Eight Ways To Get The Most Out Of A Sketchbook

When I was young I tended to draw and paint on whatever came to hand, paper, card, bits of wood, the walls… I didn’t think about keeping a sketchbook until a very inspirational teacher showed me hers. I was fascinated. Problem was that everything in her book seemed so perfect, so well done, whereas for myself every other thing I did seemed rubbish! It took me years to figure out how using sketchbooks worked best for me. Some artists do create sketchbooks for show, especially if they will be somehow judged or graded on them, while others will be so talented that it just seems that way. They can be used to play with and develop ideas or to practice particular skills, to prepare for a finished piece or to just have fun. Whatever you use yours for here’s eight ways I’ve found to get the most out of a sketchbook.

  1. Action. Getting into the habit of sketching can really get your creative juices flowing. Take your sketchbook out with you or set aside some time every day to sketch. This will have to be forced at first if you’re not in the habit, but creativity occurs in action. The more active you are the more creative you will become.
  2. Ideas and inspiration. Explore your ideas in your sketchbook, doodle anything you think of that appeals to you and don’t be afraid to make notes on your pictures. A sketch does not have to look good, most of my sketches are functional, in that they are purely to preserve an idea for later, as long as I can understand what that idea was when I come back to it the sketch has served its purpose, no matter what anyone else may think of it. I keep small books of scrap paper for just this sort of thing, and I always have one with me wherever I go. Because I keep books full of ideas if I ever have a day when I can’t think of what to do I simply look through my ideas and sketches for inspiration.
  3. Experimentation. Your sketchbook is for you to explore your ideas and what you are capable of. So do that, go wild. Fill in all your pages, use all the space, don’t worry about making mistakes and definitely don’t be precious! If you think a sketch might be spoiled by working over it, scan it and then print it out again. Try different methods with the same base piece, trace and copy the work of those who inspire you, experiment to learn how they do it. Reference from life, photos, and your imagination. Tear up old work and collage it into new work. There are no rules in your sketchbook.
  4. Practice. Practice practice practice! The more time and effort you put in the more you will master your skills. If you have natural talent and you don’t do anything with it it’s wasted. Someone who practices and has the determination can develop their skills to match any amount of talent and surpass it.
  5. Focus on what helps you. If you spend a lot of time sketching you will learn to overcome perfectionism simply to keep going. Judgements and criticism are not helpful in the creative process; they will just destroy your confidence. You are far better off making a mistake and learning from it than being too afraid to even try or, worse, berating yourself for it. See every piece as a learning process and try to see what you can take away from it for next time. Every piece you create will contribute somehow to those pieces you will be really proud of. Stay positive and you will stay creative, as soon as you start having a go at yourself you will stop your creativity flowing. If you find criticism and judgement coming from outside, try to take away anything useful and forget the rest.
  6. Planning and problem solving. Sketchbooks provide a great place to plan out pieces in detail, by testing and working out composition, focusing on details and figuring them out, and experimenting to find out what works best. It is the place to play with any constraints and specifics that you need to work with. It is through this that you will discover any problems that need to be addressed and find a way to do that before approaching a final piece. Get into the habit of producing thumbnail sketches of pieces to play with composition. Experiment with colour and texture combinations. And if you have a problem with a piece you are already working on, taking it back to your sketchbook can be the best way to figure it out by looking at it from a different angle and taking more risks with it than you might have otherwise that you can then reapply to the final work. Even if you have a plan you must be willing to depart from it and your sketchbook is the perfect place to figure that out.
  7. A record of your progress. This might not seem important or worthwhile to some people, but years from now there could be all kinds of reasons that being able to look back on how your work developed would be useful to you, even if only for nostalgia or inspiration. I have found that looking back on what was driving me in very productive periods has helped to spur me on later down the line. You don’t have to keep everything either, what you don’t recycle or keep it can be important to get rid of. I have burned sketchbooks and collections of work from periods that I have no intention of reconnecting to, or reclaimed and recontextualised work from those periods that I felt worth keeping. This can be a very healthy way to shed elements of the past you no longer wish to carry forward and focus on more positive and healthy progression and development.
  8. Your own personal playground. This is the best thing about sketchbooks; you can do whatever you want with them. They are your own creative world in which you can play with ideas and techniques to your heart’s content. Do not worry about other people looking in your sketchbook; their purpose is to capture and develop your creativity. They are about you and nobody else. A sketchbook doesn’t need to necessarily be a book either; it is simply a collection of images somehow bundled together. If you create an image you can’t take away with you, such as digital art or graffiti, I highly recommend printing them out or taking photographs and keeping them as or in a sketchbook, as they will function as a record of your progress and possibly help you to generate new ideas. Having a digital painting as a hardcopy is a different way of seeing your work, and well worth experimenting with. At the same time, the freedom of keeping and creating some form of digital sketchbook, whether it be through a blog or website or in a folder on your computer, can encourage a whole new realm of creativity. Don’t be afraid to save multiple variations, paint over, collage or reshape your work, or combine it with traditional elements. Whatever you do try to have fun 🙂
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