Are Drawings Primary Sources?


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Many of us don’t look at our sketchbooks and think that our drawings are primary sources. We’re used to seeing primary sources that are old, historical, and belong in libraries. When we think about primary sources, we’re not used to thinking about them in our own homes, let alone being the creators of them! Could it be that every drawing you create is a primary source?

Drawings are primary sources when they depict the artist’s first hand experience of an event from their own perspective. If the drawing represents a second hand perspective, it is a secondary source instead of a primary source.

Before diving into the differences between primary sources and other types of sources, let’s talk about why drawings are considered to be legitimate sources, of any kind, to begin with!

If you’re like me, you never thought that the messy drawing you made of your backyard could ever be considered a primary source, secondary source, or any type of source at all. Aren’t sources supposed to be historical and significant? 

Yeah, I’ve had these same thoughts.

Let’s talk about why ALL art. Yes, even your art and even my art, IS historical and worthy of being sources. Indeed!

All Art is Historical

Whether you make a random doodle in your kitchen, or you craft a grand masterpiece overlooking a vast countryside, you’re marking a moment in time. All art is historical in some way, even if we rarely realize it.

If you don’t believe me, dig up some of your old artwork. Find some finger paintings you made in Kindergarten if you have to! Did you notice that you handle them more delicately than your current sketchbook? Did you notice how old memories and thoughts of the past came flooding back?

That’s history for you!

You don’t need your work to be featured in a museum for it to be considered historical. Every single day we contribute to history. Every single day we create artifacts that will be passed down through the generations and will someday be looked back on as a way to understand the time in which we lived.

As long as you protect your drawings, your art can be a part of that history.

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So, get rid of the idea that your drawings aren’t historical. ALL ART IS HISTORICAL! As an artist, be proud of the contribution you’re making.

That said, not everything that is historical is considered a primary source. So, even if we consider your drawings historical, are they primary sources? Let’s find out.

Are Drawings Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary Sources?

Drawings are primary sources if they show the first hand experience of the artist. Drawings are secondary sources if they show the second hand experience of the artist. Drawings are tertiary sources if they are a summary of a primary or secondary source, as with an encyclopedia.

Important note: the definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are the same no matter the media. Research papers, love letters, newspapers, paintings, drawings, etc. No matter what we are referring to, the definitions for primary, secondary, and tertiary sources still apply. 

So, know that the definitions we’re going to talk about aren’t isolated to drawings. They can be applied to anything to describe primary, secondary, or tertiary sources. To make things simple though, we’re going to talk about them in relation to drawings.

Drawings as Primary Sources

Drawings are primary sources when they show the artist’s first hand experience of an event that they were either a part of or witnessed with their own eyes. This means that they are current events at the time the artist depicted them and are not drawings of events from the past.

Think about sitting on a bench with your sketchbook. As you sit there, you start to draw what you see. A man with an iPhone; a woman walking a tiny dog in a sweater; a child swinging on a swing. You’re documenting a day in the life of you as it’s happening in real time.

If your drawing were to be preserved and studied 100 years later, people could use it to learn about what life was like in your day and age. iPhones? Maybe those will be ancient relics in the future! Swings? Maybe there will be a new trend on the playgrounds and swings will be a thing of the past. Who knows! 

What we do know is that your drawing is serving as an important primary source that sheds light on the world and time in which you were living. It was created at the “time under study,” which means that it is a representation of life at the time you were living (source). You, as the artist, were providing visual sources of the world around you as you witnessed it first hand (source). Pretty neat, right?

Whenever you draw something that you witness first hand, you are creating a primary source. What about imaginary drawings? As long as your imaginary drawing isn’t recreating someone else’s work or harking back to a different time and place, it’s still a primary source.

Drawings as Secondary Sources

Drawings are secondary sources when they show an artist’s interpretation of a past event or an event that they did not witness themselves. This means that they are events that the artist has heard about in some way and is getting a second hand experience of.

Art as secondary sources can be tricky to understand because they aren’t super common. More often than not, art ends up being primary sources. That said, there are definitely times when your drawings can be categorized as secondary sources.

Think about sitting on a bench with a magazine. In the magazine you flip past a picture of the Mona Lisa. You take a good look at it and decide you want to recreate it. Your finished drawing of the Mona Lisa would be a secondary source instead of a primary (source). 

When you recreated the Mona Lisa, 2 things happened:

1) you had a second hand view of the subject matter. Leonardo da Vinci was the one who witnessed the model in front of him and created the portrait. You are getting a second hand view by looking at da Vinci’s painting instead of the model herself.

2) you are creating a drawing that represents the past.

Many of the secondary sources relating to art are not the art themselves, but written work about the art. Critiques, commentaries, articles, reviews, etc. Whenever someone talks or writes about art, that is considered a secondary source as well (source).

Drawings as Tertiary Sources

Drawings can’t be tertiary sources themselves, but they can be included in tertiary sources. Tertiary sources are summaries or compilations of primary and secondary sources such as encyclopedias or dictionaries, so drawings can be the primary or secondary sources included in those works.

Tertiary sources are things like encyclopedias, dictionaries, resource books, almanacs, manuals, etc. They usually aren’t contributed to one author because they are a compilation of works from many different people (source).

This is why someone may use one of your drawings within a tertiary source, but your drawing itself would be either a primary or secondary source. For example, someone might use the drawing you did on the bench within an encyclopedia entry about iPhones. 

Artstor.org is an example of a tertiary source that compiles art into a database. 

Whether your drawings are primary sources or secondary sources, know that you are a part of history. Art is an extremely valuable asset for understanding the past, so think twice before you throw out any of your old sketchbooks!

Diana Fitts

Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana's latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.

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