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How to Create Five Minute Art

Updated on June 22, 2008

Photo Reference Sources and Copyright Issues

You can find good reference photos online from These are free for artists to use. If your friends post photos on their blogs, ask permission from your friends. Or use your own digital photography. You can also find wonderful stock photography free to use without royalty or credits at These range from Stonehenge to zoo animals to landscapes, seashores and models in various costumes.

Google images are sometimes free to use by artists, check their credits and see if they give permission for people to use the photo. I've found many of these may turn up as illustrations to Wikipedia articles too. Be aware that if you use magazine photos or images you find online, the photographer owns the copyright just the same as you'll own the copyright to your art. It's possible to use copyrighted photos without violating copyright, but that rests on whether when you're done it's recognizably the same image.

Unless you already know how to adapt photo references to art without violating copyright, play it safe and use your images or images that are free to use under Creative Commons. You may have to credit the photographer of your photo reference when you exhibit or sell your art, but this is a small price to pay for being able to use a good photo reference. I usually credit my friends even if they don't ask for it when I use their photo references, it's good to get in the habit.

North Light Books also publishes a series of Artist's Photo Reference volumes created by professional artists who are good at taking their own reference photos. Search Amazon for Artist's Photo Reference and you will eventually find all the volumes. Or join the North Light Book Club for a discount, this is how I discovered that series. I collected all of them and keep watching for new titles. They are very useful, and every one of them has a chapter on how to use photo references without violating copyright.

It's not the beginners or serious professional artists that are at the greatest risk of copyright problems with photos. Beginners have trouble rendering the image accurately enough to violate copyright, and experts learn techniques for changing the image to express their personal vision.

The problem is biggest for intermediate artists who can produce beautiful results but only if they follow photos exactly. If you are in this category, be very careful about your sources. Using your own and Creative Commons images is safest, even the Artist's Photo Reference series insists that you crop or combine to make some changes to its photos.

Choosing one detail out of a big source photo, say a magazine cover, is a good way to work around it. Your composition will be different and you probably didn't pick the focal point or main subject of the big photo. Make a little cardboard cropping window and slide it around on the big photo. Stop when you see something you'd like to draw.

It also helps to copy and enlarge your reference photo, printing it out in black and white so that all you see are the values, the lights and darks. This is good for any artist to rapidly see what the main points are.

Less is more too. Don't discount your phone camera photos or webcam shots. Small low resolution images force you to use your imagination in creating details, but you can tell at a glance if they look good. Best of all, those are probably yours and have no copyright strings!

Freehand drawing is the basic skill that all other art skills grow from, including colored pencil realism. Recently I ran a Quick Draw contest on eBay. Artists, some of whom had been selling beautiful ACEOs for years, had to set a timer and create a new ACEO artwork in only five minutes or less. The results were phenomenal. Some of the entries attracted multiple bids and soared in price. Some of the artists were stunned to find out how fast they could create something basic and powerful that buyers liked.

To try this, you will need some form of clock or timer, preferably one that you can set to ding at the five minute mark. If you have a microwave oven in your room, setting the timer without turning it on can work. If you have a two and a half minute egg timer, turn it twice. Just find some way to know when your five minutes are up.

You will also need something to draw on and something to draw with. Pencils, colored pencils, felt tip pens, ballpoints, any instrument that can make a mark on paper is fine. Any form of art paper is fine -- but be sure to use good art paper. You never know with a five minute drawing if it's going to come out so well that you will have a serious artwork on your hands and wish it wasn't on lined notebook paper and colored with a highlighter that'll fade in just a year or two. So make sure your art supplies are in easy reach and that you're physically comfortable.

Last, you'll need something cool to draw. Either set up a still life with objects in your house, or find a good reference photo.

If you set up a still life, keep it simple. Pick objects like fruit or vases that don't have many fussy details and are big simple shapes with good shadows that define them three dimensionally. Set up a lamp off to the side so that the shadows are interesting shapes.

This is a lot of setup for doing a five minute drawing, but it can pay off in how well your five minute drawing works. With a still life set up, you can move around it, snap your own reference photos at different angles, draw it many different ways at different angles and build up enough preliminary work that you can later do a brilliant piece in colored pencil realism, oils, or any other medium you like.

If you want to make your Five Minute Art drawing an ACEO for sale or an ATC to swap, then cut your drawing paper into pieces that are exactly 2 1/2" x 3 1/2" and put a stack of that next to you so that as you finish one Five Minute Art drawing you can reset the timer, pick another angle or subject and do another one.

ACEO means Art Cards Editions and Originals, these can be sold. ATC means Artist Trading Cards, which must carry the artist's name, medium, date of creation, contact information and artist's signature. ACEOs originated on eBay in the ACEO Art Cards Editions & Originals group, created so that collectors could also enjoy art that fits in trading card albums without having to become artists. The small size makes it easier to do a Five Minute Art drawing because you don't have to fill in large areas shading the darks.

If you use charcoal or Conte crayons, you can work larger and fill an entire sketchbook page with your Five Minute Art. Just turn the stick on its side and use big sweeping strokes to fill in dark areas.

I did not mention erasers in the stuff you need to do this for a reason. It helps to avoid erasing at all! Just draw fast, and if you get a line wrong, ignore it and sketch the right line over it or near it. Or change what you're doing -- I moved the leopard's paw because I got the angle of the line of his paw wrong, it's one of many ways I changed the photo reference so that my Five Minute Leopard did not violate the photographer's copyright. When I had him in, I had to make up the tree for him to lay on, and it's not the same shape as what he was laying on in my reference photo because I had moved him and changed his balance.

Mistakes are serendipity. The challenge of fixing a mistake only by adding something to your drawing is a mental spur to innovation. See the possibilities in your botch. Maybe you made the vase too tall. The viewer does not know that your vase was short and fat, continue and just try to make the other side symmetrical, then the art is a drawing of a tall skinny vase. If your apple gets a little lopsided, see if it looks like a pear laying on its side and change what fruit it is by altering the shading. Nobody knows what you actually had sitting on your table. All they will see is your drawing.

Trust your eyes, not your mind for the shapes of things. Animals and objects that aren't simple cylinders, spheres or blocks will have very weird shapes, especially if they are not seen at eye level from the side showing all their legs. That's a static pose. If they're coming toward you or at an angle, they won't be shaped the way your mind symbolizes them.

Draw what's there.

Squint at what you're drawing and sketch in the main shape during the first minute. Go fast and don't hesitate. Correct the outline if you need to. Get bold. Just the basic shape is enough in that first minute.

Below is a one minute sketch of my cat. He was laying in the window on top of a row of books, looking at the birds outside. I decided his basic shape was simple enough to sketch for this stage of demonstration, so he moved when I got his head in. He turned just his head and looked at me. I added his other ear, his eyes and his nose, and that worked. I have enough information in this one minute sketch to finish my five minute drawing even though he got up off the windowsill and went over to his food dish across the room.

One minute sketch of the author's cat, Ari
One minute sketch of the author's cat, Ari

Adding Darks and Smudge Shading

I now have four minutes to shade him, get his points in and do something to render the background. I used a normal No. 2 pencil to sketch him at first, but I want to switch to a pen or darker pencil now. I spent ten minutes fiddling with Gimp to darken the scan enough that the lines show, because my initial lines are usually light so that any mistake-lines are less important than the corrected ones from when I scan.

The pencil I used for this darkening stage is a 9B Cretacolor graphite pencil, the very softest, blackest graphite pencil I have handy. "H" pencils are Hard, and make very precise pale lines, can be sharpened to a needle sharp point and are mostly used for underdrawings that you want to cover with other mediums or to make indentations in soft paper to reserve highlights. The higher the number, the harder they are.

"F" is a medium pencil a little harder than a normal pencil. HB is the standard No. 2 pencil, middling, you can get both lights and reasonable darks with it by pressure. "B" pencils are Black. They are soft and smudgy, high number B pencils like 4B or 6B or my 9B Cretacolor are almost like charcoal for how dark and smudgy they are. B range pencils are the soft pencils -- and they are the easiest to get a good thumb-smudge for shading.

This should at most take about two or three minutes. Here's Ari Cat again with his darks blocked in. Using my dark pencil I have defined his form and shaded him. Smudge shading is very good on Five Minute Art. It's a real timesaver!

I spent two minutes darkening him and getting his markings in. While I was scanning this, he finished his lunch and climbed back onto the books to lay in the same position he was in when I started drawing! Glance at your subject now and then, and if you're new to this, work with a photo or something that doesn't move. If you draw your cat from life, your first sketches should be while it's sleeping.

I could sign this drawing now, but I still have two minutes left for detailing. This is my usual pattern for Five Minute Art -- race to get it all down, have a good rough sketch in less than five minutes, then at my leisure add any details that would improve the drawing and refine it.

Darks and Shading Added

Three minute drawing of Ari Cat by author
Three minute drawing of Ari Cat by author

Finishing your Five Minute Art

Finishing off, check your three minute drawing carefully for mistakes and fix them by adding more darks. Refine the details. I was careful doing the eyes because his eyes are very pale, but he's in shadow so his pupils were very large too. I darkened his face still more and added whiskers. I added more detail to the books he's laying on and some vertical lines for the side of the window, moving it into the picture so that it'd balance the composition.

This is where you can start changing things from reality or your photo easiest. When you're this far into the drawing, you can see whether it's balancing too low or too high, add another element, darken a background element to make a light part show better like my cat's fuzzy light tummy. Between sketching and smudging, take the last minute or two to refine it.

If you are going to do any lightening or lifting, this is the stage to do it. I used a kneaded eraser to lighten his face slightly before darkening it again, so that I got one of his eyes right. A quick dab and redrawing was all it took. But don't use the eraser at all till you're at the very end when an added highlight might help, and don't try to erase anything back to white. That takes a long time and it's easier to just work around it.

When the timer goes off, place your signature and spray it with workable fixative if you used pencil, charcoal, colored pencils or pastel pencils to do it. Pen drawings don't need fixative, but colored pencil gets wax bloom and any smudgy medium like soft pencils or charcoal needs its protection or you'll lose it fast to thumbprints where you least want them.

You may have much more success on your first one with a nonmoving subject. But there are benefits to life drawing with animals that move. If you draw the same cat dozens of times, you will begin to remember how that cat looks in different poses. You'll remember its markings and details you noticed in one Five Minute Art drawing will be easy to put in on the next one even if he moved and you can't see it at the moment.

Drawing the same subject many times in your sketchbook is a good way to become very good at doing that subject. I've always liked cats and drawn cats, so naturally both my examples are some form of cat. A five minute drawing of our family dog probably wouldn't have quite such easy natural proportions, or the husky might come out somewhat cat-shaped!

So if you don't like your results from this exercise on the first try, try it again -- with the same photo, animal, person or still life. Trying it over and over, you will eventually come up with a gorgeous drawing that you might not believe you could've managed in only five minutes.

Five Minute Art also makes a daily drawing habit much easier. Keep a small sketchbook handy, and sometime during the day, set your timer and give yourself five minutes for art. You could put your timer, sketchbook and sketch pencils in your pocket and do Five Minute Art on break at work, or just do it by watching the clock in the break room. Blank ACEO cards can go into a business card holder, handy for anytime you need to wait for something -- just watch the clock and do some Five Minute Art drawings with pen.

The more often you draw, the better an eye you'll get for proportions, outlines, shading, darks and lights. So my best advice with this exercise is to do it anytime you feel like it! The more you draw, the more you'll enjoy drawing because your drawings will come out well. Date all your drawings on the back, so that you can see how much you've improved over time.

Five Minute Kitty

Bookshelf Cat, Five Minute Art by Robert A. Sloan
Bookshelf Cat, Five Minute Art by Robert A. Sloan


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    • RTalloni profile image


      7 years ago from the short journey

      An interesting read about a great drawing exercise. Thanks for posting your ideas on creating art in five minutes. "At my leisure" is very funny-- you had 2 minutes left!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Glad I could help!

    • Uzamaki profile image


      10 years ago from Uunited States Of America, MN, Osakis/Alexandria

      Yes maybe that is true for me,........... well thanks for some things on the hub that helped me, 5\5!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks! I'm glad you surprised yourself -- maybe you're a lot better than you thought you were. Sometimes having to work fast cuts through a lot of insecurity and waffling.

    • Uzamaki profile image


      10 years ago from Uunited States Of America, MN, Osakis/Alexandria

      Wow there is a difference with that my skills are my picture i drew within five minutes, maybe im just really good.

      thanks for some things i havent done before in my drawings, thanks!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks! It's done wonders for my ability to get the basics of a creature or a scene fast, then add more detail later even when I do settle down to do a serious drawing. I'm also much more likely now to do preliminary drawings and even multiple preliminary drawings before approaching a serious one and that's improved everything I do lately. Have fun!

    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      10 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      I've never done 5 minute art before, maybe I have with unfinished sketches, but not completed art of this time frame.

      Quick sketching is very useful to do though and I'll have a go at this and create some ACEO's of my own....Great hub on drawing five minute art!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks! The great thing about five minute art is that you can try it again and again. Rapid progress shows when you do that many little short drawings instead of long difficult ones. Mine look better every time and I'm already good at realistic drawing, so this exercise is good for any skill level.

    • DingoCyber profile image


      11 years ago from Lawrence, KS

      Wounderful article Robert. Makes it easier to attempt one myself.

    • profile image 

      11 years ago from San Rafael CA

      Hi Robert! This is a great article, and i know it will be helpful for many people. Practica and observation of details such as lines and shadows is so easily done when we set up our own still life using objects we find around the house -- or even a good photo.

      all the best!


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