Category Archives: drawing

Working with fragmented thoughts

Some days it’s hard to hold a single thought and dive deeper into it. Sometimes it’s because I get distracted by other shiny thoughts. Sometimes my interest peters out. Sometimes I bump into the limit of what I can think about on my own, without experiments or research.

I’ve come to really like the way index cards let me capture ideas that aren’t quite blog-post-sized. Technically, I haven’t drawn a physical index card since early February, but the digital index cards I draw are calibrated to that scale.

Still, some days it takes me a really long time to draw five index cards. I catch myself wondering if I’ve picked a good question. Sometimes it takes a while to find the next step in the thought. Sometimes it’s easier to let my attention drift to other things.

On the other hand, there are some days when my mind is overflowing with little thoughts. It’s pretty easy for me to switch to another index card, scribble down part of a thought, and then come back to it later.

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing -- index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

2015-06-01e Fragmented writing and drawing – index card #fuzzy #fatigue #writing #drawing #fragmentation

I’ve been figuring out a better way to work with fragmented thoughts. I tried flipping my habit by writing before drawing. Sometimes that’s a good way to clear my backlog, but sometimes it means I don’t get around to drawing.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with quickly capturing text fragments – a chunk even smaller than index cards. A few taps on my phone bring up a single-line prompt. Whatever I type into that dialog gets saved to a timestamped file named something like yyyy-mm-dd hh.mm timestamp - keyword.txt, and that’s synchronized over Dropbox to my computer. I have some code in Emacs to read those files and add them to a date-based outline, and I’ve included the code at the end of this blog post just in case it’s handy.

I’ve found myself capturing more and more of these snippets these days. When a possibly interesting thought occurs to me while I’m walking around, it’s easy enough to take a moment to unlock my phone and add a note. My Emacs-based workflow fits me a bit better than the Evernote-based one I used to use, but that’s the benefit of customization.

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts -- index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

2015-05-24e Working with surface thoughts – index card #fuzzy #drawing #thinking

There’s still the challenge of bringing those thoughts together, of course. The text titles and fragment keywords are often enough to remind me of what I was thinking and how the different thoughts might be connected to each other, and I can always open the sketches in a new window if I want to refer to them. I have an ever-growing outline of sketches that haven’t yet been chunked into blog posts, and now I have a chronological tree of these little fragments. I have another bit of Emacs Lisp that lets me quickly get a montage of the sketches listed in part of my outline. Maybe I could use that more often – perhaps even randomly picking an outline node, coming up with a montage, and prompting me to either glue the chunks together into a blog post or draw whatever’s missing.

So this is what the index card workflow looks like as a whole:

2015-05-08b My index card management system -- index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

2015-05-08b My index card management system – index card #zettelkasten #workflow #index-cards #drawing

and then the text fragments feed into the beginning of that thinking process.

It’s been almost six months of thinking with index cards. I sometimes feel pretty fragmented, but there are confounding factors so I don’t know whether that’s a side-effect of this way of thinking. But I think it’s unlikely that my past self was that much more coherent and better at concentrating. Remembering what it was like to write my notes before and what it’s like to write my notes now, I think I like this way a lot. I feel like I’m getting better at writing about the small things, not just the big things, and I’m gradually getting better at tying things together.

What might be some interesting next steps for this system?

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards -- index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

2015-06-12h 6-month reflection on index cards – index card #index-cards #drawing #zettelkasten #chunking

It might be cool to visualize how much has been chunked and what’s still isolated, in a way that’s more engaging than my outline. I’m also curious about the time separation of thoughts. For example, this post brings together four cards spread over a little more than a month, a set of connections I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow without these notes.

The fragment code I mentioned:

(defun my/read-phone-entries ()
  "Copy phone data to a summary Org file."
  (interactive)
  (mapc
   (lambda (filename)
     (let ((base (file-name-base filename)) contents timestamp category encoded-time date)
       (when (string-match "^[^ ]+ [^ ]+ \\([^ ]+\\) - \\(.*\\)" base)
         (setq time (seconds-to-time (/ (string-to-number (match-string 1 base)) 1000))
               encoded-time (decode-time time)
               date (list (elt encoded-time 4) (elt encoded-time 3) (elt encoded-time 5))
               category (match-string 2 base))
         (with-temp-buffer
           (insert-file-contents filename)
           (setq contents (s-trim (buffer-string))))
         (with-current-buffer
             (find-file "~/dropbox/tasker/summary.txt")
           (org-datetree-find-date-create date)
           (unless (save-excursion (re-search-forward (regexp-quote base) nil t))
             (goto-char (line-end-position))
             (insert "\n")
             (insert "**** " contents "  :" category ":\n" base "\n")
             (insert (format-time-string "[%Y-%m-%d %a %H:%M]\n" time))

             (if (member category '("Think" "Do"))
                 (save-excursion
                   (org-back-to-heading t)
                   (if (looking-at org-outline-regexp) (goto-char (1- (match-end 0))))
                   (unless (looking-at org-todo-regexp)
                     (org-todo "TODO"))))
             (if (string-match "^Energy \\([0-9]\\)" contents)
                 (org-set-property "ENERGY" (match-string 1 contents)))))
         (delete-file filename))))
   (directory-files "~/dropbox/tasker/data" t "\\.txt$")))

How can I make better use of my index card drawing process?

I really like this practice of working with index cards, especially now that I’ve sorted out a sweet digital workflow for them.

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow -- index card #drawing #workflow

2015-02-10 Evolution of my index card workflow – index card #drawing #workflow

I started with a straightforward workflow:

  1. Think of a question.
  2. Draw it on a paper index card.
  3. After I complete 5+ index cards, scan the cards.
  4. Convert and process the cards (colouring, etc.).
  5. Rename the cards.
  6. Upload the cards.
  7. Add them to my Flickr set (and to blog posts and so on).

I replaced my Flickr uploading process with a script. Then I replaced the paper index cards with digital index cards. I wrote another script to make renaming files easier. Then I built an outline of questions and used that to create index card templates. So now my workflow looks like this:

  1. I use Org Mode in Emacs to collect and organize questions. I use TODO states to track ones that need further research, ones that are ready to be drawn, and ones that are ready to be blogged.
  2. When I switch to tablet mode, I can select questions to draw using a custom pen-friendly Emacs interface that sets up the template for me.
  3. I upload the images using another script and add the links to my outline.

After I draft the blog post, I use another bit of code to move the relevant images out of my “To blog” directory and into another directory so that I can easily upload them (since I still haven’t tweaked the all-Emacs way of doing things the way I want them).

An index card is a good size for a chunk. It’s smaller than a blog post, so I can accelerate my learn-do-share-review cycle. If I invest more time into creating, organizing, and sharing them, I think they’ll pay off well. Other people report that their Zettelkasten (index card organization systems) become almost like conversational partners and collaborators. I already feel that way about my blog archive, and it will probably be even more

Hmm… Should I add a unique identifier to sketches so that I can refer to them more concisely than giving the full link? This mostly matters for referring to sketches in the drawing itself, since I can use links in text or metadata. For example, I can assign codes to each chunk, possibly differentiating between sketches (letters?) and blog posts (numbers?). So, maybe “2015-01-01a” for the first sketch on January 1, and “2015-01-01-1” for the first blog post? I could omit the dashes, but then searching requires that mental translation, so we’ll keep the dashes in there. The downside is that there’ll be a little additional clutter, but it might be interesting to experiment with – adding a reference line, and maybe even adding the info to the filename. It gives some linking capability that can survive the disparate systems I publish sketches to (my blog, Evernote, Flickr), even for sketches that don’t get turned into blog posts.

What about my 5-cards-a-day target?

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target -- index card #drawing #reflection

2015-02-08 Reflection on 5 index cards a day target – index card #drawing #reflection

Sometimes making five cards feels like a stretch, since I have to Think Interesting Thoughts. Using templates can help – I could make four cards and a journal entry, for example. I expect the awkwardness will subside as I build up my question store and do more research/experimentation.

Colour slows me down if I think about it too much or worry about becoming too repetitive. It might be fine to just quickly highlight things most of the time and save the development of colour sense for sessions of deliberate practice.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process -- index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my index card drawing process – index card #drawing #index-cards #zettelkasten

In terms of thinking, spending the extra few minutes to think about and capture the next questions or actions for a card can make a big difference in my focus. I can also relax my chunking guidelines so that a single sketch can be fleshed out into a quick blog post instead of waiting until I accumulate several sketches related to the topic – taking my own advice to schedule Minimum Viable Posts. If I phrase my outline in terms of questions instead of keywords, I’ll probably find that more motivating and easier to scope.

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop -- index card #tech

2015-02-09 How can I make better use of my laptop – index card #tech

That will probably also help me with some of the bottlenecks I identified while contemplating how I can make better use of my laptop. I’m doing okay at generating questions and drawing index cards, but I can do better at translating those ideas into research, experiments, and blog posts. So, I can clear out more of my backlog of index cards that I want to share (probably ending up with two months of scheduled blog posts, or maybe even more!). Then I can research and try out more ideas, so I’m not just drawing questions that I can answer with what’s currently in my head. =)

Onward!

Colour update

I think I’m getting the hang of playing with colour.

I started by digging out the coloured pens that W- gave me a long time ago. They still worked, yay! I started mixing green (and sometimes red) into my index cards. Sometimes I remembered to draw with them from the beginning, and other times I drew over black ink.

2015-01-28 11_38_42-Flickr_ Your Photostream

While going through my drawer, I came across a ten-pack of Sharpie accent highlighters and started using them too. I highlighted the cards before scanning them, which gave me an opportunity to review the card and think about what was important. I liked the highlighters more than the pens because the colours were more vivid. It was fun putting together blog posts that had index cards with different colours on them.

2015-01-26 12_03_12-Flickr_ Your Photostream

Now I’ve been experimenting with digital colour. I like this even more than the highlighters, as I get to pick any colour I want and I can erase or layer things as needed. To colour these, I added a layer on top of my image and set the layer’s mode to Multiply. The last image in this set was done with a Sharpie marker, since there were a bunch of coloured markers at the lab.

2015-01-28 11_33_49-Flickr_ Your Photostream

It’s surprisingly relaxing to colour things on my computer. I think about what colours different concepts feel like, pick a colour from the Copic colour swatches built into Autodesk Sketchbook Pro, and paint it onto the scanned index card. While I’m doing that, follow-up questions sometimes occur to me.

I’ve also been thinking about how I can draw more of these index cards on my computer. I’m going through quite a lot of index cards and I’m just about due for a pen refill, so maybe there’s a way I can draw more on my computer while reducing the mental friction. Hmm.

2015-01-30 Imagining digital index cards -- index card #drawing

There are trade-offs, of course. It’s not as easy to see other cards or organize them into piles, and my computer isn’t as handy or as portable as a deck of index cards. But still, it’s fun.

2015-01-31 Digital index card trade-offs -- index card #drawing

2015-01-31 Digital index card trade-offs – index card #drawing

Some other ideas:

2015-01-17 Playing with the index card format -- index card #drawing

2015-01-17 Playing with the index card format – index card #drawing

Drawing on my computer gives me more flexibility, since I can move things around or use whatever colours I want. The main thing I need to do, I think, is to calibrate the aspect ratio and the grid size so that the digital sketches feel like my paper ones, since an index card seems to be a good size for thoughts. I think that drawing digitally also nudges me towards more colourful sketches. Here’s an example “index card” that I drew on my computer:

2015-01-30 Sunlight in a cafe -- index card #cafe #light

Hmm. Actually, digital index cards are working out wonderfully. I’ve been tweaking my workflow and I’m quite happy with the reduced friction.

2015-02-04 Digital index cards are working well -- index card #drawing #digital

2015-02-04 Digital index cards are working well – index card #drawing #digital

I’m still not as comfortable with vibrant colours as I used to be, but I’ll get there. And yeah, it feels a little indulgent to spend the extra couple of minutes colouring each card (not that the thoughts on those cards are particularly insightful or worthy of attention), but it’s fun and it helps me learn.

Whee!

Learning from artists: making studies of ideas

When people are starting out with sketchnoting, it’s helpful to remember that sketchnoting’s about “ideas, not art” (as Mike Rohde says in The Sketchnote Handbook). It’s easy to get intimidated by the visually-impressive sketchnotes people post, so the reminder is useful.

I’ve been using sketchnotes to explore my own thoughts instead of recording other people’s content. I like flipping things around, so that got me thinking: What can I learn from the way artists work, and how can I apply that to learning and drawing?

Here are a few ideas:

2015-01-05 What can I learn from artists about learning -- index card
2015.01.05 What can I learn from artists about learning – index card

  • Collect: Artists collect inspiration. They fill sketchbooks, make moodboards, clip reference photos, and so on.
  • Emulate: Artists develop their skills by emulating masters.
  • Observe: Artists draw what’s there, not what they think is there. They also analyze the techniques other artists use and the effect of these techniques on the piece.
  • Imagine: Artists aren’t limited to what they see. They can draw what isn’t there. They can draw the essence of a thing.
  • Transform: Great art transforms the way people see.
  • Experiment: Artists try different techniques and styles to figure out what works for them.
  • Craft: Artists refine their work and improve their tools.
  • Sketch: Artists do quick studies to try several views or focus on different aspects before making the commitment of paint on canvas.

I was particularly curious about this idea of making studies or sketching things in order to experiment with different views or to focus on small parts before composing the whole, so I dug into that further.

2015-01-05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts -- index card
2015.01.05 Why studies for drawing or writing thoughts – index card

The limits I want to address are:

  • When I start with a large sheet, I sometimes peter out halfway through because I’ve dug to the bottom of that idea (at least for now, with the tools and time I have).
  • If I work with large sheets, it’s not as easy to keep all the relevant ones in view at the same time. I need to summarize more frequently.
  • I often zig-zag between topics, leaving sheets unfinished. Half-sheets are awkward to post.

2015-01-05 Quick idea studies -- index card
2015.01.05 Quick idea studies – index card

Using index cards for “studies” of an idea might be a useful technique. Each card is a small chunk, quick to capture, complete in itself, and yet linkable with others. The cards are easier to rearrange. If each card represents one idea or summary, I can keep more ideas in view.

There are trade-offs, naturally. Sometimes the desire to fill a large sheet makes me to sit with a question longer, letting me discover more. Large sheets gives me the ability to draw and describe relationships between ideas. If I have many small chunks, I need to invest more time in summarizing and filing in order to make the most of them.

2015-01-05 Managing my idea pipeline -- index card
2015.01.05 Managing my idea pipeline – index card

Artists might make studies in preparation for a specific work, or they might make studies just because. If I have a specific question in mind, it’s easy to sketch my way around the topic and then organize those thoughts into a whole. I’m not as good at managing fragments over an extended period of time, although I’m getting better at linking to and building on previous blog posts.

What can I learn from the way artists keep working on something? Artists might work on a piece for weeks or more, keeping it visible on an easel, taking a step back from time to time, looking at it in different light. They might have several such pieces on the go. I still prefer publishing early instead of waiting until something is a masterpiece. Feedback is great, and even small chunks can be surprisingly useful.

If I improve the way I manage my studies, though, I might get better at refining ideas. I think it’s like the way an artists might clip photos or sketch things that have caught their eyes, and then return to that inspiration years later when they think of something that needs it.

Speaking of archives: I’ve written about index cards before as a way to develop thoughts (2014; much like this post), plan my life (2007), and prevent boredom by writing (2005!). I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I’m getting somewhere. What can I add to this based on this reflection on artists?

I don’t do enough zoomed-in focus or variations on a theme yet, I think. Studies aren’t just about capturing the gist of a thing so that you can reproduce it later in your studio. They let you minutely observe a specific aspect, and they let you experiment with different ways to portray something.

What would that look like, if I could do it really well? For observation, I might have index cards that focus on sub-topics, like the way I’ve built up this post from the sub-questions in the illustrations. For variety, I might experiment with visual vocabulary and metaphors, improving my creative expression.

There’s also something to be said about sheer practice in exploring thoughts, like the way artists might sketch for sketching’s sake. James Altucher recommends coming up with ten ideas a day (also related: his post from 2012). I’ve been experimenting with setting myself a minimum of five index cards a day. I write the dates for all of them before I start on the first one so that the desire to fill in the blanks pushes me to complete all of them. This usually leads to even more cards as the first set of ideas sparks more questions.

Actually, the challenge isn’t generating ideas. Artists never run out of things to sketch – they can look around and find more! I have an archive of ideas I haven’t exhausted and a cornucopia that generates more every day.

2015-01-05 Thinking about my archive -- index card
2015.01.05 Thinking about my archive – index card

This leads me back to skills that I think might be good to borrow from the art world and adapt to what I want:

  • Observing what’s in front of me – really seeing it, capturing it better, evoking its essence
  • Looking at something from different angles, and developing opinions about the alternatives I can pick – like the way artists learn about composition and light
  • Retrieving subsets of my archive – like the way artists might pull out the relevant studies or reference photos when they’re working on a piece
  • Comprehending the whole – the way people can step back and talk about impressionism, Picasso’s Blue Period, and other things that require zooming out

What would masters of this be like, and how can I emulate them? I think of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies, asking and observing. I think of writers who name and describe things, and in so doing, they help me see better – the way the light behind an object separates it from the background. I may never draw or write a thousandth as well as they do, but I can grow through emulating the way they slow down and pay attention, the way they turn things over and over instead of rushing on.

Sketchnote Hangout: Playing with colour

The recent Sketchnote Hangout organized by Makayla Lewis was a good kick in the colour palette.

2015-01-17 Thoughts from Sketchnote Hangout - colour -- index card #color #drawing

 

Before the hangout, I’d settled into a pattern of black-text-with-a-little-accent (although blue ink isn’t much of an accent colour). This, despite an almost embarrassing number of recent attempts to break out of the colouring rut:

Exploring sketchnote colour styles (December 2014)

2014-12-01 Colouring inspiration guide - drawing

2014-12-01 Colouring inspiration guide – drawing

 

Building a habit of drawing with colours (January 2014)

2014-01-02-What-would-it-take-to-make-colour-part-of-my-workflow.png

 

Sketchnote Lesson: Adding color (September 2013)

2014-01-03 Exploring colours

This time! Really! It helps that I’ve added a red pen and a green pen to the ones I carry around in my vest, and that I make myself use them when I use index cards. Digitally, I’m forcing myself to expand my colour vocabulary. Since Adobe Color CC (formerly Kuler) lets you pick a pleasing colour scheme (you can also trust in the gods of randomness or popularity), I’m less likely to have the angry-fruit-salad effect, and I can push myself by using arbitrary colours until I develop a sense of what feels better. Next time I sketch on my computer, if my colour scheme isn’t already set based on a book, I might grab a screenshot and use the eyedropper to pick out colours from that.

Someday I might get back to that sheer primary-colour exuberance of my Nintendo DS sketches. Someday.

In the meantime, you may want to check out other people’s colour experiments:

Minimizing upward or downward skew in your sketchnotes

When drawing without rules or grid lines, you might find your writing skew a little upwards or downwards. I tend to skew upwards, like the way I do in the image below:

2014-11-12 What are the things I want to learn more quickly, and what would that look like?

2014-11-12 What are the things I want to learn more quickly, and what would that look like?

Minimizing skew gives you a more polished sketchnote, and you don’t end up with awkward space at the upper right or bottom right corner. It’s usually better to correct for this while drawing, since rotating images can result in fuzziness or the need to move things around to fit.

Here are some general tips for minimizing skew.

In general, it helps if you write narrower columns of text, since skew becomes more noticeable the longer your lines get. If you write in narrow columns or with short phrases, you can correct for skew by making part of the next line a little larger.

If you want, you can also mix angles so that the variety is an intentional part of your design.

If you draw on small sheets of paper or in notebooks, you can:

  • Rotate the paper so that it’s perpendicular to your usual writing angle. With experience, you’ll get a sense of how much you normally skew and how much you need to rotate what you’re drawing on in order to compensate for that.
  • Look at the edges of the paper as a guide. If you write your first line while looking at the top edge of your paper, you might find it easier to keep that perpendicular to the edge. Then you can use that as the guide for the next line, and so on.
  • Look at everything as a whole. Every so often, take a step back and look at your drawing in progress. This will help you spot skew, imbalance, and other things you can tweak while you’re drawing.
  • Draw with a guide sheet underneath your paper. If your paper is thin enough, you might be able to see lines or grids printed on a sheet slipped underneath what you’re drawing on. If so, you can use it as an invisible guide.
  • Consider using paper with very light grids or lines on it. You can leave the grid or lines as is, or you might be able to remove the grid or lines after scanning.

If you draw on large-scale rolls of paper, you can:

  • Stand up straight and use your body as a guide. With practice, you can get the hang of drawing perpendicularly to your body. Good posture helps. Of course, when you tape up your paper, make sure that it’s parallel to the floor.
  • Look at the top or bottom edge of the paper as a guide. Looking at a straight line while writing can help you write in a straight line too.
  • Step back and look at everything. This is a good time to check for balance, skew, and other things you can fix while drawing.

If you draw on a tablet or on a computer, writing in straight lines is much easier. If your drawing program supports layers, you can use one layer to show a light grid while you draw on another layer. This also helps you keep your sizes consistent even if you’re working zoomed in. Lock your grid layer so that you don’t accidentally draw on it. I use a dot grid when sketching. You can download the template I use, if you want.

Hope that helps you minimize skew in your sketches!