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Journal Jolts

7 creative things you can do to find sketching inspiration.

For many of us, the hardest part of sketching is knowing what to sketch. To help you get over your fear of what to draw, I give you seven sketch starters. These describe places you can go and things you can do to get inspired. Begin using a pencil or pen to record more than words in your journal.

1. Go to an art museum. Visiting an art museum is perhaps the ultimate creativity booster for an artist or creative person. There, you can completely immerse yourself in art, hang out with some of the greatest artists of all time and study their work at your leisure.

However, I realize that going to a museum to sketch does carry with it a certain amount of intimidation. To get over this, prepare yourself. Go armed with a small sketchbook (smaller than 7 by 9 inches is preferable) and a few drawing pencils. Kentucky artist Tina Tammaro recommends wandering around to get your bearings, and then picking a room and spending some time in it. "Then find one painting to concentrate on. Write down what comes to mind about the piece." For example, you might notice the bright color scheme or, perhaps, the focal point—the main area—of the painting. (In a portrait painting, the focal point is often the person's eyes.) You may also notice that the painting may change your mood, leaving you feeling uplifted or even morose.

Once you've noted and written your impressions of the painting, "Next squint your eyes to study the major shapes," says Tammaro. Make a few quick sketches outlining these shapes. "This sketch doesn't need to look good. Instead, you should use this exercise to slow down and discover what intrigues you the most about a painting," says Tammaro.

Some other things you can do to stoke your creative fires at the museum include comparing two paintings to hone your analytical skills: How are the paintings different? How are they similar? How did the artist create such bright colors in one? Another option is to choose one thing to focus on at the museum and spend the afternoon looking carefully at examples of just that. You might try just looking at backgrounds or noticing what the center of interest is in each painting. Or you could simply look at landscape paintings, ignoring everything else.

2. Take a drawing course. For me, there's no better way to conquer a fear than to get a little professional help, so to speak. I found that taking an evening class in introductory figure drawing at a local art academy was a great way for me to learn some basic art skills in an unintimidating environment. (An added benefit was that I learned not only what art materials to use, but also what art materials I enjoyed using.) Once you learn a few drawing techniques, such as gesture and contour drawing, you'll feel more confident in drawing on your own.

3. Spend time sitting in a café. Check out the menu, the surroundings, the people. There's a treasure trove of sketching possibilities at a café or restaurant. One of the most fascinating ways to draw people is to observe them; work from life. Thus sitting at a café or coffee shop and observing those around you will provide you with endless fodder for your sketchbook. In his book The Artist's Sketchbook (David & Charles, 2000), Albany Wiseman recommends that you "ensconce yourself in a quiet spot where you're not too overlooked—a corner spot is ideal. Order a beer or coffee as camouflage and survey the scene.

"Draw quickly and confidently, looking for broad shapes and lines that seem to sum up a gesture or a movement. Make notes of details such as furniture and light fittings; these will give the sketch a sense of place. I often include lettering, which forms a significant part of the visual environment. It appears on shop fronts, chalkboards, safety and directional signs, and menus, and because styles change you will also find that it's generally an extremely good clue to location and also to time."

4. Take it outside. Still another great source of drawing subjects for your sketchbook is a garden. Be it in your own backyard or at a park, spending a little time in nature will provide you with many options. For instance, you can trace around the shape of a flower petal or leaf. Claudia Nice, author of several books for artists, including How to Keep a Sketchbook Journal (North Light Books, 2001), recommends making prints. To do this, bring some watercolor paints with you on your expedition. Choose the subject for your printing, such as a fern. Then paint the fronds with the color of your choice. Blot the leaf gently on a paper towel and then press it down onto your sketchbook page. You can also work with a reverse process of this technique. Nice recommends choosing a flat, fairly stiff object such as a fern to use as a stencil and secure it to your paper with tiny pieces of tape. Next brush or sponge paint on and around the leaf. Let dry, then remove the stencil.

5. Sketch your mood. Use colors. Go deeper. A visual journal is a way of freely expressing thoughts and feelings in visual form while also including words. By combining the two, you move beyond the limitations of our finite language into pictures and symbols that can sometimes communicate deeper than words. Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox, in their book Visual Journaling (Quest Books, 1999), recommend that you write down your intention first when visual journaling: "That statement might go something like 'My intention is to discover the inner source of my feelings about my argument with my boss' or 'I wish to understand why seeing my mother makes me anxious.'" Your next step is to quiet your mind. From there, try drawing your emotional reaction to your statement. Try using different colors, shapes and symbols to express your feelings about what you wrote.

6. Create a collage. Much like leaf printing, creating a collage is an easy way to get your creative juices going. Remember using scissors, paste and scraps of paper to create a collage in grade school? Well, collage isn't just for kids. In addition to painting, artist Henri Matisse was also a master at collage. In the later years of his life when he was too weak to stand at an easel, he turned to scissors and paper to create his artistic visions. One of his most famous examples is Beasts of the Sea, a collage he cut in memory of the South Seas, which he had visited 20 years earlier. To try your own hand at collage, cut pieces of paper in all different shapes and colors from magazines. Or pick up some of the different Oriental rice papers and handmade papers at your local art or stationery store. All these different paper types are great to use for collages.

7. Scribble. Scribbling is one of the best ways you can improve your drawing skills says Greg Albert, drawing instructor and author of several art books, including Basic Figure Drawing Techniques (North Light Books, 1994). To give it a try, grab a large sheet of scrap paper and either a pencil or soft graphite stick. Cover the paper with big swirls. Draw from your shoulder, not your wrist. Don't stop your hand and don't lift the graphite from the paper. Make some tight curls, then make some zigzags, loops and coils.

Give yourself permission to let go. Scribble until the page is dark with marks. Gesture drawing—capturing a subject's unique quality—is similar to scribbling in that you should never lose the loose, almost unrestrained quality of the pencil. To take your scribbles one step further into gesture drawings, Albert recommends you:

  • Draw what your subject feels like or what it's doing.
  • Don't stop the pencil, and don't pick it up off the paper.
  • Always draw the whole thing on the paper.

To begin scribbling, Albert says you can draw just about anything, including stuffed animals, telephones, toasters and so on. The real secret to scribbling is keep drawing and do as much of it as you can. Experience, not the finished product, is the goal. With enough good experience, be it sketching, creating a collage or making a leaf print, your sketchbook will soon become an expressive and satisfying part of your artistic life.

This article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Personal Journaling.

Sandra Carpenter is the editor of The Artist's Magazine.

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