Most art or design courses demand a sketchbook or journal as part of the final submission. Yet from what I’ve heard and seen it doesn’t suit everyone. I know plenty would disagree with me! I just don’t think some people have the right temparement for it. So this article looks at the personalities of some who have - and some who haven’t - had the habit…
Does everyone do it?
I ask many artists I meet at exhibitions whether they keep a sketcbhook. Some say yes, immediately pull one out and start flipping through the pages. Some say no. Many confess that for their course they pulled it together the weekend before they had to submit their work. And I can understand that!
If you fail to keep a sketchbook or journal does it mean you’re not a real artist or designer? I don’t think so. Sketchbooks are a relatively new invention. Forty thousand years ago cave artists didn’t carry sketchbooks with them – and look how brilliant they were! However, if your course demands it, you’re not going to get away with not producing one or the other – a journal or sketchbook.
If you come forward in time to the Renaissance, sketchbooks did exist around 400 years ago. The most famous are probably Leonardo da Vinci’s. He was not just curious about how to draw – but about how everything worked too. He captured anatomical detail from dissecting corpses – and was intrigued by the hydraulic engineering of muscle and bone. Not only that, he used the sketchbook discipline as a way of exploring his creataivity – from weapons to helicopters. His sketchbooks were clearly a discipline. They literally show us how his curiosity and inventive mind work together.
Caravaggio, a painter at around the same time was a bold, often violent and vivid personality. He killed someone, escaped from a jail in Maltaand after several other adventures died at the young age of 38. According to an article in the Telegraph, when his body was found in 2010, experts thought he may have been murdered.
His approach to painting was as unconventional as his approach to life. The traditional artists of the day would have drawn out their composition before painting it. But there is no existing evidence that he made any sketches at all. He worked from his mind’s eye and painted directly onto his surface, possibly helped by the latest technology of the time – camera obscura. His resulting draughtsmanship was technically brilliant and the stories his paintings told were more violent and dramatic than anything that had gone before. In those days artists employed several people and like any business today were always looking at ways to cut overheads. Sketching surfaces, like stretched goatskin, were hugely expensive. He probably saved both time and money with his approach.
Does everyone take to it?
If we leap forward again to the Victorian era you find that art education had changed from Renaissance times. People who wanted to be artists usually attended art school. Sketchbooks do feature. I looked to my two distant Welsh cousins Gwen and Augustus John for more information. Did they keep sketchbooks?
I think Gwen John was a quieter personality than her brother. Yet after art college she made her way to Paris, sleeping rough and squatting. She was the muse and lover of the sculptor August Rodin for ten years inParis. Later she had a studio there. So there was an unconventional side to her. But when you look at her work you can see she was a careful artist who liked intricate detail. True, some of her sketches are fast and rough. But she was also happy to repeat similar things and practise them over and over again. Her series of nuns, all in similar wimples and grey habits, with only their faces for individuality, show she didn’t mind repetition. So Gwen had her wild side yet her works show a tightly disciplined approach. According to the book “Augustus John” by Michael Holroyd – Gwen John left behind many sketchbooks. In fact she left behind thousands of sketches – but only about 150 finished works. Edwin John, her executor, sent her sketchbooks to the National Museum of Wales.
Augustus John’s life-style choices and experimental works show us that he was more radical and more of a flamboyant free spirit than Gwen. He was inspired by gypsy life. He had a wife in the conventional sense and a common law wife. The three of them and their children all lived in a gypsy caravan for a while. He was a brilliant portrait artist, not just concentrating on features but body language too. Some critics put his talent on a par with Leonardo da Vinci. His works and lifestyle portray a strong personality, focused on what he felt was important. He developed loose leaf working drawings for specific projects. Holroyd’s book, which has intimate details about Augustus John, does not mention any sketchbooks from his studio at Fryern Court. I have not found any evidence that he habitually kept sketchbooks through his art career.
So here are two artists that some critics have called geniuses. They are clearly different in temperament – yet brought up together, with the same artistic and cultural influences. One of them found maintaining the sketchbook habit helpful – the other probably did not.
What if I’ve got to do it?
I’m not saying that people who don’t do sketchbooks are wild - and people who do are disciplined. What I am saying is that there are examples of superlative artists in both camps – those who do sketchbooks and those who don’t.
If you'd rather not but you’ve got to do it – because you feel it’s something you should do or your course demands it - then creating a sketchbook or journal is a good discipline to try. Yet for some people, as a course or project goes on, the fear of creating a sketchbook or journal can get worse and worse. In the end the idea holds all the charm of sitting in a bath full of snakes. I believe there are ways to add the habit of sketching or journaling into your lifestyle – maybe not for a lifetime, but certainly for a project or course. If you’re finding it impossible to make a start, or you want yours to stand out from the crowd, then my next blog should help. See you soon!
P.S. I went to the Moore Rodin exhibition at Perry Green at the weekend. An example sketchbook from each artist was there. Rodin’s sketchbook held his light pencil studies of human bones. Moore used a mix of pencil, wax and water colour for his annotated ideas and studies.