Beyond the Doodle

Pierre Alechinsky, La Jeune Fille et la Mort [The Young GIrl and Death] (1966-1967)

Although the doodle is treated as if it were a natural, spontaneous and universal phenomenon, it is in fact an invention, a concept that emerged at a certain point and rapidly became extremely popular. There are a number of possible reasons for this: the spread of literacy and the bureaucracy associated with it, the emergence of graphology (at its peak in the early 20th century), the diffusion of psychoanalytic ideas about free-association and unconscious thought, and an interest—half admiring, half malicious—in the careless drawing of celebrities (politicians, actors, writers). Of course marginal drawings in manuscripts and books have a longer history, though we can only guess at what prompted them; but the doodle has a specifically modern psychological slant to it.

The term ‘doodle’ seems to have emerged in the mid 1920s, and within a decade had become something like a fad, with an expanding interest in the reproduction and ‘analysis’ of celebrity doodles (eg ‘Everybody’s Pixilated’ by Russell Arundel 1937). Nevertheless, as a spontaneous and absent-minded form of drawing, doodling was regarded from an essentially egalitarian perspective: most people, whether they thought of themselves as creative or not, did it on the side (literally, in the margins), during meetings or lectures, or while on the phone, and any ulterior meaning it might have was largely unintentional. But the combined influence of graphology and a generalised version of Freudian psychoanalysis contributed to the many ‘analyses’ accompanying published doodles, which linked their style to their author’s character or unconscious pre-occupations.

Paul Klee, Drawing Knotted in the Manner of a Net (1920)

At the same time as doodling became popular there were parallel developments in modern art: many modern artists (Kandinsky, Klee and Miro, for example) and some avant-garde movements (especially Dadaism and Surrealism), were interested in modes of inscription, whether verbal or non-verbal, that could be called automatic or unconscious, and hence, like doodles, outside conscious control. The work of children, the art of the insane and the productions of Spiritualistic mediums were three of the most obvious sources for such material. All could be thought of as stemming from a spontaneous creative source that was unfiltered by education or professional training. Dubuffet’s notion of ‘Art Brut’, with its insistence on the self-taught and the radically eccentric, is the most dramatic and polemical version of this. All of this fostered the image of an art that was both non-representational and non-communicative: these selfish and irresponsible characteristics are also typical of the doodle.

Although doodling begins as a reaction against the rules and structures of writing, it also colludes with them. Some of its earliest precursors are to be found in the margins of mediaeval manuscripts, as well as in later manuscripts, most famously the ledgers of an 18th century Neapolitan bank (Gombrich 1999). It’s not difficult to imagine the boredom or rebellion of scribes or clerks both against a strict institution and against the authority of the ‘system’ behind it. This authority was not simply to do with their immediate superiors, it had to do with the laws that governed such things as the ‘proper’ use of writing and other forms of representation, and even the status of decoration or ornament. The doodle’s relation to these laws is both playful and aggressive: for example, letters can be embroidered to the point of illegibility, and authority figures may be caricatured. The private and secret nature of doodling provides a cover for deviant or rebellious impulses of which we may be only partly aware.

doodle by Jack Kerouac

The rules enveloping doodling are not just these conscious ones, imposed from outside: even on a purely formal level, they also include what psychologists and psychiatrists have tried to analyse in terms of the regular patterns beneath the superficial variety of graphic automatism (for example ‘creative form constants’). These include repetition, symmetry, inversion, geometrical structuring, as well discovering or inventing faces, figures or architectural constructions. There are destructions as well, such as overlaying or blacking out. In fact one could say that doodling plays out a dynamic relation between order and disorder, constraint and freedom, public and private—this perhaps being to some extent a reflection of the context in which it is engaged in.

This brings up the question of the limits within which the ‘normal’ or mundane doodle comes into being. Time and space are usually in short supply: the meeting ends or blank space on the paper gets filled up. What happens when these constraints no longer apply, when the doodle is left free to expand without them? There are certainly quite a lot of drawings, made in widely different contexts, that have many of the characteristic features of doodling, but in an extended or concentrated form. I have called these ‘meta-doodles’, because they go beyond the normal limits of doodling, and they are most obviously to be found in Outsider Art.

Laure Pigeon, Dessin (1961)

Sophie Podolski

Here we encounter another function of doodles: as an alibi (‘It’s just a doodle’) that frees its creator from having to worry about their ‘art’ status. This also refers to the way in which such drawings often seem to unfold autonomously, independent of their creator’s will. In fact, as early as 1922 Hans Prinzhorn, in his seminal work on the genesis of art-works amongst psychotic patients singled out ‘aimless, unorganised scribbling’ as the most rudimentary form of the ‘configurative urge’ (Prinzhorn 1972). ‘Scribbling’ is, of course, a derogatory term: yet many of the ‘scribbles’ reproduced in Prinzhorn’s book would today be considered wonderful abstract or ultra-ornamental drawings.

Both ‘scribble’ and ‘doodle’ are shifting categories: at one time humble and underestimated, at another time a kind of creative last resort. It’s as if there is a kind of dance going on, between them and the sophisticated world of Fine Art. The latter often tries to appropriate the former’s free-range innocence; but echoes of the world of art can also be found in doodles, even if it is simply in the form of framing devices. In fact they draw upon a kind of cultural silt or compost, into which degraded versions of what were once startling Modernist innovations have sunk. Post-Modernism in particular has taken a perverse delight in blurring the boundaries between the two (for example in the work of Pierre Alechinsky or Cy Twombly).

Although doodling has the reputation of being escapist or self-indulgent, it actually serves a number of overlapping functions. It can indeed be a kind of invisible holiday from the task in hand. But it can also be ‘idling’, in the sense that an engine is ticking over (there is research suggesting that doodling aids concentration on something else). It can be a way of throwing up unexpected material, letting the hand work rather than the mind. This latter function is first cousin to Modernist experiments in deliberately losing control through the use of chance, automatism or a trance-like state (sometimes drug-induced). Of course there is an element of conscious interference in most doodling, but because of its widespread and democratic nature, it can be seen to display some of the fundamental characteristics of drawing.

André Masson, Automatic Drawing (1924)

When we look at the relation between the modest and surreptitious nature of doodling and the more dramatic forms of drawing of which it seems to be the poor relation, we can see it as a node, from which numerous kinds of drawing are offshoots. These might include: celebrity doodles, including those by famous writers and artists (American presidents and film stars, Samuel Beckett); mediumistic drawings (Victor Hugo, Raphael Lonné, Laure Pigeon); Art Brut works (Marc Lamy, Michel Nedjar); and fine art drawings (Paul Klee, André Masson, Jackson Pollock). But there would also be unclassifiable fringe drawings: the delirious excursions of psychiatric patients, drawings done under the influence of drugs (Henri Michaux, Sophie Podolski), ‘asemic writing’ (Tim Gaze), and possibly even the ‘meanders’ of paleolithic cave art.

It’s interesting that many of these more or less distant relations of the doodle offer us some insight into a variety of psychological states that may be either their cause or their effect. Automatism in almost all its varieties (from Spiritualism to Abstract Expressionism) is evidently connected to a dissociated or trance-like state, and many meta-doodlers report that their drawings feel as if dictated to them, or are the result of some obscure compulsion. But, on account of its temporary nature, and because of embarrassment at disclosing it, inside descriptions of actual doodling are rare. Yet such testimony could tell us a lot about the nature of the creative process.

Modernism’s quest for imagery as close as possible to the ‘original’ sources of creativity—in the ‘primitive’, the ‘childish’, the ‘mad’ or the ‘outsider’, for example— has arguably led, in each case, to the corruption of that source’s innocence. It may be that a too intense or self-conscious focus on the doodle could have the same effect. On the other hand, there is an astonishing range of material hidden under that deceptively modest label.

Once we relax the spatial and temporal boundaries it looks as if doodling is just the tip of an iceberg of more elaborate spontaneous and informal art. It’s all the more sad that so many current DIY doodle books (take a look at the range on Amazon) are for the most part banal and prescriptive.

Check out Celebrating the Art of the Doodle: 20 Awesome

P7030004_1David Maclagan is a writer, artist, lecturer and retired art therapist, living in W Yorks. He has published numerous articles on Outsider Art, art and imagination and psychological aesthetics (the title of a book published in 2001 by Jessica Kingsley). His latest book Outsider Art: from the margins to the marketplace has just been published by Reaktion Books.

10 responses to “Beyond the Doodle”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by RubiesAreBlue: Great essay. RT @jshawback Reading: Beyond the Doodle – on @escapeintolife…

  2. judithwesterfield says:

    This is fantastic! May I have permission to share it on my blog
    I “teach” people to doodle in their Therapeutic Creative Journals and I know this would be a wonderful resource for them and help them understand the power of the doodle.
    Thank you for writing this

  3. lethe says:

    Of course! 🙂

  4. Paul Jach says:

    Awesome, thank you! I just did a show of my own work based on doodles as well, “Evolution of a Doodle*

  5. alissaqw says:

    Have never really understood the whole concept of doodles and why we just start drawing them. My notebook is full of them and I have no idea why I did them

  6. Wow! Great article. My painting technique is based entirely on how I started doodling years ago in high school. My paintings are pretty much doodles but with paint on canvas!

  7. Annie45HL says:

    Thank you David for this informative history of the doodle. You haven't mentioned Winnicott! who used the doodle clinically. I saw some interesting rock doodles in a navajo Indian reserve in the desert in USA, some of them 1000 years old.
    I enjoy reading this e-arts journal, thank you for letting me know about it.
    Annie Hershkowitz

  8. i am very glad to know about doodle.The term ‘doodle’ seems to have emerged in the mid 1920s, and within a decade had become something like a fad, with an expanding interest in the reproduction.

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  10. […] doodling is a more deliberate and complex activity called ‘meta-doodling’: a kind of doodle on steroids and long-range autopilot. Like your run-of-the-mill doodle, meta […]

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