Ideas. Sometimes there are so many ideas that it’s hard to decide what to start on first, or which ones to include and which to leave out. Sometimes I need a wild card, a random way of decision-making that will, paradoxically, introduce restrictions and parameters to my ideas. And sometimes I need to exercise my mind’s ability to mix the ideas up, to take two or more qualities and hybridize them. To give birth to monsters and mongrels.
I keep a plastic bag full of words written on little strips of paper.
What sort of words?
Nouns, mainly…only things that have personal significance to me, and that I have—at an earlier point—thought, “I’d like to draw that someday.” So no trawling the internet for trendy words. No reading other people’s blogs, or leafing through magazines, looking for whatever’s in vogue. No adding the word “polaroid camera” to the bag, when I have never owned, used, nor even held one before. No fake nostalgia and enthusiasm for things I cannot honestly say have been part of my life until now.
“Personal Significance” is my watchword, here. Things I care about, or despise, or fear, or admire; things I know a little about, or have always been infinitely curious about. Passions. Activities I actually engage in. Events I’ve experienced. Objects that are symbolic to me, or to my life. Anyway, you get what I mean.
Also, adjectives…a color, or color combination, that I want to play with. Textures or patterns that I love to look at, or love to draw, or would like to draw more of. Or my feelings:
Avocado green. Chocolate and seashell pink. Swamp green. Hairy. Crackled. Fat. Bundled. Aged. Exuberant. Embarassed. Dripping.
Much less common, but making an appearance once in a while, are verbs…Smoking. Scream. Bite. Cycling. To fly. To melt.
I write them down on the little strips of paper. Not everything all at once…I let the words appear naturally, as life unfolds, and add them to the bag when I think of them. More often I cull the slips, throwing some away when I feel that what I wrote was too influenced by something I saw, or heard, or had come across elsewhere…the ones that strike a false or pretentious note, a mainstream hipster vibe, and that don’t actually stand up to the simple questions “Is this really me? Is this important to me? What do I know of this?”
To do the exercise, I pull two or three slips out of the bag. I don’t make any special effort to pick one each from the nouns, adjectives, and verbs…I simply pull two slips out, and if the combination seems a little thin, I pull one more, and it usually introduces enough disturbance to birth an image.
Then, scribbling in a small sketchbook, I try to combine those words…naturally, the easiest and laziest ideas come first: tired clichés, popular depictions, cute arrangements that are influenced by what I have seen elsewhere. As soon as I realize that something is vaguely familiar or commonplace, I flip a page and try again…the push being to come up with something beyond what I know. Beyond comfort zones, or at least beyond what I am aware exists already. I try to come up with a little bit of difference.
I roughly scribble five, six, seven thumbnails…very approximate, very rough. When I feel like one of the thumbnails is onto something, I work it onto a page of my visual journal…still very rough, but with at least the basics of composition, and an idea of colors, if there are to be colors.
I don’t consider these exercises to be ‘art’ in any grand sense. They are, still, really just exercises, and because of the random way the images are put together, they often tend to be silly. Maybe one in twenty of these drawings will call out to be treated more seriously, will deserve to go into a painting, or an embroidery, or whatever.
Most of the time, though, they stay in my sketchbooks.
But the imaginative work that the mind does, while performing these exercises, is the more lasting reward. If you keep pushing beyond what comes to you easily, and tell the mind, “You can do better than that,” it often does. It grows more flexible, and more playful.
This isn’t about teaching you how to draw, although I tend to learn a little about how to draw when I do these exercises, for the simple reason that I may have to look up a picture of traffic lights to see how one is built, or study an anatomy book to see how a human body is put together. It all adds up. A little bit of effort goes a long way.