Tuesday, 13 January 2015

It's all about Sketchbooks

A couple of weeks ago I have submitted my Project (which was another Picture Book, and I will tell you all about it a bit later) and an essay to my College. We have finished the third semester and I am half way through my education. Bigger half, in fact. Now I have only two semesters to go and I am on to my Diploma project. 

So, the essay that I have submitted was about sketchbooks. I decided to share it with you. Who knows, may be you will find it useful or inspirational… 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Samuel Beckett

One of the main concerns of every artist and illustrator is finding a way to nurture their own creativity. Experimentation, exploration of materials, problem solving, imagination, and a willingness to make mistakes are some of the best ways to foster creativity and creative thinking. Using a sketchbook allows us to practice all of the above on daily basis without a fear of failing, being judged or misunderstood. 
Before coming to this course I have never used a sketchbook or a visual diary.  I have never done observational drawing and all my ideas lived purely in my head. When an idea came to fruition I just sat and drew a final piece. I have been introduced to keeping a sketchbook only a year ago and my world, the way I think, and draw changed dramatically.  My sketchbook is the single most valuable and inspiring acquirement in my professional development as an illustrator. This is the reason why I chose this topic for discussion.
When it comes to using sketchbooks, I am in great company. Leonardo Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks daily, finishing with around 13000 pages of work. His sketchbooks are filled with drawings, diagrams and written notes of things he saw and ideas he came up with. Picasso produced 178 sketchbooks in his life time. He often used his sketchbooks to explore themes and make compositional studies until he found the right idea and subject for a larger painting on canvas. Henry Moore, filled one of his sketchbooks with drawings of sheep that often wandered by the window outside his studio.

Henry Moore
There are a few good reasons why sketchbooks and visual diaries are among the most precious possessions of any creative person.
Any creative person can utilize sketchbooks as the storage vessel whereby thoughts, observations and ideas are deposited in one place, transforming a sketchbook into a versatile reference tool. Inspiration strikes at the oddest moments and we need to honor it and note it down. It is then possible to develop these ideas on the subsequent pages, and we will have that entire creative process always available to us whenever we want to look back on it. If we sketched out every single thought that popped into our heads, the sketchbook would become a unique collection of key words, illustrations and concepts.  
Spanish book cover designer Pep Carrió sees his notebook as creative lab: “ For me, a sketchbook is like a kind of a portable laboratory, a space to mark with references, to capture the immediate, to experiment; a memory warehouse to which I can return whenever I am searching for an idea or when I simply want to remember an instant, a time in the past.” For London-based Japanese illustrator Fumie Kamijo, the sketchbook is a physical filing cabinet for the lived experience that feeds creativity: “Everything I have experienced goes into my sketchbooks, the things I have seen, eaten, heard, felt, and, perhaps most importantly, they are the perfect place to document my strange daydreams”.

Whereas Maurice Sendak refers to his sketchbooks as foundation for his later work:During my early teens, I spent a lot of time at the window, sketching the kids at play, and those sketchbooks are, in a sense, the foundation of much of my later work. Maybe that’s another reason the children in my books are called European-looking. Many of them resemble the kids I knew growing up in Brooklyn. They were Jewish kids, and they may well look like little greenhorns just off the boat. They had—some of them, anyway—a kind of bowed look, as if the burdens of the world were on their shoulders.”
Sketchbooks provide a safe place for exploration and experimentation. Sketches do not have to be pretty, beautiful, or even immediately understandable by others. Sketchbooks are a place where we can play and be completely free to mess things up and make mistakes. It's a perfect tool for us to learn how to loosen up. We can try out things that we never tried before and explore techniques and styles radically different from what we usually do. As Paul Madonna said: I don’t think of sketchbooks as sacred…. They are rough materials. And in that is where I find beauty. My notebook is with me always, always, always. It is an extension of my mind. … I let my mind wander and pay attention to where it goes. This is, in art, how I practice creativity.”

Paul Madonna

Although I draw digitally every day and illustrating is my profession, I am very uncomfortable with drawing on paper. Being a perfectionist, I am concerned with ruining my art or making a mistake, which freezes my creativity. Sketchbooks allowed me to relax and get comfortable with making marks on paper.  And I discovered that the best ideas come to me when they are not forced and I am not under pressure to create something decent or worthy. I just doodle and magic happens. But it is a very intimate process. Sketchbook is my private place to escape and be free. I fully agree with Bill Brown, who said: “My sketchbook is the opposite of my job. It’s like a pocket-sized vacation. … No one knows I keep these books; it’s a dirty secret. When I draw, I wander off alone. When people are around, I always put the book away”.

The Sketchbook of Oliver Jeffers and Friends

Also, I think that sketchbooks are a great opportunity to have some creative fun and get social with fellow artists and illustrators. For example, in 2004, my favourite illustrator Oliver Jeffers, took part in a project, where he had to exchange a sketchbook with 3 other artists and follow one another's lead with a weekly illustration. Over the course of 36 weeks, each would respond to the previous artwork which proceeded them and then forward it onto the next in line. Once completed, the sketchbook had travelled over 60,000 miles, and crossed the Atlantic on numerous occasions. I still wonder who was the lucky person who got to keep this wonderful sketchbook in the end?

       Separate spreads from The Sketchbook of Oliver Jeffers and Friends

One more significant benefit of keeping a sketchbook is the fact that it gives me a chance to have a chronological view of my progress.   This is very important in times when I feel like my art isn't as good as I want it to be, and I doubt my abilities. Seeing my old art and witnessing that I am in fact improving can give a boost to get out of this rut. So now I flip through my sketchbook pages for a while and see solid proof that I am getting better all the time.
I think that real progress in developing myself as an illustrator depends on me frequently and habitually sketching out my ideas and their variations, reflecting on my ideas, and then developing those that seem promising. I use my sketchbook to help me develop this habit. As Neil Waldman once said: “Sketchbooks and journals are the street lamps that illuminate the artist's journey.”
Sketchbook encourages us to challenge our imagination. It enables us to see the world in fuller detail so that when we finally capture the perfect element for our sketchbook, we can express it better in our medium. In fact, after carrying a sketchbook around for a few months, I have noticed how much clearer ideas become when you are finally ready to work. Keeping a sketchbook can make you a better illustrator and a better thinker.

Shaun Tan, The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook

The sketchbook is a playground for my creative vision and it's a more important and effective professional tool than I have ever imagined. Now my sketchbook is always with me and the next time that silly imaginative idea pops into my head, no matter how insignificant, I will scribble it down anyway. Not all doodles are intended to be works of art, but every once in a while, one becomes a masterpiece.


Richard Brereton, 2012, Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators & Creatives, Laurence King

Jane Stobart, 2011, Extraordinary Sketchbooks: Inspiring Examples from Artists, Designers, Students and Enthusiasts, A & C Black Publishers Ltd

Danny Gregory, 2009, An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers, F+W

Lynne Perrella, 2007, Artists' Journal and Sketchbooks: Exploring and Creating Personal Pages, Rockport Publishers Inc

Martin Salisbury, Morag Styles, 2012, Children’s Books: The Art of Visual Story Telling, Laurence Ling

Shaun Tan, 2011, The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook, Templar Publishing

The Outrageous Comics of Paul Madonna

Maurice Sendak and the Soul of the Artist


  1. Элина, очень интересное эссе. Спасибо. Обожаю тему скетчбуков и сами скетч-буки, арт-журналы и пр. :-)
    Подруга подарила мне на эту тему классную книгу Натали Ратковски "Разреши себе творить. Артбуки, эскизные блокноты и путевые дневники"
    Отличная! Много текста, сотни иллюстраций с работами разных авторов, разные фишки, много всего. Не знакомы?

    1. Знакомы. у меня есть эта книга. Действительно классная. Натали - молодец!

  2. I'm impressed — you have a bibliography! cheers for the research and references. :)