Observation journal exercise: simplifying sketches, mixing them up again

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.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, drawing of person carrying a sofa. Drawings of chooks broken into and then fit into different shapes and splotches.

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.

Drawings of chooks broken into and then fit into different shapes and splotches.

Illustration exercise (or writing exercise — if you’re courageous!)

  1. 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?).
  2. 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.)
  3. 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].
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

sisterhood of the travelling sofa

Here are some related posts, with more detailed compositional variations on this exercise (and one writing exercise):

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Observation journal exercise: 2 images, 3 genres

This observation journal exercise is a variant on some previous examples: mixing and matching / combining two images/preoccupations into a new one (Too many ideas, Tables and other locations), and rolling an idea through a few genres, styles or modes (Random similes and genre flips). It’s an easy exercise to set up, and has a throwaway lightness (and can be useful for generating ideas, either as a project or for other exercises). However, it can also be a noticeable mental workout.

Writing/illustration exercise

Grid mixing and matching images and rolling them through genres
  • Draw a simple table — maybe 3 x 3.
  • Label each column and row with a thing you’ve observed in the day (or a current preoccupation). These could be sounds (a trolley rattling) or movements you saw (cardboard box tipping over; child clinging to a pram like a footman to a carriage) or objects (bag hook, sign forbidding flushing of face masks).
    All these are from things I noticed on the day and recorded on the left page (see below).
  • Pick a cell at random.
  • Combine its two topics (column and row) into a new idea (written or drawn) BUT do this three times, each in a different mode/genre — any you like. Horror, romance, climate fiction, thriller, realist…
    E.g. for “barista with baby” + “trolley rattle” I had (a) gothic: someone longing or willing a ghost into being [the noise must have been ominous on the day!], (b) mystery: a clue — it’s a decoy/not their baby, to distract from trolley-crimes, and (c) romcom?: a barista rescuing a baby from a runaway shopping trolley.
  • Repeat with another cell.
  • Bonus round: Write or sketch a paragraph/image from at least one of the stories.
  • Bonus bonus round: Was it effortless or effortful, and which aspects felt seamless or difficult — where did your imagination catch or trip? Which ideas spark your imagination, are there any common points? Or if they didn’t, what was missing and how could you add that?
Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, drawing of boxes of notebooks on a table, grid remixing images and rolling them through genres

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Little ballpoint sketch of small folding tv-table with box and books
Sorting notebooks, if I recall correctly

Observation Journal — swapping roles

This observation journal activity is closely related to The Caudwell Manoeuvre, an approach I enjoy tremendously, and it’s a nice way to play with patterns I’ve observed (whether they delight or exasperate me), and things in others’ work that I’ve wanted to run off and play with (see e.g. five things to steal). It can also reveal and clarify opinions about the source examples.

Writing/illustration exercise (closely related to The Caudwell Manoeuvre):

  • Choose some characters/roles you’ve seen/read (or written/drawn) frequently. E.g. I’ve been reading a lot of old murder mysteries, so there’ve been many satisfied academic sleuths and desperate suburban housewives hiding a variety of secrets.
  • Pick two. This could be a frequently matched pair (grim loner father figure and recently acquired plucky child for whom they are responsible; talented ingenue and mysterious mentor), or you could choose two at random.
  • For each, make a few dot-points listing their distinguishing characteristics (floral housedress? taciturn? collects fine glassware?).
  • Now, switch the descriptions.
    You can do this a few ways:
    • One is to simply move the dot-points to the other character (the housewife is exceptionally well-read in a narrow field, wears rather shabby tweed, and is on gently-scolding terms with the local teenagers).
    • Another way is to drop the stereotypical person (the actor, as it were) into the opposite role (the wiry physical comedian becomes the hero to the large taciturn sidekick).
      Or try both.
  • Bonus round 1: Sketch (a paragraph or drawing) a scene of one of the new characters in action.
  • Bonus round 2: What happens to the idea and the original roles? Are the new ideas comic, tragic, unchanged (and why)? Which pull into new territory? Which deepen your understanding of something? Which might it be fun to follow into a new story?


Tiny handwritten notes flipping stereotypes/archetypes.

I was thinking about this at the time because of the neat little role reversals in Baby Done. But on this page I was riffing on the “kept woman” and “businessman” roles from The Eye of Love (a book that comes out of the gates playing with expectations), and with Holmes-ish and Watsonian characters. One of the fun reminders from the latter was how much kindness and humanity is in (book) Holmes, vs many later interpretations. Might it be the case that it is Watson who closely observes conventionality and applies it, while in fact it is Holmes who is teaching him about humanity?

There’s also a note there that I wanted to take some elements further, perhaps by adding an interesting voice. Voice is an element that has been coming up again more recently (not least in the short story reading posts), so I will have more to say about it!

Other observations

Here’s the full pages, in case you want to zoom in and see what was happening that day.

This is when I realised I needed blue-tinted not red-tinted sunglasses, if I wanted to continue to derive joy from the world with them on.

Crows bearing gifts

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow with a white feather in its beak

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Observation journal activity: ideas — more mixing and matching

(I’m trialling leading with the exercise in these posts — thoughts?)

Ideas from objects: a writing/illustration exercise

This observation journal exercise is a very slight variation on previous mixing and matching exercises:

  • Make a short list of things you can see and hear (or recall seeing and hearing today). Be a little specific — not just “a box” but “a box of vintage Agatha Christie novels”, “fan creaking” instead of just “fan”.
  • Pick two at random.
  • Now mix up the objects and descriptions: a box of fans? old books creaking? a fan that is a clue in a murder mystery?
  • Repeat with another pair.
  • Bonus round: sketch (written or drawn) a scene with that object. (What other elements/ideas does it pull in with it? do you suddenly have a detective or a library or a second-hand store?)
  • Bonus bonus round: do some of your new ideas seem to belong together? which ones do you most like, and is there a pattern to them? To get them to work as ideas for a project, what more do you need? Are there any intriguing questions to follow? Could you chase those now?
  • Bonusx3: drop one of the ideas into a story-shape (any variety: a type of story you like, a four-panel layout, etc) and follow it out.

This exercise is of course useful as a sort of mental aerobics. But it often turns up fascinating ideas, and even when it doesn’t, noticing which types of ideas do or don’t spark some enthusiam in you yields useful information.

Here is my page — I used the observations from the exercise on the left.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes remixing observations into ideas.

Remixing items from the left (observation) page, to get gingerbread cockroaches, books (instead of ornaments) hung on sidewalk trees, a vibrant trade in chests of chirring, craking insects (and where and how do those ornamental boxes of toy metal crickets travel?), superstitions around insects etc.

A sequence of these started to feel a like they belonged together in a slightly offset world, perhaps illustrated by Michael Sowa. Some of the superstitions called for a little more hint of connection to a world behind them (and then I fell asleep). But the cicada from the April calendar descends from this train of thought.

Pale jade-green cicada amulet/brooch on black background with jewels and white flowers

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Observation Journal — Story Behind the Shapes

This observation journal page is a variation on a previous activity.

The week before, I’d been playing with the concept of a story behind a story, as a way to strengthen a draft or unfold an existing story. Here, I was trying to apply that to illustration.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes with sketches on component shapes.

I adapted the activity by instead asking: If I remove the [primary/obvious] purpose, what remains?

Of course, I discovered I’d simply reinvented “breaking an image down into its component shapes”.

But doing that does create a basis for building something back up into new shapes and possibilities, and revealing alternative, less-obvious purposes.

Handwritten notes with tiny sketches of component shapes.

A more directly creative (as in, I made things out of it) activity was: Drawing the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye. But the mental exercise of this approach felt like a (mild) workout, and it was an intriguing way to hold an object in mind and at arm’s length, and look beyond the obvious.

Writing/illustration activity:

  • Choose an object in your line of sight.
  • Identify its main/obvious purpose.
  • Now ignore that purpose. What remains? A collection of shapes? Secondary or tertiary uses?
  • What could you build up with those residual aspects? What type of story might it have come out of (fictional or real)? Could you create something with those shapes and textures, or redesign the object to better fit a less-obvious use?
  • Do a quick sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus round: Repeat a few times. Then notice what was easy or hard, what tactics you defaulted to, what objects or features regularly charmed you.
paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From A Cafe

I was being silly on this page of the observation journal, choosing Five Things to Steal from a cafe I was in (Bean — now closed, alas).

(For background, see previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a backpack with a box of books in it. Notes on a cafe I was in

I began this flippantly, although I was curious to see what else the activity might work on, and how ideas pinched from a setting could be reworked into art or writing or life.

The answer was: very well. I had to moderate a strong inclination to turn everything into a metaphor. But very interesting things happened when these points of inspiration were applied to or ran up against other patterns and fascinations I’d been noticing recently.

Handwritten notes on things to 'steal' from a cafe

Here are the five:

  • Shrine to the mundane / honouring the ordinary (old furniture, paintings of little things)
    • as an image, as a concept, as a reminder when writing, as a way to arrange my bookcases
  • Trellises (being used in the cafe to display art)
    • as a practical solution, as a metaphor for showing the underpinnings of a world etc, the use of lattices to connect worlds (Deep Secret, etc)
  • Cheerful / cosy bunker
    • a reminder (since my house isn’t arranged for looking out of easily) that it can be done by having lots to look at inside and many small spaces, as a story setting/mood/aesthetic, in art as a cavern drawn with no reference to externalities (an inversion of the little groves)
  • A particularly vivid blue/green in some paintings — in the background, in pupilless eyes etc
    • a reminder of some people I’ve known with vivid/striking/unsettling eyes, a pattern of outlining things with other things and/or outlining an absence (with a Midsomer Murders connection, of course)
  • Fake leaves everywhere — kitschy but oddly cheerful
    • a reminder to put more foliage more deliberately into images, and to consider plants as part of various aesthetics

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Think of a space you’ve recently been in (the less obviously inspiring is sometimes better) or look are the place where you are right now.
  • Find five things about that space that you would like to steal — textures, colours, shapes, approaches to interior design, noise, atmosphere, etc.
  • For each, list at least three different ways you could incorporate it into an illustration or story. Try pushing past just representing an object/using the setting (but do that, too!). Could you approach it as a metaphor? How would you insert it into an existing idea?
  • Choose a few of those ideas and do a quick treatment/sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus: Do you notice any habits/patterns in what you chose, or how you adapted them? Make a note — you could try leaning harder into those tendencies, or flipping them. Did some of the ideas spark more than others? What did they have in common, and can you actively pursue that when coming up with ideas in the future?
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a backpack with a box of books in it
Here is my backpack with a box of Flyaway in it.

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Observation Journal: Notes on Learning Writing

On this observation journal page, I was collecting notes on where I’d learned what I knew (so far) about writing. (If this looks familiar, the page was the basis of for the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.)

Broadly (in case you want to attempt something similar) I started dropping all the places I could think of having learned anything about writing onto the page (words in circles), and then listed off each the main lessons I’d learned there. Then I looked for patterns.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day. Notes on where/how I learned about writing.

It was not exhaustive — among other things, I did it at 3am — but it was a useful exercise, for several reasons (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • there are always lessons that need to be re-learned, and having them in one place is handy
  • knowing how I learn has made it much easier to deliberately learn
  • there are occasionally minor incidents that turn out to have been quite important, and it’s useful to know what they were and why, the better to seek out similar approaches (and thank people — the mentorship bubble is 75% Angela Slatter)
  • it also made it much easier to give your-mileage-may-vary answers to questions other people asked me about writing
  • there’s an honesty and humility that comes from working out from where (and how late) certain lessons were learned — quite useful when doing any amount of teaching

This page turned into the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.

Handwritten mind-map style notes on how I learned about writing.

The main patterns, in the order learned (more detail at the earlier post) were:

  • Knowing I wanted to do it.
  • Actually doing it.
  • Finishing it.
  • Getting stylish.
  • Running with others.
  • Learning structure.  

It’s also lovely revisiting this page (and the previous post) now, because I can see I’m still learning, and how, and what — particularly through the process known as “now do it again”, and the structural and style exercises from this journal, and the much more deliberate reading and learning I’m doing as a result. I might need to do this exercise again soon.

Also, I don’t think I’ve done this exercise for illustration yet, for some reason. One to put on the list.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of me standing on a chair wiping down the ceiling
Cleaning the ceiling after a warm can of Coke Zero fell over on the floor and sprayed everywhere

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Observation Journal: Distilling thoughts and readings

The observation journal has been wonderful for developing ideas, pursuing fascinations, and creating projects and exercises.

Occasionally, however, I simply use it to gather loosely-related thoughts (e.g. five thoughts on surface design), to comb through for patterns and lessons. Often these will turn into more detailed investigations or projects, raw material for exercises and workshops activities. But the first stage is just jotting them down, and then looking for patterns (although occasionally loose thoughts turn into a written piece on their own).

If you’re keeping a similar notebook, this can be a quick way to review what you’ve been thinking about recently, and to find ideas and lessons to pursue and examine.

Here are two examples (there will be more in the future).

1. Tracing a suspected pattern

I’d noticed a pattern in my reading (and in my concerns about my own work). This page was a quick exercise in pinning that down, and tracing some of the implications. It’s a similar process to tracing a fascination (e.g. Little Groves), but more nebulous.

Handwritten notes on patterns in recent reading.

The recurring pattern was structure as a trap vs structure as freedom. It united topics from discussions in an architecture reading group to thoughts on narrative theories, analyses of clothes in books (on the Clothes in Books blog), silhouettes and my attempts to work through story structure, Xanadu (the movie) and several murder mysteries. The most common theme within this was a sense of tricks and traps, and the mechanisms that can provide (or require you to avoid).

Many of these thoughts very much escaped into my “What I’m Reading” article for Meanjin, on “The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World“.

2. Looking for a pattern

On the second page, I went looking for a pattern, collecting advice that kept recurring across a great deal of reading (and many conversations, and some reluctant self-reflection), and then distilling it further.

Handwritten notes on patterns in recent reading.

The main overall lesson and reminder was that, whatever it takes to get the work done, to be deliberate about it.

Ballpoint sketch of a beagle asleep on a cushion

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From The Art Gallery

This page of the observation journal is a reflection (nefarious) on a visit to QAGOMA (the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a running lizard, notes on things seen at the gallery

The Five Things To Steal exercise is a useful way to quickly make notes on and tease inspiration from specific books, movies, etc. But I’ve also found it a lovely way to approach a broader experience — in this case, an art gallery.

It’s a good way to capture a substantial (but not overwhelming) handful of impressions, and speculate on what to do with them.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Handwritten notes on 5 Things To Steal From QAGOMA
  • The sense of being parachuted into someone else’s visual memory: a sense of slowly descending into a landscape belonging to a particular artistic vocabulary.
    • This was in relation to a Mavis Ngallametta exhibition — I’d seen the paintings in small reproductions, but that was nothing like the experience of simultaneously looking up at and floating down into their enormousness. And simultaneously being reshaped to fit into them.
    • I wrote a bit more about this vs writing in my post about Travelogues: All the shapes of the land.
    • It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about again more recently — it seems like it should relate very much to map illustration, but I love it as an example of lowering readers into a world.
  • The scrolling effect of the repetition of a long cabinet full of ceramic forms like water plants and coral and fungi.
    • This is for the reminder to use repetition, but also the appeal of long decorative bands.
    • (Like the notes on the camp dogs, below, this fascination continues to get into the calendar patterns.)
  • The mundane writ large, gaining weight and honour and importance.
    • This is about the value of the everyday, yes, but also of the contribution detail and texture and focus have to making something feel mythic.
  • Sunken garden, mirror pool, bronze figures, water dragons — a particular enchanted aesthetic.
    • (This is a description of the gallery cafe.)
    • I’ve noted it as a potential aesthetic for a large project I’m just now editing. It managed to completely flow off the back of that story, but I’m hoping it will pool in the next project.
  • The Aurukun camp dog sculptures, for a large number of repetitions that are entirely individual and have very distinct personalities. (And I mean, look at them.)

I enjoy looking back at these five-things-to-steal posts, finding my way back into an experience of something, turning over fascinations to see how they’ve grown or what’s grown under them.

I also like this little list of things seen on the same day (from the left-hand observation page — that structure is based on a Lynda Barry exercise, see more on this page: observation journal).

Handwritten list of things seen during the day, including wildlife and art exhibitions

I like the specificity of it, the way that makes the everyday remarkable, the way the list of disparate things forms into an impression of a day, the weight of wistfulness of the absence of jacaranda flowers under the painting where they are sometimes scattered.

Illustration/writing exercise:

  • Go to an exhibition or art gallery (in person or virtual). Roam around it idly.
  • Then think of five things you would like to pinch from it.
  • Then ask yourself why — what about that artwork or approach to curation or unexpected lighting appealed to you?
  • Then make your heist plan: how would you steal each of those effects for your own art/writing?
  • Do a little written or drawn sketch of a way you might incorporate that aspect.

Terrible tiny ballpoint sketch of running lizard
terrible lizard sketch, water dragons do not look very like this

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Porco Rosso

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from that delightful Studio Ghibli film Porco Rosso, which at the time of these notes Grace Dugan and I had just been to see again.

Porco Rosso poster — pig with goggles, scarf, flight suit in a red plane, giving a thumbs-up

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of crow on a McDonalds sign. On the right, notes on Porco Rosso.
everything lit golden, then frosted with blue light

I made these notes the day after the Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders post, so you might notice recurring characters.

Tiny handwritten notes on Porco Rosso.
  • Reliance on/use of very particular visual language to carry weight of story forward, while story is doing finer work.
    • (Language of Casablanca, etc, here — and I compared this to Sunshine on Leith which lets expected cliches do a lot of quick lifting for characterisation.)
    • I really liked the idea of making a choice of a very distinct aesthetic pay its way, and also to use it as misdirection to conceal a secondary story which is happening in the clues.
    • I made a note to practice writing scenes from different aesthetics (which I was already doing — see posts on aesthetics).
Tiny ballpoint sketch of feet in heeled shoes walking away from a wine glass on the floor, and a mouse running past it with a coin
Adding an era and setting aesthetic to the previous page’s mouse
  • A story that subtly passes a baton — the role of main character gets passed over and someone else ends the story.
    • Here it’s Fio, who was always the narrator — and it’s worth comparing to Nevil Shute’s No Highway (filmed with James Stewart as No Highway in the Sky), which ends with the narrator’s attention already being turned to new safety complications, and taken away from the winding-up of the main story.
    • I like the potential for combining this with an apprentice/journeyman/master transition (as noted on the previous page).
    • And also a connection to stories where a minor character gradually increases in importance, with a note to play with that in pictures.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people fighting with "somewhere they still..." written above.
somewhere, they still…
  • At some point, heroes and villains being rolled together to be allied in gentle nostalgia, and bundled away together into the past as time accelerates.
    • There’s a note here about the passage of a time/dream being the plot rather than the characters.
    • The trick of playing with this is not to be too easily merely sentimental.
    • That sense of the focus of a camera receding on (ex-) main characters.
    • And then the eternal charm of an entirely isolated independent hotel/island/refuge. The last homely house, little groves
Tiny ballpoint sketch of (possibly) a shadow among trees on a tiny isalnd.
  • A character exists who is, incidentally, probably something significant (e.g. a spy), and that is never addressed by the plot.
    • Such a good trope.
  • Two characters from separate strands of plot who only meet at the very end of a plot, and become instant friends.
    • (Or instant-ish, with respect to Oscar Wilde.)
    • Another variation: where their later relationship has been hinted (allusions, or the story is in flashback), but because they still only meet at the very end you never get to see any of that later connection.

At the bottom of the page, you can see I’ve made a little list of ways to explore some of those fascinations further.

Art/writing exercises

For general five-things exercises, see the end of the previous Five Things to Steal post.

Here is one way to turn a fascination into an activity of your own — basically a situation generator or a make-your-own Mad Libs:

  • Pick a story mechanic you find fascinating/a trope you like. (I find it easiest to limit myself to a certain genre).
    E.g. here, the baton-passing between two characters.
  • Identify the variables.
    Here, two characters/roles and a metaphorical baton.
  • Make a short list of possibilities for each variable. I usually try for at least five of each, often limiting it to the genre, but not always.
    With the example above, it would be two sets of five character roles/jobs (apprentice, journeyman, journalist, head of guild, patron, etc), and then five ‘batons’, which could be e.g. pursuit of justice, delivering a message, investigating a mystery, etc…
  • Mix and match.
    By the end of this story, a wealthy patron who has been investigating a mystery eventually passes responsibility for that to an apprentice cabinetmaker. Or vice versa.
  • Make a few notes (drawn or written) of characters or scenes this suggests.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow sitting on one arch of a McDonalds sign.
Crow at McDonald’s

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