Doodling along with Lynda Barry


Ever since I read What It Is, I’ve been a big fan of Lynda Barry’s wild and wonderful approach to creativity. Recently, I’ve been exploring new ways of making comics using her latest book, Syllabus, as a guide.

Syllabus is a collection of class notes from the courses Barry has taught at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. These are no ordinary class notes; each page is a work of art, made up of a mixture of drawings, text, handwritten notes, and quotes.

If I lived in Wisconsin I would like nothing more than to join her course at the university. So I decided to follow along from afar, moving through the exercises in Syllabus as if I were part of her class. I’m also following Barry’s tumblr page, The Near-Sighted Monkey, where she posts extra homework and examples of her students’ work. Put this all together and it’s a pretty inspiring package.


I’m drawn to Barry’s process-oriented approach to creativity, where the experience you have whilst drawing and writing is valuable in and of itself. I also love the way in which different art forms are connected, all part of the same living image world. Most of all, I love the way she invites us to just jump in and do it.

There’s the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that is actually being made – and you can’t see it until you forget what you were trying to do.


Many of the exercises are timed. The idea is to get the hand moving fast enough that the thinking process doesn’t kick in. Barry is encouraging a quality of aliveness that isn’t about “good” or “bad” drawing.

But what if the way kids draw – that kind of line that we call childish – what if that is what a line looks like when someone is having an experience by hand? A live wire! There is an aliveness in these drawings that can’t be faked, and when I look at them, that aliveness seems to come into me. I’m glad to see them and feel them.

At the start of each class, Barry’s students complete a 2-minute self-portrait. I started each of my first few sessions with this exercise and found it to be liberating. I figured there was no way I could produce anything “good” in only 2 minutes so I just enjoyed myself instead!

Photo 01-11-2015, 10 29 52
One of my 2-minute self-portraits. Each student in Barry’s class takes on a special name for the duration of the course. I decided to join in with ‘The Lady of Shalott’, one of my long-time favourite characters from literature.
Photo 04-11-2015, 23 38 29
This self-portrait, which took a little longer than the usual 2 minutes, is drawn on one of the pages of my composition notebook, with the previous day’s work showing through. Interesting effect!

One of my favourite timed exercises is the drawing jam: you divide a piece of paper into 16 panels and write the name of an occupation or a style of person at the top of each panel. You then have 60 seconds to draw each character.

When I tried this exercise, I was amazed at the way in which the characters appeared on the page in such a short space of time. There isn’t room for the mind to butt in and plan how you are going to do it. It’s no wonder that one of Barry’s classes is called ‘The Unthinkable Mind’.

Some of the characters that appeared during my drawing jam. Each drawn in 60 seconds using non-photo blue pencil, then inked in afterwards.

Each of the exercises is a starting point from which you can shoot off in all sorts of directions. For example, you can return to your drawing jam pictures and colour them in with colouring pencils or ink areas of solid black in each panel.

StripDesigner_Strip (3)
Several of my drawing jam pictures with areas of solid black. This transforms the images and creates quite an impact!

Doodling along with Lynda Barry feels a bit like running off to join the circus. I think there is enough inspiration here to keep me going for quite some time. So far I am having a blast!

I’ll be posting my drawings from Syllabus over on my tumblr page, Divyam’s Doodles. I hope you’ll pop by and visit me there!

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