Drawing games to spark a narrative - Garry Parsons

Visual drawing games can be a great way to spark new ideas and unleash unexpected narratives. 

Best done in groups of four or more, here are a few drawing games I've tried and tested. So invite a few friends over or gather your family to release some visual poetry and collective creativity.

Exquisite Corpse collective drawing 1927 - Max Morise, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy & Joan Miro

Pencils and paper at the ready, we're going to start with a favourite of the Surrealists, 'The Exquisite Corpse' or more widely known as 'Consequences'. I'm sure everyone has played this at some point but it never fails to amuse and also gives your pencil a warm up. I will explain the rules of the original game and  then offer a version I practised on delegates at a picture book conference earlier this summer which has a slight difference in approach.

'The Exquisite Corpse' or  'Consequences'

Each participant needs a pencil and a sheet of paper. Everyone starts by drawing a head, it can be anything, animal, human whatever, but leaving off at the neck. Making sure each player's drawing is concealed from the others, players simply fold the paper over to hide the drawing but leaving the two lines of the 'neck' visible. Each sheet is passed to the next player at the same time where they continue with the torso, concealing it with a fold again once the torso is complete and passing it on until everyone has drawn a head, a torso, a waist with legs and then the ankles with feet. Pass the still folded sheets around again and take it in turns to unfold the paper for the reveal, ta dah!

The alternative version to this I mentioned is orientated around a landscape rather than a body and is inspired by the endpapers of Rupert Annuals by illustrator Alfred Bestall.

Rupert Annual - Alfred Bestall

In his landscapes you will see the sky with a distant horizon, a middle ground, a foreground and something in close-up. So in this version of consequences everyone starts with a sky and distant horizon, passes the paper around to continue with a middle ground and so on. At any point you can add a character or hint of a character. Once the drawings are revealed challenge each player to suggest a narrative that might come from the image. Try this large scale on A3 or A2 paper for more impactful results.

Automatic Drawing or Drawing a Story from a Line.

Another visual game from the Surrealists is Automatic Drawing. Pioneered by French painter Andre Masson, the idea is to draw without thinking, trying to avoid conscious control over the picture, a kind of unconscious doodling. Try keeping your pencil in contact with the paper for some unpredictable effects. 

Andre Masson - automatic drawing

Always with an eye on leading into a narrative, I use a version of this in the classroom with primary school children with the aim of turning a simple line into a story that they can develop into a piece of writing to illustrate. In a classroom I like to stand behind a flip chart and reach around with a pen to draw a wobbly line. The children can see that I'm not looking at what I'm drawing and my intention is to not make anything recognisable. I then ask them to tell me what they see or that they feel they might be able to turn the line into. The variety of things that are suggested is always astounding. We then choose one idea to develop and keep asking 'what happens next' until a narrative starts to form. A collective story emerges, often pretty wild but a story nonetheless!

So start by closing your eyes and making a mark on the paper, keeping it as simple as possible but with a little variety, not just a straight line. Take a moment to see what the line suggests to you and add to your line to develop it. You can turn your paper anyway you wish to get started. Then simply keep drawing or writing to develop the narrative. In the classroom, we often end up with a few sheets of drawings that have stemmed from the first,  becoming like page turns in a picture book or a comic. As the story unfolds we give it a working title and even make a plan for the look of the cover. Using this 'line' method works well with people who might feel inhibited or reluctant to draw.

Challenge the Illustrator

The next drawing game came form a conversation with author Josh Lacey on a train travelling to a school event we were attending together. During the conversation I nonchalantly announced that "I can draw anything".  Thinking this a little arrogant,  Josh asked the pupils at the school to come up with impossibly difficult things for me to draw as a challenge to the illustrator.  We discovered that this was not only very funny but also a great way to begin a story narrative and set the pupils thinking about writing. This proved such good fun that we incorporated it into our school events and added a few rules...

Ask people in your group to think up an animal, a mode of transport and a scene or setting. Consider a few suggestions and settle on one idea for each topic. Combine each element into one drawing (as best you can!) and then continue to explore the narrative from the drawing by considering 'what happens next' and 'what might have happened before' and write down what you come up with. 

Drawing from collective suggested topics - Tapir, a tractor and Earth's orbit.


Re-Assembling Reality or sticking together cut-out images!

The Surrealist Max Ernst invented this method of pasting together different 'cut-out' images which have a similar look or quality, principally taken from printed publications, magazines or books, and re-assembled  into new pictures. These new 'illustrations' were often dream-like or erring on the comical or grotesque. 

Max Ernst 'Women reveling violently and waving in menacing air' 1929

Collage took on lots of forms for the Surrealists but can also be good visual way to spark story narratives. I recently took part in a 're-assembly' exercise with a group of authors and illustrators who were given a pile of magazines to sift through and a pair of scissors and a sick of glue. I came up with this..

These exercises may not turn into fully a formed picture book but they are a fun and invigorating way to start the creative process and shake things up. Consider them more as creative yoga or visual warm up exercises for the creative mind!


Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children's books and a lover of Surrealism. www.garryparsons.co.uk

You can follow Garry @icandrawdinos

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