Tuesday, February 1, 2022

My New Whatever Journal

Sketchbook and journal ... separate books.

When I first discovered urban sketching and began documenting my life with sketches, I almost immediately discovered a dilemma. Admiring the works of many sketchers who use this method, I especially loved the concept of putting sketches and writing on the same page. As a lifelong journal writer, I saw the value and appeal of noting observations or other commentary related (or maybe not even related) to whatever I was sketching. The “story” seemed more complete that way.

I tried it briefly early on, but sometimes I wanted to show the sketches to someone without revealing the writing. Do I cover the writing with a Post-it, which only calls attention to whatever I want to keep private? When I eventually started sharing on social media, the problem became worse. I didn’t like the additional task of digitally obscuring text, and I definitely didn’t want my writing to become more self-conscious or filtered for my “audience.” And what about my messy handwriting? I felt compelled to upgrade that, too!

There was also the paper dilemma: Do I write on good quality watercolor paper that I preferred to sketch on, even if that paper wasn’t the best for writing? Or sketch in ordinary notebooks that were more suitable for writing? Both were unsatisfactory compromises.

None of it made sense, and after a short time, I went back to keeping my written journal separate from the sketchbook. I was relieved and happy, and it’s been that way ever since.

A sketch made during my walk and then another at home,
plus a tip I learned on Facebook.

In fact, the way I resolved part of the “storytelling” aspect of a sketch journal was to start this blog. Here, I show the sketches and also write related observations or commentary with a public audience in mind. It’s not the same as my journal, but it satisfies the completion of the story.

The unfiltered, unedited aspect of writing alongside sketches has continued to appeal to me, though, because it feels more integrated. Although I still enjoy keeping my scribble journal, that has always been intended as a place for sketches from memory and imagination made retroactively as a log of my completed day. Sketching from life and spontaneously writing in the moment have an entirely different energy from end-of-day summarizing.

An “Unprecious” Sketchbook

Early in the new year, I took a short online workshop with cartoonist and teacher Jonathan Smith on how he keeps a sketchbook. Sharing some pages, which he generally doesn’t do on social media, he showed how his sketchbook is a hard-working tool filled with sketches, doodles, visual and written ideas, observations and business notes. He even uses the same book for monthly and weekly goal and task planning. Calling himself a “sketchbook fiend,” he has filled more than a hundred volumes by now.

Some notes I took during Jonathan Smith's workshop

What impressed me most about his attitude and methods was the “unpreciousness” (his term) of his sketchbook. Jonathan encourages his art students to “make bad drawings” in their sketchbooks as a means to experimenting and trying new things. Although his own work is mostly cartoons of imaginary characters, in his sketchbooks he draws more from observation (life or photos), which he believes “gets you out of your head.” I appreciated this insight because one aspect of urban sketching that I value most is that it keeps me focused on the world around me – not inside my head.

Although I don’t think of my physical sketchbooks as “precious” – the process and act of sketching are far more important to me than the results – I began to realize that not wanting to write directly on my sketch pages was a form of keeping the sketches unsullied by writing.

Ink bleeding through, and I don't care.

So Many Compartmentalized Notebooks

Learning about Jonathan’s sketchbook rekindled my desire to integrate sketching and writing. It occurred to me that while I like to think of myself as experimental, when I pull out my daily-carry, A5-size sketchbook on location, I am more interested in the “story” of my urban sketches (however mundane that story might be). It’s not the same kind of working sketchbook that Jonathan advocates.

Mulling over this dilemma, the proverbial light bulb switched on: In addition to the A5 sketchbook, I also carry at least one, usually more, pocket-size notebooks for hasty sketches made on my walks or for surreptitious portraits on public transportation. These spontaneous sketches have always felt less “precious,” even though they tell no less of a story than most of my larger sketches do.

In addition, I always carry at least one other pocket-size notebook for memos, quotations, blog post ideas, other ideas, shopping lists, references, and yes – observations and other on-the-fly writing. My apparent need to segregate my writing from my sketches had resulted in multiple portable notebooks used concurrently.

Field Notes notebooks, several of which I used and carried concurrently.

Observations over breakfast.
My Whatever Journal

I am trying something new. I still want to keep my “storytelling” sketchbook of urban sketches free of writing. But as a step toward a more integrated, working sketch journal of the type that Jonathan shared, I took all the various small notebooks out of my bag and began a fresh one. I now consolidate all contents into that one Field Notes. That means that I have also stopped fussing about what kind of Field Notes paper is better for light washes or fountain pens or whatever. The easiest way to be “unprecious” about my sketchbook is to not care if the ink bleeds through or the page warps.

I’m also trying to write more observations as I sketch. Unlike my longer-form journal writing that can become introspective or reflective, these are brief observations of the type I so thoroughly enjoyed writing when I took Taylor Dow’s workshop on observational cartooning.

Detritus of the brain.

I filled my first Field Notes with this process in less than a month, and I just started my second. A recipe for tahini sauce is jotted right next to corny, glued-in jokes that fell out of a Christmas cracker. A Photoshop Elements tip I learned on Facebook is noted on the same page as a sketch of a squirrel eating from our bird feeder. Over breakfast one morning, I described the previous night’s COVID nightmare, then decorated the opposite page with washi tape. It’s a messy brain dump of words, sketches, ephemera and scribbles. It’s definitely not pretty (I’m not sharing much of it), but it is perhaps a more accurate reflection of my life than any other single book I keep. I don’t know whether this new process will stick permanently, but so far, I am thoroughly enjoying having a single place to store my daily whatever.

As an ongoing student of the creative process, I’m afraid I tend to over-analyze and over-document changes in the way I use “process tools” (as I think of all sketchbooks and notebooks). If you’ve stayed with me to the end, I thank you for indulging me in this lengthy post.

Edited 8/29/22: I happily stayed with this process for more than half the year... then it turned Ugly. 


  1. Hmmm. Interesting ideas.

    I have kept several Field Notes in various activity bags:
    EDC in my purse
    Museum of Flight notebook in the small bag I wear while volunteering
    USk notebook in sketchbag

    Not sure I want to move the EDC to other bags all the time...well, once "all the time" becomes "back to normal". It's in a special cover with a couple other items.

  2. I like the 'unprecious'idea. I think that's what gets me hung up on using them as they're supposed to be used. Thank you for this!

  3. I love posts over-analyzing real-life use of sketch/notebooks. I'm really here to ask: where did you get the cute pencils washi tape? I love stationery with stationery on it!

    1. I'm a junkie for stationery with stationery on it, too! :-) I got it from LittleCraftPlace.com !

  4. I chuckled a little when I read that you started a new notebook instead of choosing one from the pile. I guess a blank slate was essential 😁.

    1. Ha-ha-ha!! Of course! But all of them were almost full, so I didn't feel like I was wasting much. ;-)

  5. I've kept cheap 4x6 "sketchbooks" for years, in parallel with my real sketchbooks. I don't write much in my real sketchbooks other than dates but in my 4x6 books anything goes. I use these for all sorts of things, as you describe your Whatever Journal. I also do all my quick-sketching in these books. One thing I decided long ago was that the internet stifles what is "acceptable" as a sketch, at least for me, and so I set down the "law" that stuff in my 4x6 books aren't destined for my blog or anywhere else. There is the occasional exception but I've filled dozens of these books with only a few sketches being posted. This is why you don't see a lot of quick-sketches from me.

    1. It's good that you gave yourself that "law." Funny how social media has made that "necessary" -- as if we're under some kind of obligation to share everything we do!

  6. Hi Tina- so many phrases and concepts here that I can relate to. Sketching from life, spontaneously writing in the moment, unprecious, stationery. . . YES!! Thank you very much. Karen

  7. And, how is that going so far? Still combining it?

    1. Yes! I'm not doing as much observational writing as I had intended to, but other notes and sketches are all dumped into the same notebook, and I'm still filling them quickly.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...