Sketchbook rules

Sketchbook rules

The other day, someone was flipping through one of my sketchbook. They expressed surprise that I had taped in some sketches on loose sheets onto the pages. Their alarm grew when I explained that I  had started a sketch, abandoned it and taped over a sheet torn out of a different book I'd abandoned. They had heard somewhere that you shouldn't tape loose things into your sketchbook, you DEFINITELY shouldn't cover up any artwork, and especially you should never rip up an old sketchbook.  I had broken 3 sketchbook rules all at once.  This made me giggle a little.

Sketchbooks are a great tool.  Sketching is one of the best ways to improve your art.  The more time you dedicate to creating detailed studies, trying out new techniques and colours, practicing new subjects out of your comfort zone, etc, the more you will grow as an artist.  Sketchbooks give you a space to do all those things.

Ammonite and Murex - Natural History Study Page in Graphite

Sketchbooks also provide  a handy reference in an organized, bound format. The next time I paint a seashell, I can dig up a study page of an ammonite fossil and murex shell and get some helpful hints about spiral structures.  I can go through dozens of colour swatches and studies for past illustrations to decide on a colour palette for a tricky iridescent subject.  My urban sketches are a visual record of compositions I can draw on when building complex scenes.  Even my "failures" are a useful reference.  Good sketchbook contain bad sketches.

For those of us with a perfectionist streak, however, the pretty bound pages of a new sketchbook can lead to a fear of "ruining" a page.  We don't want to put a bad sketch in a beautiful book so we avoid sketching when we are not confident of our results.  Or we get tempted to abandon sketchbooks we "ruined" with imperfect sketchbooks and buy new ones before filling the old ones.  This in counterproductive.

In order to encourage ourselves to use our sketchbooks, take risks, learn from our mistakes and most importantly FILL our sketchbooks, different artists have come up with a variety of "sketchbook rules".  Here are 10 sketchbook rules I have heard of.  I've included my interpretation of why they exist, and whether I follow them and why.

Sketchbook Rule 1: Use only one sketchbook at a time.  Finish a sketchbook before starting a new one.

This rule was made for people like me.  I used to carefully draw 3-4 beautiful drawings in each sketchbook, then somehow "ruin" my sketchbook with an imperfect drawing, abandon it, and eventually buy a new sketchbook.  As a result I never finished any sketchbooks until a few years ago.  Committing to finishing a sketchbook before starting a fresh one really helped me to finish sketchbooks.  It also helped me get over my fear of "ruining" sketchbooks and I can now appreciate the rough, imperfect and messy sketches as well the "prettier" studies in my sketchbooks.

However, I no longer follow the letter of this rule.  I have not been able to find one kind of sketchbook that is perfect for all the kinds of sketches and studies that I do.  For watercolour sketching on the go, I prefer a smaller sketchbook with heavy, smooth, white paper.  For drawing studies of bones in a studio setting, I want a larger book and sometimes enjoy working on toned tan paper.  I have several sketchbooks I use for different kinds of sketching - however, I avoid starting a sketchbook of the same "type" as one I've already started, so I do still fill up sketchbooks consistently.

Sketchbook Rule 2:  Don't tear pages out of your sketchbook

This is another sketchbook rule made for people with a tendency towards perfectionism.  It can be tempting to tear out any sketches that aren't as pretty as others.  Soon, you end up with a flimsy thin sketchbook and no record of the things you learned.  Good sketchbooks have bad sketches.

I usually follow this rule.  The only exception is when I have a sketchbook that I really don't enjoy using because of the paper type or format.  In these cases I will tear out any unique sketches I wish to keep before recycling the book itself.  I then paste the pages into one of my current sketchbooks

Sketchbook Rule 3: Don't cover up bad sketches

The reasoning behind this rule is that even bad sketches have something to teach us.  If we cover up everything that didn't turn out perfect, we don't have a record of our experimentations, we have an art project in book format.  This makes sense.

However, this is a double-edged sword.  As a bit of a perfectionist, I don't like looking at my failures while I am working in my sketchbook.  I especially dislike "abandoned" pages.  These happen when I dive into an idea and realise a few moments later I had a better idea.  I've come to terms with having lots of loose, incomplete, oddly coloured or experimental pages in my sketchbooks.  However, I do cover up incomplete sketches.  This also gives me a change to include sketches made on loose papers in my sketchbooks

Sketchbook Rule 4: Don't include stickers/tickets/photos/paste-ins in your sketchbook

People can get elitist about this one, but I think it comes down to personal preference. Some people like the look of a clean, bound sketchbooks. Some people like to use their sketchbooks as a bit of a visual journal and include pretty things and mementos in their sketchbooks.

I prefer for my sketchbooks to be a record of my art experiments, so I rarely paste in any mementos or stickers. However I have no problem pasting in my own art or reference photos.  Just a preference.

Sketchbook Rule 5:  Use "bad" paper/paints

This rule is made for people who tend to be precious about their more expensive materials.  If the thought of wasting a 50 cent sketchbook page on a rough sketch makes you avoid sketching at all, you're probably better off sketching on something cheaper such as a giant Canson XL pad using student-grade paints.  At least then you'll get the benefit of practice.

I've never been particularly shy about using my nice materials.  I find cheaper materials frustrating, and am not bothered by dropping a couple dollars on a sketch or painting that doesn't turn out.  All my nice paints get used on good quality sketchbooks. Stillman and Birn Zeta series is currently my favourite for both on-the-go sketching and studio sketching.  I have some lovely hardcover Daler Rowney Cachet notebooks with beautiful toned paper.  For colour studies before finished botanical work, I use pieces of my regular Stonehenge Aqua paper.  I paste loose studies onto a regular cartridge paper sketchbook.  If I ever get around to it, I'll have nice 100% cotton paper bound into a sketchbook for this purpose.

Using similar materials for my sketches and final work means that my techniques and colour mixes work the same when I get to finished work.  It's also all around more pleasant to not fight my materials.

Sketchbook Rule 6:  Use really tiny sketchbooks OR Use really huge sketchbooks

Some artists will tell you that you should get a really tiny wallet sized sketchbook so you have no excuse to ever not have your sketchbook.  Other artists say that a giant A3 sketchbook is essential for learning to loosen up and draw from the shoulder and build complex compositions.  Both have their merits.

When I was limiting myself to only one sketchbook, my best fit was a medium flatlay A5 sketchbook.  These are small enough to fit in a smallish purse.  They are light enough to carry most places,  but open up wide enough to give some room to sketch reasonably complex scenes.

However, I frequently found myself craving something bigger in the studio.  As a kid I loved the concept of adorable teeny-tiny sketchbooks but find them very awkward to draw/paint these days.  Choose a sketchbook (or sketchbooks) that works for your lifestyle, preferences and artistic goals.

Sketchbook Rule 7: Start at the first page and work chronologically OR Start in the middle and work randomly

Starting a sketchbook at the beginning and working chronologically makes things easier to find for future reference.  However, some artists experience a fear of the first page and prefer to start somewhere in the middle.

I usually start on the first page.  If I'm scared of "ruining" it, I deliberately start with something sloppy to get it over with ;) However, I break my strict chronological order if I want to make a 2 page spread or if I want to paste over a previous page.  My sketchbooks are loosely chronological

Sketchbook Rule 8: Use only one side of the page OR use both sides of the page

This is another case of personal preference.  I like the look of a very full sketchbook with something going on in every single page.  Others prefer a cleaner look with sketches neatly positioned on one side of the paper. This also depends to some degree on what paper/materials you are using. Some papers are will buckle or bleed through the paper ruining the other side. I use thick paper and fill every page.

Sketchbook Rule 9:  Sketchbooks should be in pencil, not watercolour

I'm not sure who came up with this rule or why, but I've been told off twice for using the wrong media in my sketchbook.  This is ridiculous.  Nothing to add here

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