If your handwriting is illegible, then you can not understand what word is written.

But if you have not drawn well then you can not understand what is being drawn.

What word do I use for this?

Edit: The objects being drawn here are TV, cars, clocks, etc. The drawing of the TV does not look like a TV

  • 16
    They're not really the same things. If legible, handwriting can be read and communicates to the reader who speaks the same language. Art is not direct communication but is interpreted. So who's qualified to say whether a piece of art is good or bad? Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 15:36
  • 6
    Kristina has made a good point. Before we can answer, you need to explain what sort of drawing (an engineering drawing? a realistic portrait?) is being attempted. You also need to say what you mean by 'understanding' a drawing. EDIT - I typed this before seeing your latest comment. Even so I think we need more information about the type of drawing and what criteria are being used to judge it. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 15:46
  • 3
    "incomprehensible" would also work, but Hocking's suggestion is pretty much perfect.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 19:16
  • 10
    The drawing is crap? ;-)
    – RemarkLima
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 21:36
  • 11
    In architecture school we commonly referred to drawings (as well as architectural designs themselves) as being "illegible". This is probably a legacy of Foucault and the structuralist practice of reading architecture (and much else) as 'texts', but it seems to have entered common usage. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 23:40

16 Answers 16


I would say the drawing is unrecognizable:

un·rec·og·niz·a·ble (adjective) — not able to be recognized or identified.

  • 4
    This is close but I'm not sure it's perfect. An illegible document can't be read, the information contained within it cannot be gathered. In the case of a painting it might be equivalent to say that the representation of a certain object within the painting is unrecognizable, but does it mean the same thing to say that the painting is unrecognizable. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 19:15
  • 1
    This one is making me think a lot. If I call something "unrecognizable," I usually mean it doesn't look like itself, not that it doesn't look like something else. Like, "after her makeover, Cinderella was unrecognizable." Or, after the vandals got to it, the famous paining was unrecognizable. I'm not sure I would use it about one thing that is supposed to, but doesn't, look like another.
    – vstrong
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 18:05
  • 1
    Unrecognisable usually means, that the visual process by which you are viewing some thing (perhaps a person, car, drawing, animal, house - or any thing) is of low quality such that you cannot recognise what the thing is. ("Steve is unrecognisable in this photo.") As both Dave and Vstrong suggest.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 19:04
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    Based on the edit which have given an example, unrecognisable is the correct option.
    – Benjamin R
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 21:37
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    The only downside is that unrecognisable is not exclusive to visual recognition, it could be equally used for music or remembering a person's tone of voice. But still, it is the best option for an analogue to illegible in that it refers to a failure to match what is perceived by the senses to a pre-existing 'image' of an object in the mind with which what is seen could be compared to.
    – Benjamin R
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 21:52

You might say that the drawing is "indecipherable", which is defined by Merriam-Webster as "impossible to read or understand : not decipherable".

  • 4
    I'd have gone with "crap"
    – Alec Teal
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 11:30
  • I feel like indecipherable implies writing, and all the definitions at your link agree with this impression.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 23:35

I would go for inscrutable. There are many words that do the trick, and a lot of good answers, but I think inscrutable works particularly well. In fact, the first example in Webster's definition refers specifically to art!




not readily investigated, interpreted, or understood

an inscrutable work of art

Source: Merriam-Webster.com

Oxford dictionary has this to say:

"inscrutable. impossible to understand or interpret"

Oxford dictionary, Mac edition

  • 12
    I'd think that "an inscrutable work of art" refers more often to the intention or interpretation behind the art. That is, a still-life of an object that's intentionally done in a strange, hard-to-parse style might be inscrutable, while someone who was actually trying to draw an accurate rendering of the object but didn't succeed in conveying what it looked like doesn't feel inscrutable to me.
    – Danica
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 18:10
  • @Dougal, Yes, I think you bring up an excellent use of inscrutable, which as you point out is probably more common. I do think being unable to determine the subject (not just the meaning) of the art is still inscrutable, however.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 18:22
  • 1
    I agree with Dan's usage of inscrutable - indeed his usage is the "original" usage, and the more usual usage (basically "a person with a blank expression") is a derivative of that.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 19:05
  • 1
    @JoeBlow Inscrutable is not a visual analogue for illegible, but rather describes a specific characteristic or property completely distinct from visual recognition. It denotes the inability of an object to be comprehended by a subject – it's much more nuanced than unrecognisable which is a term bound with the notion of recognition and representation to the senses. Inscrutable has famously been used to refer to the impregnability of persons of Irish descent to (Freudian) psychotherapy, for example.
    – Benjamin R
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 21:48
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    Hi Benjamin. As I said just above, and to expand by a few words: I agree with Dan's usage of inscrutable - indeed his usage is the "original" usage, and the now-more-usual usage, the more metaphoric usage (that is to say, used in relation to emotions, thoughts, Irish's people's psychoses, etc) is a derivative of that. (The word just means "can't find" if we think etymologically.) Nevertheless I enjoyed your erudite writing, although we disagree.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 21:53

Or, perhaps, unintelligible, which works for representational art and might also work if one were referring to non-representational art.

  • Well it works in both cases, doesn't it? Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 9:16
  • 1
    Agreed. I meant "more appropriate than some other words," not "more appropriate for non-representational art than for representational art," though I see now what I wrote is ambiguous that way,
    – vstrong
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 11:14
  • Definition I find of intelligible at Dictionary.com is "capable of being understood; comprehensible; clear." I'd say this answer nails it.
    – Maverick
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 18:14
  • Interesting, but personally, I generally associate unintelligible with audible communication, even though it isn't strictly defined in such a manner. This just seems to be the most common usage I've encountered - unintelligible speech of some form or another. I think examples of its usage in non-verbal areas are a bit more idiomatic, such as addressing what a painting is trying to say. I have nothing against this response in general, I'm just not sure it feels right in the context of this particular question.
    – Crumbs
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 1:34
  • 2
    unintelligible means impossible to understand. it only makes sense when a meaning is attempting to be communicated. So, a sentence can be unintelligible. in contrast a single character (like "d") is not trying to communicate a message, it's a single symbol - which may be unclear.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 19:09

I would personally go for


Adjective, not able to be understood; not intelligible.

  • 1
    That's what I wanted to answer, too.
    – Chiffa
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 11:56
  • incomprehension relates to comprehension ... not understanding the meaning of a symbol.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 2:08

I would say it's indiscernible or unintelligible.

Other suggestions have unwanted connotations, like:

  • incomprehensible implies that there is a meaning, and not comprehending it is the viewers fault. It might be incomprehensible, but not badly drawn.
  • indecipherable also implies that we just can't get down to the meaning of the painting. Painting might be indecipherable but not badly drawn.
  • inscrutable implies that we could, in the future, actually understand the painting. Painting might be inscrutable but not badly drawn.
  • unrecognizable implies that there is a template we recognize it as, while more abstract paintings might be unrecognizable, but not badly drawn.


Actually unintelligible also might be, maybe, fitting to the wrong-connotation category. So the main suggestion would be indiscernible.


Maybe just ugly?

  • 1
    +1 for indiscernible, but I would prefer to see an explanation why your suggestion works, instead of explaining why suggestions by other users don't work as well as yours (in fact there are some fine suggestions among those as well).
    – Lucky
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 10:34
  • Well, I'm just answering the question. While it might seem like i'm attacking other users, I just know all the words in other answers, and actually it's quite an exhaustive list, as far as I know. Really, if I were to make a list of my own, it'd be just the same. Ok, I didn't know inscrutable.
    – loa_in_
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 10:40
  • This is my first answer, please be unapologetically brutal.
    – loa_in_
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 10:49
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    Brutal? Not my style, sorry :-). But I did forget to say welcome to the ELU :-)
    – Lucky
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 10:56
  • I see :) Thank You. Feel free to improve my answer or criticize.
    – loa_in_
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 10:58

I think the best solution to this SWR is indeed simply


Note that, of course and obviously, the OP means ordinary representational ("non artistic", let's say) drawings.

Imagine, say, a board game where you have to draw an object (cat, dog, car, house - whatever) and the other players have to guess what it is. Or, the line drawings of objects in small children's books. Or playing Scribblenauts.

I feel in that situation, you'd say things like "It's unclear what you've drawn!" "I have no idea what that drawing is!" "What the heck were you trying to draw here?"

That milieu is the most analogous in the question as actually put, "Handwriting is to illegible as drawing is to what?"

Really, "unclear" is the only word that works there, I think.

If, as many folks have commented, the OP meant Jackson Pollock paintings, the whole question is vague and should be deleted. The question ("Handwriting is to illegible as drawing is to what?") is only meaningful if you're talking about "drawings" in the sense of straightforward line drawings of things.

Unrecognisable is wrong because it usually means, that the visual process by which you are viewing some thing (perhaps a person, car, drawing, animal, house - or any thing) is of low quality such that you cannot recognise what the thing is. This is utterly unrelated to the drawing being so "bad" that it is not clear which object is being suggested (ie - "unclear").

indecipherable applies more to "reading' (see the dictionary definition; note "ciphers". if the word was more like "in-line-able" it would be suitable here.)

unintelligible means impossible to understand. it only makes sense when a meaning is attempting to be communicated. So, a sentence can be unintelligible. in contrast a single character (like "d") is not trying to communicate a message, it's a single symbol - which may be unclear

  • I want to clarify, I used the question statement "Handwriting is to illegible as drawing is to what?" because that was the only way I could describe in brief what I wanted to ask. The real description of my question is in the body. If you feel the question statement should be changed, please let me know. :) Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 17:00
  • Your "real description" exactly matches the question in the headline. This is the correct answer.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 18:59
  • I really don't think this is it. If a drawing is unclear, then I'm not sure what it means, not what it is. I went to Germany recently. There was a sign with a blue car and a red car next to each other on the highway. I could tell they were cars, but we found the sign unclear, at least at first. Later we realized it meant no passing.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 23:38
  • Hi DC. If you described that as "unclear," you were using the word "unclear" incorrectly, perhaps bizarrely. Unclear means ............ un ... clear. You just clearly and utterly stated that (utterly, spectacularly, clearly) the drawings in question were of a blue car and a red car. (I'm sure these were as clear as the modern german school of iconography and sign making could make them - which is about as clear as anything in this universe.) You didn't know what this sign meant.
    – Fattie
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 2:11

Illegible is, in fact, often used.

Drawings are read like texts (especially by Art Historians). For this context, the drawing is attempting to participate in a narrative ("it's a car!"), and failing, out of incompetence.

The drawing is supposed to be a noun, but it's not: it's illegible.

  • 1
    Most technical drawings are read like drawings, not like text - they are not narrative nor linear. Using 'read' and 'legible' for drawings predates its use in art books.google.co.uk/… Commented Sep 19, 2015 at 15:40
  • That... is an awesome link.
    – Neal
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 13:01

Scribble seems the most descriptive word for a bad or unrecognizable drawing.

  • 3
    But scribble is a noun (or verb), whereas illegible is an adjective. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 21:31
  • @randal'thor: Scribblism? :-)
    – wallyk
    Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 22:22
  • 1
    I think scribble refers to the speed and care given to the drawing, not to how recognisable it is. Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 0:30
  • 1
    It is the wrong part of speech, but I do think this is the best answer that gets to the nuance. Illegible handwriting nearly always means that the handwriting was not written well or with care, which is exactly the notion that a scribble brings to a drawing. To make it the right part of speech scribbled would work. Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 3:20
  • @MarkLakata I totally agree, and I upvoted it on day one (I'm glad to see it back to even). Maybe if it had a few more syllables (like "scribble-scrabble/d") it would have been better received!
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Sep 21, 2015 at 23:05

Your drawing is confusing

Simple, yes?


adj 1 …; 2 … ; 3 difficult to read or decipher.

noun 4 …; 5 a symbol or picture that is difficult to read or decipher.

(from English Collins Dictionary via Reverso/net)

(Granted however, it seems to work for both writing and drawing, making “Handwriting is to hieroglyphic/al as drawing is to hieroglyphic/al” yet another one of my pointless observations.)

  • 1
    I don't think this works. Many hieroglyphics have perfectly recognizable images of cats, people, eyes etc. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 15:16
  • @MartinSmith By ellipting the definitions refering to the symbols used in ancient Egypt(Defs 1,2,& 4) (which I agree are often/usually perfectly recognizable), I was trying to direct attention to the more figurative, unclear or unreadable signs or writing, meaning of the word (Def 3 on Word Central & Defs 3&5 on Reverso/Collins). I agree with Mitch ‘s comment under the question & thought that maybe “hieroglyphic/al,” with “unclear/unreadable/indecipherable” built in (& relating specifically to signs/pictures) could address his concern.
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 23:02


Everyone interprets art differently. If the art was to be "illegible", it could not be interpreted.


For a drawing, the word inappreciable might be suited.


The drawing he made was unfathomable

adjective 1. not able to be fathomed, or completely understood; incomprehensible:


inaccessible is another word specifically used for art (as opposed to, say, a drawing of a roadsign or something literal). "(Of language or an artistic work) difficult to understand or appreciate."

Along with the usual unrecognizable, indiscernible, unintelligible which people have cited.


I voted for unrecognizable, but I wanted to add a simpler wording:

The drawing is bad.
This is badly drawn.
The drawing is crap. (from RemarkLima's comment)

Substitute draw with paint or another art method as needed. Note that this only works if it's hard to recognize because it's badly drawn. A photograph of an exploding egg might be hard to recognize while being perfectly accurate.

Something to point out here, is that there isn't actually a direct correlation between drawing and writing here. Writing uses a set of very standardized symbols that have very specific meanings, and those symbols are arranged in very specific ways with very specific syntax. Certainly, there's a great deal of allowable variation in writing, but it follows the rules.

With drawing, it's always abstract. How one person perceives a television can be very different from how another person perceives it. With a highly detailed attempt at photo-realism, it's likely most humans will tend to converge on a very similar representation (given enough skill of course) because we basically see a bitmap, and are capable of conveying data in that form.

But if we're talking about relatively simple drawings, we internally caricaturize external objects based on the aspects we consider important. To one artist who grew up in the 70s to 80s, a television could be characterized by things like the channel and volume knobs, and being shaped like a big box. To someone who's growing up now, a television could be more akin to a painting hung on the wall. And our drawings will reflect those differences.

But, because drawings are things we tend to share with, and learn from, others, we will tend to standardize them implicitly. So people who grew up together might tend to draw one aspect of something and to the people around them it's quite obvious what they drew, while an outsider might just see ink on a page. As an example, look at the differences between American and Japanese emoticons. The American icons tend to focus on the mouth, while the Japanese icons focus on the eyes. If I didn't know it was on a chart of emoticons, I wouldn't even see that (^3^) was supposed to be a face.

When we talk about illegible writing, we mean we can't figure out what basic symbols are on the page. When we talk about "illegible" drawings, we often are talking about a totally different "language" of art that we just don't know the rules to.

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