Visual Improvisation — How improvising influences my sketchnoting

This piece was written as a chapter for the book Drawn together through Visual Practice. In this anthology, 27 contributors from the wider field of visual sense-making share their experience-based methods and insights. 
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I am a sketchnoter. I create visual notes of talks and discussions in real time. Mostly in a small format, sometimes on a large wall-sized chart. I try to capture the main points, to distill down key topics in words and images to make the content accessible and memorable beyond the event itself.

Sketchnotes from Smashing Conference New York 2014

Sketchnoting combines several very different skills in one intense real-time activity. The first skill is drawing or sketching itself. This is quite a technical skill, involving motoric dexterity and hand-eye coordination: Making clear marks on paper that are recognisable as specific objects, people or words.The second type of skill is more structural: breaking down information, synthesising the important points and establishing hierarchy and relationship between the points. The third skill involves the imagination: choosing and developing strong visual metaphors for abstract concepts

I am also an improviser.

Discovering improvisation

I discovered improvisation by chance shortly after I moved to London about seven years ago. I had signed up for a free workshop about improving presentation skills that was offered through a network for women in digital design. I didn’t know many people in town and presentation skills are always worth improving, so I signed up with little expectations. It turned out that the woman teaching the workshop had prepared a day of different improvisation exercises, most of them drawn from a form of improvisation called ActionTheater.

ActionTheater improvisation is deeply grounded in the physical experience. The body and the awareness of its physicality is the basis for developing all material. The three basic ingredients that can be used in the improvisation are movement, sound and language. Any combination of the ingredients is possible — movement only, moving and sounding, being still and speaking, transforming sound into language, etc. The process is very open and playful. Meaning can emerge, images can arise, can become denser and more concrete in parts and then dissolve again into more abstract expressions.

I didn’t know all that back then. I just loved the exercises we did all day. We moved in different ways, played with rhythm, timing and pauses. We played with language and what words sound like when you explore every single sound in them, when you roll them around on your tongue and turn language into music. I felt like being 5 years old, just having fun to freely play around with my expressions. I had been doing this kind of stuff all my life, on my own, when nobody was looking or listening and discovering that this was actually “a thing” — something with a name, something that people did in a structured way — was a huge surprise and a feeling like coming home at the same time.

A few weeks after this chance encounter, I began practising Action Theatre with a wonderful teacher — Kate Hilder. Little by little, I discovered the full depth and structural richness of this form and began to see parallels with the visual work I had been doing.

Exploring the overlaps between improvisation and visual work

Being present

The first and most immediate parallel between improvising and sketchnoting is that both are happening in real-time. In improvisation we develop material on the fly. We don’t know beforehand what we are going to create. We trust the skills we practiced and the instincts we developed as an improviser to respond to the material as it arises and shape it into a meaningful experience for the audience.

One of the key things we practice in improvisation is “being present”. But what does this mean? For me, it all comes down to become extremely good at “noticing”. Noticing what is going on around you, noticing what is going on inside of you, noticing what you are doing, how you are doing it and which effect it has. “Being present” is the basis for being able to truly listen in a holistic sense.

In Action Theatre, most practice starts with breaking things down into very small aspects and using simple exercises to focus on one specific aspect at a time to train the senses and the awareness. Little by little we combine several aspects in bigger scores until we are able to use the practiced skills and sharpened awareness as a tool in an open improvisation.

We try to sharpen our awareness of aspects like

The quality of the movement –

  • Which body part is moving?
  • Is the movement hard or soft?
  • Is it tense or relaxed?
  • How big is the movement?
  • Is it a fluid movement?

Its spatiality –

  • Where am I in the space?
  • Am I close to the wall or in the middle of the room?
  • How much of the space am I using?
  • Which direction am I facing?

The rhythm –

  • Is the movement regular or random?
  • Is it continuous or do I use stillness and pauses in-between?
  • Am I creating a specific rhythm?

Temporality –

  • How fast or slow am I moving?
  • How much time do I use for each movement?

And relationship –

  • Am I responding to a previous movement?
  • Is it the same, opposite or a variation of what I did before?
  • Is my focus directed inward or towards the audience or other improvisers?

On top of a sharp awareness being the basis for truly listening and immersing myself in a talk I am sketching, a lot of these aspects directly translate into the sketching part as well. When I draw, I deal with the quality of my lines, the placement of objects on the page, the rhythm of the piece, balancing areas of density and areas of openness and of course with the relationship between the different elements, both stylistic and content-wise. When practising sketching by myself, coaching others or teaching workshops, I start by breaking down exercises into small focussed activities that single out a very specific aspect to practise at a time and let the exercises become more complex and open bit by bit — a principle inspired by the way improvisation practice is structured.

These basic exercises include sketching different qualities of lines, experimenting with spacing, size and proportions and playing with different speeds of drawing — always observing the difference in quality and expression that results from each change. The focussed practice helps to internalise basic drawing and composition skills, so the mind is freed up for the listening, synthesising and metaphor-development part during sketchnoting. It fine-tunes our awareness of shapes, space, rhythms, patterns, balance and textures so we develop the necessary intuition to take all the underlying micro-decisions that need to be taken when sketching live.


Another key principle in Action Theater is the notion of “responding”. When we are present and notice all the interesting details going on in and around us, it is time to respond to them, to move from noticing to doing. The whole improvisation is a constant oscillation between noticing and responding. With a lot of practice, the amplitudes between the two get so fine that both are practically happening at the same time.

Responding can have many forms. In Action Theatre, we differentiate between three main types of responding: developing, transforming and shifting. Developing means exploring the thing we are responding to — repeating, varying or deconstructing it — so that it becomes clearer, sharper and richer — like the image on a photo takes shape in the development process.

Transforming refers to slowly transitioning from one thing to another by gradually changing the quality of one or more aspects at a time. Shifting means to completely change every aspect of the thing we are responding to and to contrast it with something quite different. We practice the different types of responses in small formal exercises at first (using simple movement, sound or language scores) and extend the reach and complexity to include whole story lines.

There are various ways to practice responding in a visual sense.

On a very simple formal level, it starts by exploring simple and combined shapes, filling a page by responding to each previous shape by either developing, transforming or shifting. Playing with a shifting focus between different aspects like shape, size, spacing, orientation, line quality, proportion, etc. in the response helps to sharpen the awareness and to broaden the range of expression.

I also like using random inputs as a starting point. I use all kinds of stains — from placing used tea bags or dripping coffee cups on paper, ink blotches, fingerprints, wild scribbles, scraps of paper or some of my own random warm-up doodles. Then it’s about looking at the random shape at hand. What does it look like, what are its qualities and — a bit like watching clouds — imagining what this shape could be, what I could add to make it into something else — an object, an animal, a person, a little story.

Random scribbles from ink stains from bleeding markers

I try not to go for the ‘obvious’ first idea I have, but instead to go down a stranger, less obvious, more adventurous route. Adding a few first strokes, looking again and responding to the the changed shape. Adding some more until slowly, something recognisable emerges, an image takes shape, a little story reveals itself. I like having to bend my mind around the shape, to try and wrap my imagination around its edges and to keep noticing and responding to its changing form. It’s challenging and playful at the same time.

Random scribbles from tea stains

The most valuable outcome of this kind of practice is that I learn to stay open and responsive while I am working. In my sketchnoting, this helps me to develop structure and balance visual hierarchy in my pieces as they develop. It allows for visual metaphors and patterns to arise and transform while I am working. An image can change half-way through sketching, because the shapes remind me of something and give rise to a new image. Staying open to change course at any point, to let the work be influenced by the process, is something I enjoy a lot. It has been a source of many beautiful discoveries.

The pleasure of getting in and out of trouble

Developing work in real-time and responding to new, and sometimes unexpected, content on the fly doesn’t come without difficulties, though. It means giving up control over the final piece: As I don’t know beforehand what is coming, I can’t plan it all out. I can’t choose a perfect structure for the material. I can’t develop visual metaphors for all of the key points of the talk in advance. When I work in real-time, I leave behind the safety net of carefully planning things and iterating through several versions to get to the final solution. I have rely on the skills I built so far and I have to accept that I will make mistakes.

Sometimes people ask, how my sketchnotes look so perfect and how I manage not to make any mistakes. Well, it’s not true that I don’t make mistakes. I make a lot of them. I misspell words, I run out of space, I mess up sketches. Luckily, a lot of my mistakes hide very well in the visually busy notes, so that nobody other than me ever sees them as mistakes. But also, over time, I got quite good at using my “mistakes” as “happy accidents” and to respond to them in a way that ends up looking like a deliberate choice.

Mistakes that usually hide on the page. 
 People are difficult. Especially if they hold things. I get that wrong sometimes.
No need for an eraser. If the first line is wrong, just set put another line over it to make it right.
When there are too many wrong lines, shading or blacking whole shapes helps to camouflage and make it look right again.
Sketching myself out of trouble. If I can’t get the sketch to look realistic because I messed it up, I sometimes make them deliberately non-realistic or surreal. They take on a different dynamic and start working again because it is clear that they don’t have to work in the real world.
Sometimes, perspective needs to be bent to fit the available space (bed) or to make sure there is enough space for the person I already sketched before (pedestal).
I am quite bad a sketching portraits. Sometimes they work out, but sometimes they go so horribly wrong that I feel the need to apologise in the notes.
If something goes wrong, it means that there is a chance to explore how to do it better. Repetition is the best way to learn and to practice. I look at what is wrong in the current version, I try to change it in the next. Noticing and responding. Often over and over again.
Mistakes as happy accidents: When a lack of spacing suddenly means an island in the sea can double up as a duvet or musical notes merge into a hairstyle.

I like to think of it as sketching myself into trouble and out of it again. Instead of being afraid of doing something wrong, I try to embrace everything that comes up as a chance to experiment and to play. It feels very liberating to experience that I can get myself out of a ‘sticky’ situation by just noticing, responding and not capitulating.

I sometimes even step into trouble deliberately. This can mean using different materials from the ones I am used to — working just in black and white instead of using colour, using very fat markers instead of the fine liners I usually gravitate towards or changing the size of my format dramatically and sketch much larger on a whole wall or really tiny on a little notepad. It can also mean to leave my comfort zone in terms of sketching things I am not quite sure how to sketch. Or to try out new, maybe slightly wacky visual metaphors instead of the tried-and-trusted, slightly generic stereotypes that are used over and over again. It can be about injecting my own point of view or sense of humour with the risk of other people not agreeing or not getting it.

Taking a risk is taking a chance at the same time. Taking a chance to surprise myself, to discover a new way of doing things and to get better at what I am doing.

My confidence to enjoy the resulting “trouble” has developed through practice. Many hours of sharpening awareness, of playfully responding to material in various ways in a safe practice environment is continually building a robust basis for my work out in the wild. Paired with the playful non-judging approach of improvisation, it gives me the confidence to just throw myself into doing, to dare to start without having a firm plan and to trust my skills and the process to create an interesting piece of work. It empowers me to take bold choices in my work. Some of them work out as imagined, some of them need visual troubleshooting and some of them just teach me to accept my own mistakes. But I am always up for the challenge.

Calm seas don’t make skillful sailors after all!

If you enjoyed this article, check out the full anthology.

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