Drawing on the Big Screen

Jennifer Lawrence drawing in the movie “Joy” (2015)

Note: Although posted in 2015, this piece still has a lot of excellent information about the role of drawing in the movies.

Whether it be a cameo appearance, or a major role, drawing can play an important part in the success of a motion picture. For years I’ve taken note on how drawing is used as a storytelling device in movies, and the many ways characters are shown drawing in everyday life. Here are highlights from my list of past indie and major films as well as some of this year’s Oscar contenders that feature drawing scenes. So grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for best actress in the movie Joy, portrays a woman struggling against the odds to bring her idea for a self-wringing mop to life. When she finally decides to get serious about presenting the idea to investors, she borrows her daughter’s crayons, avoids all distraction, and makes her ideas visible through numerous concept drawings.

Joy makes her ideas visible through drawing

Drawing scenes can present a pivotal point in a story when a character like Joy faces a problem, visualizes a way to solve it, then sketches the solution. The momentum in the movie changed dramatically after the scene where our protagonist uses drawings to explain her innovative design. “Three hundred feet of continuous cotton loops, that’s what I drew,” she exclaimed while presenting her drawings to family members. Joy’s simple sketches evolved to become a mop that made the lives of its buyers easier, vaulting her from fledgling entrepreneur to Home Shopping Network product mogul.

To move a story forward, film makers can use the act of drawing as a powerful visual device instead of words to depict emotional moments between characters. Maybe you’ll remember these drawing scenes:

Drawing Out Emotions

Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet portray lovers in what is arguably the most famous drawing scene in movie history

What better way to express deep love for someone than to capture their portrait? In the movie Titanic (1997), Leonardo Dicaprio plays Jack, a drifter artist who boards as a 3rd class passenger on the Titanic’s ill-fated 1929 voyage. In the memorable scene when he draws Rose, an upper deck passenger, we watch their youthful encounter transform into eternal love through a sensually rendered nude portrait. Incidentally, the iconic drawing of Rose was actually created by the film’s director, James Cameron. And it played an important role in Titanic winning 11 academy awards, including best picture.

Actress Alicia Vikander as artist Gerda Wegener puts her drawing skills to work

In the Oscar-nominated film The Danish Girl (2015) Alicia Vikander plays artist Gerda Wegener. During a pivotal scene, Gerda begins a sketch of her husband Einar, played by Eddie Redmayne. The sketch marks the beginning of Gerda’s search for a new stylistic direction in her art and launches Einar’s journey as a transgender pioneer.

For her Oscar-winning performance of Gerda, Virkander needed to learn to draw confidently before the camera. “They gave me a piece of charcoal, that was my first task .…You have three minutes, the task is you can’t lift the charcoal off the paper.” She still has some “very nice charcoals and drawing books” from her lessons, she said during an interview.

In another Oscar-nominated movie for best screenplay, Vikander again uses drawing to capture a portrait of a man, but this time while playing a very different role.

A remarkably intelligent robot is adroit at sketching while blurring the boundaries between artificial and real creativity

Surely even the most advanced artificial intelligence can never exhibit the true emotional sensitivity of a human being, right? Eva, played by Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015) convinces us otherwise as she shows Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, a drawing she made of a tree; then she proceeds to masterfully sketch his likeness in a portrait. In the end, we are left to ponder; in all the circuitry of her programmed intelligence, will Eva discover what it’s like to be human, maybe even choose to become an artist?

Finnegan Bell attempts to capture his muse with conte crayon in hand

And speaking of relationships between artist and model; a runner up to Jack’s seductive Titanic portrait of Rose is the drawing of Estelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, by Finnegan Bell, played by Ethan Hawk, in the modern movie adaption of Dickens’ Great Expectations (1998). Even though the artistic styles and romantic consequences were very different for Finnegan and Jack, both drawing scenes successfully portray the emotional intensity needed for an artist to capture their model.

Recording Life’s Experiences, Real and Imagined

The pages of an old man’s sketchbook become the narrative of “The Little Prince” (2015)

The Little Prince is an animated feature film told through a whimsically illustrated sketchbook belonging to The Aviator, an eccentric character voiced by Jeff Bridges. The opening scene introduces us to the back story of when he was a young man and encountered The Little Prince. “Draw me a sheep,” commanded The Little Prince. The Aviator’s pencil hesitated as he replied, “I don’t know how to draw.”

Soon the movie’s protagonist, a stressed-out little girl, enters the picture and becomes The Aviator’s neighbor. She befriends him and rediscovers her childhood through the pages in his sketchbook. This richly animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s literary masterpiece uses drawing as an anchor for the movie’s imaginative narrative on friendship.

Urban sketching and diligent note-taking tell the story of “Hector and the Search For Happiness” (2014)

Using drawing as a tool for research, a psychiatrist travels the globe searching for the secret of living a happy and fulfilled life. Hector, played by Simon Pegg, becomes obsessed with recording his experiences in his journal. His sketches become delightful animations that dance to life on the screen, providing the framework for the story of Hector and the Search For Happiness. We also see how a person can use drawing to think visually and organize events in their daily life.

James is a teenager who seeks solace while recording life’s experiences in his sketchbook

Since drawing is a popular pastime for many adolescents, it can become an effective device for story structure in coming-of-age films. In All the Wilderness (2014) James, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, struggles with the absence of his father as he retreats to his sketchbooks for therapy. As James ventures nightly into a city—his own wilderness—scenes of him drawing offer powerful glimpses of his battle of coming to terms with why his father left him and how to find true love with a girl that comes into his life.

In “Bridge to Terabithia” (2007) a boy and girl draw plans for a fantasy world that comes to life

Drawing is often used to show movie characters escaping reality by transporting themselves into fantastic, imaginary worlds. Jesse Aarons, played by Josh Hutcherson, befriends a girl named Leslie, played by AnnaSophia Robb. They draw elaborate plans as they create Terabithia, a land complete with monsters and trolls. In the movie, Bridge to Terabithia, Jesse’s imaginary world becomes a refuge from bullies and the struggles of boyhood, but comes crashing down when real life drama intervenes. As the saying goes: Life is what happens to us when we’re busy making (drawing) other plans.

We follow a stubbornly creative girl into an eerie fantasy world composed of her own drawings in “MirrorMask” (2000)

Trying to comfort 15 year old Helena, played by Stephanie Leonidas, her father offers a comment as she draws with charcoal on cement, “This is really good. What’s it called?” Upset by the graveness of her mother’s illness, Helena snaps to her father, “It’s just a drawing, it’s not called anything.” It is this confused teenage girl’s penchant for drawing that becomes the point of departure for a wildly visual adventure into her vivid imagination in the movie MirrorMask.

It’s rare that a film transports us to the heart of drawing—where the artist becomes so immersed in the process of drawing, they actually become their drawing. Helena’s obsession with drawing helps her to escape tenuous relationships and her frustration with being a juggler in her family’s circus. Unlike the common teenage fantasy of leaving the struggles of real life behind to join a circus, Helena fantasizes about leaving the circus to join real life. Her bedroom wall, covered with her fantastic drawings, becomes a mysterious portal as she accidentally steps into a world populated by the creepy sphinxes and monkeybirds from her drawings.

MirrorMask is one of my favorite little cinematic gems where drawing serves as a way for characters to work creatively through life’s challenges while inspiring us to face our own. Hat’s off to the movie-making dreamteam of writer Neil Gaiman, director Dave McKean, and the Jim Henson Company for conjuring up this stunning visual feast.

An endearing little mouse named Celestine proves that it takes determination, and oftentimes courage, to keep drawing—even when being told by over-bearing adults that drawing is a complete waste of time.

For me, there’s only one thing more wonderful than a beautiful hand-drawn feature-length animated film, and that is when the film is based on the protagonist’s desire to draw. In the Oscar-nominated animated film Ernest and Celestine (2012), a young mouse forms a forbidden relationship with a bumbling bear, thus beginning a heartwarming journey from fear to true friendship, the sub-themes of being steadfast in one’s art and the importance of nurturing creativity—in particular, drawing—are the foundation of this Oscar-nominated masterpiece. I’ve written more about this beautiful little film in another blog post.

A teenage boy uses drawing to plot revenge in The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys (2002)

Francis, played by Emile Hirsch, and Tim, played by Kieran Culkin are two teenagers confined within the walls of a Catholic school. Faced with battling hormones, strict nuns, and relentless boredom the rebellious duo escape from parish school life by way of Francis’ comic book drawings. Even though The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys spins into a revenge tale, adolescent drawings and clever animations give the story the feel of a graphic novel.

After Francis’ mischievous Catholic school antics I wondered; will Francis grow up to become a responsible and focused graphic novelist someday? No one knows. But there is a recent indie production featuring a protagonist who does just that.

With each stroke, a graphic novelist pens his own life into his work in “People Places Things” (2015)

Will Henry, played by Jemaine Clement, is a reluctant yet compassionate college professor. Newly single, Will is a graphic novelist balancing parenting his young twin daughters, forgetting his confused ex-wife, and leading a classroom of aspiring art students. The movie People Places Things does an exceptional job of portraying a working artist who must navigate the rich complexities of new love and letting go of a woman who dumped him. I was impressed with how the story weaves Will’s life experiences into professionally drawn panels for his forthcoming graphic novel.

Kate Winslet plays Sabine, a talented landscape designer who draws at all hours in order to succeed in “A Little Chaos” (2015)

In the movie A Little Chaos we meet a hard working character whose profession as landscape designer is founded on drawing skills. Even though the story is centered on Sabine’s struggles with class barriers and her romance with another designer, it was fun to see authentic-looking 15th century drawings and plans for building a spectacular Versailles palace garden for King Louis XIV, who was masterfully played by the late Alan Rickman.

There is also another touching story about a determined, creative woman who loved to draw and had to overcome social barriers that made it to the big screen.

Renee Zellweger does a superb portrayal of a hard-willed book illustrator in “Miss Potter” (2006)

Beatrix Potter, played by Renee Zellweger, loved to draw animals. In fact, her passion for spending hours at a time making drawings of animals led to them being published by Norman Warne, played by Ewan McGregor. The two eventually married, much to the disapproval of Beatrix’s overbearing mother. The movie Miss Potter takes us back to 1902 London when it was nearly impossible for a woman to write and illustrate a children’s book. But Beatrix went on to publish an entire series of classics that remain cherished to this day. Constant drawing not only provided Miss Potter with the material for her books but also a source of comfort and introspection.

Drawing animals takes center stage in plot development in yet another blockbuster movie.

“Dawn of Planet of the Apes” (2014)

Faced with the challenge of bridging the communication gap between the human and ape societys in Dawn of Planet of the Apes, filmmakers chose drawing as the missing link. Kodi Smit-McPhee once again (as he did in the earlier-mentioned All the Wilderness) wields a sketchbook to record experiences in a post-apocalyptic colony in San Francisco. His detailed drawings served as the delicate conduit between man and beast, where communicating with words is difficult at best.

In closing, I’d like to feature a scene from Mr. Turner (2015) that shows how I imagine myself being in the not-too-distant future: a defiant, sometimes grumpy old man, traipsing over rolling hills at sunset, face to the wind, sketchbook in hand, passionately gathering observations of life whilst I still have the sketching hand to do so.

“Mr. Turner”

After watching the surly figure of J.M.W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall, contently sketching as he strolled the countryside, I was inspired to go outdoors and draw. Mr. Turner shows us a celebrated artist who must maintain complex relationships, deliver on deadlines and commitments, and keep up his rigorous practice of scratching out studies in his sketchbook.

In bringing the act of drawing to the big screen, directors, actors, and writers use drawing as a storytelling device, but we also see how drawing can have an impact on people’s everyday lives as we sit back and experience the magical combination of film and drawing.


That’s not all folks! Since I mentioned humans communicating with apes through drawing, I just had to throw in two more photos showing how animals of all kinds enjoy being creative through the process of drawing…

Dakota Fanning, as Fern, with Wilbur in “Charlette’s Web” (2006)
Oscar-nominated “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015)

And now that’s all folks for this lengthy post. Okay, grab your sketchbook and do as Shaun the Sheep—don’t be a follower—lead the herd! Go out and draw like the wind!

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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.