Napkin drawings – searching the subconsious


When all else fails, any piece of paper will do. One of my friends was asking about composition and how I came up with some of my more abstract explorations.

I had been in an absolute rut, an artist’s block of major dimensions. Everything I did seemed to be stale, stilted and worthless. Then I observed several classes by Tom Hudson, a fabulous teacher. He was holding a master class prior to filming his series for the Emily Carr College of Art and Design that became one of the Open Learning Institute courses on Drawing. I was to be a tutor for the course, along with several other instructors, for the College (now and Institute).

His first course dealt with taking a simple mark and continuing an exploration with it. I took this idea home with me and made countless drawings of simple variations on geometric shapes – the square, the circle and the triangle. However, being of a relatively lazy nature, I did these freehand. I was not interested in precision, just interested in where my subconscious would take me if I continued to limit my mark-making to these relatively simple shapes.

At first, I found the exercise a bit boring; but as I continued to persevere, I found that I was bending the self imposed rules and creating games for myself with them; and these eventually resulted in some interesting imagery that are very personal to me.

In meetings when I could function with only a half ear listening, I would set out a grid of dots on any scrap of paper. Where grids are used, that blue lined graph paper is quite nice to use.

I’d set out the dots and then connect them with lines with the choices being either horizontal, vertical or slanted. I tried not to repeat. For instance horizontal could follow vertical or slanted but not horizontal. I did one row after another.

On the second stage of the drawing, I’d connect two of the marks together which ended up giving some zigzag form and then continue on throughout the grid. On the third stage, I would enclose some form on each of the preceding zigzags, whether it be a triangle, square or circle (and later, half circles because they fit better). On the fourth stage, I would practice that spatial relationship exercise that I described previously, choosing three of the enclosed forms and filling in the shape with black ink, then three more forms, but filled in with red, for example, and then a third time a this, with blue ink, always being conscious of the effect that the different colour was creating to carry the eye around the grid.

Eventually, I found it interesting to provide eyes and feet to some of these resulting shapes. I found names for them afterwards. Some looked like stick figures doing exercises or other activities. Others like mechanical objects, like goofy kitchen gadgets. Others took on animal forms.

There are boundless possibilities in drawings of this sort. The image changes with the choice of material for support (canvas, paper, cardboard) and the material for coloration – inks, watercolour, oils, acrylics, oil pastels, etc, etc. The possibilities change with the size of the image; the textures used, the mark making, the precision or lack thereof.

So in this little napkin drawing that Ive shown above, you can see what results from drawing in this first stage of this “game plan” in the lower right hand corner. And in the upper corner, you can see something that looks like dancing ice cream cones – quite a whimsical and frivolous activity don’t you think, that has resulted with the added drawing stages.

Now this is not a profound drawing, but it has given me some quite unexpected results and I’ve done a drawing that is completely different from the earlier, largely figurative work, that I had gotten “stuck” in.

I consider this drawing an exercise, like piano scales but in mark making. The more sustained drawings that resulted from this kind of activity look like this:




Eventually, I started using the hieroglyphics that resulted in my larger drawings and though it seems a far cry from the original hypothesis that was set out, I discovered some personal iconography that has worked for me and jolted me out of my drawing doldrums.




Give it a try! Set your own rules and then stick by them. Keep them simple. Repeat them over and over until your mind takes over and does some of the creating from the subconscious rather than it being ruled by your conscious state. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.


2 Responses to “Napkin drawings – searching the subconsious”

  1. Daniel Ted Feliciano Says:

    Just beautiful. Very creative.

  2. soundboy Says:

    Ooooh this is a great idea. I need to awaken my subconscious a little more.

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