When you’ve really gone blank, a radically different approach sometimes helps to unlock the ideas flow. The following two devices have helped me and I still use them to get things going!
How to do a blind contour drawing
This classic artist device promotes the act of seeing over that of making marks on paper. What you’ll need is a timer/stopwatch, two sheets of paper, a pencil (or pen). Oh and you’ll need something to look at (the more detailed/intricate the better), like this piece of driftwood in the window of Tierra Verde, our local Spanish deli where one can sit happily for as long as you want with a sketchbook, a glass of wine and a plate of hand-cut jamon… but I’m getting away from my point…
Here’s what you do:
- Seat yourself where you can have a good view of your subject.
- Set your timer for somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes.
- Place one sheet of paper on your table or board, and hold the other sheet up to block your view of the page you’re drawing on.
- Start the timer.
- Starting anywhere on the item you’re drawing, without picking up your pencil, very slowly trace every contour you see. Really drag this out, focusing on every edge moving your pencil in time with where your eyes are looking.
- You’re done with the timer goes off.
You’ll end up with a non-representational drawing that has in fact captured every single detail you saw with surprising accuracy. Because you spent so much effort looking at the object, you will probably recognise many of the same contours in your drawing. And that simple sketch may lead you to another one and another. Suddenly, the driftwood disappeared when I recognised the arched back and outstretched hands of a man’s frustrated attempt to break free from the twisted log.
How to see with your hands
I first heard of this technique from Glen Swart, my graphic designer friend, who suggested it as a way of thinking differently by using the tactile sense. Outside of an artist’s studio, a “touchy-feely” box can be found in the classroom for children’s science projects and is also used in therapy for people with neurological illness/injury, autism, learning disability and so on.
Here’s what you do for a DIY touchy-feely carton:
- Make or find a carton or box, making a hole big enough for your hand
- Put some stuff in the box (no perishables please, or anything that can cause injury; it’s even better if you can have a friend put some items in the box, so you don’t know what they are). Here are a few of the things currently in my tactility trunk:
- Forgive the over-used phrase, “think outside the box” because this requires you to consider what’s inside your cardboard cube when you put your hand in one in order to explore the surfaces, shape and textures without looking at them. By doing so, you focus your thought processes in another part of your brain – and maybe this will spark new creative ideas when you’re not even trying.
One last thought – combine blind with touchy-feely
Finally, expand the two ideas above and try blind contour drawing with one hand in the box and the other holding a pen to copy what you feel. You’ll end up with a wacky image for sure, and if you are having trouble depicting texture in paintings or drawings, it may help to see the surface better with your fingers as you depict the the objects with a pencil.
If nothing else, these exercises are good for a laugh and like nothing else, laughter eases tension and a lack of tension is a good place for unleashing creativity!
More links and information
- Artist’s block? Try idea generator no. 1 – automatic drawing – kelise72.com
- Building toys and Borough market – 2 antidotes for artist’s block – kelise72.com
- Collage is a possible cure for creative clog – kelise72.com
- Check out the work of graphic designer Glen Swart
- Art teacher and practitioner Betty Edwards wrote “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, in which she utilises blind contour drawing as one of the first exercises in learning to really see what you draw. I’ve been drawing for well over 30 years and I still refer to this book from time to time!
- Chicago native artist and film maker Ian Skalrsky’s website and more about his Blind contour portraits
- Line drawing: a guide for art students on Student Art Guide by Amiria Robertson – an excellent source for all things art students; this page gives advice on how to do line drawing exercises, as well as superb examples of ‘masters’ as well as contemporary artists’ work.
- Marbles The Brain store (and Marbles the Brain blog) – shop, advice and resource for toys, games and therapeutic devices for people with brain injury, neurological illness or learning disability