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Let's Start With Repetition

In this lesson, create your painting with varied incarnations of one shape

Welcome back to our Expressive Drawing and Creativity class. This semester, I'll be posting monthly hands-on challenges that will be designed to help you grow as a visual artist.

For those who've been involved in our course all along, these new exercises will be a natural extension of your study. For those just joining in, this will be a great place to start. No experience is necessary and, before long, you'll be doing some satisfying expressive drawing of your own! (Feel free to go back and attempt any previous exercises, but my feedback and guidance will be concentrated on these new lessons in 2011.)

Our first exercise addresses a simple principle that will help you create and organize expressive drawings: repetition of motif.

When I introduce this idea in workshops, I often ask the group to tell me what the essence of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is. One or two people invariably have the courage to hum out, "Da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum." And I tell them, "Now that's a repetition of motif." 

In essence, Beethoven went on and on about "da-da-da-dum" for more than 30 minutes, changing its character, creating variations in numerous ways, weaving things in and out. Imagine that — one of classical music's greatest pieces is all about "da-da-da-dum."

In drawing, you can work with visual motifs in the same way. The challenge is straightforward: Fill your drawing surface with numerous and varied incarnations of one element, let's say a shape. When you do this, your drawing will hold together automatically.

Next, the trick is to make your drawing as richly satisfying as possible. You'll do this by creating variations in the motif. For example, consider a drawing based on the repetition of an oval. To create variety, you can make the ovals bigger and smaller, fatter and thinner, whole or fragmentary.

You can draw them with lines that vary in thickness, or make them sold shapes that are lighter and darker. You can orient some ovals horizontally, some vertically and some on a diagonal. You can have some ovals touch one another, overlap or stand alone in isolation. The possibilities are limitless!

Now it's your turn to give it a try and see for yourself how this works.

What you'll need

A drawing/painting surface of your choice: If you are just starting out, I recommend 90-pound white drawing paper. For those on a budget, butcher paper or heavy craft paper serves as a good substitute.

Drawing tools of your choosing: Workshop participants most often use black acrylic paint and a 1-inch bristle brush, but any drawing tools (crayon, charcoal, pencil, pen, ink and so on) will do. (Some workshop participants make completely satisfying art with computer drawing tools. The choice is yours.)

What you'll do

  • Select a very simple motif to work with. Shape possibilities include the oval, circle, triangle, rectangle and so on. Or you might prefer to work with numerals such as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6/9, 7 and 8, and letters such as b/q/p, c, h, k, s.
  • Grab a drawing tool and introduce several instances of your motif onto the drawing surface. Pause for a moment and take in the whole drawing space. Sense what each shape or symbol is doing and how each feels in relationship to the others.
  • As soon as you have an urge to do something else to the drawing, do so without thinking, worrying, planning or second-guessing. Think of this as a stream of consciousness activity; there is no correct or incorrect approach. Continue for as long as you'd like.
  • At any time, you have the option to undo or cover up part of what you've done. If you're working with pencil or charcoal, an eraser will enable you to do this, or you can cover things by scribbling over them. If you're using paint, you can paint over any area you like.
  • If you happen to overlap shapes or have one run off the edge of the paper, you may notice the appearance of new shapes that are different from the motif. Think of this as a bonus. Embrace it. And if that new shape occurs more than once, it may become a "secondary motif" that makes the drawing even richer.
  • Keep developing the drawing until you like how it feels. Then stop — the drawing is finished!  Don't forget to post it in our online community art gallery. As always, for every drawing you post, please post a response to someone else's.

Note: We have just a few Expressive Drawing books left for the first few artists to post in the community who haven't already gotten the book.