The importance of a sketchbook

A sketchbook is a personal record of the artist’s ideas – a personal record – a journal of the artist’s progress and development.

My sketchbook is a witness of what I am experiencing, scribbling things whenever they happen.

— Vincent van Gogh

The sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.

— Robert Henri

When I see someone with an immaculate sketchbook, I don’t trust that person.

— Kody Chamberlain


How I started using a sketchbook

I had a troubled impoverished childhood, but one of the major advantages was that I was raised without a TV. This forced myself and my siblings to create our own entertainment. I was drawn to drawings, craft and colour. When I turned 6 I was already addicted to drawing. My father always use to joke that “Lillian could draw before she could write.”

It was however only during High School that I started my wonderful journey with a sketchbook. I gave up on sketching on loose papers – they got lost all the time. My mother had these big scrapbooks of all her travels around the world, and it looked so cool. I decided I wanted a ‘scrapbook’ with all my sketches in. So I bought a massive A3 book with sturdy paper and began. The wonderful thing about a sketchbook is that you always have an art studio with you. A beautiful, bound book is harder to lose than sheets of paper.  

At school, I was notorious for getting into trouble for sketching in math class. (I loved Maths, the teacher was just super boring.) When my sketchbook was confiscated, I doodled in the margins of my books.

I still have some of my High School sketchbooks and looking back at it now, it is still intensely private but it is also awesome to see how I have grown and developed as an artist. I still flip back in them for some random ideas.

A sketchbook is a commitment

You cannot throw it away, or give it to someone else. Once you have written your name on it – it is yours.

Now you need to actually develop a habit of using the thing. It is all about keeping the cultivating a consistent flow… Don’t restrict it with unnecessary organisation and order. It’s about freedom of thoughts and not an end product – it is always a work in progress.

A good starting point is to set yourself a measurable challenge such as:

  • 3 sketches per week
  • Fill it in a month
  • Draw a small sketch daily

Do something that’s doable for you, but that will keep you returning to that sketchbook over and over again. In September 2015 I challenged myself to draw a robot every day. Each day I would create a little robot performing a certain task. It resulted in 30 wonderful sketches.

A sketchbook challenge is a great way to keep your creative muscles in shape. There are times when I stop drawing and it is really hard to get back into it. But press on and maintain the daily habit.  

1. Boosts your creativity

Keeping a sketchbook helps your ideas grow and helps you develop new ones. It allows us to make random connections and juxtapose ideas. Tear images from magazines, then draw over them. Rip out half an image and extend it into something else. I have come up with amazing design concepts due to the randomness of my sketchbook. Who would have thought of placing a cactus and a roll of toilet paper together?  It did make a great add and case for selling two ply!

2. Your safe space

My sketchbook is really private. I never hand my sketchbook to people to just flip through it 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 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.

3. Continuous Practise / Keeps your skills sharp

At the age of 12, when I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, all I wanted to be was the world’s best graphic designer. At a function, I had the opportunity to meet the head of design and marketing of the Springbok team. (South Africa’s National Religion and our Rugby Team) It was kinda a big deal. I peppered him with questions on where I should get my degree and what subjects I should take in High School to reach the destination: BEING BEST DESIGNER IN THE WORLD!  

He calmly listened to me and finally said, “The only thing that really matters is if you can draw from life. Draw something from life every single day. Regardless of what you study or if you study at all, this will set you apart from all the others.” At first, I thought, ok and then? Then what do I do? But realised that was all. First I was super sceptical, but you know what, he was right!

By the time I hit Varsity I could draw with my eyes closed. I managed to take additional subjects at Uni because I could get through all my work.

When I started working I landed an internship at a leading illustration agency in Cape Town. They hired me after two days, amazed at the level of sketches I could turn out in a day. I was drawing fit and the drawing library in my mind was vast. I could draw ideas out of my mind, cause I have sketched almost everything before.

Keeping a sketchbook improves your drawing ability and observational skills dramatically. Do draw at least 10 minutes a day from direct observation. Drawing from direct observation is the best way to improve your observational skills. Drawing for the artist is like doing push ups for the athlete. It is the way that you make your drawing muscles (your observational skills) stronger.  

Another wonderful thing I love about art is to observe. Stand still and smell the roses and then draw them. This video from School of Life really captures it for me. Watch Here:

“A skechers eyes are drawn to the core of beauty” – School of Life.

  • Keeping a daily sketchbook helps you to see and be present in the world. You start noticing everything around you. Nothing is too mundane to draw – your cup of coffee, the materials you’re using to draw with, squirrels at the park, a bike in a rack, a trash can.

4. Emotional Download

One neat little trick I have I learned from reading Getting things Done – the art of stress-free productivity by David Allen, is to clear your mind of all it needs to remember. In short, I call it “Download your brain!”

It is about getting all the noise out of your brain into a system or on the page. This opens us major brain capacity for other tasks.

In the book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron she talks about the Morning Pages.

“What are the morning pages? Put simply; the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream consciousness. They might also, more ingloriously be called brain drain, since this is their primary function.”

I have never really liked writing on pages so when I did Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Workshop I exchanged the Morning Pages for my sketchbook. I drew all the things that were troubling my mind.

I know it might all seem a bit like a pointless process, but it is a wonderful way to distil your mind and gain clarity and focus on your major creative projects.

There is no wrong way to approach your sketchbook. The daily meanderings and doodles are not meant to be art. Nothing is too lovely, too silly or too cliche. Sometimes your sketches will be colourful and other times negative and full of self-pity. All the anger and petty stuff stand between you and your creativity. Get it on to a page and out of the way.

5. Art breeds more art

When I got burnt out with my design agency it was because the only time I sat down with a pencil was to sketch out something a client wanted. I never played around with my own ideas and drew just for fun. The only way to work through those creative blocks is get something down on paper. Once you have something there, you can look at it and see what’s working, what isn’t and try again. It’s great practice to rework the same idea several times. Once you start creating, it will lead to more creations and more. Art breeds more art.

6. Create your own inspiration

It’s very easy these days to get caught up “inspiration hunting” on the internet. You could get lost forever scrolling through Pinterest looking for something to kick start an idea. Most of the time you’ll leave feeling bad after comparing yourself to other artists. Once you have a sketchbook or two under your belt, you can start looking at your own work for inspiration. Now when I’m stuck on something, the best place for me to get ideas is in an old sketchbook of mine.

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.

  • A sketchbook is an excellent source for ideas during those times when your creativity runs dry.

7. Overcome the fear of the great white

Did you know there is a known phobia of the blank canvas? Staring at a white page or canvas can be super intimidating. Authors describe the same sensation as “writer’s block.”  All the possibilities that that blank page could become are overwhelming. At the heart of this fear is the fear of failure. “What if I make a mistake?”  

So now that you are armed with your trusty sketchbook the first page may have your stomach twisting with fear. You just cannot seem to get yourself to draw or even make a mark.  

You draw a line, then you erase it because it was “all wrong”.

I have a few suggestions for you on how to overcome this fear:

  • ruin the first page, or
  • simply skip the first page

The second page is far less threatening, and you can always go back and fill it up. 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 colours and fill the page up, and then I can move on to some actual drawings.

Another tip I feel is worth mentioning is staple pages together you don’t like. As I started my sketchbooks  I became aware that after a while I started neglecting it. I just lost my speed and drive.  After close inspection into my emotional state, I realised that I was feeling disappointed with some of the sketches in my book. I felt like I ruined my idea of a ‘pinterest-worthy-sketchbook’. I then proceeded to glue the pages I wasn’t happy with together or paste other images over them. Only once I had ‘cleansed’ my sketchbook of its sins, did I feel a new energy rise to keep on sketching.

Yes, I know it all sounds silly, but those of you who are perfectionists, you will understand.   

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 to us.

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