Category Archives: Drawing Exercises

A series of drawing exercises to aid in developing skills

Alter ego drawing

If you could be anyone else, who would it be?

The extension of making a portrait begins to “question the nature of representation and the cultural signs that define identities,” So questions like:
If you could be anyone else, who would it be? Is your alter ego someone already famous, ordinary, or someone infamous? Would you adopt the persona of a historical figure, a character from mythology or fiction, or someone from everyday life in a different profession? Would you change genders or simply your wardrobe? We have all identified with other personalities. You will describe yourself as your alter ego in a drawing.

Consider the outward signs that define a person. This may involve confronting and exposing issues of cultural stereotyping. How do we recognize each other? How do we recognize ourselves if pretending to be someone else?

Research the style of clothing, hair, makeup, stature, and environment typically associated with your alter ego. Use this information to gather costuming and props for your drawing. Set up your drawing area with a full-length mirror and appropriate drawing materials. The most effective drawings will be completed as accurate portrait renderings.

The finished work will provide an important opportunity to consider meaning in representational drawing.

Arcimboldo self portrait

Your face composed of various objects, natural or man-made.

This is an interesting way to approach doing a self-portrait is in the style of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593). Arcimboldo created portraits composed of a category of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, or small animals. His influence is clearly evident in the work of twentieth-century surrealists such as Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dalí.

First find a non-mirrored reflective surface such as those on aluminum cans, metal serving trays, and stainless steel appliances. This surface will distort your face but still allow you to seethe basic shapes. It will help you to move away from the burden of having to “look like.”

Draw the contoured lines and abstract shapes within your face. Then choose a theme and make a list of real objects relating to that theme that could replace the contoured lines and abstract shapes you have drawn. For example, if you enjoy gardening, you might use a hoe, a watering can, seed packets, flowers, vegetables, and the like, to create your self-portrait. By generating a list of twenty to thirty objects, you should have a sufficient variety of shapes to choose from.

After thinking through which objects might fit, gather the actual pieces to draw from. The objects you choose and the way you place them together will determine the self-identity you convey to the viewer. Remember also to develop the background so that it relates to the portrait.

Calendar

A challenge to think about calendars in unusual ways-

This exercise springs from the idea of a calendar, which, they say, provides a visual means to organize and account for activity and information. The word calendar is derived from the Latin calendarium, a moneylender’s account book. It is routinely thought of as depicting an arrangement of days, months, and years, and a common format takes into consideration the cyclic nature of our earth’s rotation around the sun.

For the purposes of this exercise, a much more inventive response is needed. Another definition of a calendar calls it a “systematic and concise arrangement of facts,” and therefore the calendars to be made by the students will reference events, actions, thoughts, and memories. While they must be made of twelve pieces, these do not have to reflect the twelve months.

To get started, consider the current ways people think about the year as a whole. What different qualities define each month in terms of religious, civic, or personal history; seasonal activities; color; light; and time and its passage? What is the calendar of your typical or atypical day? What other situations might a calendar address? Make a list of all the possibilities you could investigate using ideas, recollections, materials, imagery.

Remember, this exercise challenges you to think about calendars in ways you have not yet considered.

Domestic rituals

Experimenting with the familiar.

Students often feel that they need to draw subjects that are in some way different, even outrageous. This exercise encourages you to find something special in even the most ordinary events.

Choose a domestic ritual, a routine daily activity that occurs in the home environment – your home- and make that the subject of your drawing. The ritual could be one that is as common as washing dishes, or it might be a more particular experience like gathering camping materials for a trip.

Consider the entire area in which your domestic ritual occurs, not only the immediate vicinity such as a countertop. If the activity you choose is preparing coffee in the morning, you could compose your drawing so that the activity is viewed from outside the kitchen. This requires an environmental engagement with light, space, and composition. Experiment with different viewpoints and eye levels to determine the best way to compose the space you are observing. The ritual that you depict could occur in the foreground, middle ground, or background of these spaces.

Drawings that exploit changes in light tend to describe the location of the event most effectively. For example, the foreground might be well lit and the background could be dark. Or your focal area could be bright and the surrounding space in shadow. You may use direct observation of your environment or exaggerate the changes in illumination for dramatic effect.

Draw only what you are told

Drawing an object without seeing it or knowing what it is.

Students are asked to find a collection of smallish objects like scissors, toilet brushes (unused), a shoe, a hole punch, or any of various tools. Be especially partial to things that have a variety of surfaces, shapes, materials, and interesting extensions into space, like coat hangers.

Next divide up into pairs, and each two partners seat themselves back to back. One student receives paper and something to draw with, while the other is blindfolded. The blindfolded student is given an object and asked to describe it in observational terms, without naming it or giving a clue to its function or use. For example: It has a long bit sticking out that tapers toward the end and is about three centimeters ( 1¼ inches) at the beginning and tapers to two centimeters (¾ inch). The description may include any facet of the object but must not mention anything that points to or indicates its function.

The student who are not blindfolded then draw what is described to them without seeing the object or knowing what it is.

The exercise elicits all sorts of skills and brings home to both participants concepts of representation, observation, and description.

Afterward change places, and those who were formerly blindfolded get to do a drawing.

Fifty drawings

A project designed to get you back into drawing creatively.

Instructors are often concerned about the habits their students unconsciously fall into. Are you repeating yourself by working with the same medium, employing the same technique, or using the same format? This problem is designed to get you back into drawing creatively by experimenting with a variety of media, techniques, and supports (paper, board, fabric, leather, wood). Using anything you can draw on with a variety of media, produce at least fifty drawings.

Starting immediately, do five drawings every day. Each day you should work with completely different materials from those you used the previous day. Do not do fifty drawings in one or two sessions, because this will yield similar-looking imagery. All the drawings are to be nonobjective. Think about basic principles such as variety, rhythm, balance, depth, value, line, and gesture. If you are feeling stuck, begin by simply illustrating a feeling or emotional state of mind. Try working with found tools such as twigs, balsa sticks, carrot or potato sticks, cardboard, tennis balls, or crushed paper. Dip these in ink, mud, paint, or other mark-making materials from your kitchen. Or roam the aisles of your local supermarket for other unusual materials. Let intuition be your guide. Do not judge, but be relaxed and experimental. 

Front page

Deriving an emotional and aesthetic response from a news story.

Pick out a headline story from the newspaper that has the power to elicit a strong emotional and visual response. Consider how you are personally affected by the story. Is the political personal? What images does the story conjure up in your mind’s eye?

Although some stories may be accompanied by a photograph, you are expected to build a visual interpretation all on your own. Remember that you are not doing a narration or illustration of the article; rather, consider the source as the core from which to draw an emotional and aesthetic response.

In doing this, you are limited to using a monochromatic palette (white, black, grays, and a chosen hue). This restricted palette forces you to be creative and stretch these interpretative powers. Some works by well-known artists that may help you to better understand the project are Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Sue Coe’s How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, and George Tooker’s Government Bureau.

The aim is to begin to understand that the imposition of limited resources can actually strengthen the impact of an image. In fact, the effectiveness of this exercise may gain if the gap between the colorful newspaper account and the understated, muted tones of your response is very great.