I haven’t always used a sketchbook. In fact, my relationship with my sketchbook has been a roller-coaster affair. Sometimes we were the best of friends, sometimes we barely knew each other existed. We have been known, on occasions, to avoid each other with a passionate stubbornness and yet somehow, we have always been there for each other. I cannot think of a period of my life since my late teens when I haven’t owned a sketchbook. Even the process of choosing a sketchbook is an exciting moment. The nostalgic smell of leather-bound journals and the smooth feel of the smooth white cartridge sheets are so full of promise and potential. So why is it that the sketchbook and I have forged ourselves such an unusual relationship?
My first venture to Art College helped me to build a healthy working relationship with the sketchbook. Fascinated by creating individual pages, I worked on loose sheets which I neatly and lovingly compiled into the cover and spine of an aged red hardback book (which I sanded down with sandpaper to speed the ageing process) and bound together with a small clasp and padlock. I loved my sketchbook dearly and I was heart-broken when we became unintentionally separated (I never did discover its final whereabouts). I don’t remember the project, but I DO remember the love I had for my little red sketchbook.
Early sketchbooks - small but sweet
When I advanced into higher education, I liked to work BIG. A sketchbook could not contain the energy that I wanted my drawings to show. My fellow students and I were blessed with a constant and personal studio space. My drawing sheets at this time were lively documents, full of overlapped sketches, observational studies and expressive experiments with media. The consideration to composition that I gave these sheets astonishes me even now. Each sketch, painting or drawing is an integral part of the sheet. Full of imagination and inspiration, what works of art in their own right! It is with happy memories that I remember the luxury of the time I had to draw and draw. Every idea was recorded and the development of my work is exciting to see. With hindsight, I think of these with much more fondness than I do the outcomes which developed from these. As well as producing these large drawing sheets, I did keep a series of small sketchbooks although I didn’t use them for much sketching. Some of my fellow students produced astonishingly beautiful sketchbooks. They were intricate and personal and I knew that I could never use my sketchbook with the dedication that they did. I was far more likely to be found with a piece of plywood as a drawing board (cheers dad) and a plastic tool box filled with inks, dyes and pencils. The sketchbooks began as pretty, decorated research journals, but in honesty, they held little or no importance to me. I found that the concept of separating my drawings by ‘pages’ did not appeal to me. The sketchbook evolved slightly to become more of a diary of recorded measurements, sample swatches, and experiments with colourways. Pretty? Fairly so. Useful? Perhaps a little. But they paled into insignificance against my mighty drawing sheets.
An A2 drawing sheet - one of the smaller ones
A retro-inspired project drawing sheet. I love the way that the elements combine and overlap.
In the period of my life which I will refer to as ‘the in-between years’, my relationship with the sketchbook became confused. I owned a few, I occasionally stapled pieces of fabrics into it, I did the odd scribble on one of the many pages, but it must be said, my sketchbook spent most of its time on the bookshelf next to a pile of overdue library books. My drawing board was in the loft. My toolbox had long since been relegated to more mundane duties. The beautiful drawing sheets of my past were tucked away in my portfolio. That is not to say I wasn’t creating at that time. My life was an endless series of screen print designs, dabbles with Photoshop (a new and alien world to me at that time) and fabric swatches. The sketchbook remained on the shelf, glaring at me every time I crept past it. I felt guilty that we had become so estranged, but try and I might, I could not rekindle our love affair. I didn’t spend time on the drawing sheets of my college days either. The security and comfort of the college studio was long gone. It all got too much in the end. I could no longer bear their forlorn glances as I dashed pat them with my squeegee. I even resorted to hiding them behind the (now even more overdue) library books. Once the library books finally found their way back to the library, I decided enough was enough. The sketchbooks got a new purpose and were turned into presentation books that housed hundreds of images of my creations. My way of working at that time was a fast way of working that involved trial, error and success. In the little time that I had, I became organised; I had to be. If it didn’t work, then straight on with the next. No tears or regret, no reflection time. This way of working needed fast decisions, quick turnaround and a lot of gut instinct. The sketchbook and I were no longer on close terms.
The sketchbooks became product catalogues
It took a series of roles in various design jobs to make me crave the love of my sketchbook once again. There was still no working time for a sketchbook, but I longed to keep something for myself. Now, as a teacher of all aspects of Art and Design, as well as a designer-maker, I actively promote and encourage the use of sketchbooks or drawing sheets within the students’ work, and happily, in my own work too. Drawing sheets are great if you have the space, but the benefit of a sketchbook is that it is a versatile document that can be transported from classroom/studio to home with great ease. I see so many approaches to sketchbooks and I love to look through these visual diaries. Some are informative, some are messy. Some are organised chaos and some are exquisite. What makes a sketchbook beautiful is not answerable in one definition. It needs to be adaptable to fit to your ever-changing needs.
A pair of Goldcrests
A skull sketch
In my own life, the sketchbook has had a pleasant revival. I no longer put any pressure on myself to feel I should be using my sketchbook in any given way and as a result, I have found my happy medium. My sketchbook is informative and useful but happily chaotic. I can move from a page of watercolour handbag designs to a portrait, with no forced order or structure. Drawings and photos are often paper-clipped in so that they can be taken out again and returned. My sketchbook has also spread onto my studio wall, with many pieces making their way onto my 6’ x 4’ pinboard as a source of inspiration. I also find that I now always use my sketchbook whenever I can. Many of my ideas have started from a quick drawing or doodle made in my sketchbook. Scribbled notes, annotations and ideas make their way across the page as needed. It encourages me to see the development of my ideas in such a genuine and uncontrived format. I use pencil or colour, depending on my needs. I have a much-glorified toolbox and a well-equipped little studio. When I want to work big, I still have my plywood drawing board and my robust work-table (thanks again dad).
The Holly and Ruby studio
Work in progress
My current sketchbook is rapidly moving towards full and it is with a twinge of sadness that I will soon need to replace it. Alongside my sketchbook I do appreciate the amazing capacity of the human brain. It can store up many ideas for as long as it takes me to find my sketchbook and pit pencil to paper. The head can hold your ideas, your memories, your mistakes and your discoveries. Although, if you are like me, a little support from a sketchbook goes a long way.
Fashion illustration ideas
My Sketchbook and Me by Holly Davis
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