Are Sketchbooks Important?

I Made some comments while discussing the loss of my sketch bag and replacement of it. While these were casual comments that weren’t integral to the blog posts, they stirred some responses. I think it’s fair to say that my comments can be put into two piles and summarized thusly:

1) I don’t value my sketchbooks and, in fact, find them something of a nuisance as they accumulate.
2) More and more I’m abandoning sketchbooks in favor of single sheets.

I received several emails about these comments. Some defended the use of sketchbooks and one (there’s always one) wanted to convince me that I shouldn’t “put myself down” by saying my sketchbooks don’t matter. And then Susan King wrote this in the public comments:

“I thought I was the only one who didn’t look at my old sketchbooks. I recently filled two banker’s boxes and put them in the basement because I ran out of shelf space. (I did keep out the ones that have course material in them as I sometimes do go back and look at those.) I was tempted to throw away rather than store the old ones. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole subject sometime!”

It was like looking in a mirror. These comments made me think that maybe there was something to say here.

Those of us who joined the urban sketching movement have been taught that one does urban sketching in a sketchbook, and we hear it over and over and over and over again. If you look around, however, you see any number of people at USK events working on single sheets. I’ll talk about that later but today I want to respond to Susan’s curiosity.

When I started sketching I couldn’t draw anything and my attempts were all done on photocopy paper. I remember drawing, or trying to draw, cubes…lots of cubes. Eventually though, after proper indoctrination into USK, I bought a sketchbook, a little A6 book that was small enough to hide as I would go out to draw. And I started filling sketchbooks…lots of sketchbooks. Above is a photo of the only pile still in my office. Like Susan, I’ve got a couple boxes of the darn things in the basement, filled when I needed shelf space. The portfolios in the lower left of that photo are the only things that have moved on those shelves in a decade. They are how I store my single sheet sketches.

Sketchbooks are great if you want to create sketchbooks, those “let me show you the fine art I’ve produced” books that many enjoy. Those wanting to discuss and implement “page layouts” like sketchbooks. Some use sketchbooks as a way of keeping score (look at my shelf of sketchbooks) and all of these reasons are good reasons for sketching in sketchbooks.

But I’ve never been either of those kind of sketchbookers. For me a sketchbook has always been a tool, a place to sketch. I’ve never been shy about saying “I don’t know if I’m an artist. I just draw stuff.” And when I’m done drawing something, I turn the page and don’t look back. I don’t create sketchbooks, I create sketches.

It’s not everyone’s style but even USK tells us that this is “all about the process, not the product.” It certainly is for me. Am I proud that I can now draw something? You bet. A guy who hits a home run is proud too, but he doesn’t spend his nights watching a video of it. He’s too busy trying to hit another one.

So, no big deal here, but Susan and I, and probably some other folks look at a decade’s worth of sketchbooks as something in the way, not something precious. But I’ll finish this by pointing out that both Susan and I haven’t thrown our sketchbooks away. I wish I could say why that is since I never look at them but there you have it. I must see some value in keeping sketches. Sketchbooks aren’t the only way, however.

Just so nobody gets the wrong idea (someone surely will), I’m not dumping on the use of sketchbooks by anyone or for any reason. For me, however, they are getting less and less use. I’ll talk about that next time.

5 thoughts on “Are Sketchbooks Important?

  1. I’ve used sketchbooks on my travels for decades now. I sketch for my own pleasure because it’s fun and it’s also a different way of recording what I’m seeing besides only taking photographs.
    I also simply enjoy drawing (which I started to do as soon as I could hold a pencil). I use a variety of pens like Sakura Microns, fountain pens and recently I’ve put together a dip pen sketching kit. I’ve found a few antique travel ink wells for the ink (they are quite stable when set on the ground) and also only use vintage nibs. That puts me in touch with pen and ink artists of the past like Frank Brangwyn, who was a great promoter of drawing on location. Also Jasper Salway, J. Geoffrey Garrett and Arthur Guptill.
    I also have a watercolor kit to add color if I want to (I also use Noodler inks).
    I’ve really enjoyed watching the growth of the urban sketching phenomena (whatever gets folks making art!) but my first love is the natural world, so I just do my own thing.

  2. Thanks for this, Larry! It is helping me think through my own motivations. They are not exactly like yours, but your discussion reminds me that life is a journey of self discovery. I have moved in and out of the “page design” and “sketchbooks as diary/life documentation” phases, and may return to those at some point. And my love of books does fuel my sketchbook obsession. I’m now in a “do it for the process/do what is enjoyable” phase. And I now know that I just love to learn new things all the time. This may be why I kept handy those sketchbooks with course material in them. I’m looking forward to your next post on this subject!

  3. My own sketchbooks are more like illustrated diaries with personal and family stuff. I have told my family that when I’m gone, they can make a big bonfire! But each child and grandchild will probably choose one or two that have personal meaning to them — then get rid of the rest, I hope.

    One of the sketchers I follow draws on napkins — I love that! And there have been restaurants in Houston and Port Aransas where I have sketched on the paper tablecloths! I enjoyed the moment, then left it.

    Basically, do what makes you happy!

  4. I don’t want to box up my sketchbooks and loose sketches. I did for a while. I have no one to whom to leave them. Then I discovered the Art Abandonment movement. I give away a lot as anonymous abanonments in public places. I have kept some favorites. I store the loose ones in archival boxes on the shelf.

    I like loose sheets, too. I found the middle way by keeping them in a disc bound book. They are loose and I can pull them out.

  5. Very interesting discussion! I have been thinking about this from the perspective of how to get rid of ALL my stuff, not just sketchbooks. Interestingly, I use sketchbooks instead of loose sheets because loose sheets just fly all over the place. At least bound books are a type of storage. But they do fill up shelves or boxes or the floor. Unfortunately, I have been a lifelong journal writer too, and I have to eventually do something with those, too… and I definitely NEVER read old journals. So why keep them? Why, indeed.

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