In today’s article I’d like to talk about keeping a sketchbook. Every time I post a page from my sketchbook, or a video showcasing one of my finished sketchbooks, I am met with positive feedback (which is awesome, thanks guys!). And so I thought sharing my thoughts on the topic directly may be in order. As I only really know what I experience myself, I’m going to share my own perspective and the way I do it. I don’t know of any “rules” or guidelines to keeping a sketchbook. Quite the contrary actually, I think keeping a sketchbook is a very personal practice that encourages exploration and freedom of expression. Without further ado, here’s what I learned from using my sketchbooks.

If you feel guilty about not keeping a sketchbook, don’t be. There’s nothing that negative feelings can do for you, except drain your energy. If you must, use them as motivation for change. And so if you don’t use a sketchbook yet, just pick one up. It is just a habit like any other. You may think your sketchbook would be a set of childish doodles. Great! If that’s who you are, own it! Never pretend to be someone else, never try to hide who you are as an artist. Your strength comes from your genuine self. Use your sketchbook to get to know the real you. Your sketchbook is a personal space to explore ideas. Your own personal ideas, your point of view. You’re learning more about yourself, you communicate with yourself on a very different level than ever before. You are doing this simply by doodling and drawing, making marks, designing, solving problems, but also just having fun. Regardless of the outlet we choose, all we express stems from our personality and character. Thus our artistic preferences can be assessed over time as a whole, an entity, which is going to show who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. Our preferences as artists change and refine and our sketchbook keeps a very valuable record of this development.

If you google “artist sketchbook” you’ll find all kinds of incredible sketchbook work that could easily be in a museum. I can see how that would be a turn off. You’ll feel you can never do that. If that’s your reaction, you really shouldn’t. Nor should you want to. What you should do, is want to do your own work. And until you realize that, you’ll just be leading yourself on a path that leads nowhere. Now don’t think I try to discourage ambition. Quite the contrary, I actually believe the goal of this activity (art) is bettering one’s self (by refining your skill and understanding) and through a better self bettering the world. But the only way to achieving this goal is through knowing and accepting the self first. Of course, if you are a great draughtsman, your sketchbook will most likely reflect that. But if you’re not that’s perfectly all right too. Try not to see sketchbook as an end goal, as a finished product that ought to be filled with beautiful, perfect images. Think of it as a journal of graphic exploration that reflects your daily struggles.

If you think that keeping a sketchbook is going to put unnecessary pressure on you, you’re still in the incorrect mindset. While I admit that doing finished work is pressuring because of more than a few factors, the function of a sketchbook is just the opposite. Think of your sketchbook as a release. It’s the place to have fun. Or be at your most serious. It’s the place to put all the accumulated nonsense if that’s what you need at that moment. Whatever works for you. It can also be the place to come up with your masterpieces. It is also a place where you get ready for a painting. You are “taking notes” from your own thinking process. You’re figuring things out. Whatever the function of your sketchbook, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. Usually that happens because you don’t put what you want in it, but what you think you ought to. Don’t use your sketchbook in any other way than that you either find very fun or/and very practical. Follow the interests and thoughts you have at that particular time.

Now all this being said, I stated at the beginning of the article that these are my experiences with using my sketchbooks. And so, yes, I admit I’ve been through all of what I said. I felt bad for not keeping a sketchbook. I used to keep my sketches scattered about on pieces of paper that nobody can make sense of today because I didn’t feel like my sketchbook would be worth keeping! After I started using one finally, I tried to make it presentable, which was a mistake. I didn’t do honest work in it and it showed by my dreading the experience. Now I doodle and I don’t care about the way an artist’s sketchbook is supposed to look like – about it being “artistic”. It’s mine and mine only. And it should look like it. I found that the pretense soon wears off. It really makes zero sense to turn it into something other than a very personal diary of graphic images (which, of course, doesn’t mean your sketchbook work can’t be full of perfect masterpieces!) unless you are presenting your sketches to the public to make profit. I show and share my sketchbooks for the purpose of education and possibly motivation and that’s why I’m willing to open myself so. But you never need to show your sketchbook to anyone. That’s the best part.

To a large extent, my sketchbooking is about figuring out new concepts, new subjects and new experiences in the world of visual art so I am better equipped when my brush touches paper. These thoughts and notes I keep in what I call my “work” sketchbook. I also keep a “fun” sketchbook so I can just doodle without a care in the world. Let’s now take a look at some examples from both of my sketchbooks.

“Work” Sketchbook

©2017 Atelier Novotny

I keep two types of sketchbooks. One that I use for working out ideas for my future paintings. My working rhythm includes a study of the subject matter, extensive work in my sketchbook where I explore my ideas induced by the subject and finally a series of paintings where I explore different painting angles, based on the sketch work. This one certainly feels more like “work”, though fun and rewarding work it is. This is where all my artistic growth and progress can be tracked.

Double Vision: Seeing Simply with Daniel Novotny
Devising strategies, solving problems

Some more examples of my “work” notebook include thumbnail-sized designs of subjects, devising strategies for future paintings or simple or more complex portrait sketches. The point is to figure out and solve a problem of translating our real world into a visual one.

Review: Platinum Pigment Rose Red Fountain Pen Ink
These writing samples were done in Winsor & Newton 170g sketchbook with: 1. Noodler’s Ink Dixie #10 fitted with TWSBI 1.5mm stub; 2. TWSBI Eco 1.1mm stub

The best thing about keeping two separate sketchbooks is that I always know where to look for stuff I’m going to need for painting. I consult my sketchbook with each new subject. Sometimes a couple of sketches is enough to synthesize the subject but often I use a couple or more pages. That’s what they’re there for. I love working out painting problems and my “work” sketchbook is the place to do it. I can always get back to it and find what I’m looking for without distraction.

My sketches are often only the beginnings of a solution to any particular problem. I seldom do a value study anymore. I used to work out these problems to the last detail in the past. Back then I was still not quite sure about my preferences. I had my sketch all worked out: clear shape division and value allocation. Color was the only variable. But that I eventually realized was no fun. If you follow me on any of the social media you know that I do several variations on the same subject. My current sketchbook practice allows me that because I only work out my shapes. I only use 2 values and so there’s really not that much clarity about the resulting value pattern. This I found works for me well. I love thinking about these things as I paint. It keeps the process fresh. But most importantly, the painting process becomes about my ideas, not about the colors, and not at all about the subject. I used to copy my sketches by matching colors to my values and that simply didn’t feel creative for long. However, it was part of the journey that lead me where I am now and it was an important step that taught me to control my values and work on my brushwork.

These things, of course, speak more about my working process than keeping a sketchbook but I thought you may find them interesting. Your sketchbook should offer you similar opportunities to figure out your own approach over time. Certainly don’t rush things. One thing is going to lead to the next. Concern yourself only with what interests you at any particular time and you’ll soon recognize your own working rhythm.

Ink Review: Platinum Carbon Black fountain pen ink
Sketchbook work done with Platinum Carbon Black in Winsor & Newton sketchbook; Pen: Gama Hawk

“Fun” Sketchbook

My other sketchbook is dedicated solely to the pleasure of doodling in whatever form I find it most fun at the moment. This one comes in when I’m not working towards a painting on a more serious design issues. The “work” sketchbook is actually great fun, just different kind of fun. In my “fun” sketchbook I work on anything that relaxes me and really allows me to enjoy myself without actually producing any presentable output. In other words: I let my mind get lost.

Here I also explore the materials I enjoy using. If you’ve been around my blog for a while, you’ll know that I love fountain pens and inks. I grew up on fountain pens as we were taught to write with them in school. I’d switched to ballpoints eventually but then quickly returned back to them. With the internet came online shopping and that’s why today I have 50 bottles of ink. I enjoy switching colors, enjoying and appreciating the various subtle differences in their behavior. And so, using a fountain pen filled with a nice ink is for me a great fun and a very relaxing experience.

Let’s look now at some examples of these fun exercises from my current “fun” sketchbook.

If we say “fun” then clearly some crazy drawings of creatures most improbable are in order! I don’t do many of those as I don’t have that kind of imagination but from time to time even I can come up with something nonsensical.

A ridiculous creature
A ridiculous creature

Entirely on the other end of the spectrum is a more what I like to call “purposeful doodling”. Doodling with purpose is a great way to have great fun but at the same time building something more than just a random set of lines or shapes (though that’s perfectly fine too).

Abstract shape-making, this is an excellent exercise to recognize flow of positive and negative space
Abstract shape-making, this is an excellent exercise to recognize flow of positive and negative space

On the example above you can see a set of white shapes surrounded by a dark negative space. This interplay of positive and negative is the basis of any solid work of art and is also very pleasurable to do in your sketchbook. Doodling a set of such shapes while keeping in mind the balance and interaction between them may be extremely helpful to better understand the visual concept of NOTAN (the interaction of positive vs. negative), especially when practiced abstractly outside any concrete subject.

Looking for Notan, balancing positive and negative space
Looking for Notan, balancing positive and negative space

Another example of looking for NOTAN can be found on the image above. I play around with the concept of NOTAN again and this time I use a mirror reflection effect to make a inverted image with reversed values. Sometimes when doing these positive/negative exercises, you can almost feel your brain grow! Seriously though, this kind of exercise is very mentally engaging and rewarding. I am certainly not making these because I am bored as I usually don’t have any spare time. Instead I find the time to do them as they help me very effectively clear up my mind.

Playing around with positive and negative and shape arrangement as well as simplification of shapes - no longer a writing
Playing around with positive and negative and shape arrangement as well as simplification of shapes – no longer a writing

I showed you an example of a very ridiculous drawing as well as some very purposeful yet abstract sketches. This next drawing is bridging the gap between the abstract and recognizable. On the image above you can see an example of writing creatively to make a set of wonderful positive and negative shapes. This, in other words, is my attempt at manipulating typography for the sake of design. Notice the difference between the drawing on the left, where you can still somewhat recognize the words “Lamy Fude mod” and the one on the right, which makes connections where there were none, thus creating one interconnected and intricate negative shape.

These distortions help you better understand the work with shapes. It is usually mentally very difficult to manipulate and distort things and tools we know and use (such as scissors for example). If we did so, they would fail at their primary function. And so our brain is not comfortable with abstracting shapes of that nature. In a painting scenario, there’s a lot of things like that. Perhaps practicing shape distortion in our sketchbook can prove useful the next time we paint.

Connecting negative shapes on positive background
Connecting negative shapes on positive background

The example above showcases the same approach of manipulating typography.

The following pages (below) show, on the other hand, very literal use of typography. I really enjoy either practicing alphabets or creating my own. I use various pens depending on the particular script I’m trying to create, like Pilot Parallel pens with wide flat nibs, or regular fountain pen stubs but also a special ones like fude or glass nibs.

Alphabet practice
Alphabet practice
Alphabet practice
Alphabet practice
Purposeful Doodling: Alphabet practice
Alphabet practice – making my own
Purposeful Doodling: Making my own alphabet
Purposeful Doodling: Making my own alphabet

As you can see from the sketchbook pages that I’ve shown you here today, I love doodling. I prefer “purposeful doodling” but don’t mind making an occasional ridiculous drawing of any kind. The sketchbook is there for me whenever I need it. And it is whatever I need it to be. It’s as simple as that.

Even in my “fun” sketchbook there is a strong emphasis on working with shapes. That’s because that is my philosophy as a painter, making good shapes. Keeping a sketchbook like this exercises my sense of design even when I’m not working on a “serious” issue concerning composition. The concept of the interaction between positive and negative space is understood and utilized in different context. All of these things practiced in the most fun and engaging setting really better our understanding and enjoyment and put design into much different perspective.

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As always, don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments and let me know what are your own sketchbook habits.


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