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The Square-Dance Call

Grab your brush and do-si-do your way to a masterpiece

For our final session in this semester, let's do something I often have artists do in live workshops, usually at the end of a long, vigorous day in the studio. It's fun, there's no pressure, and it's easy to dive into. Participants find this to be both liberating and illuminating. When we're in the studio, it goes like this:

One at a time, I call out a series of things to do to start a drawing, acting like a square-dance caller. Everyone does the same set of things. The instructions make sure the drawing includes a wide range of drawing elements and events — different textures, paint quality, shapes and colors. They also ensure that things are placed in a way that the entire space is engaged.

See also: Try our interactive art game

After these initial steps are completed, the artists look around the room. Usually to their astonishment, they see that the drawings are very, very different. Then we discuss how this can be the case. The question is: if the elements and placements are roughly the same, what accounts for the different expressive quality of the drawings?

Finally, participants are given time to develop their drawings further on their own. And we compare notes about these developed drawings as well.

So let's do the equivalent of this exercise here in our online workshop as well.


(I'll suggest working with acrylics; those working in other media or with computer drawing programs may work with appropriate substitutes)

  1.  Acrylic paints as follows: black, white, red, green and one wild-card color (any one additional color you like.)
  2. A surface to serve as a palette.
  3. One or more brushes, an inch or two in width.
  4. A container of clean water.
  5. Paper towels.
  6. A drawing/painting surface of your choosing.
  7. Drop cloth (optional)

Next: What you'll do >>>

  1. IN RED, draw a triangle in the upper right hand quadrant of the drawing space
  2. IN GREEN, draw three little loops that go off the top edge, to the left of center.
  3. USING BLACK, in the bottom left portion of the space, create a cluster of the angriest looking lines you can make.
  4. Using your WILD-CARD COLOR, introduce a line that connects the red triangle with the cluster of black lines.
  5. Mix red and white to make a PINK and draw a very complex organic shape in the bottom right area of the drawing.
  6. Combine generous amounts of red and green and a touch of white to create a large pile of MUDDY LOOKING COLOR.
  7. Load your brush as much of this mud-color paint as you can, and apply it to the surface just below the three little green loops you placed on the top edge, left of center. Make this blob as thick as you can. Apply the paint several times if you need to.
  8. At this point, make sure that your drawing surface is fairly upright in orientation. It you're concerned about getting paint on the floor or tabletop, cover the surface below with a drop cloth.
  9. Rip off a length of paper towel, several sheets long. Crumble it up in your hand and immerse it in water so it is soaking wet.
  10. Take the soaking wet towel and press it into the top of the thickly covered mud-color paint, and squeeze — so that some of the mud color drips out of the area and down the surface.
  11. Take a moment to take in your drawing as a whole. Select an area or passage that you are not so fond of. Using WHITE paint, cover up, veil or obliterate that passage.
  12. Using the back end of a brush (or your fingernail if you prefer), scratch back into the area that you just obliterated.
  13. Consider your drawing as finished, at least for now. Now, take it in. Sense it. Consider how it makes you feel, what sensations it elicits.
  14. Take a photo of the piece and post it for the rest of us to see. Please add a few lines of commentary as well. Tell us what kind of experience you have looking at the drawing. Tell us what it felt like to do this. Was it fun? Annoying? Liberating? Remember to respond to drawings by others who post at this stage as well.
  15. Moving on — use your drawing as a GENESIS POINT or starting place and develop the work further, in any way you like, using any tools and materials you like. Work as automatically as you can (I'll no longer be there as the square-dance caller). Continue processing the drawing until you reach a satisfying resolution.
  16. Post this new version of the work, and how you feel about it. Tell us what happened during the process. Tell us what you think the new drawing expresses and reveals.

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