Connect to a Sketchbook

Mar 21, 2022

The heading of this blog is a play on a phrase found on the website The project is run by not-for-profit organisation the Brooklyn Art Library in New York. The idea behind the Sketchbook Project came about in 2006 and the library has been operating as a storytelling storehouse of sketchbooks since then. Sketchbook fans of any age, ability and from anywhere in the world, can purchase a standard size (5’’x7’’ / 13cmx18cm) sketchbook from the project and then fill it with their creative story, based on a series of ever-changing and very open-ended themes. The mission is the same for everyone – tell your story the way you want to, using the sketchbook as your primary creative communication tool. Once completed, you can send the sketchbook back to the library, where it is not only stored in physical form on the library’s shelves, but it’s also digitised so that it’s accessible to a worldwide online audience.

There are currently over 60,000 sketchbooks from all over the world in the library – an amazing testament to the power of global creativity. A changing selection of physical sketchbooks travel to various locations as a mobile library and people can also visit the Brooklyn library for free to browse sketchbooks. Online, you can browse a huge range of sketchbooks, using search words and prompts. It’s mind blowing to see how creatives have interpreted themes and how the standard sketchbook format has been cleverly manipulated by some artists to incorporate pull up or out tabs, concertina pages, foldout sections, cut through sections, collage, texture, objects that compress when the sketchbook is closed – so many unconventional material manipulations that keep the reader guessing. There are also many, many sketchbooks that celebrate the beauty and diversity of conventional art media and traditional artistic conventions. Something for everyone, really. I have two sketchbooks in the collection. The Idea of East is about my artistic admiration of the colour red and its relationship to surface pattern and cultural heritage. The other sketchbook is called The Way I Live Now and tells the tale through drawings of the Apollo moon missions, and of my sister’s and my love of space exploration that we’ve shared since that moment when we watched together as children, the historic Apollo 11 moon landing.

As artists, Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt used the sketchbook to contain a huge diversity of ideas, inventions, processes, techniques, observational drawings from life, and wandering thoughts. In the case of Rembrandt, even as a form of doodling. Sketchbooks were illustrated journals for artists who were famed for their travel to exotic places. The sensory overload of sights: from strange architecture to unfamiliar clothing made of patterned decorative cloth; implements, vessels, cultural objects whose meanings were unclear; foods in marketplaces that looked and smelt strange; the light that cast deep shadows, throwing buildings into strange silhouettes - all these experiences and more needed to be put down immediately for fear that they would be gone just as quickly. The opportunity to process what had been seen would come later when the artist had the mental and emotional space to process all this extraordinary newness. The mobility of the sketchbook as a recording device has never altered in its appeal to artists.

Another consideration was the precious nature of the paper pages for artists who had very little money to spend on expensive sketchbooks. In many historical sketchbooks in particular, every inch of paper, both front and back was used. The book was orientated as both landscape and portrait on the same page to make the best use of the page. Drawings often overlapped, creating interesting, and sometimes accidental associations between drawings. It makes me smile to think of the way many of my art students use their sketchbooks in a similar way, but for a different reason. A crowded page in a sketchbook can be creatively stimulating - all those ideas and technical trials buddying up together on the one page. We also come from an age of competing imagery - we’re used to crowded screens that pulse images at us at a rapid pace. In a way, it’s somehow become comforting to overload our sketchbook pages with images.

Sketchbooks in past times were also considered like passports that would allow access to places not ordinarily allowed to be recorded, like theatre performances, or private spaces in homes, or private museum collections. Even today, courtroom artists record the processes of the court where cameras are banned. Their accurate, incisive and rapid sketches are highly valued as the only in-person recordings of court procedures that the public can access. In many ways, the digital camera has become a highly intrusive object in the public realm. People challenge those who might seek to take a photograph of them, citing an invasion of privacy or personal space as a reason. Interestingly, this is not always so for the sketchbook artist. As a recording device of people in public spaces, drawing sometimes closes the gap between public and private spaces. Artists may sit quietly and unobtrusively in a public space, recording people as they pass by, rest, daydream, or engage in conversations with others. These drawings may never be seen, but their rendering makes them a record of a specific time and place. They become part of the cultural fabric of everyday life in sketchbook form.

Historically, sketchbooks have had an important place in the realm of exploration. Explorers’ sketchbooks are all about discovery and adventure completed most often under arduous conditions of constant danger and deprivation. We most often think of men undertaking these journeys into the unknown, but there were women who excelled at recording the unimaginable. Artist, scientist and adventurer Sibylla Merian was one such woman. She devoted her life to the study of nature through entomology, revealing to an astonished world the secrets of butterfly metamorphosis more than 350 years ago. She was one of the first ecologists. She traversed the jungles of South America at the age of 52. Her sketchbooks were known as study books where extraordinarily meticulous drawings of insects, plants and animals are like glittering jewels on the page. All produced under extreme conditions of unrelenting heat and humidity, with Sibylla dressed in a heavy black dress with a long skirt and high neck, bonnet and veil.

My favourite explorer artist of the past is Dr. Edward Wilson, known as Wilson of the Antarctic in the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration. The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration was an era in the exploration of the continent of Antarctica which began at the end of the 19th century and ended after the First World War. Wilson died along with Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the rest of the British Pole party on their return journey from the South Pole in March 1912. They died in their tent erected against a fierce unrelenting blizzard that raged for days. When the snow and ice encrusted tent was finally discovered, Wilson’s field sketches of the epic journey were discovered with him. Pencil and watercolour were the main methods of recording accurate scientific records in this unchartered land. Wilson combined scientific, topographical and landscape techniques to create accurate and beautiful images of the last unknown continent. Antarctica was described as a terrible beauty and this portrayal can be seen in every one of his ice landscapes. The drawings and paintings were created at considerable personal cost in the freezing conditions in which Wilson worked. He suffered severely from the cold when sketching and from snow-blindness, or sunburn of the eye. The tragic story of these explorers, the feat of sketching to find the awesome beauty in such a relentlessly inhospitable environment when cold, hunger, thirst and waning strength are gnawing at your soul, makes the sketched records of lives lost an important part of heroic explorer legend.

Sketching as a plein air (outdoors) artist in contemporary times is a less fraught proposition for most artists. Australian landscape painter Debbie Mackinnon is a devotee of the sketchbook process. Her Instagram page @debbiemacinnon demonstrates her love of sketching. In fact, at the time of writing this blog, she has a new exhibition entitled Look (February 2022) where she explores the possibilities of mark making in the landscape, encouraging herself to Look Harder, Look Longer and Look Deeper. These drawings came out of her daily walks during lockdown in 2021. She doesn’t see the landscape as static – it is active and ever changing; therefore, her process needs to match the active shifts and changes in light conditions, weather, and time. She reiterates a phrase that we have regularly used during Art Eye Deer lessons – that drawing is a form of visual thinking. Sketchbooks become the “container” for these thinking processes and the rapid sketch responses within them record the in-the-moment environment. Her Instagram page has some great videos of her sketchbooks, including both large and small concertina books that demonstrate how a landscape viewpoint can “expand” beyond the direct location of the initial sketch. Debbie also has a comprehensive website and links to short YouTube videos of her sketchbook processes that can be accessed through links on her page.

The world of the sketchbook is open to you to explore. By its very nature of being a physical object that requires your input as an artist to give it a purpose, the possibilities of its expression as an art tool are boundless. I want to encourage you to connect to a sketchbook and value the journey that it can take you on. The sky’s the limit!

Wendy Muir
Art Eye Deer Teacher