Thursday, 21 July 2011

In Praise of the Sketchbook

The cloud drawing in the last post is not there because I thought it so great that I must share it - it’s there because that was what I happened to draw at that moment watching those clouds. It’s a sequence of scribbles, almost doodles based only on shapes I could see. But even as I’m looking and drawing, there’s a kind of editing and selecting going on. Decisions to slightly emphasise that particular curve, to perhaps omit that piece of ragged vapour or stretch this bit to make it more elegant and proportionally pleasing. Whenever we’re looking we’re also filtering and editing. In a way the drawing itself is merely the receipt of that mental transaction.

In the days when I was a student at Camberwell the venerable old school regarded itself as the last proper ‘drawing’ college. Ie. it still placed a premium on drawing from observation when other schools were adopting a freer, more laissez-faire approach. Art teaching seemed to be having a crisis at that point. No-one seemed to know what they were supposed to teach or indeed whether art could actually be taught at all.

But at Camberwell, the traditionalists were still just about clinging on. In the old Wilson Road annexe the ancient charcoal and graphite stained floorboards would creak under the weight of life-size plaster statues. To be honest by this time most of them were pushed into corners under cobwebbed dustsheets and I don’t remember drawing from them myself but we were required to be in the life-room at least once a week and to carry sketchbooks at all times. Coming from my background of comics and ‘imaginative’ drawing it took a while to get used to this new regimen. But oh, what a marvellous discipline it proved to be.

Sketchbooks are totally addictive and even now I’m never without one. I’ve amassed hundreds of them. Large under-the-arm ones; tiny pocket-sized ones. A small ‘Moleskine’ always in the car. An old ‘Silvine’ pad by the telly. I have ‘lucky’ ones and favourite ones. Some of them for observing; some for inventing; most a mixture of the two. They also function as unofficial diaries. Most pages take me back so precisely to where and when I was as I made the drawing.... priceless to me.

In truth I probably enjoy prying into most artists’ sketchbooks more than their finished work. The finished piece is the final polished performance if you like, but the sketchbooks take you behind the scenes, let you peek into the rehearsal room as ideas develop, thought processes begin to ravel. Mistakes, wrong turnings, naivety. All fascinating stuff because it’s a place you’re not really supposed to see.

Like a diary, a ‘proper’ sketchbook ought to be a private, secluded place to try things and to fail. To record fleeting errant thoughts and notions that may grow into something substantial or just as likely remain as stunted, feeble seedlings that deserve to be thinned away.

The only downside is that when you have amassed too many they are pretty much useless as a reference archive. Last week I went rooting through looking for a drawing, a study, of rain and puddles that I KNEW I’d made in the past few years. After an hour I just gave up. Flicking quickly through hundreds of images induces a sort of car-sick type nausea.

And talking of the good old days here’s a couple of shots of my student self enjoying a hearty breakfast (tea and Bensons by the look of things) and here’s a record that never seemed to be not playing on the student bar jukebox during my first year....

(photo: Joelle Depont)


  1. "In Praise Of The Sketchbook" Hallowed ground indeed...

    Thank you so much for this inspiring post. Can I please commission you to write my blog posts?!

    I've just returned from my "local", sketchbook in hand ready to be deciphered in the morning, inane scribbles for upcoming Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines shows (any ideas are welcome). If only my sketchbooks were as expressive as yours. I find that over the years mine have degenerated into an indecipherable shorthand of text and lines that only I can understand.

    Bromide machines, letraset, numbered negatives and darkrooms! But what is Benson's?

    And yes! Give me the Demo over the 'over-produced single' any day! I much prefer the skeleton on which everything hangs!

  2. Haha Thanks so much Rob.

    "local"? Hope you haven't been drinking & drawing? I'm sure your sketchbooks are pretty much like mine: I only choose to reproduce the bits I like - lots and lots of rubbish in them as well - but that's the point I guess.

    When I first went to college I thought it would be the bohemian thing to do to start smoking. So I went for French Gitanes because of the cool pack. Unfortunately they were quite strong and within weeks I had developed a hacking cough. So then it was Benson & Hedges (plain gold pack) for me. I haven't smoked for years and just thinking about the brand names makes me think how long ago it seems (in England now you certainly wouldn't be allowed to smoke in an art college).

    "Letraset"! - I can almost feel another post coming on....

  3. You have quite shamed me about my lack of sketchbooking these days...! Like you it was a discipline encouraged in my early college years and every lunchtime would see us over the road in the Playhouse Theatre bar, eating, smoking (yes probably Bensons..), drinking and always, always drawing: people, food, signs, skies, cars, thoughts... all so carefree. I think you nailed it beautifully when you said it was a 'secluded place to try things and fail'. I find it hard sometimes to get past that notion of failing, and wanting everything to look perfect instead, especially in a profession where every preliminary drawing I do gets heavily critiqued. But you've inspired me to get out my sketchbooks and try to nurture the habit again, just for me. After all, nobody else needs to see it...

    Love the old pics too. And Pigbag!

  4. Thanks C. I think it's important that sketchbooks are private spaces, like diaries, not designed for anyone but the artist to see. When you know there's going to be an audience it makes you self-conscious and inhibited - "got to make this look good" etc.

    Yes, get that sketchbook out and take it with you everywhere!