Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On Keeping a Sketchbook

I'm a big proponent of using sketchbooks, and enjoy looking looking through other people's sketchbooks. There are many reasons to keep one:

  • to jot down ideas
  • for trying out compositions
  • to record observations from nature
  • for experiments and lab notes
  • for preparatory studies for larger works
  • to showcase one's skills to clients
  • as a diary
  • as a travelogue
  • as a work of art unto itself
  • for doodles and caricatures
  • for keeping lists

...or all of the above.

Opening a sketchbook can be like lifting a hatch on an artist's mind. What did they put down, and why? Is it methodical or free-form? Sparse or fully-rendered? What details were important to them? What were they attempting to figure out?

I've scribbled in sketchbooks for a good part of my life. Some have been lost, some have suffered significant damage. While I was organizing my studio this week, I came across one I hadn't opened in a long time. I dusted it off and took a look.

The first date was several pages in, next to several faint drawings of a mule deer: “February 19th, 1989. 6PM. Horsetooth Valley.” I'm guessing I was attempting to draw from memory or from a book, because it'd be pitch black out at that time of year – and at 14 years old, I certainly didn't have a car.

 A previous, undated page. 
1989.... It was fascinating, to view my younger self's work with a more experienced eye. My scrawled comments in particular were revealing. Several times I mention that a simpler drawing was a “quick sketch” or a “one minute sketch” – perhaps out of concern that a professional might deem it as Not Upholding Official Sketchbook Standards. At the time, I didn't know that it was okay to just get the gist of an idea down, that it didn't have to be perfectly proportioned and shaded and ready to put in a frame.

My bunk at camp. 

"Gotta go!"

Many of the sketches were done directly from life, as I'd heard that's what “real” artists did; but a few sprang from my imagination, too: i.e., a futuristic domed city with a vehicle zooming past with what appear to be ringed spikes (antennae? weapons? ski poles?) stuck in its engine intakes. Why I tended to draw domed cities, I'm not sure. I think it had something to do with all the ozone layer discussion at school. In addition to sketches, snippets of poems and songs found their way into the pages. Comments from old friends and phone numbers from new ones were jammed into the margins, or even incorporated into the drawings themselves.

An early appreciation for William Blake.

I particularly found it amusing that, after nearly three decades, certain things now appear somewhat dated, such as my parent's boxy Dodge Aries “K” car, my friend's Sony Walkman, or that you could get a large popcorn at the movie theater for $3.75.

"Study of popcorn on the floor." 

There were about 80 pages in all, but I've shared only a handful here because I don't currently have time to scan them, much less clean them up digitally. All I have to say is, hooray for camera phones! Speaking of which: nowadays many artists are exclusively using their phones or tablets instead of sketchbooks. I've tried it, but so far haven't switched over to full-time digital sketching. Perhaps I might one day, but for now I'm content to tote a small book and pencil around wherever I go. I might get graphite smudges on my face or be eye-rolled as, “sooo last century” – but at least I won't run out of power. 

There were also several pages dedicated to amateur botany.

The Estes Park McDonalds is still there, along with that crow's many descendants.

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