9 Oct


The sketch hunter has delightful days of drifting about among people, in and out of the city, going anywhere, everywhere, stopping as long as he likes—no need to reach any point, moving in any direction following the call of interests. He moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook, a box of oils with a few small panels, the fit of his pocket, or on his drawing pad… He is looking for what he loves, he tries to capture it. It’s found anywhere, everywhere. Those who are not hunters do not see these things. The hunter is learning to see and to understand—to enjoy.

~ Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (p. 17)


Do you keep a sketch book?

True confession: I don’t. I never have. (And the earth shook ever-so-slightly as Robert Henri* rolled over in his grave.)

It’s not for lack of Sketch Respect, or for a lack of trying. I have bought dozens of sketch books over the years: little ones to carry, and big ones as an organized source of paper. The big ones are filled from cover to cover with process work for illustration projects, which doesn’t count. (I stopped buying them decades ago anyway, in deference to good old printer paper, which I recycle.) And the little ones? Sadly, a tiny army of them has been taking up space on my bookshelf for almost twenty years. If my son hadn’t doodled in them when he was four and five, they’d be all but empty.

Now wait just a ding dong minute. Artists are supposed to carry handy little sketchbooks, right? Robert Henri said so. Every art prof I ever had, said so. We’re supposed to be armed with pencil and pad, ready to record inspiration the moment it hits. We are not allowed to pack a suitcase without including a tiny watercolor kit and a baggie full of charcoal, because we are visual ninjas, and as such, we must be prepared.

Now that I am an old lady, Class, I have something to tell you about sketchbooks: There are obvious benefits to carrying them, if you use them. And. You can succeed in life, if you don’t. So let go of the guilt. (Guilt is even heavier than that empty sketchbook you’ve been toting in your bag.) Non-Sketchbook Artitsts do exist, and we are a happy and well-adjusted people.


My scant collection of inspirations captured on napkins, receipts, and hotel stationery fits unobtrusively in a slender file folder.


* American painter Robert Henri (1865 – 1929) taught at the Art Students League in the early 1900s. He wrote The Art Spirit—a must read—at the insistence of his students. My first year teaching, I began every class with a Robert Henry “quote of the day.” Now, I tweet him. Class, meet Robert. You’re welcome.


How about you? What are your sketch habits?



10 Responses to “sketchbook”

  1. Charla Pettingill October 9, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Whew…relief! I now feel better about my infrequent sketching habits, which I don’t think are that uncommon. I’ll get on kicks with it, sure…weather-permitting, I often spend my lunch hour at a nearby park. Most of the time, I’ll read…sometimes I’ll make phone calls…and sometimes I’ll doodle in my sketchbook. If I do any of the former, I always feel a bit guilty for not sketching. I too believe that it won’t make or break your career if you don’t keep a sketchbook and draw in it daily! For me, my sketchbooks (I too have accumulated several) are a place to keep track of ideas, practice drawing techniques, and write down thoughts in addition to doodling and drawing from observation. If I’m drawing daily (and I go through phases where I do), that’s great, but if not, I don’t think it’s anything to get upset about. I spend 8+ hours a day designing and illustrating, and I attend open model sessions whenever possible…so I feel that I do plenty of drawing otherwise. 🙂

    • violetlemay October 9, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

      You are awesome, Charla. Wish we could take a lunch break together sometime, I’d love to sit with you and draw.



  2. Nicki October 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    Wow it helps to read this and know I am not alone! How I’ve always envied my sketchbook friends and thought they were more “true” artists than myself because of it. Great post!

    • violetlemay October 9, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

      Thanks Nicki. Nope, just different personality types, that’s all. Glad to meet you. :^)

  3. shanna October 9, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    I put down my pencil 20 years ago and didn’t pick it up again (in a serious way) until a friend asked me to develop an opera project with her. This was the preliminary result:

    (Like Sweeney Todd and his razor, my arm is finally complete!)

    This is THUNDEROUSLY better than anything I drew when I was 24 (or before). I can only ascribe the development to emotional/mental development. My younger self was far too critical and I suffered from unchecked self-editing. Now, I’m willing to take risks.

    Would a sketchbook help? Possibly. I know I’d draw faster if I drew more often, but then sometimes a line just comes…

    • violetlemay October 9, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

      Beautiful sketches, Shanna!

      My drawing skills always improved when I was in drawing classes (like life drawing, for example); but even then, I didn’t carry a sketchbook. I need an assignment, which is why I am an illustrator.

      You are obviously quite talented! Thanks for sharing your beautiful drawings.



      • shanna October 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

        Thank you! That compliment means tons. You’ve always been an inspiration to me. Truly. (Even back in those wide-eyed Webbie days.) I’m so happy to see your thriving illustration career. 🙂

        And, yes: I, too, need an assignment. No studio artist am I!

  4. Jen Appel October 11, 2012 at 12:17 am #

    I keep an *almost* daily sketchbook. But then, I am not an illustrator by trade, so the majority of my day is not spent drawing either.

    Most days it feels like practicing scales on a piano. There is always that question: what should I draw today. Most days it is not worth showing to anyone. But I do see trends – it is pretty obvious which days I have had more sleep or when it is crazy at work. And looking back in my books to a certain date to see what I was playing with is an interesting time capsule.

    I rarely draw out in public (still something I need to gain more confidence with), but somehow it feels odd to leave the house without a sketchbook and pen in my bag.

    For me, the main issue is not to type-cast my sketchbook into only one type of drawing. It needs to stay a place where sometimes it’s grocery lists, or visual notes or experiments or braindead drawings or urban sketches… And rarely, the odd masterpiece.

  5. saturdayillustrations July 18, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    I hardly keep one anymore. I NEVER carry it. Mine has pretty much become a place to thumbnail for jobs that I am working on. It’s good to read that you and others don’t. I thought it was just me!

  6. Jean July 19, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    This makes me think of all the “Must Do” advice I have read in writers’ magazine since I was a young girl. Often conflicting writing advice. But there are those old stand-bys: writers are told they “should” be carrying a note pad and a small tape recorder to get thoughts recorded on the go, and that they should keep those items by bedsides in case inspiration strikes in the night. I used to feel guilty (or, at least, unprofessional) if I didn’t do what I read some great writer did. I am older now, and a proponent of doing what works for me and not worrying about what other writers do. I have large notebooks designated for whatever manuscript I’m in at the time, keeping track of character names and dates, sub-characters, sub-plots, and important background info I may never use in stories but which affects how I present my characters. I keep a running synopsis of each chapter in those large notebooks too, which is invaluable when writing book proposals later. Those little notebooks I was supposed to carry around to record thoughts? A couple I keep in my purse, and the rest are in drawers all over the house and mostly empty. And, I just threw out my little tape recorder—I have had it 35 years and used it for recording writing ideas NEVER! 😀 I only bought it because it made me feel like a cool, ready-for-anything, aspiring author 😀 I always planned to use it. It served its purpose, though, making me feel “cool” when I was a young’un. Now it is just an affectionate reminder of how easy it was for a young dreamer to spend money on something before she figures out who she is.

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