How to Keep a Sketchbook: 5 Simple Steps

Practicing artists will tell you that the single most important thing you can do to the development of your artistic skills is to keep a sketchbook. But how do you do that? That sounds like a silly question. I know. Of course, I had been drawing all my life. But I never put all my sketches together in a sketchbook. I would draw in random places (ie on various pieces of paper, on the side of my notes in school). It was not until 2012, after I finished my schooling and training that I finally found my way to use a sketchbook regularly. Looking back over the last 10 years, sketchbooks have been a crucial part of my development as an artist. They have become a way to process my thoughts. A way to practice new mediums. A way to help me slow down and enjoy the simple pleasure of a pencil against paper. And truly a free way to create regularly.

In this post, I hope to share 5 simple steps to take to keep a sketchbook.

1. Learn about how others keep a sketchbook

I highly recommend Danny Gregory’s lovely books, An Illustrated Journey and An Illustrated Life. Both beautiful books are a collection of various artists’ sketchbooks and a little about what sketchbooks mean to their artistic processes. They are full of random pages of various artists sketchbooks and include particular types of sketchbooks or pens each artist uses. I refer to these books all the time. http:/www.dannygregory.com

2. Collect References for Inspiration

When I first started on my sketchbook journey, I often got stuck. What was I supposed to draw? Artists will tell you to draw stuff around your house. I tried that. But after the 10th coffee mug, I became bored. I started to keep a collection of images. Anything that caught my eye and passed the “3-second rule.” An art teacher once told me that the majority of patrons in an art museum spend less than 3 seconds looking at a particular artwork. I used this rule with the images that I selected. Did the image make me stop longer than 3 seconds to look at it? What was it about the image? The composition? The colors? The subject matter? I ripped out images from art and fashion magazines, old books from flea markets, throwaway flyers in the mail. I threw them into a bin. I carry a handful of these images with my sketchbook (in an envelope). Whenever I am stuck, I always have something to draw. Usually, after just a few minutes, I end up drawing something completely different than what I started with, usually incorporating things from my day or random thoughts I had. I like printed, physical images rather than digital images on my phone or tablet. There is much less temptation for distraction.

Here is my bin of random images, thrown together for easy and quick inspiration.

3. Go out a buy a sketchbook and a few pens or pencils

Over the years, I have experimented with various sketchbooks. I don’t have a particular sketchbook I use exclusively; instead, I go in phases. For a while, I liked spiral-bound sketchbooks for the ability to fold flat. These days, I enjoy hardcover, binded books. I like Strathmore Drawing paper the best (as opposed to Strathmore sketch paper). The paper has a little tooth and is thick enough to accept paint. Although I am a fan of Moleskin Cahiers to record my ideas, I do not like Moleskin paper for drawing, especially with pencil. The paper is too smooth for me. I do not like perforated paper; I don’t want to be able to rip out anything, even the bad pages. I like larger sketchbooks–usually 7 X 10 or 8.5 X 11. They take longer to fill up but are more comfortable to draw in. I use pencil and pen. I am partial to pens made in Japan or Germany, especially ones with fine points. If I draw something that I want to paint later, I usually just go back and ‘gesso’ the page. This allows me to go back and use Gauche and even oil later on.

4. Figure out what works for you

Initially, I kept a separate sketchbook for different things (ie one for a certain class, one for anatomy studies, one for developing my paintings). But, I found it too difficult to keep everything separated. I ended up with several half-filled sketchbooks. A few years ago, I started using one book chronologically, which seemed to work better for me. I try not to keep everything too clean. Anything goes. As long as I am creating, the pages do not need to be perfect. Many times, I copy an image to practice drawing. Many times, these drawings turn into more personal reflections of my day. I take a lot of art classes and use my sketchbooks to take notes and practice what the teacher is teaching. I also study a lot of art books and practice techniques on my sketchbook pages. My sketchbooks are a mish-mash of drawings, notes, paintings, studies.

5. Try to fill up one sketchbook

I probably fill 2 sketchbooks a year. I wish I had time to fill more. It gives me much joy to sit back and thumb through my books and watch my progression through the years. It is like visiting parts of my younger self. It has taken me years of trial and error to figure out the best ways to keep a sketchbook. I am sure that I will probably keep changing how I use them. If you are interested in starting to keep a sketchbook, my only advice to you is to go out and buy a book and get started. You will find out what works for you.

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