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Let's Doodle!

Learn how “automatic drawing” can help you unleash your inner creativity.

Welcome to the third session in our Expressive Drawing course. Today's lesson is called "automatic drawing." It's the second exercise in our class, and one that I make sure to include in every workshop I teach. I think you'll find it both challenging and liberating.

Actually, automatic drawing is something you've probably done before. Basically, it's doodling — you know, a kind of mindless scribbling done with no particular purpose in mind.

People tend to doodle when they're busy doing something else: talking on the phone, sitting through a business meeting, listening to a lecture. So you've got to wonder: If the mind is busy doing something else, where do the doodles come from? Is this really drawing? Can we take it seriously? Does it have any meaning?

Let's look to art history for some answers. In the early 20th century, a group of artists took their doodling very seriously. Associated with one branch of the early modernist movement known as surrealism, artists such as Jean Arp, Andre Masson, Jean Miro, and Andre Breton enthusiastically engaged in what they called automatic drawing.

The idea was simple: to draw without thinking, planning, worrying or conscious control; to make lines and marks in seemingly random fashion. These early modernists believed that this kind of drawing could reveal levels of awareness and meaning impossible to divine in any other way. Ever since, automatic drawing has been widely accepted as a valuable component of the creative process.

So let's give it a try:

 What you'll need

  • One large piece of paper. In workshops, we use surfaces that are approximately 48 by 60 inches; we use 90 lb. vellum drawing paper, but butcher paper, kraft paper, other papers or canvas will work just fine.
  • Drawing tools. Workshop participants most often use black (or other dark color) acrylic paint and a one inch bristle brush, but any tool (crayon, charcoal, pencil, pen, ink and so on) will do.

What you'll do

  •  Tape or tack your paper or canvas to a wall or other vertical surface (door, piece of plywood).
  • Place the following within arm's reach: your brush, a container three-quarters full of water (to put your brush in when not in use) and your acrylic paint (artist paint or house paint).
  • Approach the drawing surface as if you were a fencer — one foot forward, the other back (not together and parallel to the drawing surface).
  • Stand far enough away from the drawing surface so that you have to stretch or lean forward just a bit to reach it.
  • Hold the brush with the end of the handle in the palm of your hand (rather than as you would hold a pen to write with). In this grip position, the brush will feel like an extension of your arm.
  • Load your brush with paint and approach the surface as described in step 3. Then — without thinking, worrying or planning — make a line, a mark, a squiggle. Act on your first impulse and activate the drawing surface. It doesn't matter so much what you do as how you do it. Generate a line or mark from your body; feel it; enjoy it.
  • Next, step back about six feet or so and take in or sense the marks and movements you just made. Look just long enough to feel the energy in the drawing space (shouldn't take you more than 10 seconds or so).
  • As soon as you have an urge to do anything in response — anything at all — go back to the surface and make another line or two. Whatever you do, don't worry about justifying it, explaining it or understanding it. (I often tell my students that I listen to what the back of my elbow or the side of my neck says needs to be done, and I do it).
  • When you've completed your second action or set of actions, step back six feet once again and take in what you've done. How do things feel now?
  • As soon as another urge to respond comes up (again, don't take it in for more than 10 seconds or so), go forward and make another mark. Keep going back and forth — it is like a little dance of sorts — until you really like what you see or how it feels. Then stop.

Okay, you're done. Now, ask yourself: Did you enjoy the activity? Did it feel liberating? Then look at the finished drawing: What kind of feeling does it evoke in you? What adjectives would you use to describe it?

Don't forget to post your images in our community and add any commentary you might have. And be sure to comment on the drawings uploaded by your fellow artists. We're interested in what you have to say!