Activity: drawing prompts

Here’s  a warm-up exercise whose goal is to activate your drawing and storytelling muscles at the same time. It could be a classroom activity but it also works great to do on your own, at home or in a café or bar. This is also the first of a number of posts we will be doing that are previews of material from Mastering Comics (DWWP2), due out in the spring of 2012.


  • Office paper or sketchbook
  • Brush and india ink (or a brush pen)
  • penciling and inking tools



1. Draw a six-panel grid on your piece of paper.

2. Get out your brush, ink it up, and, without thinking too hard or planning in advance, quickly make a single mark in each panel: a line, a squiggle, a blot, in different sizes and densities. Rinse out your brush and let your marks dry.

3. Look at each panel and try to see shapes or parts of outlines in the marks you’ve made: the curve of a nose, for example, or the drape of a coat, a tree, whatever. Take a pencil (or inking tool) and add to the marks, drawing what you see in your mind’s eye. Do this for each panel.

4. Now hold the page back and read the six panels in sequence. Is there a story implied there? Look for suggestions of a narrative thread and tease it out by adding to each panel: backgrounds, new figures, dialogue, sound effects. One of your marks may lead to the creation of a character who becomes your protagonist. In that case you may choose to re-draw him in other panels to give the story better continuity and flow.

A version by Matt

I tested this activity out in a café one afternoon last spring using a small sketchbook about 5″ x 6″, a Rapidograph (size 2/.60) and a Pentel brushpen:

You might notice that I decided panel 5 was too sparse so I made a few more brush strokes.

The spot in the third panel and the general barren-ness suggested by the scant marks led to me sketching a figure standing alone in a sun-bleached desert. My earliest doodles (not recorded) had the mark in the last panel as a bushy eyebrow of a full-panel face (The influence of that brow can be seen in panel 2). After a while—and looking for some kind of narrative development—I realized that mark could also be a storm cloud, suggesting an opposition to the sun dominating the other panels. The squiggles I added to the fifth panel, a zig-zaggy sort of movement, then began to suggest a rain dance of some sort.

I started to ink in my outlines with the pen and to embellish with a brush pen. The backwards C shape in panel 4 eventually led me to give the character a mohawk.

This being a warm up exercise, I tried to do it as quickly as possible and as you can see noted below, I did all of this in about half an hour. I had a correction pen (a really neat one I got a Muji) that I used for corrections but I tried not to be obsessive about it.

Here’s a scan of the finished comic. I adjusted the levels for crisp blacks but I don’t think I did much if any correction to the image:

Variations on the activity

©Isaac Cates and Michael Wenthe

Collaborative cartoonists Isaac Cates and Michael Wenthe turned this activity into and jam comic, with each artist drawing blobs for the other to turn into coherent shapes. Then they exchanged two more times to end up with a finished comic. What’s nice about this is the way it ensures spontaneity: you can’t help yourself in advance by tailoring your “random” blobs to some kind of narrative you may see developing. You can see two results here.


©Austin Kleon

Instead of doing ink blots, Austin Kleon made marks by dropping a teabag on his page and then turned it into a comic using ink, resulting in a comic that is both two-toned but also where you can clearly see the original marks even after they’ve been transformed. You can see several examples here.

[this post originally appeared, in slightly different form on Matt’s blog]


1 Comment to Activity: drawing prompts

  • by jahhdog

    On June 15, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    Cool. I like this idea. I used to do it in my sketchbook but usually for just one picture…


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