the art of the sketchbook – and how keeping one helped me become a better writer

Ever since I was a fresh-faced college student embarking on the first project of my Graphic Design course, I loved the process of sketchbooking.

Sketchbooks are places where you can capture your thoughts and ideas, collate your research, and experiment with new mediums and practices. It’s similar to keeping a journal, in as much as the sketchbook is a place to document your thoughts, and to deal with them.

In college, many teachers would repeat the mantra that utilising the sketchbook was the best way to work through a creative brief. However, these teachers were quite rigid with how they believed the sketchbook should be used. There was a clear process that had to be adhered to: the sketchbook began with the student outlining their initial ambitions for completing the brief, followed by secondary and (hopefully) primary research, followed by actual sketches and experiments with whatever medium(s) you were working with, followed by a review of your final piece and how you came to complete it.

There were obvious merits to this practice. It taught me discipline, how to work through certain processes, and gave me a clear view of how to structure a project.

However, the moment that really changed the way I used sketchbooks for the better was one of my last days of college. At this point, I was trying to decide between continuing college for one more year, to complete a Foundation in Art and Design, or taking the plunge and commencing with my BA in Fine Art. The two factors that were making the decision difficult were: 1) the university that I got accepted for was far from being my first choice, and 2) On the flip side, I had grown rather bored of college and wanted a change, so the idea of staying for an additional year was off putting to say the least.

Whilst I made my decision, the head of the college foundation course gave me a summer project to complete, before I was due to start my studies. He told me to purchase a tiny A6 sketchbook and to fill it with “whatever I deemed important to my art practice” before September.

I found this to be a revelation. My previous teachers had looked down on any surface smaller than A4 – be it a sketchbook, canvas, or plain paper – and so working with an A6 sketchbook seemed ludicrous to me. Secondly, the idea that I should simply fill the book with whatever I deemed important was baffling, and also exciting.

When I asked this new teacher for some further instruction, asking him what kinds of things I should be filling it with, he answered with “absolutely anything. Whatever you like. If something inspires you, sketch it. If you see an image you like in a magazine, rip it out and glue it in your sketchbook.”

And so, the summer that followed was one of the best summers of my life. My dad, excited about the prospect of his son being the first in the family to go to university, drove me around to various country parks, beautiful seaside locations, rolling hills, and quirky buildings. I wasn’t really sure what (if anything) I was looking for, and so I sketched everything that piqued my interest. Strangers that passed me, trees, abandoned warehouses, mountains, trains. Anything that appealed to me in that very moment.

For the first time in my life, my mind was flowing free with ideas. I was documenting sparks of fancy and inspiration before I could even rationalise what it was that I liked about them. I ripped articles out of newspapers and images from magazines and pasted them in my book. I sketched copies of a lot of these images. I built up a catalogue of weird and wonderful images. I realised I was creating a mood board of sorts, or a collage that goes on for pages and pages.

Ultimately, I decided to pursue the BA in Fine Arts instead of the foundation course at college. I remember feeling really bad when I contacted the foundation teacher and told him that my decision had been made. The sketchbook that I had filled for his summer project was never viewed by him, but I had learnt a powerful lesson from this venture. I was able to problem solve a lot better, as the way that I dealt with issues was no longer a case of trying to work it out then and there in the moment, and instead I would process things slowly and work out the best course of action. It taught me the art of patience, but most importantly, it taught me to allow myself to think and act freely, even if those thoughts were abstract or made no sense. In essence, I learnt the power of abstract thought.

I took this new approach to art into my creative writing practice. Rather than jumping in the deep end by plotting an entire novel as step one of the process, I simply bought a new notebook and dedicated it as a space to collate my ideas. I’d have a thought like, “wouldn’t it be cool if I had X happen in a scene,” then that would be committed to the notebook, and then I might write a few different scene options, go away from it for a few days, only to return and review the ideas I had written down. Like the sketchbook, I would also collect images and snippets of articles that I felt could be relevant to the project. I’d paste in photos of celebrities that I wanted to use as models for my characters. I’d paste in images of city scapes or countryside landscapes – inspiration for my story settings.

Using a sketchbook as a scrapbook of sorts helped me to come up with the ideas that later became paintings or prints. Using a notebook as a scrapbook of sorts helped me to plan out short stories and novels.

Most importantly, these books became my creative playgrounds. Areas that I could be myself, that nobody else need every look at, that I could document organic thoughts. In turn, they became mental health tools, as I was able to expel all of the ideas that were bubbling inside my head. And the act of doing so was therapeutic, calming.

I don’t remember the name of the teacher that encouraged me to sketchbook in this way, but if he was in front of me now I’d thank him.

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