Written by Brian Britigan
I was once invited to be in a show where each artist was given an identical sketchbook that would later be on display for the public to flip through. I was thrilled to participate, but once I opened the brand-new sketchbook my excitement quickly turned to dread. Knowing that every mark I made would ultimately be seen by others made me second-guess both what I was choosing and how I was going to draw it. The feeling was paralyzing. I eventually finished enough drawings for the show but my hesitation resulted in a lot of empty pages. And to be honest, what I put on display wasn’t really a sketchbook; it was a series of carefully-completed drawings that happened to be on subsequent pages. It was a fake.
We’ve all felt the pressure of “the perfect sketchbook”, the feeling that we’re one bad drawing away from ruining the entire thing. But there’s a reason why artists make their work in studios and not in museums; it’s a messy process. Your sketchbook isn’t a gallery of your greatest hits, it’s a laboratory where you can get dirty and make discoveries. Sketchbooks can act like a physical workspace, an environment designed to encourage thinking, observation, or experimentation. And just as the various rooms of your house lend themselves to particular activities, I’ve found that different types of sketchbooks are best suited to different types of sketching. For that reason, I usually have multiple sketchbooks in progress at any given time.
They play the following roles:
This sketchbook serves as a catch-all for doodles, mixed-media experiments, notes from artist talks, etc. It’s a place to collect my all my thoughts and ideas, and therefore looks like a chaotic, jumbled mess. Because I use this sketchbook for a wide range of tasks, I prefer a mixed-media paper that can stand up to whatever I throw at it: pencil, ink, watercolor, etc. For years now my sketchbook-of-choice has been Bee Paper’s Super Deluxe, I find the 9”x9” version to be just the right size.
Whether I’m heading to the park or going on vacation, I like to bring along a sketchbook that’s devoted to drawing from life. This is something that I can easily throw in a bag with my supplies and tends to be smaller than my primary sketchbook. The reason why I prefer a smaller size is that drawing on location always involves a time limit, whether enforced by changing sunlight or bad weather. A smaller page means I finish more quickly, get less wrapped-up in details, and keep a better view of the image as a whole. Once again, I prefer a mixed-media paper that can handle whatever materials I happen to bring along.
We’ve all felt the particular paralysis of staring at a blank white page. A toned sketchbook is a great way to switch up your approach and experiment with new ways of working. Brown, gray, or black pages are perfect for opaque materials like gel pens, gouache, and colored pencils. I initially started using Bee Paper’s bogus recycled rough sketch paper to create value studies for larger drawings, but lately I’ve been bringing my Big Black Bee sketchbook to figure drawing sessions and sketching locations as well. Maybe one day my toned and travel sketchbooks will be one and the same!
When brainstorming concepts for an illustration or ideas for a gallery show, I’ll make heaps of messy thumbnail sketches. I’ll often draw the same scene over and over, from different angles, with different lighting, etc. When it comes to choosing a direction, having all my ideas on one large page makes it easy to compare my options. Since this type of sketching is mostly done in pencil and focuses on quantity over quality, I’ve found that a basic sketching paper, such as Bee Paper’s Co-Mo Sketch at 14”x17”, works just fine. Once I’ve picked a thumbnail sketch, I’ll often use this same jumbo sketchbook to create a more polished sketch at the scale of the final drawing. A large-sized sketchbook may not be convenient to carry around, but it’s a great environment to assemble and refine your ideas.
A sketchbook is a powerful tool that can help you work faster, better, and more fearlessly. But like any tool, it’s not actually helpful if it’s not the right one for the job. Each of these sketchbooks serves a specific purpose and facilitates a different type of sketching. Some are best for capturing the outside world, while others help to bring my inner thoughts to the page. But the true benefit of this approach is that I’m forced to abandon the ideal of a singular “perfect sketchbook” and can instead focus on doing my best at the task at hand.