This is something we, as artists, have felt all to often. In a hectic lifestyle it can be hard to carve out time to sit down and sketch, so the frustration is often amplified when you finally do manage to, only to be struck down by the dreaded ‘blank page syndrome’.

The temptation can often be to just start doodling. To start making marks on the page and wait for inspiration to strike; or to fall back and repeat old, tried and tested, drawing ideas.

Before I get started, I should point out that there are those artists out there that can, and do, do this very well. There are some who are masters of the ‘automatic drawing’ style of inspiration; they will make a few marks on the page and, before they know it, are struck by a great idea. I would suggest though that these artists have in fact spent a lot of time doing some of the more constructive exercises I’ve mentioned below, which has led them to the point in their careers where they can simply ‘turn it on’ and allow their hands to do the thinking for them.

I have been wrestling with this problem (let’s call it the Doodle Bug for lack of a better phrase) for years. Instead of spending my time constructively, I used to sit and just draw page after page of half finished, ropey figure sketches (…which usually ended up as a half-assed Spider-man).

So many sketchbooks filled with doodles.


I won’t deny there was a certain value in the repetition; the cumulative effect of drawing the same types of figures can build up a bit of muscle memory, but what I should really have been doing was applying myself a bit more constructively.

‘Do you even lift, bro?’

There is a parallel here to be drawn with weight training. If you want to build your (artistic) muscles and develop speed, strength and stamina, you need to do targeted, consistent exercise. If you were to go to the gym and just start doing a couple of reps of whatever took your fancy, you’d make some progress, but not much. If you were, however, to focus, structure your programme and know exactly what you were building, you’d make 100% more effective use of your time.

As well as building your ‘exercise programme’, you need to make sure you’re feeding your ‘art muscles’ with the right kind of nutrients to rebuild them. This means exposing yourself to lots of great art (of differing disciplines, mediums and genres) and devouring books, interviews, podcasts and generally immersing yourself. Chow down!

Here are my top suggestions to use sketching time productively when you’re drawing a blank:

  • Anatomical studies – Always a good idea to practice drawing hands!
  • Constructive anatomy – Practice building up from gesture stick men
  • Life drawing – This can be super fun on the train, or in coffee shops whilst people watching. Change it up and force yourself out of your comfort zone, with pen only or tonal sketches for example.
  • Idea generation from a word or a phrase – Draw the obvious, then approach it from a completely different angle. I tend to note these at the top of my sketchbook pages when I think of them, and then use them later down the line when I can’t think of anything.
  • Random shape generation – This is an exercise I learned from the mighty Shaun Bryant. Quickly draw a half dozen random shapes in your sketchbook, then go back through and make faces/monsters/robots/characters out of them. A great exercise for loosening up!

There are also a ton of great resources out there for idea generation during the dry spells – some of my favourites are listed here:

  • Pixelovely – Hands down one of the best photo-ref/life drawing sites on the web.
  • Seventh Sanctum – Soooo many random generators to choose from for quick character/setting/monster ideas.
  • Posebook – By Stephen Silver. A series of two great apps for iPad (and other devices) that feature photosets to reference and sketch from.
  • Character Design Shuffle – Another app by Stephen Silver, we’ve used this for some very funny sketch jams at Drink and Draw before!
  • Sketch Dailies – An internet jam community that started on Twitter and has rapidly grown – features new sketch themes daily, with the best retweeted and shared.
  • Action Stock – There are TONNES of really great stock reference creators on Deviant Art, which often make great jumping off points for character sketches.

So next time you find yourself strapped for an idea as to what to sketch, give one of these a go. You never know, you may find inspiration just by browsing through some of the stock, or get an idea for a great character from a generator.

Have you got any great resources that you use or have tried? If so, I’d love to hear about them!