Building my visual vocabulary: Breaking down other people’s sketchnotes into component parts

I want to draw more expressively. Some easy ways to improve my visual vocabulary are to look at how other people draw things and practise drawing with those styles. I started by redrawing the images onto index cards, but it was a hassle to keep the index cards sorted. Besides, I wasn’t looking forward to the error-prone process of scanning all the index cards in and making them available on my phone or computer. I didn’t want to fuss about with splitting my screen and trying to draw in a small section, or browsing through pages on my tablet while redrawing things on my tablet PC. I wanted a quick and easy way to build a visual glossary in preparation for drawing things myself.

Skitch turned out to be a great way to quickly capture small sections from other people’s sketchnotes and add them to Evernote. Ctrl-% captures a screenshot. That requires too much hand gymnastics and popped up a dialog, so I used AutoHotkey to map my F5 function key to ^`%{Space}. This meant that I could hit a single key to capture the screenshot and send the previous one to Evernote, so I could keep one hand on the mouse and one hand on the keyboard. It was relaxing work, and so easy that I got a little carried away. I captured some 800 images before I sat down and started classifying them.

I wanted to label each image with a keyword that I could use to find it. Another Autohotkey shortcut mapping F6 to !nv{Enter}{Esc}{Tab}^a made it much easier to move the note to my Visual Library notebook and select the next note for editing. I settled into the rhythm of typing in keywords and pressing F6, and after a couple of hours, I’d classified all the images I’d captured so far. I spent a little time merging similar concepts for easier review, ending up with 575 entries in my visual library.

Some things I learned along the way:

  • Many sketchnotes have just a handful of images. Some feel very graphical anyway because of lettering flourishes and creative layouts. My style actually involves more mini-images than many of the ones I’ve seen, but I don’t develop them to the level of detail in some people’s sketchnotes.
  • A good portrait goes a long way. I should practise drawing people.
  • Simple shading has a nice effect. A light gray tone or a subtle shadow colour can really add depth.

There are still plenty of other sketchnotes to harvest drawings from, so I can alternate harvesting images with practising drawing them.

Links: Skitch, Evernote, Autohotkey, the Sketchnote Index

  • The people thing is useful! I always sketch out a teenie portrait of the speaker (focusing on noticeable features like pointy beards or glasses…) which helps me remember them after the event, in real life. They do end up slightly like Dilbert characters, but hey, a sketch is a sketch, and if it jogs my memory, it’s worked! :)
    Plus it makes for an amusing conversation-starter if the speaker glimpses you, or with neighbours.