I can't draw, but can I doodle?
October 13, 2018 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I really like swirly doodley images and I would really like to be able to draw my own swirly doodly images, but mine are never very good. How do I get better at swirly doodling?

I like images like these: swirly doodles and henna doodles But when I try to do things like this myself, they are just wrong. My paisleys are the wrong proportion or don't come to a pleasing swoop at one end. My drawings look messy rather than detailed. Loops and other things that are supposed to look frilly just look lumpy. Nothing is graceful about them.

Are there techniques I could use to get better at making this kind of drawing? They look freehand, but maybe the people who draw them are actually using curves or stencils for some of the larger elements? Are there particular ratios that naturally look good? Are there line-weight or shadowing or inking techniques that go into making these look good that I just don't know about?

It could be just a practice thing, but I feel like I'm just practicing doing them badly. So without some idea of how to do them better, it doesn't seem worthwhile to spend more time on it.

It's worth noting that I have no artistic talent generally -- I can't draw non-swirly things, either. So maybe I'm doomed to not being able to draw these, either.
posted by jacquilynne to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe get a French curve to play with?
posted by ITheCosmos at 9:43 AM on October 13, 2018

Look for books on Zentangles.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:50 AM on October 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

consider doing some tracing to understand how the lines flow
posted by pyro979 at 10:01 AM on October 13, 2018

You can copy (or even trace) some swirly art you like to get started. Then try to move into more original works using some of the techniques you like best. You WILL get a feel for it. You will get better at it and your work will begin to appeal to you more. After some more hours. Really! Art techniques are a skill like other skills that require practice! (Says the person who has been trying to make painting a regular practice for several years [this year is not going too bad!]).

You can both doodle AND draw, if you want to. It sucks to practice at first because it seems like you're not getting anywhere. But you are! Do more. You can do it! There's that 10,000 hours thing which is (supposedly and depends on things) to get to mastery. But I watched an interesting video about getting through just 20 hours of a thing. At 20 hours you will see definite improvement, and that's what will help you continue as it becomes more enjoyable and you find more things to like in the work you produce. (I can confirm this is true, having painted every day in January.) Commit to those first difficult 20 hours, a bit every day if you can.

As a side note, people who think artists they like are great because of "talent", or only people with natural talent can draw, are dismissing all the practice that went into getting to where they got to.
posted by Glinn at 10:06 AM on October 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think practice will be the best thing for getting lines you find more pleasing. If you'd like some guidance for your practice, you can look into Zentangles as tofu_crouton said, and also one of your links, with the paisleys, has a lot of mandalas in it.

Here's a nice intro to how Zentangles work. This website is a good resource for Zentangle patterns.

Mandalas have a specific geometry. Link. Link. You don't have to get as technical if you don't want to, but having some concentric circles and crossing lines lightly sketched in will help.

But mostly, just throwing yourself in and going for it, with repetition and practice!
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:13 AM on October 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

Have you tried watching any videos? Sometimes it can be really helpful to see how an artist builds shapes, adds depth & shadow, makes changes, etc.

A book like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain might be helpful. Even if you're not trying to draw realistic objects, basic techniques can help you learn to draw what you actually see vs. what you think you see. (You see this often when people try to draw faces as eye-eye-nose-mouth vs following the contours of the face.) This can still apply to pattern design as your brain might first perceive "circle" where something is actually drawn as an ellipse, for example.

Another thing I'd suggest is to play and experiment with proportions. If you are trying to work out a pleasing paisley shape, instead of attempting to make an exact copy, draw multiples with varied width, length, curves and see what is most pleasing to you.
posted by gennessee at 10:20 AM on October 13, 2018

To be clear, I have probably already spent a couple hundred hours trying to make doodles like these -- the margins of my notebooks are absolutely littered with them and I go to a lot of meetings. Just practicing isn't helping, I need to be practicing something that will improve my technique, not just reinforce its terribleness.

I've done some Zentangling in the past, and I can sometimes succeed with patterns that rely on straight lines (not for the underlying tangle line / shapes to be filled in, but for the filler patterns), but as soon as I venture into curvey lines, everything goes wonkus. Sadly, it's curvey patterns that appeal to me.

The mandala grid is very helpful, because now I can see how you arrive at some of the symmetry instead of having loops and whirls cross boundaries "incorrectly".
posted by jacquilynne at 10:21 AM on October 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

A tip I picked up (I'm much like you) is to start on the inside of the curl,not curl inward. Its easier to do when making spirals and such and comes out more porportonate. I don't know why.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:56 AM on October 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

I feel like a lot of the patterns are based on simple logarithmic geometries (most look like fibonacci curves to me); have you tried grid or dot paper, or mocking out guide lines for your doodles? If you google "geometric doodling" or "fibonacci paisley" (just some random examples I tried) there are TONS of resources ranging from drawing demo videos to khan academy math tutorials with some drawing demos involved. I also wonder if you have experimented with different kinds of pens/markers. I have lots of favorites ranging from extremely inexpensive to several dollars each, and art stores generally let you try these out before you buy.

I am certain that "serious doodle artists" use various tools to get curves and lines right, measure things, etc., even if once they get decent they just hand draw most of everything. Using tools isn't cheating! One thing I noticed in the "swirly doodles" link is that many involve filled in sections/heavier lines - many of these appear to be covering up sloppier/mistaken curves that needed a second try. Then it becomes part of the pattern.
posted by love2potato at 11:10 AM on October 13, 2018

Then a French curve might help, or even more so playing around with a compass (the latter can be especially satisfying and you can see if Islamic-type geometric patterns appeal to you. Even the ones without curves are often very graceful.)

Granted, that's less useful if the point is to doodle on the edges of things at work and so forth. So other suggestions to work on curvy lines:
- start using graph paper notebooks and use the grid to shape your curves
- on which note check out the golden ratio spiral and variations thereon. If you like that, you might find more inspiration in Vi Hart's videos on mathematical doodling.
- make curved lines by first very lightly sketching straight lines in the general shape that you want, and then using those as a skeleton for your curve
- instead of drawing a curve all at once, make curves composed of smaller units (little circles or other shapes, dashes, dots, bars, etc.) That can give you more control over the eventual shape, and if you like you can then draw borders around the curve to make it more prominent. (I guess that would be kind of a zentangle effect in reverse.)

Finally, if you feel like using a computer for this sometimes then maybe check out vector drawing programs (Illustrator is the big one, but Inkscape is very good and free/open source). Making editable bezier curves and splines is kind of what they're all about, and it can be an interesting thing to play around with. (There's definitely a learning curve, though.) You can also do things like make angular shapes and turn them into nice curves automatically. Note that with vector programs you can make smooth curves with a mouse - no drawing tablet required.
posted by trig at 11:10 AM on October 13, 2018

When drawing I am very particular about the shape of the underlying curves, and the flow of the drawing, so I always draw out the basic form lightly in pencil, and then erase and re-draw over and over until I have the basic curves right. Only after those look good I will start drawing in ink or paint or whatever permanent medium I'm working with that day. Over the years I've definitely needed to do less re-drawing and erasing, so I would recommend that as a way to hone your drawing skills. A fine mechanical pencil is great for those initial lines, because it's easy to erase, and it will break if you push too hard, so it trains you to draw lightly and not damage your paper.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:43 PM on October 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel like you're asking a different question than others are answering. To me, you're saying "I know what I want to draw, but I can't execute it well. My fine-motor control isn't living up to my desires." I think? I am not sure. Anyway, I'll answer the question I

I do calligraphy at times, and if there are any tricks to calligraphy looking elegant and not looking lumpy, they are: 1) always have your path and destination in mind, and 2) use the biggest muscles possible to make your curves.

So if you watch online videos of the best calligraphers, their movements are very smooth, and the resulting curves are elegant and not lumpy. If you watch their hands, you'll note they're not keeping their wrists stationary and drawing with their fingers like people are taught to handwrite; their whole hands and wrists and arms are moving because the curves are coming from the shoulder, not the elbow, wrist or fingers. Because the whole arm is in motion, the curve is much smoother.

So, try it. Try drawing a small curve with your pen moving only your fingers, then imitate that same curve by moving your entire arm. You'll likely find the curve is much smoother (if less accurate). The smoothness is automatic because the inertia of your arm is keeping your line from wiggling. The accuracy is something you can learn. It's just using a different set of muscles.

You may not be able to draw very tiny detailed things this way, but your larger curves and straight lines will be much smoother and more elegant.

Hope this helps.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:39 PM on October 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

I was thinking of fine motor skills and calligraphy training too. I like the Getty & Dubay workbooks for practicing the small curves until they come out reliably the first time. Maybe playing with brushes and ink would be a fun way to loosen up your hands and arms? You can practice with water and disappearing marks.

And, maybe too different, the exercises in Ruskin's The Elements of Drawing are not at all about swirly doodling, but they're totally about practicing fine motor control. (And drawing trees.)
posted by clew at 1:50 PM on October 13, 2018

If you want to throw money at the problem, you could get an iPad and use some the the calligraphy brushes in Procreate. They have a smoothing function that feels like a car detailing brush.

2nding the idea of tracing your favourite designs.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:33 PM on October 13, 2018

Did you see this recent FPP on a design book of waves? The images are gorgeous, and it might not be a bad idea to print out some of the images and practice tracing them or coloring them in. If nothing else, examining all three volumes might help you understand how someone else learned to make swirly, wavy images.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:31 PM on October 13, 2018

Shading is a good way to make a swirly doodle really pop. Draw an oval shape, then try a little bit of shading on the ends, darker at the outside edge and then lighter as you go in. You can do the same thing with lines, darker on the ends and lighter in the middle or vice versa. Stippling is a good way to build up shadows, just little dots that you just add to, to build up darkness. Shading is your friend!
posted by h00py at 5:14 AM on October 14, 2018

One of the tricks of fine art drawing is to use your arm, not your hand, to make the movements. You also don't hold the pencil like a writing implement but upright!

I would suggest you go and buy some big pieces of drawing paper/butchers paper/newsprint and practice drawing big swirls using the movement of your whole arm, not your hand. Make as many as you possibly can on the piece of paper then flip it upside down and start again. Don't try to make them precise, just enjoy the feeling of drawing. Once you've filled up the page get a smaller piece of paper and repeat the process with slightly smaller swirls, repeat this idea until you're back to the notebook size paper.

You may seem some really nice progress in your abilities and may also feel a bit freer in your drawing and idea of what looks 'good'. Enjoy being creative!
posted by latch24 at 10:47 PM on October 14, 2018

I wonder if some of these printable calligraphy exercises might help get your hand and brain into the right swoopy rhythm. These aren't about learning to do calligraphic lettering; instead they use calligraphic strokes (loops, swoops, upstrokes, downstrokes) to create images and patterns.

Also, quilters use a technique called stippling or meandering. Maybe spending some time tracing and reproducing those would be helpful. (And if you find you don't like stippling, there are a wide range of free-motion quilting patterns that might help get your hand moving more freely.
posted by Lexica at 11:11 AM on October 15, 2018

Over the course of a few days of meetings last week, I finally made some swirly drawings I was reasonably happy with. The suggestion about using a Mandala guide and the info about drawing the inside of the curve proved to be the most immediately helpful, so I've marked them as best answer, but I still want to try some of the more time and practice intensive elements of other people's answers.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:21 AM on July 16

« Older Can I eat it?   |   Portland trip with family (toddler and prego mom... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.