Here’s what one of my “work horse” sketchbooks looks like, if you’re curious! I have others, but this is the one I use daily.
I hope you enjoyed the video! If you’d like to watch more videos like this one, here’s a few (the newer ones are in much better quality):
- Mixed media sketchbook tour 2009–2023
- Messy recycled mixed media sketchbook tour video
- Mixed media sketchbook tour 2016–2021
- 3 video sketchbook tour compilation: Watercolor & mixed media
- Sketchbook flip video: Sketchbook West art show
- Month Of Fairies: Final week, sketchbook flip video & lessons learned
- Mind Patterns – The Sketchbook Project 2013
Now on to the subject…
I’m positive that every visual creative could benefit from a sketchbook
I’m a huge fan of sketchbooks and I’ve been an active sketchbook user for the past 7 years, so I’m very passionate about this subject.
I hope that in this post I will give you enough reasons to finally start using them, and of course even if you don’t consider yourself a visual creative, sketchbooks are a lot of fun!
If you already have a sketchbook but frequently forget about it, I hope this will encourage you to spend more time with it.
If you’re hooked up on sketchbooks like me, then you might want to share this post with your friends who haven’t caught the bug yet :)
In the end I’ll also share some tips how to get the best from your sketchbook practice, and I’ll show you a video of my sketchbook flip.
A note on digital sketchbooks
This post concerns old-school, traditional paper sketchbooks. I don’t use tablet computers, and I wrote about the reasons why in my post Why I still start all my design work on paper. Probably a lot of what I’ll say here may be relevant for the digital medium as well, but I don’t have experience using the iPad or GalaxyNote or Surface or whatever, so I can’t be sure.
How I started using sketchbooks
During high school I wasn’t much into drawing and painting, so I didn’t have any art supplies. But I always doodled, especially during boring classes so my notebooks were always full of creepy creatures, organic patterns and women wearing fancy dresses. This continued into college and I figured I might as well carry clean papers around to draw on, instead of using my class notebooks.
But after a while I figured keeping track of all the loose sheets of paper was hard, and I should really get a notebook where I’ll store all my clever ideas and doodle like there’s no tomorrow. I found a very cheap notebook with crappy, thin paper and that was my first sketchbook. I got another mini spiral bound one to carry around with me at all times. The rest is, as they say, history.
Now, what’s so special about sketchbooks? Here are my top reasons why they’re awesome.
1. Sketchbooks are your storage of ideas
Sure, there are many ways you can store and keep track of your ideas especially with cloud services (I wrote a post about storing & managing your ideas), but sketchbook is still my #1 way. The reason is quite obvious, I’m a visual person doing mostly visual stuff and noting things quickly with a sketch is the most efficient way for me to record the idea and understand what I meant by that later on. The only caveat: you actually need to have your sketchbook with your in order for it to work (more about that later).
Sketchbooks are convenient because they’re in a bound book format, and you won’t lose anything like you might if you had loose papers all around.
Inspiration strikes at the oddest moments, and you need to honor it and note it down. You can then develop these ideas on the subsequent pages, and you’ll have that entire creative process always available to you whenever you want to look back on it.
A lot of young artists often whine how they “don’t feel inspired” and “don’t know what to draw” and they need to look for inspiration outside themselves by looking at other people’s art.
This never happens to me, because I have more ideas in my sketchbooks than I have time to draw them all. Whenever I’m bored and don’t know what to draw, all I need to do is flip through my old sketchbooks and I’ll find dozens of ideas waiting for me. I think being inspired by your own experiences and visions is far better than looking up to other artist’s work.
Noting your ideas doesn’t have to be fancy. My sketches are very, very rough. Here’s a few examples of some of my first sketches and the final works that evolved from that:
2. Sketchbooks provide a safe space for exploration
I don’t know about you, but when I have a big fancy expensive paper or canvas in front of me, I freeze and just can’t relax. Since I’m a perfectionist, creating art comes with a bit of added stress. But art should not be stressful, and one way to make it stress-free is to have a haven for experimentation and exploration, and that is — you guessed it — your sketchbook.
(I even made another video on how to use art journals and sketchbooks to address perfectionism.)
Sketchbooks are a place where you can play and be completely free to mess things up and make mistakes. It’s a sandbox where you can take a break from your client work and do art just for your own enjoyment. It’s a perfect tool for you to learn how to loosen up. You can try out things that you never tried before and explore techniques and styles radically different from what you usually do. You have permission to create horrible art, and guess what?
You don’t have to show your sketchbooks to anyone. Ever.
In fact, I rarely let people handle my sketchbook on their own. If they’re curious, I flip through it and show them what I feel I can share, because some of the things inside are for my eyes only.
A lot of people (me included) share scans or photos of their sketchbooks online so we get the impression their sketchbooks are pristine and full of perfect drawings. But rest assured these people (me included) let you see only what they want you to see, not everything they ever made. I can vouch that my sketchbooks are full of terrible drawings, as they should be.
You need to have trust in your sketchbook. If other surfaces feel scary for you, your sketchbook should definitely not feel that way.
Your early drawings should be exploring the possibilities, solving problems and making all the mistakes you can right there, so when you commit to making a finished piece of artwork you already know what works and what doesn’t.
Be free in your sketchbook. Nothing you do in it is wrong. Nothing.
If you do decide to share your sketches online, I have some tips on how to take great sketchbook photos here.
3. Sketchbook is a commitment
Once you write your name on it and fill up that first page, it’s yours! You can’t give it away of throw it away, and the guilt of spending money on something and not using it may prevent you from tucking it away in a box and forgetting about it.
Now it’s yours to keep and to fill out. So consider this a challenge!
How fast can you fill it up? In a year? In 3 months? In a month?
I set a challenge for myself to make a sketch a day for the entire year 2013. So far it’s coming along very well, I haven’t missed a single day. But some of my sketches and doodles weren’t like the others — I did some sketching with the opposite hand, doodling with my eyes closed, allowing my hand to draw “by itself” in a form of automatic drawing, wrote a text and decorated it…
I understand a year may feel like too much. Maybe you can try a month? Or you can commit to 3 sketches per week?
Do something that’s doable for you, but that will keep you returning to that sketchbook over and over again. You can check out my video on whether you should do an art challenge if that sounds interesting (transcript available).
This is a great way to keep your creative muscles in shape. I had periods where I wasn’t drawing for months and it was very difficult for me to get back into it, but when I’m sketching and doodling every day, I’m keeping this creative channel open all the time even if I don’t get to create “real art”. I wrote more about the benefits of this approach, as well as how to maintain the commitment, in these articles:
- Why I start every day with personal creative practice
- The challenge of (re)starting a creative practice
4. You have a chronological view of your progress
This is very important in times when you feel like your art isn’t as good as you want it to be, you’re doubting your abilities and are thinking about quitting. Seeing our old art and witnessing that we are in fact improving can give us a boost to get out of this rut.
I use several different sketchbooks at the same time so my progression is not always linear, but still I get a sense of a chronological flow that can put things into perspective.
If you feel like you’re not getting where you want with your art, flip through your sketchbooks and you’ll see solid proof that you are getting better all the time.
5. Sketchbooks can help you resolve your emotional issues
I know this may sound a bit out there to the skeptical folks, but art therapy is a legitimate form of psychotherapy that’s gaining in popularity because it’s very effective, especially with children. While having the support of a licensed art therapist would be great, you can also do this yourself.
I used art therapy myself before I even knew it was a “thing” people actually do. Drawing in my sketchbooks saved my sanity in university, during a period when I was depressed, bored, full of resentment, with no vision of a positive future. I found solace in creating art, and to this day my art has an important therapeutic role in my life, as I wrote in my post Why are my artworks so dark and morbid?
Not everyone wants to share their dirty laundry with other people, and that’s perfect. As I mentioned already, your sketchbook can be a private, personal space and you can be completely honest in it.
When you feel bad, open up a new page and go wild. Scribble aggressively, pour paint and ink over it, draw every unpleasant image that comes to mind (even if it means drawing dismembered body parts or poo!) — just get all those feelings out. Write sentences or words that are running in your mind. Vent. Draw or collage over it. Make a brain-dump onto the page so it doesn’t bother you anymore. Repeat as many times as needed.
I’ve even managed to find solutions for practical problems this way. I use words, doodles, Venn diagrams, flowcharts and make it all colorful with markers and color pencils, and discover perfectly plausible solutions. I guess that my brain finds this mode of working much more efficient then when I’m just thinking. People learn and think better when they engage their senses. Try it!
Tips for keeping a sketchbook
Carry it with you at all times
If you don’t have it when you need it (when those ideas come knocking) it’s as if you don’t have it at all. So keep a small sketchbook handy when you’re out in the world. They make them in all shapes and sizes, and you’ll find one that can fit into your purse or your pants pocket.
If you happen to forget it and draw something on a receipt or a post-it, you can always stick it into your sketchbook, just don’t make it a habit!
Get a cheap one
If you get an expensive sketchbook, you might be too precious about it and avoid making a mess. I have one I bought 5 years ago and another I bought 2 years ago that I haven’t filled up because they’re “too nice” and I only use them for studies.
Get one that you won’t feel sorry about if the covers get scratched, if you spill something over it, or if your dog or your 2 year old grabs it and starts chewing on it.
That said, make sure the paper is something that handles the media you use the most. My favorite one is a Canson Universal sketchbook that I wrote a whole article about: What’s the best sketchbook out there? The paper is thin so it has over a hundred pages that last for a while, yet it can handle light watercolor OK, and works perfectly with any type of ink. If you only use pencil or ballpoint pen, then literally any cheap sketchbook will work for you.
The most important thing is that you get a sketchbook that you will use without fear of ruining it.
To learn more about the exact tools I use, read my post What’s in my sketching toolkit?
Dealing with the fear of the blank page
So you bought that sketchbook and brought it home, and now it’s time to make the first mark. But you’re afraid and can’t get yourself to do it. You draw a line, then you erase it because it was “all wrong”.
I have two suggestions for you:
- Ruin the first page.
- Skip the first page.
The second page is far less threatening, and you can always go back and fill up the first one later. Or you can just leave it blank forever, it’s your sketchbook, you can do whatever you want!
My approach is to mess the first page up as much as I can, so anything I do later is better than that. I just doodle with different pens and colors and fill the page up, and then I can move on to some actual drawings.
Don’t be confined to a single medium
Sketchbooks are for sketches, right?
You can do whatever you want in them. Seriously. Here are some ideas of what you can do:
- Write journal entries.
- Glue notes, concert tickets and other mementos into it.
- Glue fabric samples, fliers with color schemes you like, photocopies of diagrams from anatomy books…
- Collage magazine cutouts and draw over them with markers.
- Press flowers in it.
- Use a scalpel to make a paper cut “sculptures”.
Whatever you feel is the best way to note your idea, solve a problem or just plain have fun, do it. Sometimes a sketch will do, sometimes you will need a mixed media approach.
I used to be pretty conservative about this before and I was only sketching, drawing and painting, but I got a lot of inspiration from visual journals and I’m working on loosening up in this arena.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Can you think of another reason why they’re awesome, or do you have a tip to share? It would be wonderful if you wrote it in the comments.
If you’d like to see more posts featuring sketchbook art and tips, check them out here.
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