Why I Think Every Visual Creative Should Keep A Sketchbook (+ Video sketchbook flip)

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Sketchbook, Tips for creatives, Video

Why I Think Every Visual Creative Should Keep A Sketchbook

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):

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:

Sketchbooks: From ideas to reality
Rough sketches noting my ideas as they came to me, and respective finished works. The works are: Allure, Daughter of the Forest and Swamp Brooch

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:

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.

Art therapy sketchbook pages

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:

  1. Ruin the first page.
  2. 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?
Not always!

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.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

26 responses to “Why I Think Every Visual Creative Should Keep A Sketchbook (+ Video sketchbook flip)”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your sketch book. The issue of “paper anxiety” is something I experience. I have a fancy new sketchbook which was a present and your video is inspiring me to open it up and start using it today. We feel the pressure to create great art but we have to allow ourselves the little steps along the way which get us there. Again, thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m so glad to hear that, Gwen!
    Oh I totally hear you about being anxious before breaking into your new sketchbook. But it gets much easier when you start allowing yourself to play and experiment without expectations. You’re right, little steps are just as important as “great art”!

    Thank you very much for commenting! It’s such an encouragement to keep writing and sharing videos.

  3. Awesome place you have here, and great articles, work, and video.

    If I have things that don’t turn out well in a sketchbook, I leave it be to see if I’ll like it later. If not, it can be worked over with acrylics and collaging, and of course I put on new dates on the pages too.
    But mostly I have great fun applying some written self irony to the fails, even some funny “emote” faces, which always helps accepting the flaws. More “mature and professional” notes about what went wrong also helps a lot.

    I subscribed to your youtube channel, so please keep making sketchbook and art videos.
    Thank you for sharing your work and efforts :)

  4. Hi Louise,
    thank you so much for visiting, I’m glad you find my blog and work interesting!

    Heh that sounds like a great way to treat drawings that turned out less than great :) I sometimes make notes as well

    I’m pretty new to mixed media and collaging, but I’ve found it to be a great way to work with drawings that weren’t that great to begin with, especially as I wouldn’t dare to do it over a drawing that I really like. I’ve “ruined” more than one fine drawing that way so I’m kind of reluctant to do that.

    I’m so glad to hear you’ve subscribed to my channel, I will do my best to make more videos!

  5. Awesome post, Nela.
    I’m just about to embark on the sketchbook journey and your tips are exactly what I was searching for. Some insights into habits that really need to be kept in check – I’m so bad at thinking my stationery is ‘too precious’ to mess up with my scribbles.
    Very inspiring. Thanks.

  6. Thank you, Scott!
    I’m so glad my post came at the right moment for you and that you’re ready to start using sketchbooks!
    Oh yes, I’ve always had that same issue, and still struggle with it sometimes – but it gets better with time and practice :)

  7. I just came across your blog post as I was searching for some sketchbook inspiration. What an inspiring post and video!

    You can definitely convince yourself that you need to make every page of your sketchbook perfect when you see lots of beautiful examples online, but like you say, the point of the book is to free you up to feel like you can make mistakes and learn from them.

  8. Thank you Kate!
    I’m glad you’ve found what you were looking for in this video and post :)

    Yes, I was often the victim of such thoughts as well, especially while I was reading other people’s sketchblogs and participated in forums where everyone shared beautiful work. It took me a while to realize that just as I’m not sharing my “bad” drawings, they’re not either! It doesn’t mean others don’t have them :)

    I guess this is true for many things in life, not just sketchbooks though!

  9. I really want to be an artist when I grow up, but I can never figure out what to draw, and when I do, every thing ends up going horribly wrong! Do you have any tips?

    P.S I love your work!

  10. Hi Amber, I’m so thrilled to hear you want to be an artist!

    First I would say don’t let the “horribly wrong” drawings discourage you, because we’ve all made horribly wrong drawings (and we still do!). It takes some time for our brains, eyes and hands to start working together like we want them to.
    If something doesn’t look right, just try to identify *why* it doesn’t look right – if it’s difficult for you to tell, try asking someone, but it’s important that you don’t take this too much to heart.

    When it comes to “what to draw” dilemma, I’d ask you, what kind of art would you like to create? Why do you want to be an artist? What artists have inspired you to want to pursue this path?

    Based on your answer, your focus will be different.
    I like drawing both for fun and for practice. Sometimes you need to let your imagination run loose and just relax, play and enjoy.
    Other times, you may want to do some studies so that your drawing skill improves. I do a lot of studies of humans because I paint humans the most. These studies are not very inspired, you might even call them boring, but I need to do them so that I can paint my actual art. I either draw from real models, or from photos when I practice.
    If you want to draw animals, then obviously you should practice drawing animals. Same for dresses, weapons, flowers, castles and whatever interests you personally.

    When you know what you ultimately want to be drawing and painting, then the question of “what to draw” is easy to answer. But it’s likely that sometimes you won’t feel like practicing, because that’s the less fun part of art for many of us.
    I would encourage you to practice anyway, at least 1-2 hours per week if you want to see improvement soon.

    If you have no idea what kind of art you’d like to do, then just start looking at all the art you love and ask yourself what you love about it, and what you wish you could paint. Look what kind of things make you think “Oh, I’d LOVE to be able to do that”.
    Write those things down in your sketchbook, and see what you need to practice in order to be able to draw these things.

    And most of all, have fun!
    As I mentioned, practicing is not always fun, but it’s a way to get to the level where you’re happy with your art. But allow yourself to doodle, to experiment, and to do whatever you’re inspired to do.

    Thank you, I’m glad you like my work! :)

  11. Very informative article, thanks. How do you know when you’ve done that piece that just ‘sings’ for you if you haven’t kept record of all the exploration and ideas that didn’t quite work? The final piece is merely another step in the whole process. Not many artists just stand there and produce a masterpiece with no planning and forethought. I’m a big believer in keeping a private sketchbook of whatever I want to put in it. Your ideas all resonate.

  12. I am always guilty of the “freezing in front of the blank page” syndrome. Back in the days when I did not have quality materials, I was loose and free and creative. I lost that, because i am scared of using quality materials, fearful of improperly using them, thinking that they should all be
    worthy of framing. I apply that to my sketchbooks as well.
    I hope I can change, when I am making art, I am a more confident, less crazy person. Thanks for your suggestions!

  13. Thorough and exactly what I was looking for on sketchbooks. I find them such a pain most of the time but I think if I start treating them more like my notebooks, ill feel better

  14. Thank you, Lianne!
    Sketchbooks can be anything you want them to be – some prefer to call them “journals”, and there are no rules to how you must use them :)

  15. At a young age, my daughter discovered her love of expressing herself through art. She has taken all of the possible art classes at school and now is looking for a way to keep her talent alive during the summer. I love the idea of keeping a sketch book. I agree with what was mentioned about a sketch book being a storage of the artist’s ideas. My daughter will have to try this, thanks.

  16. Jade, it’s wonderful that you’re supportive of your daughter’s art and are on the lookout for things that will help to keep her going (though being an artist yourself, it’s not surprising that you know what she needs).
    I hope she will enjoy creating in her sketchbook! It’s also a great way to keep memories of summer.

  17. I’m already there with you on the logic and the sentiment behind sketchbooks. Always at-the-ready. Low investment capturing of brilliant ideas to develop further. Time-killing. All of that.

    My only problem is that I sketch in spurts. I may go for weeks or months without a single sketch, then grab it and start up again.

    And… I am guilty of starting one sketchbook without finishing another. This causes a sort of sketchbook identity crisis, and I get torn between feeling like I should focus on “this one” or “that one”. I also start fishing for ways to categorize these uncategorizable things. This one’s pencil-only, or that one is for things that will become paintings, etc.

    But… I’d rather have two or three of them than none at all!

  18. Hey Mike, thanks for your comment!

    First of all, please let go of the guilt and shoulds – this is supposed to be fun, not another job ;) Let your experience be what it is. I think it’s normal to have phases of intense activity, followed by phases of little to no activity.
    If you want to sketch more often, a challenge like 365 days or 100 days can help you get into the habit, and then you decide whether you want to continue sketching every day or not.

    As for having multiple sketchbooks at the same time, that’s totally fine! I think I have 8 currently in use. Each one has different paper and size, so I’m picking them up based on what technique I want to use. There is one kind that I finish regularly, and that’s my “work horse” that you can see in the video. That one is always with me, and I always buy the same brand (Canson) because the paper is so versatile.

    As long as it doesn’t turn into choice paralysis (which happens a lot to all of us), having options is good.
    Keep it up!

  19. My theory for anyone who is worried about wasting a good sketchbook is this,what is a waste? Not using it and leaving it to decay,or using it and getting enjoyment from it,which is what it is for,thank you for your great inspiring articles.

  20. How did you get on with your sketch a day for a year? I love sketch books, I have lots on the go at any one time, 6 at least, three different sizes. One group is for my more personal ideas (definitely coming under the art therapy label!). The other is for my studio ideas, and one little one lives permanently in my bag, along with a variety of pencils and pens, for anything I may see or think when I am out. Sketch books are wonderful things. In the UK there are now a growing number of sketch book open exhibitions, I think as a way to encourage drawing, started by art tutors who decried the lack of drawing going on in art schools. Thanks for your blog

  21. Hey Helen,
    Thank you for your kind comment :)
    Your sketchbook experience sounds a lot like mine – that makes packing for travel challenging! It’s hard to limit myself to carrying only one or two sketchbooks.

    The thing that made sketching every single day for a year possible for me was keeping expectations *really* low. I wasn’t supposed to make “art”, just marks on paper. Some days I’d just doodle random shapes for 15 minutes. This also made it possible to meet my commitment just before sleep, when I would normally say “Screw it, I’m not drawing now.”
    It helped me expand the definition of creative practice. Nowadays I don’t sketch every single day, but I know that it’s my choice, not something I have no control over, and so I’m less prone to making excuses :)

  22. Thank you for your very inspiring post. I keep wondering over and over again how to combine journaling with sketching and painting without never really finding an answer. What type of notebook to use with what kind of paper inside? What kind of tools to use? I spend hours journaling about my indecision without ever coming to a conclusion. Your post has shed some light on my problem and I have ordered the notebook you recommended, straight away. I cannot wait for it to arrive!

    I did, one day, sketch for one whole year on a dated notebook with extremely thin but resistant paper (tomoe river paper) and it worked well. Although sometimes I was frustrated because I just had no inspiration at all to draw… It’s more than a challenge: it’s a journey.

    Again, thank you for this post!

  23. Thank you for your comment, Eva. Oh, the indecision – that sounds so familiar :)
    I’ve found that a sketching challenge (a 30-day, or 365 days) can help with those periods when there’s no inspiration in sight…

    Let me know how you like the sketchbook! I have tested many different ones, some of them I liked better than others. I’ve also written a post on different sketchbook comparison on my other blog: http://cwtam.inobscuro.com/my-sketchbooks-comparison-131/
    (I’ll have to add a couple more to it that I have tested since.)

  24. Hi Nela! I have been using the Canson sketchbook for the past couple of weeks and I LOVE IT!!! I went to France and I saw some more Canson sketchbooks and I got another one with spiral this time. Loving it as well! Thank you again for the recommendation!

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