The Drawings

From the three phases of the drawing study emerged a collection of 180 images of ‘energy’, most of which are shown here (scroll to the right or below on mobile). They present a diverse, multi-faceted and highly personalised picture of this often intangible and amorphous subject. The drawings also fed into other research conducted on the SuslabNWE project, helping the project team to glean insights into people’s thoughts about energy, and our qualitative methodology complementing some of the more quantitative, data-driven methods on the wider European project.

The process of analysing visual research can take many different forms and the subjective and diverse nature of the material can mean that the work defies neat, clear-cut or all-inclusive categorisations and conclusions. Instead, the process of analysing this research has been an exciting one, full of blurred boundaries and interesting overlaps. It is important to note that this was not a study of people’s drawing skills or observational drawing proficiency (Kozbelt and Seeley, 2007). By asking participants to draw a physical representation of the invisible we were asking them to take part in a conceptual drawing exercise and as such, the study intends to focus on the ideas, thought processes, emotions or experiences that the drawings seek to communicate.

What we found in the material are myriad associations between images, compelling ideas and drawing processes and intriguing uses of colour that illustrate the abstract concept of energy. We developed what Mitchell (2011) would call a ‘conceptual framework’ to allow us to analyse the drawings in a way that is befitting of our method and research subject, and we have therefore analysed the images in two distinct ways.

Firstly, we have looked at the subject matter that is presented in the drawings: the physical objects that people employed to illustrate their personal ideas about energy, the conceptual references or associations that they made (‘household electricity’ as opposed to ‘emotional energy’, for example) and whether their portrayal shows the matter of energy itself (lightning, aura etc.), the effects of it (heat, light), the infrastructure or objects that support it (wires, light bulbs), or something altogether different. We looked at what features heavily and what associations are frequently made, and asked what this says about energy in the public consciousness. Through this process a set of classifications emerged which frames the collection in this book.

Secondly, given the inherent nature of energy, we considered ideas of presence and absence in the drawings. We looked at what is not drawn, examining the images or ideas that might be represented, as well as those conspicuous by their absence.

We also thought about the use of colour and of different drawing materials, looking at how people attempted to give form to energy on the page. We asked what the limitations of the research design were and how these might have informed the outcomes, as well as to self-examine and reflect on our own processes and potential bias. Through this framework we hope to present the drawings on their own terms, in line with the exploratory nature of our research question, and share the enthusiasm and sense of experimentation that our participants showed on the study.

The Subjects We Saw

In studying the drawings we began a process of clustering, or categorising all the pieces in the collection. These were quite fluid groupings at first that offered different lenses through which we could view and think about the material. We looked for relationships and commonality between pieces, recurring themes and shared concerns, but we also considered the divergence or contrast in what the drawings seemed to communicate – those examples that counter one another, or which could exist in a category all of their own. The richness and subjectivity in this body of work means that we felt our groupings were by no means definitive, and in something of a kaleidoscopic way, the categories can shift, reorganise, create new constellations and suggest new ways of thinking about the drawings for each individual viewer. Here are the subjects we propose:


Many drawings depict the ‘end points’ of the power we use in everyday life: the light bulbs, plug sockets, batteries or wires that fill British homes today. They are products; part of the energy infrastructure and in a way emblematic of energy in contemporary culture. These images speak of end use, of daily interaction, immediate access and an at-our-fingertips kind of power. Time, convenience, connectivity and the domestic are important considerations in these images as they seem to reference the instantaneous, on-demand moment of connection we have with physical power on a daily basis. Importantly, they also speak of the human scale that the energy system ultimately translates into. Rather than consider the National Grid, or power stations, for example, they present the visible points of contact that people have with the energy system and show how the people behind these drawings experience energy in their immediate environment.

A few children’s drawings also show images of food, two in fact show hamburgers, one labelled with the word ‘food’. While this is certainly distinct from the other products discussed above, it similarly relates to the ways in which people gain, come into
contact with and benefit from energy sources.

Of all the domestic products, we see light bulbs, most often (15 times) throughout the collection. Studies on energy conservation (see Attari et al., 2010 and Kempton et al., 1985) have identified that people suggest actions such as turning lights out when leaving the room as an effective way to save energy, when it actually saves relatively little compared with heating and air conditioner use. This may be because lighting is often the most visible use of energy at home. We do not see the power running our computers or heating systems in the same way as turning on a light instantly and visibly changes the whole room. Therefore drawings of light bulbs could be representations of the most visible form of energy, and perhaps this recurring presence suggests that people are more aware of the visible ways they use energy than they are the invisible ones.

In the collection, there is a drawing of a Wi-Fi symbol. It is a small pencil drawing, only a few centimetres across, leaving a lot of white space on the page. It was created by a teenage student in the ArtScience Prize study, and it is interesting that it equates a symbol typically associated with the Internet, with energy. No other drawing does this. One shows a computer and mobile phone (this was created by a child), but overall, the Internet and digital technologies rarely appear across the sample. In this second picture we also see a battery, a light bulb, plug socket and a TV and remote control – everyday electrical items – all seemingly floating in space among lightning bolts, a cloud and rain drops with the sun shining down from above. It is surely one of the most energetic of the drawings of household energy products, suggesting the renewable ways in which they can be powered and the vibrancy of the energy they contain.

So whilst visualising energy through new technologies is not yet commonplace, where it does occur is in the work of children or teenagers. Perhaps if this study were conducted again years into the future we might find that wires or incandescent light bulbs no longer feature. In this sense, the drawings can be seen as being of their moment and representative of contemporary culture and context.

Quite in contrast to images of manufactured products and technologies, there are also many images of nature referencing plant or animal life, the elements and environmental conditions. There are images of the sun and lightning bolts, five drawings of waves, four trees and six flowers, which collectively seem to represent the full range of force and power within the natural world. The sun could be read as the original source of energy, and waves and lightning as powerful forces of nature. In fact, we see lightning bolts 13 times throughout the collection, and (at the time of writing) a lightning bolt is also the first image on Wikipedia’s Energy page (2015), so perhaps this particular aesthetic has been adopted into our collective conscious as a symbol for energy, for example, via its use in battery charging iconography. How might more widespread adoption of electric cars affect this?

Some of these drawings could be representations of strength and danger, of ‘larger than life’ power that can be threatening and overpowering if untamed or unexpected. Lightning, the sun and waves are perhaps the kinds of energy we are in thrall to, or in awe of, and which operate independently and of their own accord (unlike light bulbs and batteries which contain energy in manageable, constant and predictable ways). However, these natural forces are also some of the ways through which we harness energy for our own ends, (Wikipedia’s photo also has a caption noting the number of megajoules in a typical lightning bolt) and in that respect this could suggest the ways in which we dominate, or take advantage of nature and utilise it for our own ends. One lightning bolt drawing is labelled with the word ‘free’ and it thereby presents not just the energy of this natural phenomenon, but perhaps also speculation about how it could be harnessed as an inexpensive resource.

This sets up an interesting duality in our collection of images: in those discussed so far we can start to see a contrast or tension between the wild, which are in many instances (although not all) large-scale and potentially overpowering forms of energy; and the harnessed or the tamed, which is often energy that has been captured to be of service to people. It is also interesting to consider the perspective of the imagemaker – the person doing the drawing – how they relate to the forms of energy they
have depicted. Some image-makers may have drawn energy as it relates to them and some may have drawn the sources of renewable energy that we capture. In that sense, they have illustrated a starting point in the energy system whilst others may
have sought to depict energy in its purest form, entirely beyond the limits of the engineered, human-made energy infrastructure.

As Berger (1960) also wrote: ‘[a] drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – seen, remembered or imagined.’ So through the act of drawing (perhaps particularly when the subject matter is invisible, as there are no physical cues to respond to or be constrained by) we learn about an individual’s experiences, memory and ideas, in relation to that subject. We saw many people relate energy to their everyday experiences of it through commonplace commodities and conveniences, through which it has a tangible presence in their home or about their person. But simultaneously, we have seen
depictions of energy in the natural world. This section then might also have been called Indoors/Outdoors or Human/Non-human, as it details those things created for human consumption and the domestic space, and those other systems and ecologies completely outside of that, not designed for people at all. In this more spatialised reading we can see how we bring energy close to us through products and manufacturing – within reach and with safety and reliability – whilst lightning bolts or whirlpools are the kinds of energy that we keep at a safe distance: in systems with which we do not directly interact, but which we view and marvel at from afar.


Whilst in the previous section we discussed drawings with a broad range of subject matter, what these images had in common is that they were all representational. However, many of the other drawings in our sample are abstract. There are images that are very concerned with colour and form, but suggest no explicit connection to, or association with, the objects or entities around us.

We see swirls, zigzags, amorphous shapes, lines and blocks of colour across all the sample groups. One image is all bright orange and red, whilst another uses layers of colour to create a wash of deep blues and purple. Perhaps these images seek to visualise the matter of energy itself, to materialise the invisible, rather than to depict those elements or artefacts that either embody energy, or allow us access to it. Or perhaps they directly address the formlessness of energy, the way it is not neatly articulated in a precise and defined shape and cannot be pointed to, but exists intangibly all around us. Through this comparison we can see that the previous set of images depicted how energy is contained, while these drawings might do
exactly the opposite.

But even in this range of abstract images, we see diversity. One drawing from the Life Examined exhibition shows a simple horizontal blue line across the middle of the page, reaching almost to the edges – a single mark on which to focus our attention – while another from the same group of participants, depicts a knotted, frenzied and chaotic mix of lines of different colours and trajectories. Whilst one drawing seems to suggest calmness and clarity, and the other speaks of disorder and confusion, they could both refer to energy’s ubiquity and constancy. So there are parallels to draw, even in this seeming divergence, and it is interesting to consider how similar principles can be expressed in very different visual forms.

Another set of images appropriates symbols to address the behaviours or properties of energy. One drawing shows the mathematical infinity symbol, drawn over and over to emphasise the repetition and another shows what looks like a reading from a cardiograph or seismograph. A third, meanwhile, a flurry of arrows across the page, is annotated with the words ‘it comes and it goes … somewhere’.

Flows and pulses are present across the sample groups, and as with the pastel illustrations of equations (E=mc² and an equation for nuclear fusion), we see many ways in which people have invoked the symbolism, the shorthand and the visual
language of energy to refer to its characteristics and cultural or personal relevance.

Process Drawings

At the V&A, the third and final strand of our study, we were able to offer the participants a wider variety of materials to work with than we had previously. In the first two studies participants used pens and pencils, but in the third we added chalk
pastels and ink and brushes. Over the two days of the study (in which time the tables became increasingly stained and the materials looked worn and less precious), participants became more experimental with their drawings and freer with the materials. By the end of the first day people began to produce what we could call ‘action drawings’ or works wholly concerned with the process of their making. Several people dripped ink from above the paper; one person used a brush to draw circles then
blew the ink across the page – leaving the trace of their energy in the path of the ink. Another three people (who didn’t know each other beforehand) collaborated on a drawing, each making marks in pastel for five seconds, simultaneously. The resulting piece is the evidence of their energy on the paper.

These images are non-representational, but they are records of the energy that has been exerted in their production. They are concerned with the paper, materials and the action of making – the drawing is a three-dimensional object and the result
of an energetic process, not a picture plane (Greenberg, 1961).

And Others

There are several other images in the study that don’t fit squarely into the categories above and some that could fit into a category all of their own. Emotional energy, or human energy can be seen in pictures of hearts and maybe in an outline of the
image-maker’s hand. One drawing shows brightly coloured rays emitting from (although it could be into) a person’s eyes and mouth. One child drew an archery scene, another, a self-portrait on a scooter, while ‘Energy of a Leader … Inspiration’
takes us away from the idea of a physical power altogether and asks us to think about charisma, vision and will as forms of energy.

Antony Gormley’s Quantum Void (2008-2010) sculpture series and his Energy (2003) etching, also address the body’s relationship to energy and the space it inhabits. We can see therefore how these images of human energy and the energy of the body speak to a longer tradition within fine art that explores this territory. There is great breadth in the themes addressed by the participants. The drawings do not simply address the issues of the energy infrastructure, or environmental concerns. Instead they show us a much fuller scope of the ways in which people think about energy. The diversity, the contrast, the unexpected and the anomalies all serve to broaden our thinking on this subject, rather than to narrow our definition of it.

What We Do Not See

As well as all the subject matter that the drawings do represent, there are many issues that they do not address, and we would like to briefly consider the significance of some of what has been left out. Several drawings show energy sources or supplies, but these are nearly all renewable. Alongside the drawings of the sun and waves, we see images of wind turbines on eight occasions, and from the Life Examined exhibition we find a new proposal for harvesting rainwater. Electricity pylons, which are a common feature of the British landscape, and a much longer-standing and more established infrastructure than wind turbines – the first pylon was erected in 1928 (National Grid, 2014) and the first wind turbine in 1991 (Nixon, 2008) – do not feature at all.

The prevalence of renewable energy in the drawings is also intriguing when we consider that it remains a minority energy source across Europe. In the UK, renewable electricity accounted for 18 per cent of the total electricity generated in the third quarter of 2014, which was an increase of 4.2 per cent on the previous year, but coal and gas accounted for 58.5 per cent of electricity generated (DECC, 2014c). The energy mix in Europe is changing: the UK’s target is for 15 per cent of all energy consumption to be from renewable sources by 2020 (DECC, 2011) and across Europe renewables are forecast to account for 16 per cent of total residential energy use by 2020 (E3M-Lab, 2013). However, our energy supply is still heavily dominated by fossil fuels and this is scarcely represented in the drawings.

The emphasis we see on renewables is likely not to be people’s lived experience. Instead, the drawings may look to the future, to imagine what will or could be, rather than intending to show what is at present, or has been in the past. Nor is the fierce political debate that we often hear – or media coverage about the costs of energy in the UK – depicted in the images. In the winter of 2012/13 all of the UK’s ‘big six’ energy companies increased prices by between six per cent and eleven per cent (Bolton, 2014). In early 2015 we are currently witnessing a fall in the cost of fuel due to reduced wholesale gas and oil prices
(2015), but in recent years the cost of domestic heating has become increasingly expensive and it was the subject of much public debate (see for example, Boffey, 2015 and Massy-Beresford, 2014) over the course of the drawing study. Yet these worries or unsettling realities are not represented in the images.

Another interesting omission from the drawings is numbers (and units such as kilowatt hours). When we talk about energy, in terms of what we use and how much it costs, we typically quantify it – even our domestic bills rely on this information. Energy suppliers usually communicate to their customers in measurements – and real-time quantitative feedback for householders is a major plank of UK energy policy (DECC, 2009). But apart from equations, the drawings do not portray numbers, and we therefore see no reference to one of the principal ways in which energy is talked about, or to the idea of quantities at all. This raises questions about how effective or useful quantitative metrics are for people in thinking about energy. Might other modes
of communication or explanation be more valuable in engaging people in a dialogue about energy consumption?

There may be many reasons for omitting these realities of energy in day-to-day life. As we have suggested with the drawings of renewables, perhaps by not depicting energy meters and bills, people are considering how they might experience or ‘see’ energy in the future, rather than simply how they do currently. We could look at these drawings as insights and suggestions for how people want to engage with energy – so what would be helpful or thought-provoking kinds of visualisations? And how could we support people in thinking about the political and ecological systems in which they play a part, rather than talk to them purely about the money they owe?


In the drawing collection we see some strong themes in people’s visualisations of energy, but it is important that in our interpretation of this we consider some factors in the research that may have informed these outcomes. The studies in the Life Examined exhibition and the Digital Design Weekend were both held within broader exhibition contexts and the participants were therefore all engaged with cultural events and design. Beyond this, there was no classification of their age ranges, occupations, or backgrounds. The students in the ArtScience Prize were the only group of a particular age range: they were
all teenagers (13 to 18 year olds) working on art and design ideas inspired by the theme: ‘Energy of the Future’. All of the participants could be said to have an interest in art or design, and this could have influenced the collection of images. As the study was conducted in three different phases and locations there were inherent differences in the way each was structured. In the Life Examined exhibition participants drew on an angled board, at the V&A participants drew on tables, while at the ArtScience Prize many students chose to draw with their paper on their laps.

As we discussed with the V&A study, participants began to use the pastels and inks to create process-drawings, which had not happened in the previous stages. The inks, for instance, allowed new kinds of mark-making, but also the workspace became messy very quickly and traces of earlier participants’ activity began to build up on the table. Drops of ink, lines from felt tip pens and dust from the pastels were there for later participants to see. Completed drawings were also hung on the wall, so participants could see some examples of earlier work. These factors changed the nature of the workspace: they showed what was possible with the materials available and they helped to create a space in which participants could be more confident about being experimental with the drawing they produced. At the Life Examined exhibition participants created their drawings in the midst of new design work on display, and the ArtScience Prize study was held during a workshop day in which students were developing project ideas about energy as part of their programme.

All three strands of the study were conducted in either workshop or exhibition contexts, environments in which participants were encouraged to explore and create, which valued new ideas and even future visions. It is possible therefore, that these conditions encouraged participants to express new ideas for what energy could be, or what they would like or expect to see in future, rather than to illustrate their experienced realities. This could have happened even though in conducting the study and in introducing participants to it, we ensured that we asked them to respond to the same question: What does energy look like?

As we have also discussed, energy is an often fiercely debated political topic, and as the phases of the study were conducted at different times, it is possible that public debate could have informed the participants’ drawings in different ways. We recognise that these conditions would likely have influenced the outcomes of the study, but we hope that the stimulating environments in which it took place served to encourage participants to be confident and ambitious with the images they created. We also acknowledge that the sample groups who took part in the study are not necessarily representative of British society as a whole, but we see this project as a way of uncovering individual views and ideas about energy that are not normally publicly expressed.


Considering the collection as a whole, it is noticeable that many of the drawings convey an optimistic, enthusiastic or environmentally conscious tone. Four drawings feature hearts, one of them beating. Several depict the globe, and one, the entire universe. One shows a sun with a smiley face, while another – an entirely written response – includes the statement: ‘Without energy life becomes miserable’. Next to a drawing of a light bulb another reads: ‘Energy is light, an idea, excitement, positivity’ and an illustration of a magician with a wand is annotated with: ‘Energy is magic’. Across all sample groups, we see evidence of a positive approach to the idea of energy, and not one that we could definitively call pessimistic.

What people have drawn in terms of technology at least, leans towards the future rather than towards the historic, but in other ways the results are more divergent. We find that across the sample the definitions of energy are varied. The drawings link to personal history and emotions, but also to infrastructure and systems. They stretch across scales, from the human and engineered, to the natural and untouched; and they are concerned with the political and environmental, the aspirational and the unique, as well as the ubiquitous and the everyday.

Perceptions of energy are, of course, very subjective. But in presenting these varied and sometimes opposing views, we think this study has reflected on some of the enormous complexities in what we often experience as simple daily realities. What has been produced is a diversity of representation, and through the associations and interpretations shown here, we think that this collection of drawings presents an exploration of how the subject of energy is culturally constructed.