Wk 12: Automatic Drawing

Automatic, or tandem, or partner drawing, is a chance to draw interactively with another person. A chance to draw from a deeper part of your brain.

photo of Makoto Sasaki making many thousands of tiny red marks on huge sheets of paper Heartbeat Drawing Since 1995, Makoto Sasaki

Optional Meetup

Wednesday 16 August '17 -- 6-8pm -- Glenn's Place

For our last Optional Meetup, and our Last Activity of the summer, you can optionally come by my place. It can be a little potluck finale if anyone would like. And as a bonus, I'll provide the drawing materials, so you can save a few dollars and a bit of art supply shopping time.

What is Drawing?

When I say "Drawing," you might think of taking a pencil and depicting something like a house, a tree, or a person on a piece of paper. A lot of drawing is like this! Some of it might be highly representational. Some might be more abstract or stylized. Either way, a lot of drawing does think about representing things in the physical world. People have done this for centuries. No doubt people will continue to make and enjoy representational drawings for many centuries to come.

But this isn't the only thing drawing can do. Drawing's domain is wider. Drawing can be any sort of mark making with a pencil, or pen, or brush. In the image above Makoto Sasaki is doing a different kind of drawing. In fact his drawing is "representational," but not in the traditional sense of depicting a house, or tree, or person. In this drawing Sasaki is making a tiny red hash mark for every time his heart beats. The huge sheet of paper you see represents many thousands or perhaps even millions of heartbeats. This type of drawing may be less common, but it is still "drawing". It is still making a mark.

the box cover of a Spirograph toy showing a young boy holding some of his Spirograph drawings Spirograph!

Human Spirograph?

Did you ever play with a Spirograph as a kid? It's a bunch of plastic gears with different numbers of teeth that let you draw all kinds of geometric patterns.

It turns out you don't even need a Spirograph! You can be the Spirograph! You won't get perfect geometry like with a Spirograph, but you'll get much more vibrant and alive drawings. Plus those old Spirograph pens were pretty crummy. With a really nice Prismacolor Nupastel stick, or a Daiso Oil Crayon, drawn on a sheet of glorious, toothy Rives BFK, you'll get some deliciously textured and alive lines.

Elizabeth Moledo and her boyfriend Aaron making an Automatic Drawing by facing each other, holding their hands on a pencil over a sheet of drawing paper between them, and letting the pencil go where it will Elizabeth Moledo

Automatic Drawing

You'll need a partner for this. A boyfriend or girlfriend would be ideal. A sister, brother, friend, neighbor, or parent would also be great. It's better if the room is dark. Candlelight would be great. If you're over 21 you might like to have a glass of wine.


  1. Drawing Paper - if at all possible get a 22"x30" sheet of paper! Smaller will work, but 22x30" is a much better experience. Try to drop by any art store and grab a nice sheet of drawing paper. White paper works great, but a white pastel on black paper is also awesome.
  2. Drawing Board - You'll need some kind of firm surface to tape your sheet of paper down on. A piece of plywood or masonite or even drywall, would be ideal. Or a game board, TV tray top, or whatever you can find around.
  3. Drawing Tools - Pencils, markers and all sorts of tools are possible. But something that can respond to the "tooth" of your drawing paper will give you the nicest drawing quality. My 2 favorites are either Prismacolor Nupastel or Daiso Oil Crayons. The sets of Prismacolor Nupastel are a little expensive, but you might be able to buy a few colors separately. Or split a small set with a few classmates. Try putting a note up on Slack! The Prismacolor nuPastel actually make a much nicer line than the 24 Daiso Oil Crayons. But 24 oil crayos for $1.50 is the deal of the century! Daiso has other types of "crayons" but they're all pretty crummy. Their Oil Crayons are surprisingly nice!

Image of a Prismacolor Nupastel stick and a sample line
Prismacolor Nupastel

a box of 24 oil crayons from Japanese super-discount store Daiso!
Daiso Oil Crayons


  1. Daiso Oil Crayons only have a bit of crayon sticking out from the paper, and you might draw a lot. So I like to take a knife and carefully cut the paper and take it off. I just use the raw crayon. Crayons and Pastels are fragile and might break while you're drawing. Usually you can just keep going anyway - don't stop - just draw. The broken crayon will probably work just fine as long as your hands are holding it together.
  2. Tape your 22x30" sheet of drawing paper down on some sort of board.
  3. Sit on the floor facing your drawing partner. Legs crossed, knees touching would be ideal.
  4. Put your drawing paper & board between you. Resting it on top of your legs is probably best. Or it could go on the floor between you.
  5. Place your pastel in the middle of the paper and hold it with all 4 of your hands. Your thumb & index finger, then your partners, then your other hand, then theirs.
  6. Close your eyes and relax.
  7. Be patient! You might feel silly and want to laugh. It's ok to laugh. But the more you laugh, probably the less you'll draw. Let the laughs go, and then just relax and try to be patient. Sort of like meditation. You can have eyes open or closed. You can talk or be silent. You can play music or not.
  8. Don't push the pastel. Sooner or later it will just start to move "by itself". Let the pastel do it's thing for a while.

Automatic Drawing samples

I'll be honest

I'll be honest, some students hate this activity. I think for them it's either too weird, or else they put their hands on the pencil for 10 minutes and it barely moves.

I can sort of understand how this could happen. But I've gotta tell you, it's the opposite of every time I've ever tried this. No matter who I've drawn with, the pencil always seems to move almost instantly. And it's always powerful. Sometimes it's crazy how dramatic the movements are. I don't even know where it comes from, but it's exhilarating!

Actually I do know where it comes from. Or at least I think I do. If you've ever heard that myth that we only use 10% of our brains, I think that's false, but what I do think is true is that we only have conscious access to a small part of the vastness of our human minds. Often we seek Psychologists or Psychics or Priests for kind of the same reason - to help us bring into consciousness that which is already within us, but which we do not have conscious access to. There's a wonderful line in the 1st episode of the old Star Trek: Deep Space 9 TV show:

I cannot give you what you deny yourself. Look for solutions from within, commander.

I think Automatic Drawing is kind of like that. If you consciously decided to push the pencil over to the corner, I think both you and your partner would feel it was "fake" and mechanical and not compelling. But if you just let go of conscious control, and let some deeper part of your brain, the basal ganglia, the motor cortex, move the pencil, you can really produce dramatic results. You can get into a rhythm with the pencil. A dance.

Automatic Drawing works in bright light in a loud party, or anywhere else. But dim lighting and music you like might help. You might try to concentrate on an idea or emotion. I recently made pairs (diptychs) of drawings where we first concentrated on Anger & Frustration, and then for the second drawing we concenrated on Joy & Human Fulfillment. It worked really well.

Let's be honest. You're doing this for a class assignment, not because you thought it'd be the coolest thing. It's like forcing a friend who hates video games to play your favorite game. Of course they're not going to love it the way you do. But try to let go of any reservations and see what happens. It might be amazing!

Your Blog Post

  • Photo of your drawing
  • Photo of you, drawing
  • Discuss the experience
  • Discuss the results

Katherine Shinno with her older sister Melanie making an Automatic Drawing. They sit on the floor facing each other with a sheet of paper between them. In their hands they jointly hold a pencil. They try to relax and let the pencil wander where it will. Katherine Shinno

automatic drawing Glenn Zucman & Linda Erben


Once you've made a drawing and documented it in your blog post... you're done!

However, sometimes students want to go further with their drawing. It is your drawing, so of course you can do anything you like with it! Take a picture of it when you finish the Automatic Drawing and then enhance it as you like. Here's a couple of cool examples.

Hannah Mandias used her automatic drawing as the starting point for a much larger drawing. The original drawing is in there, but she's really taken it to a different place!

Helen Lee stayed more with the actual automatic drawing. But what she did was to take the chaos of the original and give it structure by highlighting and focusing on areas. It's interesting to see how the subconscious minds of Helen and her drawing partner created a drawing that had an exciting rhythm, but was also somewhat amorphous, and then how her conscious mind came back in to make it feel more structured and add a sense of intentionality.

Hannah and Helen both made really successful drawings. You don't have to do any of this. But if you want to, you might try what Hannah did, or what Helen did, or you might just explore and discover your own way of making something that flows out of your original drawing.

Helen Lee, original Helen Lee, original

Helen Lee, enhanced Helen Lee, enhanced