Form follows function


Whether you’re a student who has to have a sketchbook or journal – or you are an artist who wants to revisit this habit -  here are some things you could think about and try…

Establish the boundaries - get the guidelines

If you need the journal to pass an exam check that what you are thinking of doing is alright to submit. Establish the boundaries of your sketchbook or journal project before you begin to think about the form it could take.

Why do it? What will you get out of it?

What do you personally want to get out of the sketchbook or journal activity? It helps your focus to decide why are you doing this – and write it down. 

  • Do you want to develop your observation – and show progress in your ability to draw what you see?
  • Do you want to convey emotion – deliver meaning through line and shape?
  • Do you want to develop ideas for your art works - concentrate on one particular subject area?
  • Do you want to store ideas to refer back to – you just keep getting ideas and you need somewhere to put them?
  • Do you want to get into the daily drawing habit – sketching anything in your surroundings on a daily basis?
  • Or is it more of a story habit – a daily journey into the art of storytelling?
  • Is it more of a journal about some sort of exploration for yourself - or about yourself?

There are any amount of reasons for keeping a sketchbook or journal. Really understand what you want to get out of it before you start. If you are on a course – establish what the examiners want to see and learn about you or your work from your journal or sketchbook.

What is the life-cycle of your sketchbook?

I think it’s quite nice to think about the future of your sketchbooks or journals up front. As your career as an artist spans over the future years will your sketchbooks be a constant source of reference, readily to hand on your bookshelf? Will they be a matching collection of traditional Moleskines that fill your bookshelves over time? Or at the other end of the spectrum will they be more novel and different – perhaps made by you and taking on all sorts of different forms and textures?

If you are creating your own sketchbooks or journals they could be recyclable. Perhaps you envisage an end of sketchbook ritual where you tear the pages up by moonlight and sprinkle them over a bed of roses as mulch. Or will you bury each book you finish in a garden or some wild place? Will you mark the spot with a pebble, a carved wood marker or pottery artifact?  Is it for someone to find on some bleak moor? Or is the idea for it to biodegrade and meld with the landscape – in which case you might be interested in paper made from elephant dung.

Alternatively if you bury a book of paper with flower seeds in it you can photograph it a year later transformed into a bunch of blooms bending in the breeze.

What sort of sketchbook or journal?

All that thinking will get you to the point when you are ready to choose your sketchbook. If you just want buy it and start drawing this YouTube video by Diana Trout shows you different options. She uses 3 different journals – one for sketching, one for writing and one for colourful watercolours and collage. She looks at the traditional sketchbooks from Moleskines to cheaper options. I’d add Paperchase as an possible place to buy one.

If you want a more novel approach consider what might suit your purpose and reflect your subject matter or a metaphor you are working with. For example if you are hooked on still lifes of food – sketching and collaging through a pile of white IKEA napkins might be interesting.

Other options could be swatches of re-used fabric you draw or print on that you piece together at the end as a quilt. Alternatively a roll of wallpaper lining is a big inexpensive surface that you could work across until you get to the end - though it’s quite big to carry around. You can paint or draw on everyday objects like coke bottles and bean cans with things like left over emulsion, model paint and nail varnish. But if you do, think about safe handling –for example tape rough edges. What objects would tie in with your aims and your interests?

Ideas for approaches to sketching could be from visiting galleries and museums. The British Library have 130 prints and drawings on show at the moment in a free exhibition called Recent Acquisitions that runs until 1 September 2013. Must go and see it myself.

Web options are weightless and free

Free web options include Pinterest, Facebook or Blogger and a video journal on YouTube or Vimeo is also a possibility. The great thing about these is that they are weightless and accessible from anywhere. You can video temporary art to make it permanent. For example art that you create in the garden before the rain - or on a bread board with seeds, rice grains and spices you happen to have in the cupboard and before you make a good curry - might make an interesting video.

I quite like this weekly online journal by Johanna Basford… she alternates photos of activity with pictures of enormous artwork – one image per week. Simple but effective. The things she learns on this creative rollercoaster jump out from the pages. See what you think… (Use the link to get to the Digital Arts site, then search for Johanna Basford to see her the collection of articles.)

A note for teachers

Teachers might be interested in this Sketchbooks Best Practice course at the BritishMuseum in November costing £100. 

In the next post I’ll be looking in more detail at what people put in their sketchbooks…