Why You Should Keep a Daily Sketchbook—and How to Get Started

Eli Hill
Nov 16, 2018 7:58PM

A sketchbook can be much more than just a notebook for drawing. “It can be thought of as a closet, an attic, a basement or a file folder, where unedited thoughts are stored in a jumble,” explains Olivia Petrides, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “A sketchbook is a way to process raw information.”

For Petrides and countless other artists, sketchbooks are places to express oneself privately, experiment with ideas, and document the world that surrounds us. Plus, you can easily share them with trusted friends, without the feelings of self-consciousness that creep up while unveiling a “finished” artwork. And when used on a daily basis, sketchbooks can help us not only transform how we see the world, but how we process it, as well.

So for artists looking to tune-up their sketchbooks, or for novices looking to delve into the world of sketchbooking for the first time, we’ve compiled some key tips for starting––and sticking with––a daily sketchbook practice.

1. Give yourself tools you love


When you’re picking out a sketchbook, remember to consider how and when you’ll be using it. One of the easiest ways to make sure you use your sketchbook every day is to have it on you at all times; that way, when an idea or image strikes, you’ll be able to put it down on paper immediately. Thus, a bulky or heavy sketchbook might not be the best option.

In addition to the right sketchbook, you’ll want to develop a collection of materials you look forward to using. “The tendency is to use a pencil or a pen,” Petrides notes, but don’t be afraid to experiment with new media, too. “Use watercolor, collage, inks, indirect transfer,” she suggests. “Whisper, but also shout. It’s your book, your stage, your world.”

2. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

One of the most difficult challenges to overcome when keeping a daily sketchbook is pushing aside the expectations that every page should be perfectly executed or resemble a complete work of art.

“There’s a lot of books out there that are published sketchbooks of this artist or another––and they’re really highly curated,” explains Fred Lynch, a long-time professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. “They give [artists] the impression that when you do a sketchbook, you’re supposed to go from start to end without a single mistake or misguided start.”

As Lynch suggests, approaching a sketchbook this way may intensify the daunting nature of a blank page, and can leave you feeling less dedicated and inspired to keep up the practice. Instead, he advises that sketchbookers take a lax, playful approach. “Don’t think of the sketchbook as an act of performance,” he says. “Rather, think of it as a place to play, to experiment, and to work things out.”

If you find yourself especially frustrated by a particular sketch, get rid of it. Remember that sketchbooks come with no given rules; you can tear that sheet out, collage it onto another page, paint over it, or fold it in half.

3. Use observation and imagination

Tim Burton
Sketchbook Drawing 3, ca. 1990
AFA Gallery
Sven 't Jolle
Sketchbook drawing - eerst een viergangen menu en dan het moraal , 2015
PLUS-ONE Gallery - Antwerp

Artists typically use a sketchbook in one of two ways: They’ll use it to document their observations of the physical world around them, or they’ll use it to put an idea from their mind to paper. Lynch suggests that artists employ a combination of the two—using both observation and imagination. “Both are really good skills, but it’s when both of those skills are combined that the magic happens,” he explains.

For example, if you’re an artist who usually sketches people, you might want to try blind contour drawing––a technique where you draw a subject from observation without looking down at the page, and never lifting your drawing tool, until the image is complete. The exercise can help you break out of your usual routine and produce unexpected imagery; the resulting drawings tend to be loose, illogical, and a bit messy.

If you’re an artist who frequently draws interior scenes from your imagination, try drawing the same space twice, but from a new angle. This exercise will encourage you to consider the three-dimensionality of your subject, instead of the flat image you visualize in your head.

Perhaps you find yourself growing bored while drawing. In that case, try approaching the page with new subject matter. “Gather imagery from diverse sources, intuitively selecting elements that appeal to you,” Petrides suggests. Then, paint, draw, or collage that imagery into your sketchbook. “After these possibly disparate elements are collected onto a page, rework the imagery to create a new space in which all these elements can coexist,” she continues. “Hopefully, something unexpected will have occurred.”

4. Use your sketchbook instead of a camera

Courtesy of The Sketchbook Project.

At The Sketchbook Project––a crowd-sourced Brooklyn library of over 41,000 sketchbooks––visitors are able to search through the stacks by looking up keywords and tags. The space’s co-founder, Steven Peterman, notes that one of the most-searched terms is always “travel.” Flipping through a sketchbook that someone filled up while traveling offers an intimate view of that person’s life and experience. And for the traveler, a sketchbook can dramatically enhance one’s awareness of their surroundings.

“It’s day and night better than a camera,” Petrides emphasizes. “It takes time to draw or paint what is in front of you. It is the difference between being in a place or scanning it with your phone and moving on.” When you take the time to visualize a subject with a pen or pencil in hand, you begin to notice details you might miss otherwise. (Also, drawing can help you better remember your trip.)

In one sketchbook from the project’s digital library of over 21,000 artist books, a traveler documented their journey to various countries with pen drawings of buildings, landscapes, and restaurant interiors, while another sketchbook enthusiast visualized their journey from New York to Siena with pages of colorful paintings and chalky text. Both illustrate how the artists took time to record their unique experiences and observations.

5. Consider your sketchbook as a trusted companion

Along with travel-logs, memorials are also popular at The Sketchbook Project. These are often tributes to the deceased, loved ones, or someone who the artist lost touch with. “We have a lot of people who use [sketchbooks] when they’re going through something tough and they need it as a place to put their feelings and thoughts,” Peterman notes.

Channeling one’s thoughts and emotions into a sketchbook can be therapeutic, like confiding in a friend. Because they can remain private, sketchbooks can also be a safe space for personal expression. They can even be a helpful coping mechanism in stressful situations, such as public commutes, awkward social events, or telephone calls; Lynch even allows his introverted students to use them during critiques––as long as they’re still actively engaging in the discussion.

“Our sketchbooks can document our lives like a diary,” Lynch says. “They can also be faithful companions.”

Eli Hill
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019