What do you do when your drawing skills are so rusty you can barely draw a straight line and get hand cramps in less than half-an-hour? Discomfort with my drawing tools (including learning all new illustration software) has been a big hurdle to getting back into design. So I’ve been doing something about it: going back to basics. My first step is drawing exercises that are equivalent to practicing scales.
After spending a week repeatedly scribbling on my tablet and clearing the page, I started noticing interesting textures coming out of it. I opened a large page in Pixelmator and scribbled until I’d almost filled the page with black. Then I hit save, and the scribble journal was born.
The scribble journal is more than just a hand exercise. It’s a meditation—an exercise in doodling without an end result in mind—and it’s been liberating. The other day I watched For No Good Reason, a documentary about Ralph Steadman, and noticed how much he feels his way through every illustration. I’d completely forgotten how. Every time I sat down with an idea, in recent memory, I’d grow frustrated as it didn’t come out the way I wanted. The scribble journal helped me remember how you can make something interesting without wanting anything specific out of it. It’s been an act of doing a thing I (currently) suck at, and not beating myself up about it.
First I made some ground rules:
- One layer a day with no fills, so the whole becomes a composite of conflicting scribbles.
- One scribble file per month, because otherwise the file-size will bloat to unopenable proportions.
- Only one color/brush per layer (with pen pressure for variance).
- Only one color per scribble file, plus black and white (this rule might change after a few).
- No erasing, unless it’s the entire point of the day’s exercise.
- Only one exercise type per layer: one day circles, another cross-hatching, etc.
- Each session must be between 15 to 90 minutes, to get the most of out it without wasting time.
While making scribbles, I also notice things I’m doing that aren’t quite rules but reveal my own artistic process. For example, at first I’d hide the layer underneath so I could concentrate on one exercise without being distracted, but found sometimes it more valuable to leave layers visible and build a pattern that uses the former patterns as a guide.
I also found myself unconsciously inventing rules for each session, such as “only right angles” or “don’t cross lines.” However, it could turn monotonous once I noticed them and tried to follow them too strictly, in both a mental and aesthetic sense. Hemming myself in isn’t good practice, so I started purposely breaking rules every time I detected one becoming rigid. If what I’m doing in general starts getting samey, I may break out my box of Oblique Strategies and work with whatever card I pick.
So I suppose I’ve been turning this into an art project of sorts. I have no idea if anything concrete will come out of it, or if it will just become a resource—another part of my growing texture library. At the very least I’ll regain my muscle memory so I can draw stuff again. This exercise has other advantages, such as giving me a way to listen to podcasts. It’s visually engaging enough to keep my mind from wandering, but not so distracting that I stop listening, which has been a problem that’s kept me from getting anything out of podcasts or audiobooks in the past. This exercise is also a great way to give myself momentum on days when I feel blah.
I used to scribble in my notebooks all the time in school, and I didn’t realize how valuable that practice is. I’d forgotten how doodling is the foundation for drawing. When I was teenager I used to hate art classes that made you practice brushstrokes over and over—but I wasn’t rusty back then. I’d done my time without knowing it. Now I have to do that time all over again. Here’s hoping something interesting comes of it.
Note: the image at top is the current composite results from this month’s scribble journal.by