The first time I taught the class called Drawing Games, I was at Haystack as a visiting artist. I’d been asked to do a demonstration, but being inexperienced in doing demonstrations, I decided to do something interactive instead. The reason I could offer Drawing Games was that I’d been working with a dear friend, Frances Miller, a poet, who’d asked me to teach her to draw. She had such high standards, I knew I’d have to provide some instant gratification or she would be too critical of herself, get frustrated, and give up.
Around that time I’d been reading Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Illusion. It was full of exercises that artists had given themselves to be more creative or to sharpen their skills. One example was Leonardo da Vinci, “who wrote in his Treatise on Painting, of the power of ‘confused shapes’ such as clouds or muddy water, to rouse the mind to new inventions.”
Most people have played the game of finding recognizable shapes in the clouds. I hoped that this kind of game when applied to drawing would help my friend explore different approaches to drawing in a focused, but relaxed way. The game-like drawing exercises worked. I thought of trying them out as a drawing class for people who, like my friend, wanted to draw, but were fearful and self-critical. When I started teaching at the Maine College of Art & Design, I found out that everyone who signed up was sure they’d be the only person in the class who wasn’t already proficient. I came to regard the students as a group of very brave people.
As a child, I already knew some drawing games such as the “Top, Middle, Bottom” game that I’d used to entertain my younger siblings. I didn’t know at the time that it had been named “Exquisite Corpse” by a group of artist friends in France in the early 20th century. The group, called the Surrealists, played 19th-century parlor games to create a new type of art that explored chance combinations.*
When I read that the inkblot game “Klecksography,” that Hermann Rorschach had played as a child, inspired him to develop the famous psychological test, I decided I’d try to turn what had been a game of verbal description into a drawing game. In this version, inkblots would be passed from one player to another, each making a drawing of the image they saw in the blot. Then the drawings would be displayed to see if players saw similar or different things.
I tried the game first at Haystack. I was delighted to find that even if several people saw the same thing, such as a butterfly, the drawings were of very different butterflies. The expressive choices each person made were unique. We were able to make a large grid of the drawings where reading “across” the grid, each drawing was a response to the same inkblot. Reading “down,” each player had their own column of drawings. It was possible to see that each person had their own style, even if they hadn’t previously thought of themselves as being good at drawing.
Other drawing games involve passing a drawing back and forth between partners, or passing drawings around a table.
A drawing game that involves alternating pictures and captions was taught to me by Katy Kline, who called it “The Thanksgiving Game” because her family always played it on that holiday. It is a twist on “Telephone” also known as “Whisper Down the Lane.” A picture is drawn by the first player following a written prompt, then passed to the next person who writes a description, then the third person, seeing only the caption, draws a picture, and so on. As in The Exquisite Corpse, the earlier entries are folded back so that a player only sees one picture or one caption, allowing the meaning to morph as the paper travels around the table.
Almost any drawing exercise can be turned into a game by creating rules to ensure a certain amount of uniformity, while allowing for personal expression. For instance, “Drawing by Sense of Touch” where small objects are placed in paper lunch bags, one object to each bag. Every player gets to reach into every bag in turn, while silently drawing the object. Each player tries to guess the object by drawing what they can feel. At the end all the objects are revealed and compared to the drawings. Then the objects can be drawn again while looking at them.
Any exercise that values the experience of drawing over the correctness of the finished drawing is especially good for being turned into a game. All types of “blind drawings” are playful, such as the blind contour drawings described by Kimon Nicolaides, and double-blind drawings done with eyes closed using the sense of touch alone. Verbal memory games such as “Kim’s Game” from the Rudyard Kipling novel, can also be played as visual drawing games. Kim is a young Irish orphan in India. To test his wit and memory, he is shown a tray of items. After the tray is covered, he is asked to name all of the items. In the drawing game version, position, shapes, patterns and colors, as well as names, can be used to remember the items.
Rather than being a test of skill or talent, this attitude toward a drawing exercise, turns it into a playful activity.
John Cage wrote in a list of rules for teachers and students, that “everything should be considered an experiment” . . . a charming rule.
Judy LaBrasca has been working on a book of Drawing Games for a long time and hopes anyone who knows of a game, will share it with her.
*For the birth of the Exquisite Corpse, see Véronique Plesch’s Art Historical Musings in this issue.
Image at top: V. Scott Dimond, Judy LaBrasca, Jeff Kellar, Frederick Lynch (top to bottom) Bowdoin Art Museum Card, watercolor, pen, pencil, resin, clay, pigment, acrylic, 2004. This Exquisite Corpse drawing was commissioned in 2004 by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.