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Progress not perfection - Why do artists keep a sketchbook?

Lee May Foster-Wilson / February 1, 2023

Using a sketchbook has long been a very important part of my art practise and I often get asked about it and which sketchbooks are my favourites, so I thought for this months blog it might be useful to dissect the world of the sketchbook a little further and explore why they are such a useful tool for artists of all kinds.

Lee Foster-Wilson Current SketchbooksMy Current sketch and notebooks...

I know several artists who don’t keep a sketchbook or don’t have a regular sketchbook practise and some who use theirs every day…I fall somewhere in between but having said that I have a few different books on the go for different purposes:

I use one for notes and thumbnails, working out written ideas. Another for actually making art in and a third for writing out thoughts and memories, keeping lists and the like. It's kind of like a loose diary with sketches made of words rather than images. The fourth book I use is the one in which I do my morning pages. Not really a sketchbook but a brain dump of thoughts to start the day.

My note making and ideas book and my morning pages book get used every day, the art book several times a week and the written sketch book a few times a month.

Lee Foster-Wilson Studio SketchbooksA selection of past notebooks which I still mine for ideas!

What are the benefits of using a sketchbook?

Keeping a regular sketchbook practise has a lot of benefits. As well as getting pressing ideas down and trying out new things, it can help unlock our creativity. Sometimes sitting down to make something on a beautiful piece of paper can feel quite intimidating, but in a sketchbook all bets are off. You can even mark the paper with a random brush stroke or smudge to get the ball rolling and riff off that. You can cram more than one idea onto a page and sometimes the juxtaposition of those themes, ideas or subjects can spark something even more exciting than you had imagined.

They are a place to experiment and make a mess, figure stuff out, practise your craft and hone your skills. They are also handy to take out and about to keep things in one place. A lot of artists like to use them to record the things they see, rather than take a photograph, sometimes making a quick sketch can capture a lot of movement and feeling that can be taken back to the studio and developed.

Lee Foster-Wilson SketchbookA spread from one of my books where it didn't all go to plan but also where I tried some new things and worked outside of my comfort zone

Another benefit is the record they keep of our progress. I like to mark the date of the day I started each book on the cover and/or spine of the books I keep. It’s interesting to look back at how far you have come. I look back now at sketchbook work I was so super proud of when I made it and I can see the progression, in skill, in ideas and in my confidence. Even compared to where I was only a year ago. It’s also interesting to see the development of ideas. Keeping all of these in a book means everything, warts and all, is there to learn from.

Lee Foster-Wilson Old SketchbooksA stash of my older sketchbooks...

And on the note of keeping all of the things in books, sometimes when I am stuck for ideas I will go back through my old books and find ideas that I had forgotten about or images that can be re-worked and made good. I think this might be my favourite benefit of keeping sketchbooks and notebooks. The long lost ideas that still have legs or that maybe weren’t relevant or that I wasn’t ready for at the time, that can be plucked out now and harvested into something new and exciting!

How to use a sketchbook:

How you use a sketchbook is entirely up to you. Some artists like to use theirs to make notes and draw the environment around them, taking their sketchbook out into the world to draw from life. Others like to use theirs to play and figure out new compositions or colour combinations, try out new materials or ways of working. Some like to use theirs as a notebook and scrapbook, collaging different things together to come up with ideas.

If you are new to keeping a sketchbook the important thing to remember when you are using it is to do what comes naturally to you, not to subscribe to what you may have seen on the internet and social media and not to worry about keeping it all neat and tidy (unless of course that is what comes naturally to you!)

We often see perfect spreads popping up in our feeds, but if those artists are anything like me there will have been a plethora of rotten ones in between the good ones and mistakes made. Those mistakes are as important as the pages that go well though, and while I have been known to try occasionally tear out a particularly awful one, I generally just raw a big fat cross over the top of the terribleness and turn the page. We can learn as much from looking back at what we didn’t like as much as what we did.

Lee Foster-Wilson SketchbookProgress not perfection!

An easy way to get started with a sketchbook practise and get the habit going is to do an ongoing project. You don’t need to show it to the world though doing so builds accountability. Something like the 100 day project (which I have taken part in on a few occasions and that I am considering doing again this year) is an easy in, where you draw an image a day for 100 days. It’s amazing how much work and how many ideas you will have amassed at the end of it! A couple of times I have done a random colours project which is open enough to work on ideas that are interesting to me at the time but that also has some sort of boundary as not to be so open I don’t know where to start. Colour is always a good starting point, taking a cue from the colours themselves and seeing where it leads. I can highly recommend it!

Lee Foster-Wilson SketchbooksSketchbooks filled with 100 Day Project Drawings

Or you could just make it something you work in when you need to, when there’s an idea that you need to figure out or if you need to practise drawing. There is no race to fill a book and neither is it a bad thing if working in a sketchbook is all you do. They are a great place to just make some stuff for your own personal benefit without feeling the need to put it all on display all the time.

So, what kind of sketchbook should you use?

There is a plethora of books available to suit different working styles, materials and situations so in the end it really is up to personal preference!

It is good to consider the thickness of the paper you might need and whether you want a bit of texture on the paper. If you use a lot of wet media then you may want a water colour or mixed media sketchbook and if you use pens that may bleed through it’s worth considering the sizing of the paper. Sized paper is made to be less absorbent so ink won’t soak through as it will on unsized paper.

If you take your book out and about a lot a hardback book will protect the inner pages when it is tossed into a bag, an elastic closure will also help with this. If you like to collect things while you are on your travels, feathers, tickets, postcards and other ephemera that inspires you, then one with a little pocket inside one of the covers would be useful.

It also depends if you like to work in landscape or portrait as you can get books that are orientated both ways and even square ones.

If you work mostly at home then you can go as big as you need and use soft cover books if you like them. They will take up less space in storage but aren’t so robust so not ideal for pulling in and out of a bag all the time but will be perfectly happy on a desk and shelf.

Lee Foster-Wilson Seawhite of Brighton SketchbooksWorkings in my favourite Seawhite of Brighton soft cover sketchbooks...

There are a lot out there to choose from but my personal favourite sketchbooks of all are Seawhite of Brighton sketchbooks. They come in many different sizes, hardback, soft cover and different page counts too. They are filled with a really easy to use thick cartridge paper and aren’t expensive. The pages can take pen and paint though they do crinkle a little bit if you get them wet as though the paper is sized it isn’t water colour paper but that keeps the price and the preciousness of the pages down and in my mind anyway, frees me up to be as experimental as I like. There’s nothing worse that starting a new fresh page in a very expensive book and being scared to mess things up, in a sketchbook you want to be able to feel like you aren’t throwing money away if things go wrong!

As for notebooks I use whatever I have on hand and at the moment that is one of my own designs (I am hoping to be able to bring these back in stock at some point…I do have a handful of seconds still available should you be interested ;) ) but anything lined and with enough pages to keep me going for at last 6 months is preferable for my needs. You may prefer a dot grid journal or plain pages or a mix of plain and lined. It’s worth trying a few and seeing what takes your notes the best and what you most enjoy working in.

Lee Foster-Wilson NotebookNotes, always making notes!

For my morning pages I just have some cheap Silvine exercise books which are made from recycled paper and sometime in the future will probably be recycled again.

Of course using a sketch or notebook is entirely personal, you may find that you don’t need or want to use either of them, but if you do use them I would love to hear from you and learn your favourite books, how you use yours and the benefits you get from it.

If you would like too see inside my art sketchbooks then I have a couple of YouTube videos you might want to check out HERE and HERE. They are nice relaxing tours where I talk about overcoming creative blocks, making a mess and finding my way through sketching...I hope you enjoy them!


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