Lessons From Drawing With You

An analysis of collaborative drawings with friends

I think my friends should draw more. Not only do I think they would personally benefit from it, but our friendships would as well. It would add another means of communication and understanding to our relationship. Just like with my friends who write or blog, it’s like getting a peek into their brain. Or like with my friends who play music, perform, or dance, it’s like getting a peek at the fierce, little creatures that drive them.

What’s great about drawing is that anyone can do it. One does not need to speak a specific language or have a specific set of musical or performance skills. It is also a very casual activity that does not require a lot of tools, effort, time, or space.

A couple years ago, I started to casually force people to draw with me. I called them art conversations, and they had a very simple structure: (1) no talking, (2) one person draws at a time, and (3) when one person stops, the conversation is over. Here are a few things that I found:

The resulting drawings are visually diverse. Some drawings looked delicately drawn, some looked gaudy or vulgar. This made me happy. If the drawings turned out to look too uniform, then it would have probably meant that my personal style was overpowering—that it wasn’t a true conversation, but more of a monologue. I worried that my art background would intimidate or overwhelm, especially since most of my friends hadn’t drawn in a very long time. But given that the drawings turned out very distinct from each other, my friends’ voices were likely present and influential since I am a constant.

Drawing personalities reflected actual personalities. Friends who were more shy were more likely to take their time with what they drew. Opinionated friends often drew over what I had drawn. Engineer friends biased the drawing into a certain structure. Those who I didn’t know very well gravitated towards the opposite side of the paper from where I had drawn. Similarly, my drawing was more reserved with people I was typically shy around, and more deliberate with people I was more comfortable with.

Art conversations have similar dynamics as verbal conversations. In verbal conversations, you typically go back and forth on a topic and occasionally change topics. This was reflected in the drawings: little “islands” of visual topics emerged, and new ones were formed when there was nothing left to say about a certain visual topic. Additionally, visual equivalents of debates and arguments emerged, where aggressive strokes and marks beget equally or more aggressive responses.

Non-artists are better at art conversations than artists. I found when you stopped caring about making the drawing pretty, the real art conversation could start. Two artists would feel pressure to make something pretty, and thus be more risk-averse in their drawing decisions. In this case, it becomes more of an exercise in making something pretty as opposed to having a genuine conversation. Most good conversations aren’t pretty.

I’m not sure if I learned anything new about my friends after having the art conversations. Like verbal conversations, some drawings were more revealing and surprising than others. I would be interested in seeing how the drawings would evolve over time if they were done on a regular basis. Unlike verbal conversations, you get to visualize art conversations and interpret one or many at a glance. Like a photo, you get to keep a visual souvenir of a moment with someone. Unlike a picture, an art conversation contains more than a moment in time; it contains a series of moments through the lines, colors, and layers of the conversation.