Bottom-Up Art

How to draw real-world objects without meaning to

Accidental psychedelic donkey face

It’s not just a cool band name (or ship name). It happened to me once! After days of doodling, I’d filled a page in my middle school notebook with detailed abstract designs. A line here, some dots there, a nice sweeping curve, etc. Then a friend walked by and asked, “Is that a donkey?” After denying this absurdity, I held my handiwork at arms’ length and...

Not only was it the face of a donkey, it was a better donkey than I’d have drawn intentionally. It boldly leapt from the page, and all who saw it instantly accused me of drawing under the influence of LSD. To top it all off, you could flip the damn thing upside down, and it was a different damn donkey.

How on earth did I accidentally draw a reversible psychedelic donkey face?

Well, it’s actually not as unlikely as it sounds.

  1. It was sure to be psychedelic-looking, because it was chocked full of weird little patterns like dots instead of photorealistic features like shaded surfaces.

  2. My intuitions about good-looking lines and patterns depend partly on everyday objects, including animals and plants. It’s hardly surprising that biology-inspired lines might accidentally produce something biological.

  3. I could’ve easily ended up drawing a dog, cat, or any other object. They’d all be as impressive as the donkey.

  4. It’s hard to draw an abstract design that doesn’t look like anything. Stare at a cloud long enough, and it’ll look like something.

So, perhaps the sudden appearance of a donkey is not so mysterious after all.


Three ways of working

The lesson here is that you can work in several ways:

  1. Start with a subject like a person or mountain. Then, choose how to represent it using colors, lines, etc. (This is called representational art.)

  2. Start with a graphical idea, like a shape or symmetry. Explore it, but avoid representing any real-world objects. (This is called abstract art.)

  3. Start with a graphical idea. Then, as the piece develops, see what object it might look like, and try to bring that out. Or, after the piece is complete, see what it looks like, and give it a title to shape how people see it. (Perhaps I could call this semi-abstract art, or bottom-up representational art.)

Here’s a piece I drew (and then post-processed and colorized using Prisma). Like the psychedelic donkey, it was drawn using method 3. Does it look like anything?

I gave it the title Cliffs of Dover. Does that change your perspective? Here’s one more:

I call it Circus. It’s got color and it’s got tents - such is my defense.

From love-sickness to line-thickness, every artwork depends on a wide range of high and low-level ideas. Use them how you like!