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: Loving the tools II

It can be easy to stop paying attention to the tools I actually rely on to make art, to fall into habits or not maintain them or not even see them anymore. So here’s a little lighthearted look at them — good for shaking loose calcified habits, refreshing the mind, and just having a good time.

Exercise (for artists or writers)

  • Set out on your desk, or make a list of, the tools you typically use to write (or draw, or paint).
  • Now, being very silly, imagine each is a person (or a relative in an Agatha Christie novel, or a local in a Midsomer Murders episode, or a cat, or a cartoon villain, etc) and jot down a brief and over-the-top description of their personality (or the crimes they’d be likely to commit, the secrets they have, the sort of lair, etc).
  • Bonus round: Now pull back a bit, and read over the list. See if it’s clarified anything for you — why you persist with one, or keep another pristine, or guiltily hide a preference.


This observation journal activity is an early one: see Loving the Tools, where I made myself stop and look at what paints I was had, and why, and finally buy a decent array of the ones that I loved and actually used.

There, I was mostly just gossipy-judgy about the colours, with a few free associations. (“Sounds like a dinosaur”, “red pandas and indigestion”, “sick lemon”, “exactly the same as the other but more formally attired”, “actual magic”, “lip-syncs to Dolly Parton”, etc.)


This time around, I listed all my writing tools (Scrivener, Word, text messages, etc) and pretended they were somewhat stereotypical/archetypal family members in a novel.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes about writing tools.

So Scrivener is “a large and unruly family, with hidden branches, that’s still a unit and can scrub up well in a pinch”, and pencil and (spiral-bound) paper is “possibly a conspiracy theorist, might have been a spy”, while a text message “wakes up in an armchair in the middle of the afternoon with an unintelligible exclamation, and wishes for the romance of the telegram”.

Handwritten list of writing tools (Word, notebook, text message, etc) with opinions on the sort of character they would have if they were a relative

It is very ridiculous, and very much for personal reference and taste, with all sorts of character shorthand, drawing heavily on things I’d been reading recently. But it was surprisingly useful — highlighting what I like about various approaches, and whether it’s the useful part. E.g. index cards “would like to be a conspiracy theorist but can’t quite get it together — wanders off”. Which pretty neatly encapsulates why they haven’t worked well for me on various projects. A simple text file, on the other hand, is clearly a workhorse but also a bit insufferable about it.

At the time, I was working up to rearranging my entire work space, and this exercise also helped focus me on the things I’d actually need ready to hand.

Tiny ballpoint drawing of a seedpod open and some flowers
Seedpods from the observation (left) pages got their own standalone section in a recent big writing project (yet to be announced)

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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: City from a height at night

This observation journal page is one of the simplest observation activities, just looking at a thing and describing it in as many ways as I could think of (and not being precious about it). See previously: 30 Descriptions of a Tree, and Sketching with Words.

(Afterwards you can edit, get creative, swap descriptions and force metaphors, look for colours or through stories or genre lenses, etc.)

It’s a simple and soothing and focussed exercise, but also immediately useful. I’ve used this when researching for Flyaway (which is out in paperback in the USA at the end of April!) and in the litany of descriptions that is Travelogues, and in “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, a piece for voices.

And of course it also trains visual memory and vocabulary. But mostly it’s a pleasant way to make time to stop and stare, and lightly capture a moment.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes about a city at night.

Since my writing is pretty small, here is the list. I was with visiting family in a hotel apartment high up in the Brisbane CBD, trying to describe “little beads of light sliding on paler ways through the darkness”.

  • Board of trouble
  • Playmat
  • Beads
  • Go
  • Isometry
  • Sound bars
  • X-ray
  • CT — contrast dye
  • Stencil of highlights
  • Smouldering sparks
  • Noir poster
  • Flattened
  • Brass rubbings
  • Pneumatic tubes
    (through darkness)
  • Velvet painting
  • Shabby sequins
  • Fraying beading
  • Model
  • Forced perspective
  • Tilt-shift
  • Matte painting
  • Trick photography
  • Mercury in tubes
  • Spirit levels
  • Flasks and tubing
  • Chemistry lab / experiment
  • Those animations projected on a 3d surface
  • Flickering signs
  • Stacked records
  • Milky way

Writing/illustration activity

  • Choose a thing you can see, or use this as an excuse to go and look at something pleasant.
  • List at least twenty other things it looks like. (Or thirty, which I prefer.)
    It’s fine to be obvious and repetitive! That’s why the list is so long. You’ll push past the cliche answers and get to the odder and more interesting ones… but some of the easy ones might turn out to be just right.
  • Bonus: Do you notice any patterns in your list (e.g. games, lit tubing, and somewhat déclassé art, above)? Are there words or concepts almost on the tip of your tongue which you couldn’t quite pin down? (I needed more words around lab equipment)
  • Bonus bonus: Sketch or write a brief scene — a character experiencing the world this way, or a drawing that pulls out (or directly uses) those comparisons.

Tiny ballpoint drawing of alpaca on grass, on gridded paper.
Alpaca, glimpsed on the drive to give a talk at the Capalaba library

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Observation Journal: bones and flowers (more swapped descriptions)

A frequent favourite observation journal activity: mixing up descriptions (either by trading adjectives or using one word as a simile for the other).

(For related posts and other examples, see variations on descriptions, and other posts under the “descriptions” category.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes swapping descriptions between bones and flowers.

This time I was trading descriptions between bones and flowers. I chose this pair because of things I’d seen during the day (on the left page) but also because of A Project I was working on (which you will hear more about soon). Although, in the end, more of the observation page got into the final text.

Handwritten notes swapping descriptions between bones and flowers.

Bones flecked and spotted like the speckles on a lily, a spine like a spire of foxgloves, the peony-tight cluster of the knee. Flowers bleached and brittle, honeysuckle petals curled like ribs and collar-bone, flowers small as teeth.

Another benefit of this exercise, additional to sheer enjoyment and those advantages I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is that it highlights specific areas of vocabulary I’m excited to study more — botanical terms, or anatomical structures, etc.

(It’s also quite useful for ensuring thematically consistent descriptions, e.g. when attempting to use bird or plantlike descriptions for particular characters, as in Flyaway.)

Writing/illustration activity (similar to those on previous posts)

  • Pick two nouns (flower and bone, or daisy and skull, or cat and mountain…).
  • Use one word to suggest a list of descriptions for (or ways to draw) the other. Three ways to do this:
    • Make a list of ways you would usually describe (or portray) noun A and force them onto noun B. (Osseous, calcified, chalky, porous, smooth, ecru, knuckled…)
    • Find ways in which noun B is like noun A (many of the examples on the page above).
    • Find ways noun A is the same as noun B.
  • Then repeat the exercise in the other direction.
  • Bonus round 1: jot down a paragraph or poem or sketch out an illustration using a cluster of those descriptions.
  • Bonus round 2: Make some notes about what you noticed — which comparisons were easy or hard, which were the most interesting, where did they snap you into a new awareness or understanding of an object, where did your (visual or verbal) vocabulary serve well or where did you suddenly wish you had more resources (and where could you enjoyably get them)
Tiny ballpoint drawing of person carrying pile of boxes
Carrying boxes

The robust fictional family (from observation journal notes)

These observation journal pages are both in pursuit of a fascination with robust characters and fictional families. (Thematically connected: Favourite tropes about families.)

This began with a pattern I’d noticed from previous pages (particularly things-to-steal notes) and recent reading: I enjoyed reading about people who are who they are, know it, never doubt it, and aren’t punished for it. (For better or worse.)

On the first page, I simply stated that pattern. Then I jotted down characters/books that fit the pattern in various ways: The Addams Family, the Roses (Schitt’s Creek), the Barnabys (Midsomer Murders), Gilly (Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware — The Foundling), the Lampreys (Surfeit of Lampreys), the Lindsays (from a scene in Time Without Clocks). And then for each I made further notes about how that characteristic played out.

Chart of handwritten notes on characters who know who they are and what they want

Here were some interesting patterns in the examples that sprang to mind:

  • Often (particularly in the idiosyncratic groups) moneyed and or upper class backgrounds, even if one or both of those have been lost. Tied to that, a somewhat outgoing eccentricity.
  • They don’t attempt to alter others without provocation.
  • But if they are distinctive through their ordinariness, they are often thrust into paternal/patriarchal roles. (Related to point #1.)
  • Either a strong particular aesthetic, or rigorous avoidance of one.
  • They almost all occur in families — even Gilly’s striking out on his own is aided and abetted by a self-contained and stubborn relation. (See previous notes about favourite tropes in families.)

I then sorted the families into tables, noting the type of family, how others viewed them, and to what degree they were unified/members could leave.

Table of handwritten notes on characters who know who they are and what they want vs families in fiction
  • Tendency towards self-sufficiency. Others are admitted into the family circle only if they won’t alter its fabric.
  • If they aren’t masquerading as ordinary, they tend to be regarded by the broader community with cautious bewilderment or alarmed integration.
  • The family forms a centre point for activities. Individuals may have their own adventures, but there is a dense unity/gravity and it is difficult to separate from the family entirely.

A deeply traditional, moral core, with an unflappable certainty of their rightness. In ‘ordinary’ families, that results in quite paternal/care-taker roles, and newcomers/additions must be equally responsible, respectable and easy-going. In ‘unusual’ families, they form their own fiercely self-sufficient and independent group, and newcomers must generally conform by being equally eccentric (or exceptionally easy-going). Even if this isn’t presented as being an unalloyed good, the sheer robustness and self-sufficiency of the group becomes very appealing, their inviolability charming. There’s a strongly traditional and conservative pattern behind many of the families — see also notes on the appeal of The Navigable World.

It’s a striking contrast to more found/chosen family tropes, which seem to me to be be capable of being more disparately chaotic and democratic, with correspondingly different possibilities and risks, and where a central gravitational point is more likely to be a circumstance or personality than a Tradition.

(NB — my affection for this type of character/family is definitely related to liking characters who aren’t changed by a story.)

(AND ANOTHER THING — I need to revisit the original question, because there is a textural difference between the utterly self-confident person embedded in a family, and the one who is in isolation. A degree of defiance vs complacency, a different attitude/stakes to survival… And the role of the found/chosen family vs that.)

Five things to steal from: The Eye of Love

This Five Things to Steal observation journal page is about five aspects of Margery Sharp’s The Eye of Love that I thoroughly enjoyed. (For background on the general exercise: Five Things to Steal.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on The Eye of Love

Margery Sharp’s The Eye of Love (1957) could be one of two books. It might be the tale of a doomed great love that happens to be between the owner of a very small company in 1930s London and his suburban mistress, both middle-aged and not conventionally lovely (to an outsider). Or it might be about how a very blunt and single-minded child who in other books grows up to be an artist begins to hone her eye. It is in either case a sweetly abrasive, sardonically indulgent, affectionately comic romance.

Handwritten notes on The Eye of Love
  • Grand passions happening just as much to ‘small’ people.
    This is, in a way, related to flipping stereotypes (the Caudwell manoeuvre) and to my love of contained, stagey worlds (staginess; little groves). But there’s a shifting, sly subtlety to Sharp’s approach, as she adjusts the tone and focus, so that now the book is sardonically using elevated phrasing for a mundane situation, now it is letting you feel how overpoweringly mythic that mundane situation is for the people in it.
  • People who are interested in a thing, and pursue it doggedly, even if perceived from outside as ridiculous.
    This is in relation to a girl who will become an artist, but it’s a little unusual in that the artist isn’t struggling with that single-minded focus. It’s closer to stories that focus on competence, and frequently the solving of mysteries, and it’s very nice.
  • Chaotic/overbearing people who are the authors of their own comeuppance BUT who also manage to spin the situation to appear (or be) advantageous.
    (This is also a very fun way to have a villainous villain who operates on the same level as the rest of the cast). Jane Austen and Charles Dickens do this gleefully as well.
  • A child’s interests shifting and maturing.
    Sharp treats this child (Martha) as a human with her own independent interests and concerns, which isn’t as common as it might be in books for adults, even for Sharp, and even when the child is the viewpoint character, unless the Plot Changes Them (very little could alter Martha against her will). And I also like any viewpoint character/narrator changing their interests as the book goes — including beginning to lose interest in the story! It’s such an effective way of feeling like the book takes place in time and that times are changing. Nevil Shute does this splendidly in No Highway.
    This approach also complements something else I enjoy: the observer-narrator who is not intimately involved in the heart of the action (see e.g. John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos).
  • Anticipated/potential friendships surviving what could look like betrayal.
    I like this so much! It’s such a relief when it happens. Non-default drama is a grand thing.
Scribbly ballpoint drawing of plane and bird shadows over grass, tree in distance
Plane shadow, crow shadow

Observation Journal: 5 Things to Steal from Baby Done

I completed this observation journal page the day I went to see Baby Done with my sister, a 2020 NZ romcom with Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis.

Baby Done movie poster

This page is a “Five things to steal…” exercise, where I find some interesting things the movie did, and consider ways to try out those techniques/mechanics in writing or art.

It’s a very useful exercise for late at night (as here!), to quickly record a few key impressions, and to turn up new lines of curiosity to pursue on future journal pages.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on Baby Done
Left page: mostly news about local birds
  • The inversion of “usual” roles for this sort of story.
    • Not in a huge way, but nevertheless pleasing. In fact, possibly pleasing because the swap is in such a small, non-flashy way. Big, hand-waving subversions can be great, but these slight, subtle variations create personality and play with the delight of recognising what you already know but in charming reconfigurations.
    • See also posts on The Caudwell Manoeuvre, and other swapped descriptions
    • I made a note to try this on another now-standard plot later (I’ll post that in a bit)
  • Cutting from one scene directly to the middle of the next key scene, without needing to fill in everything that happens in between.
    • This is something I still am working on remembering to do / letting myself do.
    • There’s a note here, too, about Schitt’s Creek‘s similar willingness to jump. It can give a brisk surprise and jump-laugh to comedy, and keep the pace going, but it’s not at all comedy-specific.
  • Background friends who recur over a story, linking and looping back
  • Brisk, no-nonsense (but kind) nurses who are having none of the main character’s behaviour
    • This is a standard of the genre, but it amuses me.
  • People stepping into parental roles, in situations where they aren’t the parent.
    • I always find this compelling — something about someone not prepared to be responsible for others suddenly having to be, cheerfully or otherwise, and what that does for both the impression of their character and the weight of things that happen in the plot.
  • Specificity of jobs in stories (e.g., as here, tree-lopping).

The main recurring points of interest here were about (un)expected roles — swapping habitual positions, and the slight friction (surprise, delight, amusement, unfamiliarity) this creates.

For more Five Things to Steal posts, see the category Five Things to Steal.