Why Keep a Sketchbook?

For many artists, scrawling in a sketchbook is something they’ve done since being old enough to hold a pencil. Often when we visit an exhibition of a renowned artist, we see those very same childhood doodles next to more mature sketches and compositional designs. Once they have been safely stowed away behind glass in a museum, an artist’s sketchbooks are evidence of their unwavering need to create. But what is the purpose of sketchbooks for an artist?


Until recently, sketchbooks were considered private ephemera too intimate and unfinished to be considered artworks. Instead of focusing on what a sketchbook lacks, however, I think it’s cooler (not to mention more elucidating and inspiring) to pinpoint the countless reasons why artists keep sketchbooks and make drawings in the first place. Putting pen, pencil, charcoal or chalk to paper can seem rudimentary, but even for contemporary artists sketching remains a useful tool for thinking.


What I find most fascinating are the traces of the processes of discovery and understanding in Leonardo’s notebooks, such as this double-page spread showing drawings for the design of a mechanical organ that would be able to play a four-part canon. Leonardo was attempting to develop a mechanical understanding of sound (based on Pythagorean tuning) and sketched all kinds of diagrams, musical scores, pipes and pulleys. I love the drawings’ informality, their mix of imagination and mechanical engineering, and how they nestle beautifully alongside Leonardo’s sloped mirror-writing.


Leonardo almost never mentioned any personal feelings (save a couple of entries about the death of his father) in his notebooks, but drawing can also be a form of catharsis. The Mexican painter Frida Khalo (b. 1907) kept a diary in the last ten years of her life that blurred the boundaries between drawing, painting, composing and recording. Unlike Leonardo, Khalo rarely used the sketches in her diary to work out the elements of larger compositions; instead, her diary was a collection of dreams, obsessive thoughts and fears, private iconography and poetry. The pages are testament to Frida’s creative process, one which involved transmuting the pain and anguish of her life into powerful, disturbing, enchanting images.




I love this double-page spread, blazing with hot oranges and purples. On the left is a nightscape with burning bushes whose roots below ground turn to bone-white ashes, perhaps linking to the ‘vida/muerte’ duality scribbled in red pencil on the right-hand page. The female figure holding a dove is so smudged that her face seems to be an absence. The way the figure faces into the central spine of Khalo’s diary is interesting, too, because it highlights how a codex format for a sketchbook lends itself to drawing comparisons (the whiteness of the dove and of the roots, for example) between different images. What’s the story, and can the figure see the blazing vegetation? This is the kind of creative thinking that an artist can spark by keeping a sketchbook.

An interesting question to ask is whether the format of the sketchbook is relevant in 2021? In the age when many prefer to type or make Adobe art, I think the materiality of a physical sketchbook can still be interesting and useful. When confronted with completing a sketchbook page, rather than a new independent artwork, an artist can feel calmer and more prone to only focusing on one problem at a time, and therefore more likely to learn something from the process of creating. The physical act of opening, closing, skimming and flipping the pages of the sketchbook can itself inspire us as artists.


So next time you start working on a sketchbook, get excited about all the possible ideas and ways of understanding it could generate! You might glimpse the germs of new paintings, or learn more about yourself and your mind as an artist. Have fun bringing words and images together, embrace smudges and spills, relish sequences or repetitions, and – most of all – enjoy the privacy!



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