The Doodle Is the Brooding of the Hand

Saul Steinberg? Harold Rosenberg? Robert Motherwell?

Dear Quote Investigator: A cartoonist once spoke eloquently about the product of absentminded scribbling. Here are three versions:

  • The doodle is the brooding of the hand.
  • Doodling is the brooding of the hand.
  • Doodling is the brooding of the mind.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The leading illustrator and cartoonist Saul Steinberg was often featured in the pages of “The New Yorker”. In 1978 a collection of his artworks was published in an eponymous book together with commentary by Harold Rosenberg. The saying appeared as a quotation from Steinberg presented by Rosenberg. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

While retaining the cartoon as the nucleus of his art, Steinberg has vastly enlarged its scope with ideas, techniques, approaches derived from the history of art and from twentieth-century art in particular: automatic drawing (“the doodle is the brooding of the hand”), drawings by children and the mentally disturbed, naïve art, scrawls on walls and latrines, facsimiles, transferred images (drawings on photographs), parodies of modern and old masters.

The artwork above is not by Saul Steinberg; it is from pencilparker at Pixabay.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1978 Steinberg’s book was critically reviewed by Anatole Broyard in the pages of “The New York Times”: 2

The crocodile, Mr. Rosenberg says, is Mr. Steinberg’s symbol of an insatiable society that gobbles up anything. If that is the case, I think Mr. Steinberg could do better, think harder. “The doodle is the brooding of the hand,” writes Mr. Steinberg, but I would ask whether it is always art.

In October 1978 the influential modern artist Robert Motherwell wrote a letter to curator Edward Henning, and he included a variant of the statement: 3

(Just the other day I read a beautiful remark by Saul Steinberg: “Doodling is the brooding of the hand.”) Psychic automatism has potent characteristics, a kind of Occam’s Razor. A: it cuts through any a priori influences—it is not a style; B: it is entirely personal; C: it is by definition original, that is to say, that which originates in one’s own being …

In 1986 the variant saying appeared in “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations: 4

Doodling is the brooding of the hand. Saul Steinberg

In 1988 “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” printed an instance while referencing an issue of “Time” magazine: 5

The doodle is the brooding of the hand.
16 Oct 78

In 1995 another variant ending with “mind” instead of “hand” was posted to the newsgroup alt.quotations, and Saul Steinberg received credit: 6

Doodling is the brooding of the mind.
Source: Harper Book of Quotations, Harper 1993

In conclusion, Saul Steinberg should receive credit for the statement in his 1978 book. The evidence supporting the variant statements is weak.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy’s latest fine book is “Metaphors Be With You: An A to Z Dictionary of History’s Greatest Metaphorical Quotations”.)


  1. 1978, Saul Steinberg by Harold Rosenberg, (Pictures by Saul Steinberg; commentary by Harold Rosenberg), Quote Page 34, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1978 April 29, New York Times, Books of The Times: Portrait of Saul Steinberg by Anatole Broyard, (Book Review of Saul Steinberg; text by Harold Rosenberg), Quote Page 21, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1999 (Copyright 1992), The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell by Robert Motherwell, Edited by Stephanie Terenzio, Letter to Edward Henning on October 18, 1978, Start Page 228, Quote Page 230, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1986, The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations, Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Topic: Creation and Creativity, Quote Page 93, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1988, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, Compiled by James B. Simpson, Art: Observers and Critics, Quote Page 266, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1995 March 23, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: Charles Cave, Subject: Creativity and Thinking quotations. (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 22, 2018) link