Thoughts about (sketching) practice

Over the last few years, I have been teaching dozens of sketching and sketchnoting workshops.

The buzz and excitement of a workshop is great. People are fired up to learn something new, to tap into the knowledge and experience of a seasoned practitioner. That’s great. But sometimes there is an expectation to learn ‘the secret’ and then everything will be fine.

Well… the ‘secret’ is, there sure are a lot of useful points that can be taught to give people a kick-start, but — as one of my improvisation teacher once put it: “You don’t become an improviser by doing workshops”. A workshop can get you started or give you new ideas, but the only thing that will make you good at whatever you want to learn is…(drumroll)…practice.

Practice is the unseen, unglamorous part behind the beautiful work that finally sees the light of day.

Many hours spent practicing your craft, on your own, away from the spotlight. Pages of sketches that never get seen by anyone else but us.

In my workshops, I put a lot of emphasis on the importance of practice. Instead of giving people readymade ‘solutions’ for how to sketch certain objects or concepts, I give them pointers to how they can try out different things for themselves, how they can play with various possibilities and how they can build their own practice to develop their own style.

Let’s take a look why practice is important, which obstacles you might face when building a practice, how you can overcome them and how you can make your practice valuable and fun.

Practice, and all is coming

As with all things that require skill, practice is the most important thing when you want to improve your sketching.

Practice means spending time doing, not thinking about doing.

Practice is a way to try things out, to make mistakes, take detours, explore unknown territory in your time, on your own terms. Practice is also regular. Practice builds over time.

Practice also means that you have to show up and just get going. On a regular basis. Ideally every day. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a huge amount of time every day, but it means that you need to develop the discipline to sit down and sketch, even if you might sometimes not feel like it. I often don’t feel like sketching, but I know that as soon as I take the pen in my hand and I sketch for a few minutes, I will get into the flow and enjoy it.

You have to trust the process.

Another thing about practice is that you have to trust the process. You will get better over time. And there will be many times when it will not feel that way. These are the moments that separate the people who get good at what they are doing from the people who don’t. You need to push through these moments. You need to trust that when you practice, something is happening, even if you can’t see or feel it.

My personal learning curve

Over the years, I hit this frustrating point many times, in many domains. I love learning new things and I started learning new things many times in my life: sketching, theatre improvisation, calligraphy, yoga, running, new languages, you name it. In the process (besides learning the things I tried to learn), I learned something about learning new things in general. This is what my own personal learning curve looks like:

1. The honeymoon phase

I usually get very excited about learning a new thing. I’m inspired by the beautiful work that other people are doing in this field. I imagine how cool it will be to do similar things. I’m signing up for a workshop. It’s going to be awesome!

2. Reality kicks in

What looks so easy and elegant when the teacher is doing it, feels absolutely awkward and painful when I try to do it. What I produce is ugly and embarrassing. This is hard!

3. Rock bottom

I suck at this! I’ll never be able to do this! I’ll never get better at it. No way!

I have these feelings every time I try to learn something new. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. They don’t stop coming up, no matter how often I went through the process of starting something from scratch. And every time, these thoughts feel absolutely real.

4. Just getting on with it

What I learned over time though is that I know they’ll come up. I expect them. They don’t catch me off guard. These thoughts are like an annoying old friend, the one I never wish to bump into again, but who shows up at every party.

“Oh hi… it’s you again! I’m sucking at this? Yep. I certainly do! Thanks for letting me know… Now I’ll just get on with stuff.”

I acknowledge that these thoughts are there, that the feelings are real, but I don’t let them stop me from just getting on with it. Yes, I’m bad at this right now. But at some point, I will be a little bit better. There’s no way around it. The only way is through.

5. Seeing the light

And guess what. At some point, it does get better. Gradually. Sometimes when I least expect it. And even when it gets better, it’s still not a linear ascent. There are dips and bumps, days when it feels like I am starting from scratch. Sometimes progress is invisible to the naked eye.
But when I look back over time and compare work from a few years ago with what I am doing today, I can actually see a difference.


OK, you get it. Practice is the key. So let’s take a look at how you can start and keep practicing, how to make it enjoyable and how to get the most out of your practice.

Making practice playful

As children, we learn through play. And although we often think that we have to be serious as adults, especially at work, playing is often more efficient for creative tasks and for learning things.

When we play, we are relaxed, we have fun and we are more open to experiment and to take risks.

Having fun loosens up our brain and our body so that the mind and hand can move around the paper with more ease. Let’s do a quick experiment right now to see what I mean: Close you eyes and think about a recent situation when you were happy or that you enjoyed. Now move your head a bit from left to right. Notice how the movement feels.

Now think of a recent situation when you were stressed or angry or a problem you currently have. Now try and move your head again. Is there a difference in the ease and range of movement?

Noticed a difference?

Being positive and relaxed literally allows our body and mind to move more freely. So try to make your practice fun, try not to judge if what you are doing is good. Just do and enjoy what you discover.

Getting started

The biggest hurdle to a regular practice is getting started. We all love to procrastinate. To make it easier to get started, I like to give my self simple concrete tasks for my practice. This means I don’t have to think about what to do, but can jump right in. Over the years, I had different practice topics I kept for a few weeks before switching focus.

Here are some examples of simple exercises that I have used for practice. Maybe you like them as well:

Making things out of shapes

Take a piece of paper and fill it with circles. Leave a bit of space between the circles.

Now, make an object or person out of every circle by adding details in and around it. The first circles are probably easy, but after ten or twelve it gets a bit harder to think of new objects. Keep going though, until you made something out of every circle on your paper.

You can do variations of this exercise by using different shapes (squares, rectangles and triangles), by varying the size of the shapes on the paper (it’s interesting to try out if different sizes trigger different associations. We usually don’t play with size enough when sketching, we mostly stay in our fairly stable comfort zone) and by mixing different shapes on the same sheet.

I also love using random shapes, like stains from tea bags, coffee cups, bleeding markers or just randomly scribbled squiggles.

Lettering

Want to practice your lettering, but never can think of words to doodle? Subscribe to a “Word of the Day” email newsletter of a dictionary (the oxford dictionary does a good one) and use it as the basis of your daily practice. You can practice different lettering styles each day or try to match the shape of the letters to the meaning of the word. Added bonus: you learn the meaning of a lot of words that you probably never heard of.

Random fun

If you feel like moving on to some more complex exercises after having covered the basics like objects, people and lettering separately, here’s a fun little tool to use: a random sentence generator that spits out weird little stories for you to sketch. You can find it at www.sketchnotesbook.com/doodlebreak

It’s a fun challenge to try and sketch these strange situations and it’s surprising how wide ranging the sketches are when different people tackle the same sentence. Try it out with your friends and swap notes!


A structure for practice

No matter what I practice, there is a simple structure that I use. It helps me to make the most of my practice and to make sure I take something from the practice into the work I do.

There are three steps:

1. Explore

Pick a particular aspect you want to explore in your practice. This could be exploring size, spacing, colour, contrast, posing, exaggeration, stroke thickness, or anything to focus on and play with during practice. If you pick playing with size, for example, try to change up the size of things you are sketching in your practice. What happens if you sketch much smaller than usual…or much bigger? How do your sketches change when you mix shapes of very different sizes? How do different proportions influence the meaning of your sketches? Etc. 
Once you picked your focus, go wild. Try out a lot of different things. Go broad, go deep. Dive into the details. Experiment.

Practice gives you the possibility to really experiment without the pressure of the result having to be good, usable or appropriate. You want to push out of your comfort zone, push things until they break. Like that you can explore the boundaries of what you usually do and you will probably make some interesting discoveries that usually don’t happen in your regular work when you focus on solving a problem and producing a piece that solidly ‘works’.

2. Observe

The next step is to observe what is happening in your explorations. How do the sketches change when you push them in different directions? When do they break? How does the style and the meaning change when you play with different parameters?

This step requires paying attention to the details, allowing yourself to notice subtle shifts in the quality of the work. Be interested in your own work! As a practitioner, it is your job to be interested. Nothing in itself is interesting, it becomes interesting when you put your attention and interest in it. Over time, you’ll become much better at noticing details of interest — not only in your own work, but also in the work of others. You’ll start spotting the finer details which make their work look so great or interesting… and you’ll be able to take these details into your own practice and use them as a new focal point to play with.

3. Pick up the goodies

After you explored and observed, it’s time to reflect a bit more on what you just did. It’s time to go through your experiments with a more analytical mind. Which your sketches do you like? Which ones are oddly interesting? Which ones really work? And why? What did you do, that makes them ‘better’ than others on the page.

Make a mental (or physical) note of those sketches and try to use the same approach in your future work. An example could be that you played with size and you discover that the times when you used very contrasting sizes in one sketch, the results are really interesting and very different from your normal work. Make a note of that and try to consciously use more size variation in your usual work. You can even re-sketch some of the ‘good’ sketches from your practice, emphasising the aspect you want to keep and pin them around your workspace as a reminder.

Get yourself into trouble

Practice has a great advantage: you just do it for yourself without the pressure of having to produce anything good or usable. You have the freedom to screw up, to make mistakes, to get yourself into (visual) trouble without any bad consequences. So why not use this freedom to do all these things and see what happens? Try to push your experiments until they fail. See what it feels like to screw up. You might discover that it is not that bad after all, and that it can be quite a lot of fun to get yourself into trouble and to sketch your way out of it again.

Embracing the challenge of working with whatever is in front of you and trying to make the best out of it will make you more confident to take chances in your regular work. If you know that you can sketch yourself out of sticky situation, you’ll be more open to pushing your work beyond the obvious and safe. What seemed like ‘taking risks’ before will become a more positive action of ‘taking chances’. Instead of being afraid to fail, you learn to be curious about what is going to happen.

Over to you!

Now turn off your computer and get practicing. Just a little every day. Be curious. Have fun. And don’t forget to get yourself into trouble every now and again :)


If you like this, have questions, want to chat… you can find me at www.sketchnotesbook.com