Art Classes: Storyboarding and Idea Generation

A lot of students get stuck on creating artwork because they think they need to jump right in to creating a finished, fully-realized piece. One of the keys to the creative process is that you can take the pressure off of yourself by creating a lot of quick, low-stakes, unrefined sketches to experiment with new ideas while letting yourself off the hook from making everything perfect from the get-go.

Today I worked with my student Joe, a luthier who aspires to illustrate and publish story books, on these concepts. Joe has been coming to my classes for a couple months now. He wants to create illustrations inspired by the styles of Edward Gorey and Stephen Gammel, but wasn't really sure how to move forward with coming up with his own original compositions. Today I introduced the idea of quick, very small composition sketches to him as a way to rapidly generate initial ideas without getting hung up on details. He took right to it and in an hour had generated sixteen different little narrative vignettes! I then had him pick one to enlarge to a half-page size and start coming up with more details for, and he got well along with that. He had a really inspiring and productive two-hour class!

Here is one page of Joe's drawings. I just told him to do a bunch of compositions with two figures having some sort of interaction in a very simple setting. I also stressed the importance of not necessarily knowing the nature of the narrative before putting pencil to page. The beauty of the process of generating ideas through simple, small, low-stakes sketches - (each of these may have taken 5-7 minutes) is that you'll come up with all sorts of surprising results that you might otherwise overlook or dismiss when trying to jump right into a finished, highly-resolved piece.

These little studies are also a key tool to infusing a sense of freedom and joyfulness into the composition. Look at the lively expressiveness of Joe's little figures! I mentioned that these little drawings will be very important to keep track of as he moves onto the next phase of making a larger, more detailed piece -- holding onto that sense of movement and ease will not be as easy, but these sketches will be a crucial guide to doing it.

A survey of great artists from the old masters to the present will reveal that one of their secrets to generating ideas and refining their unique sense of style is to enjoy the process of rapidly creating lots of little, quick sketches, before picking the best ones to enlarge and embellish. I frequently use this process when beginning a new series, and it's perfect for taking risks and experimenting with new styles.