5 Ways To Generate Ideas Through Drawing

Catharine Pitt

Many of our ideas for animation start with a drawing. It's a great way to develop characters, build storylines or unravel challenging concepts. If you're struggling to develop your 'visual thinking', here are some tips and tricks to get you started.


Improvise when drawing

A great exercise to loosen your mind. It's perfect for digital sketching, so grab your ipad or wacom and start by creating a random solid shape - organic or geometric. This will become the constraint from which other imaginative sketches emerge. Using new layers for each exploration, draw objects, characters or scenes using the shape as a starting point.

It forces you to think differently so you:

– Play with proportions and perspectives for characters
– Approach each iteration with an open mind
– Go beyond the immediately obvious
– Abandon preconceived ideas
– Create new narratives

And because it’s playful, it gets us into a flow state quicker.

This is our version of the '30 circles' exercise from Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley. It's a great book, packed with insights and advice for creative minds at any stage of their career.

2. Word Play

One character + one emotion = a chance to explore expression and physical traits.

To add depth and soul to a character, practice ways to express their emotions and explore how these nonverbal feelings could be communicated through their physical traits. We've taken inspiration from Bruno Munari's faces as a starting point, but try experimenting with any style. Take direction from the word 'anxiety' for example. What are the visual cues? The character might feel fear or confusion, which could translate as a furrowed brow, rubbing the chin, or looking down at ground.

It's a crucial skill. Not only to build a character model sheet. But it shapes storytelling and allows the viewer to experience emotions through the character's eyes.

A great reference book is 'The Emotion Thesaurus' by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It's a writer's guide to character expression and is a gem for character-based animators.

3. 'What If...'

We ask ourselves this question to develop stories and it's a great way to go beyond the obvious solution.

When sketching ideas, use it to explore plot twists, character developments and storylines. Or to come up with unexpected solutions to storytelling problems through sequential thinking - especially when developing storyboards.

“You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if...? (What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term - but you didn't know who?)” — Neil Gaiman

4. Quick Sketching

When you develop a shorthand style of drawing, you not only capture ideas and inspirations, but it forces you to focus on the essence of the subject. You become more attuned to the features that convey emotion, or storylines.

Try looking for the 'storytelling pose' - the drawing that gives away the character's emotional state.

According to animator Matt Timms “Energy and force is what I try to look for in quick sketches. By not having much time to capture a pose you can focus on engaging your subject matter and unshackling yourself from detail. I try to see the line of action and what is driving this energy.”
Excerpt from Sketching For Animation by Peter Parr).


How to make drawing enjoyable

Sounds obvious, but if you want to get the most out of drawing, you gotta practice. And to turn it into a habit that sticks, make it fun.

You can study the mechanics of drawing later, but if you show up every day, you'll quickly develop pencil control, train your mind to find a state of flow and feed your future self with awesome ideas.

We like to take the experimental approach where there is:

– No 'perfect work' required
– No ‘creating with intent’
– No judgement on technique
– No eyeballs other than your own

Just show up and experiment.

I'm convinced that if an animator's drawing foundation is strong, they'll have the versatility to go in all directions possible. They will be able to draw anything - from the most difficult, realistic characters, to the most wild and wacky. "

Richard Williams - The Animator's Survival Kit.