‘ (p.1) According to the theory of Merleau-Ponty ‘every quality is related to qualities associated with other senses‘ and the ‘body as a whole perceives first the experience before it is split into various senses’ (p.2). Harty and Sawdon asked themselves the question why not than to drawn the ‘taste’ in association with ‘recalled sensations‘.

They followed a certain process as a combination of words and drawings. In this respect they call it overall ‘drawing’. The main two iterative steps were ‘drawing with memory’ (capturing recalled experiences through drawing and further with a camera) and ‘drawing with discussion’ (capturing association in words). In the process they moved on to ‘drawing in layers’ i.e. overlaying images and words

An interesting observation of both of them was that while drawing from memory they experienced that they were rather reacting to their own mark makings than to their memory. A rotation of the paper made them free again from limits of compositional thoughts.

Towards the end they discovered that they were reacting on various senses: sight, touch, sound and even smell. Latter more related to the smell of the charcoal sticks. But they were not able to translate taste into drawing.

  • Visual and bodily awareness on location and in following from recalled sensations can bring up new associations and ideas. That raises the questions what kind of ‘drawing markings’ can depict the experienced sensation as a well to convey it meaningful to the viewer of the drawing. Quite a fascinating approach.

Sawn, P. Marshall, R. (2015) ‘Drawing Ambiguity – Besides the lines of contemporary Art

 ‘Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity’ – S Freud

I this book several researches and artists explaining their approaches to art and drawing in quite expansive way. Ambiguity as I learned from Willats, 2006 is an intrinsic feature of drawing, in other fields rather considered as a failure.

Derek Horton‘s thought process: With multiple levels of interpretion, imprecise information, expectations of the viewer the relationship between people and things are ambiguous. Humans tends to make sense from random and confusing situations. There is a constant loop of seeing, perception, interpretation, and articulation.

With regards to the artist’s role, it depends on the responsiveness of the artist to the inconsistencies and uncertainties of the world around us. It is an active role to act and react.

I find his examples of ambiguous information about the comparison of a window, a door, and a screen quite helpful:

  • Window: passive role, information behind the window is clearly visible
  • Door: active role, behind a closed or half closed door the information is concealed, till you open the door completely
  • Screen: a double meaning system – it makes visible but also invisible (conceal), and: one can project information on it.

This led me think about mirrors and reflections – what is concealed? what is visible?

Ilana Halperin, an active artist, explains her approach to art creation in the context of ‘geological intimacy’. In the volcano environment in Iceland she creates in the geothermal conditions new structures. Here she explores the relationship of nature, human embodiment, and our daily life.

This brought to me the idea of charcoal as a natural source/material, compressed dust, volatile. How can this be used for higher sensual stimulation?

Another thought process comes from Michael Phillipson. He plays with the words ‘drawing’ – ‘been drawn’ and investigates the process of flowflow of blood, breathing. How can you draw this process? Indirectly through its effects like the up and down of the breast, volume change. Giuseppe Penone’s installations ‘Water drawing‘, 2003-7 or ‘Respirare l’ombra’ (To breathe the shadow), 1999 are examples.

Deborah Harty explained in more detail her concept of ‘Drawing is phenomenology‘ (see also Harty, Sawdon, 2012). Drawing is for her an act of body (trace, mark making) and mind (awareness)

In quite a fascinating play with words and ideas, she explains the ambiguity of background and its relationship to the surface: a space, background in life. Further Harty explores the attentive awareness while drawing. Our response to the surface texture, its irregularities, our refection on our mark making, a constant endeavour that needs attention. A long as deviations occur we are attentive, if not we become unaware, ignorant. It request constant new stimuli By that ‘drawing os a physical trace of our attentive awareness in the world‘.

She adds three more fascination thoughts to her investigation:

  • Time: through drawing we became time conscious, we can draw the moment. Something not possible in thinking, as here we think either about the past of the future, we cannot grap the moment as such. Drawing leaves the trace of the moment.
  • Drawing in layers: means drawing experiences as they lay over each other
  • Delineation of paper:the edge of the drawing support (paper) creates a delineation, a frame in which we (the drawing) exist. Crossing this edge, boarder means passing worlds, background become foreground (?) What is what?

Kristen Greider and James O’Leary explore the work of Agnes Martin (see her work ‘Rose’, 1965) as an example the ambiguity of perception linked to distance. In a close-up view one can see lines and marks, with a more distant viewpoint the marks disappear and the picture becomes an illusion, creating a certain atmosphere.


Drawing is an ambiguous act, we respond to our surrounding environment, we perceive and interpret, and with our visual and bodily awareness to our experiences and sensations, our reflectiveness, the drawing becomes the trace of this process.

Along this research (and some insight from brain science) I came up for myself with the ‘Circle of Ambiguity‘:

Stefan513593 - Circle of ambiguity

Stefan513593 – Circle of ambiguity


  • Dalmau, N. (2003) ‘Ambiguity as a Conceptual Framework for Design‘ Milton Keynes: The Open University. Contemporary Issues and Concepts in HCI. Available from: [Accessed 08 Nov 2015]
  • Gaver, W.W., Beaver, J. Benford, S. (2003) ‘Ambiguity as a Resource for Design’ Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. CHI 2003, Volume No. 5, Issue No. 1.  Available from: [Accessed 09 Nov 2015]
  • Gombrich, E.H. (2002) ‘Art and Illusion – A Study in the psychology of pictorial representation‘ London: Phaeton Press Ltd. (6th ed)
  • Harty, D., Sawdon, P. (2012) ‘The taste of tree?‘ Journal for Artistic Research, 2, [accessed 08 Nov 2015]
  • Ionascu, A. (2006) ‘Drawing Line – Ambiguous Surfaces‘ . Loughborough University TRACEY Contemporary Drawing Research. Available from: [Accessed 10 Nov 2015]
  • Sawdon, P. Marshall, R (2015) ‘Drawing Ambiguity – Besides the lines of contemporary Art‘. London: I.B.Tauris
  • Willats, J. (2006) ‘Ambiguity in Drawing‘.  Loughborough University TRACEY Contemporary Drawing Research. Available from: [Accessed 08 Nov 2015]

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