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The Importance of Keeping a Sketchbook

And why documenting your creative journey can improve your art practice

Keeping lots of sketchbooks to document an artists creative journey
Some of my sketchbooks since I started this sketchbook journey in Jan 2022

Which material are you most comfortable to sketch, paint, or draw with? Do you use sketchbooks, watercolour pads, loose sheets of paper, card?

I’ve written before about how my style, interests, and subjects have transitioned in the past year or so – and I’m continuing to have quite a few revelations along the way in terms of my practice. One of the ways in which I’m pivoting is my surface of choice.

Nowhere to hide!

Admittedly, working with a sketchbook can be a little daunting at first, because the good and bad drawings sit side by side in one place. Unless I rip the page out (which I don't), that grim drawing is not going anywhere.

The artist, illustrator and author, Danny Gregory mentions that it's the bad drawings which you learn more from rather than the good ones. He notes that if you're perfect at something then what's the point in continuing with it? (taken from Danny’s interview with Nishant Jain in the ‘Sneaky Art’ podcast, Episode 20 ‘Documenting Life with Danny Gregory')

The positive aspect to working with a sketchbook is following the discovery phase. Now, I see my progression with an idea, rather than keeping the process stage separate. I have easy access to my warmup sketches, testing of materials and colour palettes, all in the one place.

Ultimately, keeping the good, the bad, and the ugly in one sketchbook allows me to gain more confidence and become less precious with my drawings.

Letting go of perfectionism

My sketchbook is a place for discovery, not a place for purposely creating final art. It's a place for experimenting with new materials, new ideas or quick doodles. For me, it should never be about producing final, polished pieces (though if that happens in the interim, then great!).

I've accepted that I will have many trial and errors, and my art won't always look the way I want it to. But from this, I will learn what works and what doesn't.

By becoming more carefree with my sketchbook I have found that I'm sketching and painting more often. I'm also enjoying it more... isn't that the goal? I've allowed myself to let go of the need for perfection, and the fear that comes with it. Instead of dwelling on that bad spread, I just turn the page and start again. I try to remind myself that this is the exploration stage, so mistakes are okay.

Starting out with your sketchbook practice

Whether starting anew or picking up where you left off, here are some learnings I’ve had over the past year, which you might also find useful in your practice:

  1. Keep more than one sketchbook Each and every artist will have their own way of keeping a sketchbook but for me, I have found that having two or three on the go at once works best. I like to have a few different sizes depending on what my subject is and whether I'm on location or at home.

  2. Avoid expensive, fancy sketchbooks For me personally, I find spending a tonne of cash on a sketchbook results in being too afraid to use it, for fear of messing up that first, expensive, fancy page! I've found the Art Creations Sketchbook by Royal Talens to be a great inexpensive brand. The paper is a nice creamy colour and is only 140gsm in paper weight but it can hold a lot. I've used watercolours, gouache, etc. with pencils, pastels and everything layered together and still, no paper ripping.

  3. Paper weight Following on from my last point, the paper weight in a sketchbook can be important depending on your chosen materials. Thinner paper sketchbooks are better for jotting down quick thumbnails or ideas and are nice and light for carrying around while on the go. Whereas thicker paper (200gsm+) is better for when you want to start testing materials and colours, layering media, etc. My favourite sketchbook with a thicker paper is the Alpha series from Stilman and Birn. This is only 150gsm but the paper is really durable. It does buckle a little after you've used wet media on it, but this doesn't bother me. If you're not keen on buckling pages, then their Zeta range is good. The paper is a thicker 270gsm weight.

  4. Date your sketches It's so important to date your sketches! Your sketchbook acts as a visual diary of your experiences, obsessions, and surroundings, so it makes sense to note the date. This helps a lot when I want to look back and see how I've progressed over time. I've seen some artists even note their five senses while sketching on location to get a real feel for the scene. This is a beautiful, nostalgic practice and so useful when bringing sketches back to the studio to start working on a final painting.


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