I recently got a new iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. The possibilities this new tool offers are exciting, and I was eager to learn how it works. About the same time, I also realized I haven’t done much drawing or other purely artistic work on a regular basis lately.
So I decided this could be an opportunity to step back and start from the beginning with some basic exercises, the sort of thing that would be part of any introductory drawing class. I’ve been going back to things like contour studies, negative space studies, composition and so on, trying them out on the iPad to see what it can do.
These aren’t master class activities for the “enlightened artist on the mountaintop” (cue chorus of angelic voices). They’re basic exercises anyone can use to draw better than they think they can. They’re about learning how to see what’s really in front of you, not what your mind is trying to tell you is there.
Seeing — and creating — with new eyes
There’s a popular quote in creative circles: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” These days Steve Jobs is famously remembered for saying it in an interview. (He thought he was quoting Picasso, but it’s attributed to many people — no one’s sure who actually said it first.)
Jobs and the others weren’t really advocating the shameless copying of other people’s work. They were acknowledging the value of finding inspiration in what’s been done before.
Good designers have to do this regularly, because much of the time our job is to take something that’s been done a hundred times before and find a different way to approach it. It’s easy to paralyze yourself by thinking “Oh, everyone else has already done this. There’s nothing new under the sun, so what’s the point of even trying?” But exercises that teach you how to see can also create opportunities to generate alternative solutions.
A glimpse at where great ideas come from
When I revisit these introductory exercises on the iPad, I’m not just learning how to use a cool new gizmo. I’m re-activating the artistic “seeing muscles” in my brain. Many of the exercises, especially those that involve an element of randomness, can awaken opportunities for innovation. That perspective helps generate alternative solutions to visual design challenges. So when I go to work on a client project I’m prepared to analyze the problems I’m solving with a fresh perspective.
This is where teaching yourself to see in new ways really pays off. When you reference the work of other designers to get ideas, or to stay in touch with visual trends, you’re not copying. You’re looking for ways to see the problem more clearly. When used in this way, the reference work acts like a prism. As you look at the challenge through the reference work, a potential solution may reveal itself.In a sense, you take an old idea and “turn it in your hands” (metaphorically) until it catches the light in a different way. And suddenly this thing you’re “stealing” from someone else is new, and creates the surprise, the mystery, or other types of engagement you’re looking for.