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Tacita Dean's Cinematic Drawing

Updated: May 7, 2021

I certainly did not know what to expect when I wandered out of the Rothko room at the Tate Modern in London. After communing with those ethereal color field paintings, my senses were shocked back into earthly reality by a room full of huge black boards, each telling part of a story done in very precise line drawings in white chalk. My first response was to the dramatic story, but at the same time I was puzzled by seeing chalk drawings in a busy art gallery. Chalk is ephemeral, easily erased - literally erased - disturbed even by a strong puff of wind. One of the boards indeed had writing that was slightly blurred, as though someone had just brushed against it. And what was this writing, anyway? Instructions. They were filming instructions of the kind you find on movie storyboards, where scenes are first worked out the old school way, by drawing. Wow! Something special was going on here, so I backed-up to the entrance and started again. This time I kicked out my preconceived notions and looked afresh at what was happening with these drawings.

The Roaring Forties, Seven Boards in Seven Days (1997), as this 2006 exhibition of same was called, tells the story of sailors navigating a particularly rough patch of the Atlantic between the 40th and 50th parallels and is done complete with filming instructions as though it were going to be made as a movie. The artist, Tacita Dean, is known for exploring mystery, especially the vagaries of the sea. She is also a film maker, and when I say film, I mean 16 mm and 35 mm film. Dean has taken a vocal stand in favor of preserving film, even leaving the U.K. in recent years to take up residence in Los Angeles, Hollywood being about the last place where she can have new prints made of her negatives in order to preserve them. She contends that film, chalk, and paint allow the unexpected. They let the artist follow the medium. She points out that nothing really happens in digital that is not unintended. I think most artists can appreciate that sentiment, as often it is the unintended that opens the door to further creativity.

Knowing now her adherence to film, especially black and white, I can see that it was only appropriate for those movie storyboards to be in white chalk on black boards. Both film (especially black and white film) and drawing are rapidly becoming things of another time, yet just as there are those of us who like a printed book in our hands rather than an eBook reader, there are those who appreciate the organic quality of drawing and those little, happy accidents of lighting or angle that happen in film.

As I took my second pass through the exhibition, looking at the ships, the sailors, and the sea, I marveled at Dean's skill. She made this movie come to life by use of curved lines to create a sense of volume, like wind blowing on a pant leg, or the stress in a sailor's eye shown with just a few strokes and a touch of shading. When she draws the turbulence of the sea, as seen here in Rain (1998), one sees it and feels it. Likewise in The Roaring Forties, the curved chalk lines make for billowing sails, and the shading creates foaming waves filled with such pitch, roll, and yaw that I began to feel for my sea legs, lest I be swept overboard.

I had never seen "drawing" like this. If you look at it long enough, it actually seems to move. I never imagined drawing to be so vibrant that I would feel caught up in the story, as if walking through a graphic novel, completely involved in the physical experience projecting from what I was seeing.

Dean has such a body of work that in 2018 she had a simultaneous exhibition of landscape, portraiture, and still life, all in one show with parts of it in the National Gallery of London, the Royal Academy, and the National Portrait Gallery. That is quite impressive, but everything of hers is impressive in some way. I just never forget the experience of seeing The Roaring Forties and that mysteriously smudged writing. Perhaps that was an intentional reminder that art which requires the touch of the human hand also allows for the creativity of the unintended.

There is a term for the type of drawing that Tacita Dean does - cinematic drawing - and for more on that here is a link to a great article:

Can you ever imagine old fashioned, i.e.non-digital, drawing becoming obsolete? What might that be like? Log in to answer.

Photos from and used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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