“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” — Kurt Vonnegut
My way home
Imagine you spoke a language when you were young. You used it to communicate, to process your life, and even to earn money.* And then you promptly stopped speaking it completely at age 20. That’s how it felt with me and drawing.
Coming back to it after nearly 30 years is like reacquainting myself with my mother tongue. Despite being rusty, drawing feels like a welcome exhale. When my head feels fried, I can move my hand across paper and start to breathe easy.
A big reason why drawing so quickly became a new habit these past few months was an early decision to only use a sketchbook.
Why a sketchbook
A sketchbook can be as private as a diary. It’s not on an easel inviting other people’s opinions. I don’t have to share anything I don’t want to.
A sketchbook is portable and can even be small enough to fit into a back pocket.
A sketchbook shows progression. The more I do anything, the better I become at it. Comparing the first and last pages of a sketchbook provides this evidence. If I don’t like something I did, I don’t scribble it out or collage over it; I simply turn the page and start afresh. (Sometimes these “mistakes” can lead to new ideas; and I always learn from them.)
A sketchbook invites casual sketching. With so many pages at my disposal, there’s no need to be precious. This gives me permission to try out things without fretting about being wasteful.
A sketchbook invites drawings and words (including doodles and scribbles) in a way that other formats do not. The words don’t have to be elaborate or even whole sentences. But they can ground and illuminate a drawing by giving it context. A sketchbook, therefore, allows me to blend my two favourite things in the world: drawing and writing.
A sketchbook is contained yet expansive. As a teenager painting in oils, I went from canvas to canvas; or with charcoal/pencil from sheet to sheet. Having a series of bound pages means there’s more than a one–off image, which means there’s potential for story. And I love stories.
Dedicating a sketchbook to a specific project can help on various fronts. It can be a means to explore one topic in depth. It can provide ready prompts when you’re looking at a blank page. A clear mission can also be hugely motivating to keep going.
You may want to record every plant in your garden but if you run out of steam, there’s no need to abandon the sketchbook or the practice. Just turn the page and start jotting down your fantasy trip around the world, or whatever is occupying your thoughts that morning. Being gentle and accepting of where we are is the most important thing.
I have a day book, in which I sketch from my daily life – studying the sparrow that comes to my balcony. Or the fallen flowers that gather on the floor after a windy night. Or my niece’s new foster bunnies I met on Zoom.
I’m calling a new sketchbook project Everything I Own. It’s based on when my anxiety was in free fall this summer and I would (secretly, obsessively, compulsively) keep writing and rewriting a list of all that I’d take with me on my upcoming country move. While a backpack can comfortably hold all my worldly possessions, I’d like to sketch out the items on that list (and in the process perhaps examine my obsessive tendencies…).
Keeping a sketchbook
Whether this is something you once did (even if you called it a weekly planner and doodled in the corners) or have never done it, I’d encourage everyone to keep a sketchbook.
I had a small notebook when I first went to study in Italy. This was before the days of mobile phones and laptops. I jotted down new phrases I learnt, tidbits I found curious about the culture, sketches of prosaic things I turned to when the Renaissance art became overwhelming – a gelato cup, or school students with their Invicta backpacks. The sketches were nothing more than scribbles, but they became an anchor. Flipping through the pages reminded me of little details I’d forgotten, how much I’d learnt in a short period of time and the richness of the life I was living.
Travel sketchbooks may seem an obvious place to start, but an even better idea is to apply the same curiosity towards our daily lives. One day parents will be gone, we’ll move homes, kids will grow up, our favourite activities will evolve. Photos are one way of preserving it, but a sketchbook – whether it takes a month or a year to fill up – is something far more meaningful.
For instance, at my last residence in India, I played with the cats in my building several times a day for a year. But it was only towards the end, when I began drawing them, that I actually saw them. Drawing their faces revealed themselves to me in a way that photographs and even physical contact never did.
In the process of drawing, we connect, absorb and digest so it becomes a part of who we are. I also can’t help but, without effort, be grateful to anything I observe with such scrutiny. Drawing is the quickest route to marvelling at the world around us, whether it’s a lunch sandwich or a tree outside the window.
Some years ago I tried to start drawing again (not the first or last failed attempt…). Because of my obsessive need to keep my belongings streamlined, I did the modern-day version by drawing digitally on my iPad. For me it simply cannot compare to drawing or writing by hand. (Trust me, I wish it weren’t so; Everything I Own now includes a whole category of art supplies that I never had to buy, store or carry before.)
There is something therapeutic – even healing – about using my hand to create things. I sadly didn’t find the same benefits when tapping buttons or swiping a screen. Technology can enhance graphics and illustrations, but I believe our senses align better when we utilise our hand-eye coordination with a brush or pen. Besides, I welcome the break from technology.
What kind of sketchbook
I’m currently trialling various watercolour sketchbooks, still on the hunt for my “dream” one. The choice is very personal so others’ recommendations can only go so far.
Follow your inherent preferences for the format: compact or substantial. Hardback or soft cover or spiral bound. Portrait or landscape (or, my favourite, square). Lined or blank. Cheap or deluxe. The only criteria is your comfort and taste so you’ll use it without hesitation.
For drawing, it’s important to choose a sketchbook for your medium. Not all papers can take fountain pen ink, markers, watercolour, etc.
Unfortunately, your preferences may become apparent only once you start. That’s what happened to me – I had a regular notebook that I began drawing in. A month later, when I decided to try watercolour, I had to switch to a sketchbook that could cope with wet washes.
What to sketch
It was only by trying a range of topics that I discovered what I like drawing (faces, animals, objects) and what I hate (landscapes, architecture, still life).
I especially enjoy having an idea behind a page – illustrating a favourite recipe, or outlining how I recovered from food poisoning, or those seemingly mundane bits that fill our lives yet go largely unnoticed.
So my suggestion is to try whatever catches your eye and have a go. Your bedroom doorway, the plants on your windowsill, your afternoon tea, your Amazon package before and after you open it. And of course there’s no reason to be limited to the real world – there’s always fantasy, abstract and comics, or just about anything you like.
After you sketch something, consider adding a note – the date, why you chose it, what else happened today. Maybe a headline from the news that resonated. Perhaps your favourite line of poetry.
As the first blank page of a sketchbook can be daunting, I’ll pass on what I learnt from YouTube sketcher Koosje Koene: draw your art supplies on the first page. If all you have is a pencil, draw some pens or a stapler, or anything you can put in front of you.
The idea isn’t to create a photo-realistic image (we have cameras for that). It’s to draw what you see. Only you can create that. And that’s always valid.
Sketchbooks are treasures
It would be a shame to think sketching is solely for arty types. Sketching belongs to everyone. Scientific minds have long recorded their observations and experiments in what I would consider a sketchbook. Analytical minds too can benefit from writing things out (and adding a few diagrams on the side).
If you’re trying to think of a good present to give someone, it’s hard to go wrong with a sketchbook and an HB pencil.
If you have young children, I cannot emphasise how transformational it can be for them to begin an early habit of keeping a daily sketchbook. It encourages them to observe, create, play and communicate.
Using a sketchbook is therapeutic, it’s creative, it’s a means to process the world around us and within us. It’s a breather from the relentless world of technology we now live in.
I believe if everyone is encouraged to make a habit of using a sketchbook – however casual or private – the world will be a healthier place.
I hope you keep a sketchbook. And I hope it brings you joy.
I’ve just starting sharing my sketchbook pages on Instagram. I’m planning to post a sketch every day for 100 consecutive days. You can find me here.
*My first paying job at age 17 was as an illustrator for an NGO in Bangladesh that used illustrations to inform women with low literacy about their legal rights. The job continued for every summer I was home from college, where I was also paid to design and paint posters for the theatre department.
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent Van Gogh
I’ve recommended books by Samantha Dion Baker and Danny Gregory before; both are big advocates of sketchbooks. Another popular book I enjoyed is called Artist’s Journal Workshop by Cathy Johnson. It’s filled with tips and inspiration on keeping a sketchbook.
Though it’s not my specific space, I love learning about nature journalling. It’s a wonderful blend of science and art, and can really help deepen our appreciation for the planet we live on and, therefore, how we treat it. Bethan Burton, an artist and educator, has a wonderful podcast called Journaling With Nature. The episode where she speaks to John Muir Laws is my favourite, and inspiring even if nature journalling is not your focus.
The best notebook seen on screen is in The English Patient, directed by Anthony Mingella, based on Michael Ondatjee’s novel. Almásy uses his copy of The Histories by Herodotus to also write and paste in his own annotations and observations. Listening to Katharine read aloud from it makes him fall in love with her. The notebook is his sole surviving possession and remains the only thread tying him to his past as he lays dying. This film makes me weep every time. Sigh!
Want more ideas?