As I prepare for the Scribbles Institute Sketchbook Workshops, what better place to start than with my own sketchbooks.
Paging through decades of drawings quickly unlocks specific memories. The way the sun cast a shadow on a summer day in rural Mexico, or the emotional roller coaster of love and loss in suburban California. Each drawing reveals the history of impassioned urgency to capture the essence of my subjects with quickness of line. Youthful notions of exacting realism give way to unleashed experimentation in style and techniques. When making and “reading” sketchbooks, the joy is in the details.
Sharing the Mysteries of Observation and Imagination
Sketchbooks are personal, detailed accounts of daily experiences and daydreams. Pages alternate between drawing what is seen, imagined, remembered, and felt. “Visual journals are created in a secret language of symbols. Intentional or not they are private maps only their makers can follow,” writes Jennifer New in her book, Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art. “Rather than describing the stuff of the day, they are often made from it.”
As in my younger years, I continue to be enthralled with the famously esoteric sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Their pages contain random sketches for paintings and inventions, intricate visual studies of human anatomy, and scientific meditations alongside mundane food items jotted down for a grocery list. Although my sketches and written notes are private recordings of the world outside and inside my skull, sharing the “secret language” of my books with others is extremely liberating. When exchanging sketchbooks, conversations take us to mysteriously wonderful places.
Letting Your Eye Fall in Love
Sketchbooks help us to rediscover and engage in natural and manmade environments that surround us. Going outdoors, hunting for pleasing compositions, and drawing from life is a big part of sketchbooking fun. Artist and drawing teacher, Frederick Franck describes his pure delight in seeing. “My eye was in love! I had to celebrate this love and so…I drew.”
Being able to quickly depict a tree swaying in the wind, a deer grazing in a meadow, or people walking on the beach is the essence and thrill of sketching. In his seminal book, The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaides states, “The real laws of art, the basic laws, are few. These basic laws are the laws of nature.” According to Nicolaides, “You should draw, not what the thing looks like, not even what it is, but what it is doing.” Acclaimed writer and drawer, John Berger, distills the process of seeing and sketching down to the bare bones. “To draw is to look, examining the structure of appearances. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at.”
Sketching Connects Us to Imagination and Playful Experimentation
In her drawing activity book, Picture This, long-time cartoonist Lynda Barry writes about what happens the day we realize we can’t draw and how it happens to almost everyone; when “the paper place for an experience” transforms into a “paper thing that is good or bad.” She remembers having to learn “how to draw in an ‘organized’ way that others could recognize and say yes to.”
Barry urges us to imagine and to keep drawing! “And if you are lucky and you can remember what drawing used to be to you, you may be able to find your way back to the place where the shapes are happening.” In drawing from observation it is useful to have a purpose for your work. In drawing from imagination, sketchbooks offer a less tangible view of the drawer’s intent. Your sketch can be preparation for an abstract art project or a random doodle can become, in itself, the final art. Or are your sketches something completely unrelated to artwork? The artist Patricia Cain suggests, “not to ask ‘What is the purpose of this drawing?’ but rather ‘What do I come to know through making this drawing?’”
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