Art and Mental Health Series: Sketchbooks
Updated: Sep 1
Hello and welcome to a series I've had on my mind for a while, exploring the relationships between art and mental health, about the "shoulds" we tell ourselves, the comparison traps, learning to embrace flaws and failures, and celebrating our creative growth as illustrators and artists. Today's topic is sketchbooks and how I changed the way I use them to overcome art block.
Do you need a sketchbook if you're a digital artist?
The iPad is useful for sketches and easier than scanning in a pencil sketches. But there's something charming about a collection of sketchbooks, and it's satisfying to make something "real". Give your eyes a break from the screen and try things out with no undo button, and get to know your pens and paints.
Are sketchbooks important?
Every artist knows the importance of keeping a sketchbook. Some art schools make it a requirement, and a full sketchbook is seen as proof of how serious an artist takes their work. Sketchbooks are capable of teaching a lot through this constant practice, but run the risk of turning art into a chore or another thing to feel guilty about. Once the fun and creativity of art is lost, it's hard to get back on track.
I've met a few different types of sketchbook user. See which one you relate to most:
Type A: Has the perfect sketchbook, a work of art in itself, a beautiful coffee table book that puts all other sketchbooks to shame. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.
Type B: Uses a sketchbook the way a maths student would use a notebook, full of scrawls, ideas, and thumbnail designs, barely making sense to anyone but the artist.
Type C: Draws from life at any chance they can, resulting in a diary-type notebook.
Type D: Has an interest in a certain topic (e.g. cats) and centres the sketchbook around that.
Type E: Has a mostly empty notebook for fear of making mistakes.
How do you keep a sketchbook?
At this point, you're probably waiting for me to tell you which sketchbook is best, and you're probably expecting me to say quantity over quality, right? Well, not exactly. It's taken a while to realise this, but it's not that straightforward, and I don't believe you can force yourself to use a sketchbook in a way that's unnatural to you. By all means, give it a go, and be honest with yourself if you are just avoiding going out of your comfort zone or procrastinating, but if you absolutely cannot stand working in a sketchbook, work out why that is, and consider what might be better for you instead.
Why you struggle to keep a sketchbook
For me, I found I was asking too much of my sketchbook. I wanted it to handle any media I threw at it, use it for everything from rough ideas to character designs to full paintings, and have a beautiful object at the end. I would get a few pages in and have to confront many ugly drawings every time I opened the book. Or I'd use watercolour on non-watercolour paper and not enjoy the process. Disheartened, I'd leave it for a few weeks, then beat myself up for not using it more often, telling myself if I was serious, I should work in it every day, setting deadlines for finishing books. It felt like serious art block at times and was stressful when art is my job and identity. Here's the thing – I was still sketching, just not in a book. On loose notepaper, on my iPad, on printer paper. I couldn't deal with seeing my previous failures every time I opened a sketchbook to start on a new piece. This was my aha! moment.
Alternative sketchbook ideas
For me, the solution wasn't to give up sketchbooks altogether, but to mix and match them. I have a beautiful "type A" sketchbook that I only use when I have time to relax and make something for myself. This book is simply to make me smile, and I've accepted it will take a long time to finish, and given myself permission to cover up "failed" pages with postcards or acrylic paint.
I have a ring-bound sketchbook that I use marker pen in, for quick sketches, doodles, working out compositions and taking notes. The rings allow me to quickly flip to the page I need so I don't have to look at it for too long, haha. I'm already in a different mindset with this book, because it has a different purpose – the drawings aren't pretty, but they were never supposed to be.
I still have my all-purpose sketchbook for experiments, but I might use loose sheets of paper instead. This way, I can use the exact type of paper I need, and I don't have to look at it for too long if it doesn't work out. I'd encourage you to keep your 'failed' artwork somewhere though, if only so you can see how far you've come. It's also a good idea to do an audit every so often to see where you need practice, though if you're anything like me you'll be well aware of this as you're drawing.
So... how do I use an iPad as a sketchbook?
When I'm working on final artwork, I still use the iPad for rough sketches, but I don't let myself use the eraser or undo tool, and draw in confident lines. Let's say I draw a bird. It looks pretty terrible, with the legs too far back, the body oddly rounded, and the head a strange shape, so I draw a few more and choose the one I'm least embarrassed about. I can then hide the ones I don't like and concentrate on this one, developing it further or tracing over it on new layers, adjusting the 'flaws' a little each time. It can then be fun to unhide all the previous drawings to see the full evolution of your drawing.
All these points work for me, but they may not work for you. They go against what many art tutors would say as they can stop you from being aware of your mistakes, so it won't be suitable if you're pursuing realism or a particular style like manga, where accuracy is critical. Also, if you are a beginner or overconfident, you do need to look at your imperfections a little more, even though it hurts. But, as someone who used to have very low confidence in my art, these tips would have been a great help to me during periods of art block, so I'm writing them down in the hopes they may help someone else.
I'd love to know if and how you use a sketchbook in the comments.