Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Drawing with Imagination - strategies for creativity

Bert Dodson's second book explores what it means to draw from your imagination, for those who want to learn how to be more creative in the way they draw.
Imagining is what you do in your head. Creating is what you do on paper
Bert Dodson
His first book Keys To Drawing is the best selling art title from North Light Books; one of my favourite drawing books of all time and is one of only two that I recommend to those starting to learn to draw. Earlier this year his second book Keys to Drawing with Imagination was finally published. This book is not about learning to draw as such. It's aimed much more at the intermediate artist who wants to focus on ways of becoming more creative.
Creativity occurs in action
Bert Dodson
I saw the book at the proof stage in Bert's studio in Vermont (see below and Bert Dodson and 'Keys to Drawing with Imagination'). You can have a sample read inside the book - sample pages include the introduction, doodling, noodling ideas for shading, add-on drawings, macro drawing, mirror imaging, interpreting nature, describing form with line and the contents and index pages which give an indication on the rest of the book.

Bert Dodson in his Vermont studio - with the page proofs
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Now I was supposed to be reviewing the book but something went wrong with the despatch and in the end my copy took forever to arrive, then Bert sent me a signed copy and eventually I ended up with two. But the moment was very much past in terms of coinciding with publication - so I decided to wait until I did my review of drawing books planned for later in the year - so here we finally are - all on the same page! However the mishap with delivery does mean that I can make the second unsigned copy an award as part of the end of year Making A Mark Awards!

The subtitle of Keys to Drawing with Imagination says it's about strategies and exercises for gaining confidence and enhancing your creativity. Now I have to confess I don't think of myself as a creative drawer except in terms of treatment of a subject. My squiggles and doodles have always been fairly geometric and abstract and never ever evolved into anything. Which results in me not thinking of myself as particularly creative and this book would not have been the first one I'd reach for if I was presented with a shelf of new drawing books. Indeed I might not even have looked at it unless I'd visited Bert and then had copies sent to me.
Creativity emerges in experimentation, manipulation and exploration
Bert Dodson
However, I was always a very creative thinker when it came to graphic reviews of problems or representing problems in terms of solutions in a previous life as a consultant. In fact one of my ex-boss's favourite strategies used to be to get me in front of the white board to draw the problem and then see what I came up with in terms of how that could be reworked in order to extract the solution. Give me a white board and I'll cover it! So, I'm not quite sure why I should be so amazed when I began to read the book and study the exercises. So much of what Bert recommends as strategies for enhancing creativity are about how to be creative period.

The book is project based structured around a number of different notions: doodling and noodling; drawing a new reality; stretching the truth; visualising ideas; storytelling; exploring pattern; mining culture and exploring themes. He introduces each theme and identifies the principles eg of doodling, annotates the images which illustrate it and then identifies an exercise to complete for each different strategy.

I found a lot of the things he had to say are ideas which can be used by any artist wanting to stretch themselves and their ideas about what their art should look like. What I liked was the book gave technical terms to things which I just 'do' without quite knowing why - and helped me understand better how to use them. I also realised it helped me to understand better the strategies employed by other artists in developing their work.

One particularly good aspect of this book is Bert's choice of a wide range of different artists and illustrators to demonstrate how they exemplify one of the creative directions identified by the book or just demonstratin how they develop a theme. They include R Crumb, Maya Lin, Alan E Cober, Steven Guarnaccia and Stephen Huneck. As I've mentioned before in these book reviews, just seeing what other people do sparks creative thought processes.

I think the two sections I enjoyed the most were a couple towards the end on mining culture and exploring themes - maybe because they helped me to understand what I could do to expand what I've already been doing - seeing other ways of seeing.

The book is heavy on images and economical with words. Which is not to say it's not informative but rather that the words are well chosen, the book is well written and the images are very informative and stimulating. It's produced using very good quality paper and the printing is excellent. It has a covered spiral binding which is so sensible for art instruction books as it means the book can lie flat next to you while you try out exercises. I can't think why more art publishers don't adopt this method of presentation for their instruction books.

Pencils rating: As with the other other books I've been reviewing I think this book deserves a two-part rating.
  • Five pencils: for all those who would like to enhance their creativity and work more from their imagination.
  • Four pencils: for those who prefer realism but want to look for more creativity in the way they describe objects.
I would note at this stage I got a lot feedback on this blog and elsewhere after I wrote my book review of Keys to Drawing indicating that it was very highly rated by people who were interested in drawing and/or expanding their drawing skills. If you believe that what people have produced is a good indicator of what is to follow I suggest you give this book a try on Bert's track record alone.

Overall, this book made me realise that I'm a lot more creative than I was giving myself credit for and that taking time out to study and do exercises to stimulate creativity might be more rewarding than I was expecting.

Finally, I'd also like to recommend this book for the purely personal reason that having got to know him a little I now appreciate that Bert knows a huge amount about drawing as a practitioner, is one of the nicest people I've ever met in the art world, plus he introduced me to Gladwell's 'The Tipping Point' and helped me to understand my maven potential!

What other reviewers think

Here are some other other reviews of Keys to Drawing with Imagination.
  • a review by Charley Parker at Lines and Colors. Charley got his review book on time and did a very thorough review of it just after publication - which is particularly useful for all those with a creative bent because besides being a blogger Charley is also a webcomics artist, cartoonist and illustrator.
  • Customer reviews of this book on - the consensus is very much in favour of the book
  • Helen South at has a very brief review of it here
Keys to Drawing

This is my review of Keys to Drawing - Bert Dodson's first book and one of the books that I always recommend to people wanting to learn how to draw. This definitely deserves a 5 pencils rating.

[Note - the post has been updated to correct an error and include links to identified artists]



  1. Soundslike a great book--I will definetly order it. I've spent so much time on color and composition, I think I am ready to revisit drawing, the foundation of representational art.

  2. I've had this book on my Amazon wishlist since it first came out. O agree with you about the value of his previous book. Thanks for describing this one so thoroughly and for the nice introduction to Mr. Dodson.


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