Sketchbook Sketching -what’s the point?

Until earlier this year, most of my urban sketching was done in a sketchbook.  Sketchbooks of all shapes (landscape, portrait, concertina), sizes (pocket, A5, A4, A3) and brands.  Moleskine, Stillman and Birn, Handbook and Seawhite of Brighton are a few of the brands I’ve used.  However, as I increased my sales of sketches and prints, it seemed sensible to create more of my sketches on loose paper.  You can read about my #ThisPlace series of original drawings and limited edition prints here.  These images were saleable and easier to scan.  This in turn resulted in a dramatic reduction in my sketchbook work and a rather haphazard use of sketchbooks in the following months.  This blog is about the impact that I believe reducing my sketchbook sketching has had on my drawing practice and how I propose to move forward.


My sketchbook sketching practice

Earlier in the year I was using an A4 moleskine watercolour sketchbook much like a visual diary. I sketched in this sketchbook very regularly using a variety of approaches and often wrote notes of explanation about the scene.  Sometimes I divided the page into a series of smaller thumbnail sketches.  Subject matter was varied.  I also had different sketchbooks for different subject matter eg. people sketching notebooks.

Sketchbook sketching   

My Sketchbook sketching alternative loose paper work

For some reason as I started to do more loose paper work I did less sketchbook work.  The loose paper works tended to be whole scenes with very little in the way of descriptive text.  A title and date were the norm for these sketches.  Often, they were colour first and they would take longer than my average sketchbook sketch: perhaps 2 plus hours.  Because they were to be prints there was also a tendency to be more precious about them.   I enjoyed these pieces and there are strong benefits to creating them.  However, I do feel that my sketchbook sketching work took a back seat.  This in turn had an impact on the variety of things I was sketching.  In hindsight, I think I should have put more effort into creating both types of drawing in parallel.

This Place urban sketches

Sketchbook sketching-The benefits

Here are what I consider to be some of my key benefits of sketchbook sketching  and the reason why I need to do more of it!:

  • I am creating a visual diary, something to look back on, a chronology of events and ideas.
  • The sketchbook automatically provides stories: of places, of occasions, of objects, through the visuals and narrative.
  • It keeps me observing and recording: anything that catches my eye, so increasing the variety of subjects that I sketch. Inside, outside, from the car, waiting for a bus etc (this seems less likely with a loose piece of paper!).
  • Everything is in one place so it becomes a toolbox of ideas about subjects, sketching process etc.
  • Because it is always to hand, it keeps me sketching daily.  I have to say that by not keeping a regular sketchbook, it is easy to slip into bad habits of not sketching very regularly.
  • Its not as precious as a piece of loose paper (for me anyway!) so there is a greater tendency to try different approaches.
  • Sketchbooking keeps me thinking about presentation of the pages and layout and therefore storytelling.  It goes beyond the composition of the drawing itself.

Sketching in sketchbooks gets me out with other like-minded urban sketchers and sketching friends.  Of course it doesn’t matter whether you are doing this in a sketchbook or on loose paper!  However, when using loose paper I often go on a specific ‘mission’ to do a sketch and this is often alone rather than with a group.

Getting back on track with Sketchbook Sketching

Last weekend I attended one of the Urban sketchers 10 x 10 workshops at Salford Quays.  The session meant that I took a sketchbook with me (I chose an A5 moleskine that had remained half full for sometime!). I subsequently created a number of sketches over the bank holiday weekend in this small book.  It got me thinking about getting back into a regular sketchbook sketching which I plan to do in the coming days.  In order for me to feel the benefit I am going to use a main sketchbook rather than several at once.  I will try to use different approaches depending upon the subject, time available and materials.  These are likely to include pen and ink work, watercolour, collage and perhaps coloured pencil/crayon/pastel.  Given that my key interest in sketching is driven by the reportage storytelling aspects, it is that which I need to focus upon in my sketchbook work.

Sketchbook sketching_reportage


I am also going to think about ways of overcoming the endless searching for a perfect sketchbook!  There are always pros and cons with any type of sketchbook so I am going to try to live with this and stop using this as an excuse for not progressing!  What have been your main sketchbook sketching dilemmas?  I’d love to hear about them!

16 thoughts on “Sketchbook Sketching -what’s the point?

  1. For me it was trying to find people to sketch with/sketching what others find interesting. I’ve tried to find friends to sketch with (new to the area), shown up on urban sketching days, and found the group set in their friendships. Too often what they wanted to sketch not to my interest. Then I stopped sketching as in urban sketching, for awhile. I continued to pursue my creative life, which includes a lot of sketching anyhow. I realized that a good deal of my creative life has been alone — I think most creatives get used to a lot of time alone — and I also realized I had more fun when I didn’t have a lot of rules for sharing. Sketch what you love, don’t let others dictate rules. I sketch lots more when not thinking about connecting with a group. I do it from my car (rain/comfort), in our business (I could never share those as urban sketches) and am doing more sketches “out there” but on my own. I love sketching our business and life. I wish I had more time — I run half the business — and have no control over that. Still, I draw at least one sketch a day most days…

    1. Thanks Kate for your interesting comments. You are right, there is a big social aspect with sketching and being out and about with like-minded people. But I agree, its often hard if people have different interests. I think your ‘rules’ comment is also really interesting and that you sketch more when not thinking about connecting. I suppose because I have been thinking about paper vs sketchbook I hadn’t been thinking about the more general social benefits! Interestingly I have also found that having a studio makes a difference to my sketching because now I am thinking of sketching for subsequent paintings rather than as ends in themselves and this changes their purpose and nature too! The main thing in all this is that you are sketching so regularly! at least one a day is great!

  2. Finding a suitable sketch book has been a big stumbling block for me. If I am going to use paint then I really can’t cope with using poor paper so took to making my own from sheets of full imperial paper but then I don’t want to spend time sewing/binding or whatever people do to make them a work of art in their own right, so even my home made ones are not as I would like!! To buy a sketch book with decent enough paper is costly that’s if they exist so I have never bought one and in any case I suspect the cost would then make me too precious about using it the way it needs to be used. In the meantime I have a Midori Travellers book which I can add loose sheets to and although it is really rather small, maybe that will be my solution…I will show it to you when you visit the group.

    1. Hi Judith, thanks for your comments and I can see the issue. I guess though, if you want to do full paintings then sketchbooks maybe trickier as its really plein air painting. I lot of good watercolorists that also do urban sketching use sketchbooks such as stillman and Birn and Fabriano. Saunders waterford do one too. It depends also on what you want to achieve with the sketching. For me, I am trying to capture different subjects in different ways as I have improving my capture and drawing skills as a key goal. This means that I don’t always want to create a painting in my sketchbook. There are lots of things to think about! Yes, it would be really good to see your Midori travellers book. As you say, maybe that is your solution.

  3. Very interesting to read. Sketchbooks are very nice to look back on and are like a visual diary. Having several sketchbooks of different types etc is fun and encourages a different approach, I find. Lovely to hear about your work and great to see.

  4. Ooh I could never take it down to one sketchbook at a time, my mind just isn’t that organised, plus some days I love Khadi paper and others I need the smoothness of Stillman and Birn. I have them divided up into subject, people and pups, places, still life and a “mind wander” book.
    I know what you mean about loose sheets, they’re not as portable as a sketchbook so you lose the spontaneity a bit, plus there’s the additional pressure of getting that piece right because you can’t just turn the page and keep going. But as far as the search for the perfect sketchbook is concerned I’ll always be on that mission, I love it, it’s all part of the fun for me. Nothing nicer than browsing an art shop for a new book to experiment with. I’ve had some pleasant surprises with different types/textures of paper and the effects I can create by chancing a purchase. I will never tire of discovering .
    I would say to Kate though, give it another go with the Urban Sketchers, they’re usually an eclectic but lovely bunch. Don’t worry about rules too much, anyone who has an issue with you drawing from the comfort of your car hasn’t got our weather to contend with is all I have to say! If you are ever over in Northern Ireland then you’re more than welcome to come to one of our meet ups. Happy sketching .

    1. Hi Kellie, thanks for your comments. It remains to be seen as to whether I can stick to one, but I find that if I have too many, then I never have the right one with me at a given time! Goodness, you do seem organised though so I suppose that means you know which book to take! food for thought as you are right, different ones have different qualities. I agree with you about urban sketchers though. Its a great group to be a part of and they do vary between groups (I belong to about 5 that I dip into!). Happy sketching!

  5. Thank you Liz – a great post!
    I am new to sketching and so have not yet landed on a specific (my) way of doing things.
    I have always been keeping written journals/notebooks – where I have combined quotes and reflections on reading with my own “life-writing”. But what I would like to do now, is to find a good way of combining writing with sketching. I think of this new way of working as a form of collage – but do not yet know what it will look like.

    1. Hi Sigrun and thank you for your comment. Sketching is a wonderful pursuit so I am sure that you will find it very rewarding. You sound similar to me in that you want to combine writing and drawing (as lots of people do, at least in their sketchbook). Collage is certainly something that I am going to be looking into too and I shall be interested to see how you progress. Good luck and happy sketching!

  6. Hi liz great post for me the most challenging things are 2 . First to find a rough oaper in portrait orientation I know most of sketchers prefer landscape but unfortunately I find it difficukt to handle for example I love Khadi paper but they only sell landscape orientation second challenge is the heat the temperature factore keeps me at home mist of the time soi couldn’t have enough opportunity to sketchoutdoor except in a restaurant or cafe

  7. Thank you for this post Liz. You describe exactly how I’ve been feeling about my own work, loose leaf vs sketchbook. I have been feeling guilty that I’ve given more priority over the past years to the sellability of my drawings over the actual pleasure and spontaneity of making them. I’ve also recently vowed to get back into my sketchbook habit. Thank you for putting all these thoughts into words!

    1. Thank you Lichia for your comment. I am so glad that it has helped. You certainly shouldn’t feel guilty about prioritising for business but I think its great, for you, to also have a sketchbook for your exploration work. Good luck and happy sketching!

  8. Great post, Liz — I love your analytical/process posts! And while I’ve loved seeing your more finished pieces (that you are selling), I’m glad to hear you are back to “sketchbooking” more again. I think a sketchbook just for yourself is always useful, even if you are also producing finished work to sell, because it gives you a place to play and explore. I have only one main sketchbook format (handmade, about A5 size) that I have stuck with for years for my urban sketches — the kind that seem to tell a “story.” But the past year I started also using a small pocket size casual notebook (with red paper) for little sketches on the run — people on the bus or train, things I see on the street, etc. — in line only, no color. I find I sketch more now because I have the small book to catch small sketches that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have made because I didn’t have time for a full “story” with color. These two formats — the larger for “story” sketches and the smaller for hurried sketches — get me through everything in a given day. I’m happy that I discovered the pocket-size format to fill a different need than the larger one.

    1. Hi Tina, many thanks for your helpful comments. I agree entirely with what you say about the exploration part of sketch booking and I am really looking forward to doing more of that! I am similar to you actually and although my larger sketchbook, for stories, as you say, has taken a nose-dive, I have always kept one of the very small pocket books. It is so useful for quick sketches on the go like on the bus etc. However, you make a good point about keeping that for simple line/contour work. I think I have started to stray to make it like the bigger book but thats possibly because I wasn’t keeping the bigger book like I wanted! Happy sketching!

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