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Sketch-look

The wolf reveals sketchbook secrets – they’re full of squiggles, rubbings out, growly words and lists…

Unlike a lot of illustrators, I don’t plan much before I start to sketch or draw. You may have seen these sketchbooks where it’s clear the artist has put a lot of thought into what they’re about to draw prior to putting pen to paper. Look at Anna Walker’s lovely work, for instance. Anna is clearly a planner – careful, skilled, considerate and sensible with materials.

One of Anna Walker's perfect sketchbook pieces.

One of Anna Walker’s perfect sketchbook pieces.

I have three excellent books about other people’s sketchbooks. When I’m feeling relatively good about my own work, I flick through them for inspiration. When I’ve just had an unsuccessful drawing stint, they go to the bottom shelf where I deliberately ignore them. But I do value my ‘books about sketchbooks’ and my favourite is Julia Rothman’s Drawn In.

Cover for 'Drawn In' presented by Julia Rothman

Cover for ‘Drawn In’ presented by Julia Rothman

And here are some spreads from the fabulously inspiring sketchbooks featured:

US-based, Australian illustrator Sophie Blackhall's sketchbooks serve as travel journals, filled with observational portrait and landscape paintings.

US-based, Australian illustrator Sophie Blackhall’s sketchbooks serve as travel journals, filled with observational portrait and landscape paintings.

Illustrator, writer and artist Rob Dunlavey likes to work and rework recurring themes; in this series – 'Crystal Cities'

Illustrator, writer and artist Rob Dunlavey likes to work and rework recurring themes; in this series – ‘Crystal Cities’

Camilla Engman is a Swedish illustrator and fine artist. I love the surreal and elegant compositions in these pages (oohs and aahs...)

Camilla Engman is a Swedish illustrator and fine artist. I love the surreal and elegant compositions in these pages (‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’…)

Renate Liwska is based in Canada. Almost all her illustrations are drawn in her sketchbook then scanned and worked up in Photoshop. Ie. the sketchbook work is good enough to publish.

Renate Liwska is based in Canada. Almost all her illustrations are drawn in her sketchbook then scanned and worked up in Photoshop. ie. the sketchbook work is pretty much good enough to publish.

Of course these are everyone’s BEST PAGES, carefully curated – we all know that; no-one is saying ‘Hey! I think I’ll keep it real and copy my most average sketchbook pages to send to Julia Rothman for her book project, as I want thousands of readers to see that some of my stuff looks a bit wonky’.

Though sometimes I wish they would, just to give a broader picture. Eg. my sketchbooks are not elegant. There’s maybe a few stand-out pages where something good emerges, but mainly they’re not something to go on display. This is because I use my sketchbooks to work out stuff – it seems to be the only way I CAN use them. So I go through a lot of pages (and pencils) trying to work out the drawing while actually attempting to do the drawing.. or develop/come up with an idea.

Here’s what tends to go in my sketchbooks:

  • lists of things I want to achieve (from completing an idea to being better groomed);
  • ‘bottom drawer’ project ideas;
  • unfinished storyboards;
  • bad drawings;
  • really bad drawings;
  • occasional cuss words (usually linked to above);
  • the odd life drawing, where I’ve decided to move away from the easel and sit down for a bit (and which somehow always seems to co-incide with the life model choosing a full-frontal pose best not viewed by small children);
  • one or two little sketches that ‘have something’.
Sketchbook 2014. On left: an idea for a larger drawing of an ark, and trying to work out what kind of house a giraffe might live in. On right: some alien drawings of mine, and one by a wolf cub.

Sketchbook 2014. On left: an idea for a larger drawing on an ark, and trying to work out what kind of house a giraffe might live in. On right: some alien drawings of mine, a crazed cyclops by a cheeky 8yo wolf cub.

The sketchbooks featured in Drawn In are mostly Moleskine Sketch. Very lovely they are too. I can’t commit to Moleskins, partly because – unless I get them online – they cost about $36 in Australia. I do wish I could be consistent though; my Swedish friend Anna (not Anna Walker) has a perfect sketchbook system, which has been going for 10 years or so. She buys 200-page, A4, spiral-bound, cartridge paper sketchbooks – the cheapish ones – and cuts them in half to make A5 landscape books. She then fills these books with super cool snippets (she and I have been to many of the same places but she’s one of those people who discover and collect cool stuff, whereas I can’t quite commit to picking anything up due to a terror of clutter). She adds her own funny and original thoughts, drawings, observations and bits and bobs, till the books are bursting with funky texture and bright colour. Anna’s sketchbooks are inspiring, content-rich… and they look great on the shelf.

My sketchbook shelves are a mish-mash of different books, numbered with different systems and never quite organised. Almost every book has a few blank pages at the end as I’ve given up on it and am keen to try a new model. I’m starting my system over and over every time. I am not cool and funky and nor are these shelves. Here’s a pic:

sketchbooks

Mmmm. But it mostly works for me. Pen to paper is not always pretty – but I do find ideas in these shelves. As I was flicking through my old sketchbooks for this post I unearthed a few interesting things:

Ages ago, at the Sydney Road Festival in Melbourne, I saw this lady tourist. She fascinated me: the way she just stood directly in front of the stage staring at the performers  - like she was looking at an exhibit. It's nice to think about her again. I don't know who the other woman, with long hair is though.

Ages ago, at the Sydney Road Festival in Melbourne, I saw this lady tourist. She fascinated me: the way she just stood directly in front of the stage staring at the performers – like she was looking at an exhibit. It’s nice to think about her again. I don’t know who the other woman with long hair is though.

From 2014: I'd forgotten how much work I'd done for 'The 52 Week Illustration Challenge' that year. I'd planned to do loads of strip cartoons but ran out of time. Tt's nice to see the working on the left (I think).

From 2014: I’d forgotten how much work I’d done for ‘The 52 Week Illustration Challenge’ that year. I’d planned to do loads of strip cartoons but ran out of time. And it’s nice to see the working on the left (I think).

And here are some snippets. Top left is a 2013 list, which is mostly fulfilled - hoorah! Note terrifying spider face mid-right from Luna Park Melbourne, and (mid-left) kids being eaten by their not-so-cute fluffy bunny hats. I might work that one up.

And here are some snippets. Top left is a 2013 list, which is mostly fulfilled – hoorah! Note terrifying spider face mid-right from Luna Park Melbourne, and (mid-left) kids being eaten by their not-so-cute fluffy bunny hats. I might work that one up.

So, while I hope the quality of my sketches is improving, for me it’s the ideas that matter. And all those hastily-written lists in my terrible handwriting: well, when I go back I see I’ve usually DONE at least 50% of what’s on that list – boost! And I can mostly read the handwriting! And having loads of different, un-matching sketchbooks means I don’t have to commit to one sketchbook make and size that may be hard to get later.

Note: My friend Anna lives in Sweden now and they don’t do her A4 spiral-bound notebook over there. She had me buy a dozen for her to collect on a family visit to Melbourne. Then she had to take them from Australia to Sweden as hold baggage (that’s at least 3 kilos btw.).

And now to try a new sketchbook – I’m going for a pocket-sized one this time.

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