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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.