Fundamentals of Art, Lesson 2.0

Defining Style – Left Brain

Now that you’ve focused on doodling and mark-making to start to identify your own signature style, there’s another more left-brained way to access creative output – through words.  A bit like “free-association” and a bit like “brainstorming”, the second lesson I teach is all about just writing down as many words as you can think of.  It sounds extremely simple, I’ll admit.

How I do it:  Much like the first lesson, I tell the student to open his or her sketchbook (preferably using the inside cover, back cover, or another easily-referenced spot) and I say “Write the numbers 1 through 40 down the left side of your page, leaving a little extra space at the bottom.”  Then, “Now write down 40 of your favorite things, using single words only.  Any type of thing or idea is fine, nouns verbs or adjectives.  If you like it and think about it, write it! Go.”  This should take about ten minutes. Then when they’re done, I ask for ten more…..for a total of 50.  I break it up like this to create last-minute breakthroughs in the final ten items.

Again – this should be easy and free.  No editing, no over-thinking, no erasing.  Some students, who had an easy time doodling, have a terrible time coming up with what to write, and may become stressed and insecure in their word choices.  Other students, who might be more verbal, find this exercise to be a relief from last week.  Just be gentle and reassuring, and let them know that writing anything down is good.  Sometimes, writing the word “anything” or “nothing” or “arrrrghhh!” is just fine, as long as they keep going to the next one.  If they feel like writing two words or a phrase, that is great, as long as they don’t start writing anything long (they won’t have time to finish!)

Now, go right into another lesson (don’t worry, there will be more in this series!) and don’t have them linger over their words, read them aloud, or erase.  The temptation might be to get lost in self-analysis or critique.  Assure your student(s) that you’ll be doing another exercise with the words.

Take out your “favorite things” exercise. Ask them what they think. “Is there anything from your Lesson 1 doodles that you recognize in your word list?”  It’s okay to spend a few minutes in analysis at this point.  If some of them seem ridiculous, or like “fillers” – it’s perfectly okay.  Some of the words will be useful…

Now, instruct them to take the best 15 – 30 of them and write those words at the bottom right front corner of each blank sketchbook page.   Now they have a large portion of their sketchbooks pre-loaded with inspiration.  I call these words “sketchbook seeds.”  When I was in high school art class, my teacher had us write his word list on our pages in the same way.  At the beginning of each class, this is how he collected homework.  We were to have created something in any media – color, marker, ballpoint – on the next page, using the word at the bottom as the seed of that new artwork.  At the time, I grumbled, but as I got into filling my sketchbook, I noticed my artistic skills improving.  I was grateful to have SOMETHING to go on rather than being faced with a completely blank page and no guidance!

Mushrooms Marker by Leah Jay

Leaves Marker by Leah Jay





Mushrooms and leaves were words on my list – Sketchbook seeds for some quick marker work.


As an adult, I still do the “favorite things” exercise for myself every few years.  Sometimes, if hit a creative block, and just can’t think of what to draw/paint/create…. Then I know I have a list sitting there, waiting for me to pick something.  I tend to write down simple nouns, like “birds” “sunset” and “smoke”.

Little Owls Dream by Leah JayPredictably, mushrooms and leaves showed up in this piece of mine.
(“Stars” is another word that comes up often in these lists…)

I’ve started to notice certain themes in my work — repeated shapes, colors, and ideas.   Most of them originated from a casual doodle or a couple of notes.  The more you encourage yourself or your students to freely express themselves in either word or doodle form, the more likely they are to be able to capture ideas and inspiration, and tap into their creativity easily and freely.  Plant some “seeds”, and avoid the dreaded blank page.  Doodle, journal, and get those ideas flowing!

© 2017 Leah Jay | Leah Jay Artworks

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Leah JLeah Jay (Jakusovszky) has been an artist and illustrator in San Jose for 25 years. She creates using a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, ink, and collage. Her illustrative work has been featured in many books, and highlights from her career include directing 2001’s WTC Memorial Art Project to facilitate artist’s responses to 9/11 and successfully crowdfunding her artbook “Amphibian Love” to benefit Save the Frogs in 2015.

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