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Tips on Keeping a Sketchbook

Here are some ideas Ken O'Connell uses with his students to help newcomers and veterans in creating a sketchbook:

  • Feel guilty if you haven't made a mark in your book in seven days. We spend a lot of time trying to avoid guilt in our lives, he says, but guilt can also be a healthy motivator. Use it.
  • Divide the page into two or three parts, so you don't feel obligated to fill the page or complete something. The worst stumbling block people have is fear of failure. The sketchbook will be full of fragments. Accept that.
  • Pick something you like to draw and sketch it in your sketchbook again and again. It could be a place you like, an object, another person or a self-portrait, but make it something you enjoy doing. That helps you get started. "Also, I have another rule," he says: "Draw what is in front of you. If it's a piece of half-eaten cake or a peeling from an orange, just sketch it."
  • Don't let your sketchbook become precious. "Even though somebody might give you a hard-bound book, and they've spent hours selecting the paper and sewing the seams, don't treat it as valuable." Then it becomes just one more excuse not to start.

    O'Connell doesn't like expensive sketchbooks for that reason. If you end up with a very nice book, he says, "make a grocery list on the first page". Realize that very few pages will end up being worth looking at in any book. O'Connell says he's happy with one good page in twenty five.

    Another way to avoid preciousness is to use the sketchbook as a scrapbook. Glue in maps, ticket stubs, photographs and postcards. O'Connell writes lists of addresses on a backpage. You can keep lists of books you want to read, music you want to hear or places you want to go.

  • Draw in ink. Add color. "I try to get people to carry something colored: colored pencil, markers, sometimes just a pen with red on one end and black on the other, and force themselves to put color into the drawing." A simple watercolor set is good. Don't make it elaborate.

    "You have to be careful that you keep it portable. That way wherever you are, you have a studio. People say, 'I don't have any place to work.' Well, you have your lap."

    A sketchbook also makes a portable exhibit space. When traveling, O'Connell frequently meets people who watch him sketch. "You can stop and open your sketchbook and everybody loves it. It's a wonderful way to break the barrier of communication in travel."

  • Draw your tools. "Make a drawing of your watercolor set. Or make a sketch of your camera." This will keep you from running out of subjects. "Buy a pastry and draw it before you eat it."

    Sketching is good for those of us with short attention spans, he says. "Every page that has a sense of capturing something gives a sense of accomplishment. You don't get that when you're working on a long-term painting."

  • Enjoy new tools. Buy a new pen or brush or colored marker and use it for the next 10 pages in your book.
  • Date every page (see first item) and write the location down.
  • Don't worry about finishing things. "You just have to start things. The idea of starting is more important than finishing."
  • Use only one side of the page. Otherwise, ink and watercolor may bleed through.
  • Use words with the images. Draw a sketch of a tree and then fill the rest of the page with words about the tree, or about anything else.

Ken recently visited us from Eugene, Oregon to present a creative presentation on sketchbooks, storytelling and the journey. He kindly gave us permission to re-print this article to share with all of you.