Not everyone has that essential itch that leads to compulsively purchasing art supplies and doodling their life away. And even those that have the itch don’t always have it forever; many will be sketchbook artists for a while, then see another shiny thing called “Gardening”, or “Embroidery”, or “Gourmet Cooking”. Over time you might accumulate remnants of all these things, and then you can host a personal archaeology dig right in your own home! Nothing wrong with that at all, despite how we can turn our Willingness to Explore into an odd source of shame for exploring wide rather than going deep. Trust Mr. Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Yet even for those of us who have settled into Just One Thing for a while, it is easy to be stymied by indecision. There can come a day when you have the Itch to Draw, and no idea at all What to Draw. Solving that conundrum was the focus of my most recent class, which ended up being the fastest three hours we have ever had together. Here is the lesson plan, free for you to use and share with anyone else who is One Of Us.
First, a reminder…
Sketching is supposed to relieve stress, not create it. If you are feeling too restless to sit still and doodle, it might be better to first go for a walk, or do some errands, or even tidy up your living room. My sketching time is much more fun if I am not fidgeting.
Aside from your art supplies, you might want to get a timer.
Yes, yes, I know, everyone has one on their smartphone, but I like the kind of timer that ticks out loud and is easy to see at a quick glance. Because I was the only one who could see the timer, I gave the class a verbal two-minute warning so the bell wouldn’t surprise them. (My warning was met with laughter and sighs and groans, of course!)
First sketch: 5 minutes- Organic Matter
And we’re off! Start with a relatively quick warm-up, five minutes, no stress at all, just to settle in a bit. The choice of medium is of course up to you, so I started with pencil and a very dried-out leaf that I grabbed from the ground on the way into class. [Note: There is an old art school expression called, “Kill the Model.” If your leaf drawing comes out terrible, crush the leaf in your hand, throw it in the trash, and then if anyone sees your drawing you can say, “Yes, it really DID look like that,” and no one will be the wiser. I killed my model, which is why my drawing is so different from this leaf…]
Next, I handed out the viewfinders, a simple paper index card that had a hole cut in it and a pithy expression on top.
These are the cheapest view-finders you could ever have because you make them yourself. I always have one taped inside the back cover of my active sketchbook, and sometimes use the viewfinder just to look around when I don’t have time for even a quick sketch.
Second Sketch: 5 minutes- Buildings
I also gave each student a handful of photos and told them to choose one picture that had both a building and greenery in it. Then they were told to lay their viewfinder directly on the picture so the open ‘window’ area framed part of an architectural detail. (You could easily use a magazine photo for this.) Then they drew a small square (about 1” x 2”) in their sketchbook in which to place their next sketch. Keep it simple, big abstract shapes, note the tones/values (darkness or lightness of each area) more than the color, even if you do use color.
Third Sketch: 5 minutes- Greenery
Move the viewfinder around the same photo until the frame only shows foliage, such as the top of a tree, or a shrub, or a garden close-up. Again, small square in which to draw, big shapes, dark/light push/pull, color optional.
Fourth Sketch: 10 minutes- Paper Mountains
This is an oldie but goodie, says anyone who has ever taken a drawing class in art school. Grab a piece of copy machine paper, not tissue weight, but not cardboard either. Then crumple it up, let it relax a bit, and set it on the table. You now have a new view of the Himalayan Mountains if you use your imagination a bit. (Note: I killed the original model again…)
Fifth Sketch: 15 minutes- The Buck Stops Here
Currency is the artwork we take for granted every day. For example, in America all of our paper currency has been upgraded for security reasons in recent years- all except the humble one-dollar bill. If you study a collection of one-, five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills, you will see that in many ways the single dollar bill is the most ornate. Without a magnifying glass, by simply staring, you will see how beautifully designed this currency is. You will need to draw it considerably larger than life, just to fit in all the detail you can see. I found the upper right corner of the front of the one-dollar bill most interesting.
Sixth Sketch: 15 minutes- Go Nuts!
…but check for allergies first, of course. I handed out walnuts, and a nut cracker, and told the class about a painting I did years ago called “Apples, Peaches, Plums, and Stones.” I had taken black-and-white pictures of all those objects, fascinated at how similar their shapes are, but how we can tell in an instant what we are looking at by the subtle textural variations, even in a monochrome rendition. I asked, “Why do you know that is a walnut and not just a nubbly chunk of sandstone? Show that in your drawing.” Some used the nut cracker, but most didn’t, they just observed, and drew, and painted.
That was about all we did for the three hours, along with chatting and laughing and encouraging each other. It was one of the most fulfilling classes I have ever taught, for me and I believe for the students. That simple kitchen timer helped everyone to know where the boundaries were. In turn that led to more reasonable expectations. At the beginning of class I said, “You can use pencil, pen, watercolors, any combination, or you can just stare at your subject, it is entirely up to you!” That left everyone with the freedom to follow their own instincts rather than external suggestions.
It feels so good to just play with art supplies. Inspiration is all around us, and we each are hard-wired to have a personal favorite when it comes to subject matter. As for me, I love to zoom in, get hypnotized by a curious detail that other people overlook. The old “dandelion growing out of a crack in the concrete” trick. It always leads back to my favorite expression… “Look at THAT!”