I have to admit that I never used a sketchbook when I was first learning to paint. I would find a photo of something I wanted to paint, and faithfully copy from it onto a piece of watercolour paper. But more often than not I was disappointed with the result, and there was good reason for this. I was hoping to turn out a masterpiece every time, but I was not putting in any practice beforehand!
It is the same situation as someone learning to play the piano and expecting to play Chopin or Beethoven perfectly every time they sat at the keyboard without practising first or learning scales. We understand that this would be impossible in music, but without thinking we apply the same idea to our art. We expect a wonderful painting every time without spending time practising and playing.
The ‘Aha’ moment
A few years ago I bought myself a cheap sketchbook and began to draw in it. A whole new world opened up to me, and ever since then I have always used sketchbooks to hone my skill. I now use them in a variety of ways and have several on the go at once. I have one that is for playing in and trying out ideas, another for making quick line drawings and thumbnail sketches, and a couple of others of different sizes for watercolour paintings. I often take these with me on holiday and they have decent watercolour paper in them so they handle the paint well.
7 reasons why you should get the sketchbook habit!
1. No pressure. There is no need to worry about creating a masterpiece every time!
This first point was revolutionary for me. It opened my eyes and changed the way I thought about my painting. Suddenly I did not have the pressure of trying to paint a picture that I would frame and hang on the wall, or that friends and family would comment on. My paintings could be private. Somehow, the act of painting in a sketchbook rather than on a piece of paper freed me from having to aim for perfection. It no longer mattered if a painting didn’t work. It was only in my sketchbook after all! I had the freedom to fail. And because of this, my ability to paint really took off.
2. Get creative. Find the freedom to play around with ideas.
This follows on from the last point. As soon as you make the mental switch from not trying to create a complete and perfect painting every time to allowing yourself to play and create, then you can really let your creative juices flow! Use your sketchbook any way you like. You can try out different styles or different media. You can play around to your hearts content and see what emerges. Perhaps you will discover a whole new way of painting, or a whole new subject matter. Your sketchbook can help you do this.
3. Planning and preparation. Work out your composition and tonal values.
Sketchbooks are great for planning a painting. If you are painting en plein air (outdoors) or from a still life or even from a photo, then get into the habit of doing a few thumbnail sketches first. These help you to get the feel of the subject in front of you, and you will quickly find out what you want to put in and what you want to leave out of your composition. Tonal value studies will help you to make a strong foundation for your painting.
4. Loosen up. Learn to paint faster and looser.
If you go outside to paint the landscape, (and I really hope you do from time to time), then take a sketchbook with you. One of the restrictions of sketching outdoors is the short time available. The light is always changing, so shadows come and go or move around; the weather can also change very quickly from warm and sunny to rainy and cold; you may have to stand to sketch and this can be tiring; you may be in a city or town where people are moving around and you only have a few moments to capture them. My point here is simple – you need to learn to paint fast and loose.
A sketchbook can help you do this as you are not aiming for a finished painting. Use your book to capture the fleeting moments, the patch of sunlight on a field, the cows in the field, the stormy clouds overhead. Paint them quickly and with an economy of brushstrokes and see how much you can achieve with very little. Less is often more! Then use what you have learned when you next paint a picture at home.
5. Holiday memories. Remember much more than when you take a photo.
Sketchbooks are great for taking on trips or holidays. You really don’t need to take much stuff with you. It might be a small book that fits in your pocket or bag, and a pen or pencil. Or take a small watercolour sketchbook, with a few paints and a couple of brushes. With these few items you can create memories that will last a lifetime. There is something about looking and drawing that fixes the view in front of you – the time of day, the smells and sounds, and even how you are feeling – and in years to come when you look back at your sketches you will remember all these things. I bet you can’t do that from a photo!
6. Save time. Keep everything together and in chronological order.
How many times have you searched high and low for a scrap of paper which had a painting idea on it? You remember drawing it, but you can’t remember where you put it! Help yourself by using a sketchbook. Not only is it easier to find past ideas, but you will have a chronological overview of your work and how it is progressing. I usually write in the date alongside my work, and it is interesting to see how my art has changed and how I have improved over the years.
7. Get inspiration. What to do when you have painter’s block.
Do you ever have times when you are stuck for what to paint? Then look back through your sketchbooks. Your sketches once inspired you for a reason – that’s why you drew them! You may just have a few lines or a smudge of colour, but even these can evoke memories and inspire a painting.
So there we are – seven great reasons to use a sketchbook. Believe me, when you start sketching you won’t stop, your art will improve, and you will have great fun along the way!
Great reminders! A good habit to get into – bringing a sketchbook and a camera when I go anywhere!
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Yes Wendy, even a tiny notebook and a pencil can be enough to allow you to catch a scene in a couple of minutes. Have fun with it!
Andy, love your blog. You are a wealth of good information, inspiration, and helpfulness. (Just to mention a few!)
Thanks Laura, that’s a great encouragement for me to keep going.