This observation journal exercise is primarily visual, but I’ve included a few ideas to turn it into a writing exercise.
This is a useful exercise for learning the shape of a thing, and then mixing it up. It moves from basics to details to stylisation to caricaturisation, to character design, to playing on other people’s pattern recognition. It’s particularly useful for making an unconventional shape believable, and teaching your hand to make recognisable but idiosyncratic versions of a thing (particularly useful for sketchy art styles). I do a version of this when preparing to draw an unfamiliar animal, or a lot of a half-familiar one.
You could do this with any thing or creature, but I like chooks — they’re dense but highly variable and I don’t have enough excuses to draw them.
Illustration exercise (or writing exercise — if you’re courageous!)
- Take your [chook] and break it into the basic shapes from which it is constructed. Try very simple (e.g. the two-eggs approach) and more nuanced. Try considering just types of line-segments that outline it (straight lines? s-curves?).
- Take a few examples of [chooks] and work out what the basic overall shape of each is. Is there a shape in common? What are the fewest number of sides that recognisably contain a [chook]? If it has lines (e.g. legs) and you extend them, do they always pass through the same place? (And if you can, find a video and sketch them in motion, to see the line they follow when they move.)
- Choose any basic shape (e.g. circle, square, triangle) and use it to design a [chook]. Fit a [chook] into it entirely. Then use it as the general base for a [chook].
- Draw a sequence of irregular, scribbly shapes. Turn each into a [chook]. Lean into the recognisable bits, the bits where the shape suggests a [chook]. Then lean the other way, and force the shape to be a [chook] against its instincts.
- Make some ink/paint/coffee blots. What are the minimum details you can add to turn each into a [chook]?
The exercise of turning this into a writing exercise is itself a useful one! But here are a few ways you could adapt it: for refining description; for designing a character; for a more metaphorical approach to the shape of stories (see links below).
Here are some related posts, with more detailed compositional variations on this exercise (and one writing exercise):
- Fitting Pictures Into Shapes
- Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye
- The Story Behind the Shapes
- A writing one! Stories Into Spaces
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