17th Jan 2021
On sketchbooks, sketchyness and drawing:
How many people remember having a “rough book” at school? They were (at least in my
town) thick pads of poor quality paper bound with gum along one edge, and we were instructed to use them before writing work out properly in our exercise books. The point of rough books is you use
them to work stuff out, amend things, edit writing, and do all of this first to prototype the finished article. Mine tended to be full of doodles, but considering where I went with my education, that
was probably appropriate.
When I left school I went to art college for four years, first doing a “foundation”
year, where I got to try out different disciplines and decide which ones I was best at and/or most interested in (kind of a sketchbook exercise in its own right) then did a degree course in
contemporary crafts. Apart from some weeks doing printmaking, graphics and photography on foundation, I didn’t do any finished two dimensional work at all until after I graduated. Throughout those
four years however, I filled something in the order of twenty sketchbooks. We were taught to use them in the same way as school rough books; working out ideas and for recording visual information. I
still have most of them, and the most interesting thing to me about them is that they only contain fifty per cent of what people would term “drawing”. The rest of it is written. The drawings are
unfinished, dashed out, and the writing is full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and some of the ideas are just daft and wrong-headed. You certainly don’t use or keep sketchbooks for
prosperity. Now this is the whole point. I have friends who are professional writers and musicians, and their “sketchbooks” tend to be those little lined moleskin books that easily fit into a pocket.
They use them as rough books, and jot down ideas or sketches of plots before they forget them. This is drawing, but using words to do it. I’d contend that they are really useful as a tool even if
you’re not somebody who works in the arts, or for whom the arts are a big part of their hobby activities, or whom thinks visually. I hadn’t produced any finished sculpture, drawings or paintings for
years until about 2012, but I always kept sketchbooks going, as they were an adjunct to thinking. I had a career caring for people with learning disabilities, and I always had a sketchbook to hand,
not least because I could use it to help communicate with non-verbal service users.
I’m not a psychologist or educationalist but I think sketchbooks are a way to make
amorphous ideas more concrete whilst paradoxically affording more flexibility of thought. This seems to get harder as we get older – we get set in our ways as cognitive bias and crystallised thought
patterns set in (do we use up available memory? I dunno), so anything that we can use to offset that has to be beneficial.
So here’s some quick and dirty tips about how to use sketchbooks (and I’m using the
term in its broadest sense):
Always have one to hand, otherwise you’ll be searching around for the back of an
envelope or empty fag packet.
Don’t use them to do your best work – that’s not what they’re for.
Have them in different sizes. For big work, layout paper is good but wallpaper lining
paper is cheaper.
Don’t self-censor. Sketchbooks should only be public if you want them to be, (much like
journals), and the point is to use them as part of thinking and memory.
Don’t worry about it if you think you can’t draw, spell etc., if you do you won’t want
to get your ideas down on paper. Anyway, the more you do, the better you’ll get.
Use them to experiment, to practice techniques, and develop skills. Part of that
process is allowing yourself to screw up and test ideas/techniques/skills to destruction.
Don’t use expensive pads or expensive materials UNLESS you’re experimenting/building
skills using those materials. Cheap is fine. If you have a local scrap-store, try and score some old exercise books.
Be prepared for the fact that occasionally you’ll lose one. Don’t get upset about it.
If you’re down the pub and using one be discrete otherwise people will want you to draw
them – which is fine if you want to score some drinks, but it gets old quite quickly.
If you’re creatively ‘blocked’ (which can be miserable – I was blocked for years) you
can use sketchbooks like mental sink plungers.
Use them to record things you see, thoughts, plans for paintings, chess moves,
directions to get places, chord shapes, ideas for pub quizzes, recipes, ideas for tattoos, poetry, how you think you might put that kitchen shelf up, the titles of songs you hear on the radio,
telephone numbers, where you’ve planted your vegetables, in fact anything that will otherwise be lost. You may never look at it or read it again, but you will have helped your thinking process.