Thursday, November 19, 2009

Collections 10 - Sketchbooks

Sketchbooks are things of great value. They store our ideas, aspirations, memories, mistakes. They are used by painters and sculptors, and writers too - though writers tend to call them common-place or notebooks. Sketchbooks are indispensable - as important as any finished piece of work - you should never be without one.

At least that's what the tutors say. In practice keeping a sketchbook requires more discipline than you might imagine. Remembering the thing is my biggest problem; closely followed by the dilemma of which jacket to store it in - or should I use a man-bag? And will I painting or drawing? You'd be surprised at all the gubbins you might need - it's so much easier just to pick up a camera.

And yet over the years I have filled up a fair number.

My favourites are square format black hardback - about five inches wide - made by Seawhite of Brighton. And for painting I like bound watercolour blocks sold by the art supplier Bird and Davies. For writing I'm less fussy - though I loathe anything spiral bound - my favourites are the old fashioned exercise books with manila covers and wide lined pages.

Already you will sense that sketchbooks can be very particular - you use the thing every day; you want it to be right. Now I've gone all digital I'm the same with my computer - I want it to be effective and robust, never to let me down. But computers, for all I like them, will never match the simplicity of paper and pencil.Nor can they match their possibilities - especially if you stop being precious.

My early sketchbooks were too perfect to be any good. I was in awe of people who could draw like Augustus John or sketch like Turner. I was trying to make my sketchbooks like mini exhibitions - and missing the point completely. It was only when I learned not to worry that the quality improved.

Sketchbooks are about looking - not about looking good. It doesn't matter what you put down, so long as it reminds you and strikes a true chord of response. They are also about time and place and memory When they were little, I would often let my boys draw with me - in one book I have some drawings of the Alps, mine are side by side with Michael's - guess whose are the best? Darn him!

It was from using sketchbooks that I started writing. I began by taking notes to accompany the drawings; gradually they increased - I even wrote some poems - until eventually, there were hardly any pictures at all. My boys would write in them too. Perhaps this is why I see little distinction between sketch and note books. I would hate to lose any of them. They are one of the first things I'd rescue if ever we had a flood.

But I don't pack them away - they sit by my desk; there to be used, as reference and to be added to still. And all the better for mucky fingerprints, the odd splodge of jam and few pages bent at the corners.


  1. What a fabulous collection. I have battered books of various sizes in which I keep ideas and lines of poetry and prose. Half of them never get used but they're always fun to look back upon!

  2. Oh I am SO envious of you and your skill and your sketch books. I always had this romantic vision of me in my head, wherever I went I had a carpet bag with me which had a sketchbook and pencil, coloured pencils too, plus a journal etc. Never makeup, or perfume, or hairbrush, nothing girly at all. Sadly my imagination is better than my actual skill and I decided last year to give up trying to draw. It just isn't in me, and that's it. At least I can make's in the post by the way, though the cream might leak out!

  3. what a wonderful post - and how true when you say sketchbooks are about looking and not about looking good - I think I may have to print that out and stick it up .... everywhere!

  4. Really enjoyed this Mark. I have a ridiculous amount of books for sketching and notes. They are all different as I can never quite decide what works best! Bought one just the other day down at the National Portrait Gallery in London in fact. I go from leather bound little beauties, to a pack of 5 flimsy multicoloured exercise books from Rymans! I have them scattered all over the house - in drawers, handbangs - and I rarely have one on me when I need it!!

    Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking. I'll have to get more organised - and, more importantly, actually start USING them!!