Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Get Drawing - Five Tips to Break Sketcher’s Block

Action expresses priorities - Mahatma Gandhi

In my youth I used to draw and especially as a landscape architecture student I filled many sketchbooks.   As the responsibilities mounted over the years in both my private and working life I steadily drew less, both for myself and on the job.  Last year I had an urge to get back to drawing, however it took a few months between buying a sketchbook and using it.  It’s hard to describe the sense ‘fear’ or frustration associated with marking a piece of  paper, even when in control of who else may see the results.  

Often this hesitancy to get going is a sense of dissatisfaction with the results and frustration with technical abilities.  One of the best ways to improve is to take a class or join a life drawing group and draw for several hours a week.  Like most other skills it’s all about practice and of course, there are many technical aspects that can be learned faster through lessons than on your own.  I didn’t do that, but have managed to exceed my personal goal of doing three sketches a week over the last 9 months.  Here are five actions that helped me overcome my self-imposed obstacles and have provided a great deal of satisfaction, self expression and fun.
              1.Take a sketchbook on your next trip
This doesn’t even have to be a long or exotic trip.  I think being out of your regular routine is the key and doing several sketches a day even for 3 days is enough to sense progress.  That sense of improvement, even if you are not yet satisfied with the results is energizing.  I think we have all experienced the satisfaction that results from improving a skill.  Not only is a travel sketchbook one of the best souvenirs possible, it is a good way to break the inertia.  Set a goal upon returning home to sketch a certain number of times per week to keep some momentum once you are back into your normal routine.  These don’t have to be elaborate full drawings.  A sketch may be very simple gesture and need not fill the page.  The subway, coffee shop or view out your office window at break all offer subjects. Just like learning an instrument, frequent practice is more productive than fewer, long sessions.

  2.    Postcards
Postcards fit nicely with a trip, but they are also good because they are small.  At first I found this frustrating as I couldn’t cram in much detail.  Then it dawned on me that the small format was forcing me to edit and convey only the most important aspects of the subject.  Not only that, they are quick to do.  On a trip last summer I often did one or two while waiting for food at an outdoor café.  Don't worry about feeling self-conciuous drawing in a public place - no one notices.  

You can buy stiff watercolor postcards in your art supply house, or to achieve the same objectives and portability, try a 5” x 7” pocket sketchbook.

3.        Add colour, notes or scraps
When I refer to drawing I mean line work, which may or may not include colour, as opposed to a painting which relies on volumes of colour without delineation.  There is no need to colour everything or even use more than one colour.  Remember there are no”rules”, you decide what suits, or what you have time and patience to include. The addition of even one colour pulls a very vague line drawing together visually.  In kindergarten they teach you colour inside the lines - at University I learned to go over the lines.   An interesting technique to create an informal and dynamic composition is to lay on some colour before drawing. Some people add notes or glue in tickets and the like which can get a bit scrap-booky, but does contribute to the sense spontaneity and unique character.

4.       Study Other People’s Work
There are many terrific books, but what really caught my imagination last year was the Urban Sketchers blog.  The motto is “see the world, one drawing at a time” and that’s accurate.  There is a wide range of styles and skill levels.  What I started to appreciate is that many of my favourite contributors had developed styles that were not necessarily accurate, but certainly evocative while conveying a representation of the subject.  Aside from learning by observing, new drawings are posted every day.  This has sustained my interest and I have become a member of this ‘virtual’ group.  Urban Sketcher’s drawings are normally accompanied by a brief narrative, which adds another dimension and over time you get a sense of the author's life and interests.  The other on-line resource is Flickr which was envisioned for photographs but a large community of artists who contribute has also emerged.

5.       Blog
Starting a blog was a big commitment, but has been instrumental in my meeting my goal of sketching a minimum of three times per week.  I feel a responsibility to make regular postings and have been surprised by how interesting I have found the technical side and reports of visits.  I’ve had hits from over 30 countries.  This international audience aspect has lead me to profile some of the unique aspects of our northern lifestyle which is almost  journalistic.

The ancillary benefit was learning how to scan and set up a blog, as I'm not very technically oriented.  It wasn’t that difficult.  Now I’m working on a web site and recycling the sketches to  print a custom book. (Check out iphoto books or Blurb, this technology is very affordable and fun – but that’s grist for another article.)

In the early months I was dissatisfied with my work.  Recently I had a look back over my postings  and found that  I’m kinder in my judgment of the work all these months later.  I might have destroyed some of the work in  a fit of frustration, but time lends perspective and I’m glad I used hard cover bound sketchbooks.  This practice of drawing has been gratifying and is taking me somewhere artistically.   I’m starting to get ideas for larger works such as paintings and recently bought some linocutting supplies.  The adventure continues.


  1. Excellent post - really enjoyable.
    Better motivation for me is to beat me with a stick LOL

    Yes now I am back to PM work full-time, I will have to keep myself motivated in regular sketching/drawing. Have you considered doing some artist trading cards? I also want to try postcards, they look like fun.


  2. HI John,
    I commented on this amazing post the other day but for some reason my comment disappeared into cyberspace before it got published. So here it is again:
    You have expressed so well and so honestly all of the things I have been going through with my work too. My situation is similar to yours. I went into graphic design because I loved to paint and draw. But now in this field our ideas go directly from brain to computer with no markers or pens touching paper any more. The idea of even sketching out an idea is obsolete. And with the pressures of work and kids, there was no time to draw or paint. So getting back to it was very hard. But I guess for both of us, making the commitment to publishing this journey in the form of a blog has been useful. Getting other people's feedback has been so encouraging and having to do the posts certainly helps in trying to stick to the plan. And then of course there's the discovery of Urban Sketchers, which has probably been the most positive influence in my work up to now. So thank you for putting all of that into words. I read your post several times and I may read it again when I get into a sketching rut.

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