I have always been a 2D based artist, not for lack of trying to branch out. I can make a 2-dimensional plane on paper look 3-dimensional, but when it comes to actually constructing a 3-dimensional object … my brain just does not work that way.
I studied interior design in college, and I remember dreading the 3D model portion of each semester-long project. This is the one and only photograph I have of any of my models, and it is taken in aerial view because that was literally the only acceptable angle I could manage. At least this one wasn’t cut out of a Lucky Charms cereal box. Yes, I really turned in a model covered in pictures of colorful, Leprechaun themed marshmallows. Yes, it was sad. Now they have 3D printers for this crap.
For other artists out there who only travel in the world of 2D, it can be easy to feel stuck in a rut materials-wise. After all, you can make sculptures out of anything.
If you think outside the box, “flat” art on paper or canvas doesn’t have to be limiting. Here are 10 ways I’ve found that can spice up your current drawings or paintings, no matter what style you enjoy working in.
1. Add Text
Adding pattern based text, small print from books, magazines, or the newspaper, automatically adds not physical but visual texture to a piece. It is a simple, intriguing way to add the appearance of greater detail to your piece, whether it is ripped and layered in the background or cut into shapes to fill in focal objects in the foreground.
The meaning of the words don’t have to be important. Or, you can choose theme appropriate text and emphasize certain words to add to your piece’s meaning. This is a popular technique borrowed from art journaling and found text poetry.
2. Include Texture
2D doesn’t have to mean completely smooth and flat. Oftentimes painters paint with a palette knife, slathering on thick layers of paint to create an uneven surface that raises and dips to create visual interest. Gesso can also be used to build up an uneven surface on canvas. Another option is applying mixed media elements to paper to create a textured surface. In the piece above, I crumpled white fabric and dipped it in glue, applying it to the surface for the ground. I crinkled and rolled strips of book pages for the raised texture in the tree trunks and branches.
3. Accent With Metallics
Varying the surface sheen in a piece is a way to once again increase the visual interest, thus drawing viewer’s eyes and keeping their attention. Metallics are definitely something you want to use with restraint, but when not overdone they can really elevate a piece. It is harder to tell in a photo but in the drawing above, I used silver prismacolor for both the sleeves on her dress and the streaks in the pattern on the brim of her hat.
4. Include Pops of Color
Adding elements of color amongst an image of mostly black and white is a technique inspired by photo-manipulation. Photographers have been tinting black and white photos since long before Photoshop was ever conceived.
Our eyes are naturally drawn to contrast, and including a bright color or two within a sea of black and white provides a “surprise” for the viewer.
5. Draw Viewers To The Eyes
I may be a bit biased because eyes are my favorite part of the face to draw or paint, but then there is that famous saying, “eyes are the windows to the soul”. There are quite a few articles floating around online about a scientific study that found that staring into someone’s eyes for 10 minutes straight can even cause hallucinations. All this suggests that eyes themselves are something of an intense element. Whether depicting people or animals, using visual elements in your piece that guide the viewer’s eye to meet the eyes of your subject is sure to keep viewers locked on your piece longer, and to create a more dynamic composition.
6. Don’t Ignore The Background.
I used to be guilty of being a huge background-ignorer. Now, you don’t want a fully fleshed out, detailed, photo-realistic background all the time, and in some pieces there is a lot to be said for white space. But, there is a difference between a background looking purposefully understated to emphasize the main focus and a background looking incomplete, like the artist just ran out of ideas and didn’t want to bother. There are two pieces shown above, one from 5 years ago on the left and one from 2 years ago on the right. Notice the difference something as simple as some softly outlined trees makes. The background is still mostly white, but it looks complete.
7. Collaborate With Other Artists
This is a hard one for me, because I honestly hate collaborating. I’m the kid in school who dreaded partner assignments. I always wanted to work on projects alone, even if it meant I had to do triple the work. I have a hard time letting go of control and not getting to make all the creative decisions myself. However, you learn so much from working with other artists, especially if their style is the complete opposite of yours as was the case in the two collaborations above. Do I necessarily like the collaborative pieces above better than the work I traditionally do on my own? To be honest, nope, but that’s not the point. I practiced techniques and styles I never would have attempted otherwise, which has given me ideas in other pieces I’ve done on my own.
8. Carry Around A Sketch Journal
Not only is keeping a sketch journal super stress relieving (the above was me relieving some of my fun relational stress by comically depicting how I felt in the moment), but it provides an arsenal of recorded ideas and references to use and combine in future pieces. Life is busy, and I strongly believe we forget most of our best ideas because they happen spontaneously when we are in the middle of doing something, and we think oh I’ll remember it later and of course that never happens. Making yourself carve out a specific time to sit down and sketch may be good practice, but it isn’t when you’ll get your best ideas.
9. Draw From A Collage
One of my assignments in Drawing 101 way back in freshman year of college was to create a collage, and then draw straight from it. This technique is a great way to organize the elements in a piece, and visually construct your conceptual vision. You end up with juxtapositions of disparate elements that you may never have placed together otherwise.
10. Be Purposefully Imperfect
This comes back to one of those things I learned through reluctant artist collaboration. I am a clean edged, smooth lines kind of person and I always used to look at smudges and drips as mistakes, not a tool an artist could use on purpose. Now, I am in love with it and every piece I create that includes watercolor has dripping or bleeding somewhere in it. For the longest time throughout art history, the purpose of creating a drawing or painting was to fool the eye into thinking what it was looking at was real, especially before photographs. The informality of declaring to the world, “Look! This is made out of paint, see the brushstrokes, see the dripping?” shakes up a piece, and the viewer’s expectation. In this particular piece above, the surrounding world was supposed to look as it would through the eyes of the subject, a child. The sketchy, imperfect outline of the colorful buildings behind help emphasize that.
Step out of that artistic rut and try something new. Other 2D artists out there, what do you do to add interest to your own work? What draws you to a piece when looking at a 2D work?