Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Doodling in Three Acts

This past weekend I had a huge clean out of old artwork: old workshop assignments,  urban sketching experiments, lots of "let's just try this" paint-on-paper sheets that had served their purpose but weren't worth saving.  Among the items I found--and had forgotten about--was this crazy little set of sketches I've posted above. At first I couldn't even remember what they were and then I had one of those "oh, that's right!" moments when I recalled they were from a class I took several years ago on illustrating dogs and cats.

The point of the exercise was to think of drawing and telling a story as a series of three: 1) set-up, 2) action/conflict, and 3) conclusion. In other words, beginning, middle, and end. In the class we were given fifteen minutes to dream up three related scenes following these three steps and then quickly sketch them out. The instructions were to first draw a character (dog or cat) and then have something happen to that character. Finally, there had to be a reaction to the event--and with a twist, something unexpected. In fifteen minutes! Stick figures allowed, but . . . fifteen minutes!

For my first "scene" the best I could do at short notice was place a dog in a park next to a tree with a bird. Okay. That was my situation, or, Act 1. Second scene: the bird leaves the tree and flies onto the dog's head, giving us conflict and Act 2. My last and third scene illustrated the reaction: another dog comes along and admires the first dog's new head-wear: "Tres chic!" How stylish! I guess the dogs were in Paris.  

So there you go, three scenes; a simple little exercise that I then put away and never really thought about again. Which was very silly because it's absolutely what I need to use as I prepare the text and illustrations for my picture book WIP, The White Pony.

This is why: One of the main difficulties I'm encountering is stretching out my initial idea for the story into a traditional 32-page picture book. Now, however, weaving my words and pictures into groups of three is changing all that, helping me to think in terms of story motion and story conflict.

For anyone who's ever wanted to write a children's picture book but didn't know where to start, using this three-scene method might be just what you're looking for. To get started, first:
  • Choose a theme. It can be an original idea, or one based on an old, well-established public domain tale: Sleeping Beauty, Billy Goats Gruff, Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Next decide on a single medium to sketch out your ideas: pen and ink, graphite, watercolor pencil.
  • If you do want to add color, use a limited palette of three to six colors. Keep it simple.
  • For your three scenes, you can use either single sheets, three pages in your sketchbook, or one large piece of paper showing all three scenes.
  • Begin your first page or scene with a character and situation. In the class I took our focus was on dogs and cats, but don't let that restrict you. "Character" could be a chicken, a ferret, a Martian, or an actual child! After choosing your characters and their situation (playing a game, waiting for a bus, going to bed) on your second page draw a "conflict" event. On your third page, end with a resolution to that conflict.
  • If you like, add words or dialogue to any of the pages to tell the story more fully.
  • When you're finished, rinse and repeat! For instance, you could continue to sketch out several more stand-alone 3-scene stories, or you could keep working on your first idea, using your next groups of three to create a full 32-page picture book like I'm doing.
Keep in mind that using a quick three-scene sketch technique doesn't have to be about just writing children's books. For instance, how about trying it as way to work out a tricky part of your novel or screenplay? It can also be a method to liven up your journal or next Urban Sketching event, or simply be a fun creative exercise. The main thing is to have fun and not stress about so-called artistic style or ability.

Tip of the Day: If the thought of sketching anything at all is too terrifying, don't give up--photographs and magazine cut-outs can work just as well to tell your story. In some cases, they might also serve as excellent prompts to get the ideas rolling for your next set of sketches. See you next time.

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