Shifting Your Perspective: Abstract Doodles and Visual Thinking
December 18, 2018
By Greg Stump, WITS Writer-in-Residence
A few years ago, I was browsing in a used bookstore when I came across a slim little offering from 1955 called Oodles of Droodles, by a cartoonist named Roger Price. The book is a compilation of minimalist doodles, each one paired up with a jokey title caption that shifts the reader’s perception of the attached shapes and patterns. Three of Price’s drawings are lined up in the image here, respectively titled “Bug Walking on a Waffle,” “Elephant Taking a Sunbath,” and “Mermaid Sliding into Home Place.”
Individually, these word-picture jokes may be a bit corny, but in a broader sense there’s something rather clever about the way they play around with our perception. We reflexively interpret visual information just about all of the time, whether reading a book or looking across the street. But until we know what Price’s doodles are titled, we can’t quite make sense of what we’re looking at. The titles allow us to understand what the author wants us to see in part because they reveal whether our intended point of view is close-up or far away, straight in front of us or from above.
I bought Price’s book because I suspected that it would lead to a fun and creative exercise for my WITS students. I’m pleased to report that turned out to be the case this fall at McClure middle school, where I’ve been teaching comics and graphic novels since 2011. I guided the “doodle titling” exercise a bit differently than Price approached the endeavor, however; I asked my students to try to invent at least two, if not three or four, titles for each image, as a spur to stretching their creative powers.
The 6th grade students in Jennifer Fanning’s first period language arts class were directed to doodle abstractly on small blank squares, and then – once the context for their efforts was revealed – to write titles for their images on the back. All were encouraged to collaborate with their tablemates by adding titles even to doodles that they didn’t draw themselves.
Three of the doodles the class created are shown here. The one on the far left has three titles – “Peonies Infinitely Growing,” “Crowding Clouds,” and “Soft Waves Crash in Four Different Places.” The middle doodle is called “Birds Looking at Each Other” and “The Big ‘X’”. The doodle on the right has three titles – “The Close-up of a Beach Ball,” “A Windmill, Spinning” and “SPIDER!!”
What I especially like about these examples from Ms. Fanning’s students is that they’re pleasing to both the eye and the mind. Taken together, the doodles complement each other visually – there’s a nice balance between the different types of marks and lines. The three doodles also invite the reader to zoom in and out, to look at triangles and imagine the shapes as birds, and to see negative space as a positive element.
Perhaps the greatest value in this kind of activity, for both the creator and the reader, is that it encourages the practice of quite literally changing one’s perspective. Not a bad habit for a writer – or a human being, for that matter.
Greg Stump has been a regular contributor to The Stranger for more than a decade. He is the co-creator of the comic book series Urban Hipster, a former writer and editor for The Comics Journal, and the creator of the weekly alternative-newspaper comic Dwarf Attack. He teaches comics through a variety of schools and organizations in the Seattle area and recently completed his first graphic novel, Disillusioned Illusions.