Monday, March 29, 2021

The Worst Sketchbook


Nearly 10 years ago, only a few days after I had committed to a daily sketching habit and learning to draw, we took a long weekend trip to Orcas Island. I felt both excitement and anxiety: It would be my first travel experience as a sketcher (never mind that Orcas was only a couple of hours from Seattle by car and ferry)! Possibly my first urban sketch would occur! That was the excitement part. The anxiety was about many things, but especially about leaving my routine: Would I break my daily drawing commitment already? (It had happened before during previous drawing attempts, so the anxiety had grounds.)

Shopping in the village of Eastsound, I walked into Darvill’s Bookstore (I’m thrilled to find this link and realize that the shop still exists). There I found a selection of gorgeous leather-bound sketchbooks handmade by Susie Shipman of Island Bound Books (I’m happy to see that she, too, is apparently still making books). The one I fell in love with had a soft, dark purple cover that felt a bit worn – as if it had already been broken in by another artist to give me a head start. However, inside the inch-and-a-half-thick book were 320 7-by-7-inch high-quality pages – all viciously blank. No head start here. Its price was $160 – well worth the impeccable hand stitching and luxurious materials, but a gulp nonetheless.

Beautifully hand-stitched spine and a woven-cord closure.

Ornate flyleaf paper

An inch-and-a-half thick! Could it be any more intimidating!

Before I could chicken out, I bought it immediately. By golly, this book would make me keep my commitment! If I was tempted to quit, the price would guilt me into continuing!

I guess it worked: Six months later, I finished filling it. Even now, it is my most precious sketchbook because it represents both my commitment and my struggle. Completing the sketchbook and how that felt was the subject of one of my first blog posts. Now, more than a hundred filled sketchbooks later, I felt like writing about it again, this time with retrospection (and it’s a good opportunity to show more images of the book).

Nothing but a telephone number and my first name for ID (and a good reminder that's still valid today). 

I was working on my 100 hands, so the book contains many of them.

What prompted me was a discussion in a stationery-focused Facebook group. A member posted about his difficulty in using a beautiful journal. He felt he had to write about something “important” or risk “ruining” the book with his mundane thoughts. I think this is a common fear among sketchers, too (especially beginners but even those with years of experience), when faced with a fresh sketchbook. One “bad” sketch could ruin the book, so each sketch must be perfect. What a terrible pressure – especially if the sketchbook is of high quality and expensive. Surely such pressure could stop a fledgling drawing habit in its tracks!

I was also working on making 100 selfies, so the book contains lots of those, too.

A good solution, especially for beginners, is to burn through lots and lots of inexpensive sketchbooks – the more, the better. The corollary is to avoid using any challenging media with those cheap sketchbooks – stick with pencil or ballpoint. By the time a stack of those is filled, and the sketcher wants to explore new media, the drawing habit will be firmly entrenched. An upgrade to a better sketchbook wouldn’t be intimidating (or at least it would be less so).

I think many new sketchers spend a lot of time, energy and money acquiring different types of sketchbooks, likely influenced by their favorite sketchers, and switch gears at the drop of a YouTube. That was my next phase after the handmade leatherbound book – trying lots of sketchbooks and often using them inappropriately with the media du jour. It’s fine to experiment, but not if acquisition and trial of materials keeps one from the task at hand – sketching. The simpler and more familiar the materials are, the more likely they will be used with confidence and without impediment, and the more sketches will be made.

Not that I would have listened, but that would have been the advice I would have given to myself back then – simple, inexpensive materials – not to buy a handmade work of art for $160! In retrospect, it wasn’t the best choice for other reasons. Could I have chosen a more bulky, heavy and conspicuous book for urban sketching? I’m amazed now that I hauled it around to coffee shops and unwrapped that substantial cover each time I sketched. It’s probably the worst sketchbook for a beginner. It’s intimidating to think about even now! I applaud my novice self’s courage (and wonder whether I still have the same gumption I had then).

By the way, I did make my very first urban sketch that weekend on Orcas Island (though, ironically, not in the new sketchbook). We had just missed our planned ferry ride home, so we had a long wait ahead. In the true urban sketching spirit, I filled the time by filling a page.

9/25/11 My first urban sketch, Orcas Island, Washington


  1. On the other hand, being a child of a frugal mother, if I paid $160 for a sketchbook, I'm gonna make sure I get my money's worth and use it. Interesting that 10 years later, you again chose to draw hands during the pandemic

    1. I think my frugal mother's voice was in my head, too! But whatever works, right? ;-)

  2. What a gorgeous sketchbook!!! Even after all this time sketching, I don't think I would be comfortable sketching in something that "elegant." I can imagine how heavy, and probably cumbersome it was to carry around. I would be afraid to ruin the cover. After so many years I think we realize what fits our style of sketching best and use those for the most part...but I can appreciate that wonderful leather work.

    1. I had no idea how inappropriate this book was for urban sketching! Glad I got it over with then -- I'd never do it now!

  3. I to begin a sketching journey will something less expensive and more portable.

    I do like the idea of the button at the back! I learned to make leather bound sketchbooks from Janice B at Daniel Smith store. I've made dozens (for another organization). If I use one myself, I'm going to use that button idea! I met a person at Daniel Smith who was carrying a large leather bound book. She said when she filled it she removed the signatures and added new, fresh ones. I liked that idea, too.

    1. The button on the spine is really nice touch! I think I would do the opposite (as I used to): Use the unbound signatures, then bind later.


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