Using sketches to explore story

What if you took your sketches into more exploratory realm?

Often when we sketch, we’re exploring what we’re literally looking at or ideas in our imaginations.

After I got into the Character Animation program at CalArts I thought I knew all there was to drawing. I had spent two years prior immersing myself in drawing just to give my portfolio an edge. But when I walked into my first life drawing class at CalArts, it wasn’t what I expected.

First, the models had partial costumes. Behind the model was a film projection (either a nature documentary, a circus act, or an old film), then there was music to influence your perception even more.

The goal of each class wasn’t to just replicate just the model – the goal was to make a physical manifestation of our imagination on paper. Using the different medias all around us for inspiration.

This wasn’t your normal life drawing class, being a part of the film school, the class was called: Drawing from Real to Reel and Beyond. This class caught a lot of students off guard in a great way.

For the first time, we were being asked to take our drawings into a realm of creative research and development. Exploring themes and stories using just the lines we were putting down on paper.

Creating large observational drawings to tell a story. We were merging film and production design with storyboarding – using nothing but simple sketches.

After studying drawing in this manner, drawing wasn’t just about technique, it was about exploring and ideas. During this class there was a new constant dialogue in your head:

  • “If I put these three random drawings next to each other, what kind of story can they tell?”
  • “How does color influence the story in this drawing sequence.?”

Drawing became an exercise in getting ideas out, fast. Which led to more expressive ways of drawing and using color. Ways of drawing that still captured form, light, shadows, but not in the classic sense of replicating what you see, but to communicate a story.

Imagine walking into a room with walls lined with large powerful drawings.

As you walked along the walls, each sequential drawing continued to tell a story. Drawing became an exploration into imagination. Observational drawing was being used to spark our imaginations. To push what we were seeing into a totally different world. Pulling inspiration from the environment around you.

The instructor of this class became a friend and mentor of mine. His name was E. Michael Mitchell and was most known for drawing the cover of the book, Catcher In The Rye.

Mike originally pioneered this approach to drawing as he worked in the animation and film industry as a production designer. Often, getting hired by producers to create concept drawings in order to spark the imaginations of investors and other studios.

Here’s a short film of a visual development presentation Mike and some CalArts students put together using this approach to drawing (before I got to CalArts). Mike and his students conceptualized a bunch of short stories by the author Ray Bradbury. You’ll see Ray Bradbury in the video too. it’s pretty amazing stuff:

How far can you push your drawings?

Drawing can is a valuable and unique skill to have. Especially, when you approach it in this exploratory way.

Fine art and commercial art become blurred. You aren’t drawing in a set “industry way”. You’re drawing in a way that still withholds a fine art approach – your approach.

I encourage you to bring your handmade marks into your commercial work. Don’t ever feel the need to adopt a style to satisfy an industry or make you “good”.

Open yourself up to new techniques and mindsets as you continue to sketch everyday.

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