Thursday, September 8, 2022

The Benefits and Beauty of Small

8/31/22 Green Lake

 An Urban Sketchers Seattle member recently shared her travel sketches in our Facebook group. Before leaving on her trip, she had discussed with the group her dilemma about which and how many supplies to bring, so when she posted the sketches, she also reflected on her experiences and processes. As someone who has done more than my share of dithering about which supplies to bring when I travel, I was delighted to hear about what she had learned from her experience. Here’s what she wrote:

I brought 2 art kits on my 3-week road trip: my regular watercolor sketching kit and a smaller colored pencil kit with a tiny sketchbook I designated my “scribble journal.” The smaller, simpler kit got way more mileage (32 drawings vs 3 watercolor paintings), which I owe to the simplicity of the kit, (potential) speed of line drawings, tiny size of the sketchbook, AND, importantly, lowering the mental barrier for myself by designating it as a place to be “scribbly.”

There were plenty of drawings that I felt didn’t capture “enough” of the essence I was going for in the moment, but looking back on them now, they capture much more of my memories than I could realize at the time. And, also importantly, they capture SOMETHING. Capturing something, anything, is a thousand times better than capturing nothing.

What wonderful and insightful learnings she shared!

An early, handmade pocket-size sketchbook with
a reused greeting card as covers.

I have had similar experiences myself in various forms. A decade ago when I first started carrying a pocket-size notebook in addition to my usual, daily-carry sketch kit, which included a larger sketchbook, I found myself reaching for the smaller one more often. Since it’s smaller, I could use it discreetly while riding public transportation. It felt more “scribbly” and less invested somehow, so I explored more freely. If I didn’t have enough time for a “real” sketch, I could toss off a quick practice one in the small notebook without feeling like I had “wasted” a page in my larger sketchbook. But regardless of size, the sketch was still good practice. The habit stuck, and I have carried and used a small, secondary sketchbook ever since.

In Gabi Campanario’s “Pocket Urban Sketching” workshop, I heard him talk about how a small-format book encourages him to record a moment rather than get hung up on “making art.” I’ve heard other sketchers who favor a pocket-size format express similar feelings.

7/28/19 Thumbnail-size sketches were all I could
manage in Amsterdam's triple-digit temperatures.

During the blistering, triple-digit temperature days of the 2019 Amsterdam USk Symposium, an important lesson learned (and relearned) was the usefulness of thumbnails. As I discovered so definitively during my 30-day composition challenge, thumbnails are extremely helpful as a pre-sketch tool, but they are also a handy format for sketches as end results. Because of the serious need to shorten the length of time I spent outdoors in the heat, I learned to make lots of small sketches quickly on that trip.

Initially, it seemed disappointing not to be able to make a larger, color sketch each time I saw something I wanted to capture in an exciting city. But the reality is that the larger I sketch, the fewer sketches I can make. I covered a lot of ground simply by making numerous small sketches in the time it takes to make one larger one. I came to the same conclusion that the sketcher in the Facebook group did: Regardless of size or duration to make them, the sketches still prompt memories of the place and time as well as a larger sketch would have. “Capturing something, anything, is a thousand times better than capturing nothing.” Right on!

Since the beginning of the pandemic, my sketch kit and processes have gotten simpler and, interestingly, smaller. During that initial year of isolation as I did all of my urban sketching during my fitness walks instead of going to specific destinations, I was reminded of how liberating small sketches are. The book is physically smaller, which literally lightens the load. But there’s also the smaller creative investment that I had discovered early on, which lightens whatever resistance (or “mental barrier,” as the other sketcher had put it) I might have.

I’m not isolated anymore, but the habit has stayed with me because I so thoroughly enjoy sketching as I walk through the ‘hood with no destination in mind. I made the sketch at the top of the post at Green Lake during yet another “extreme heat advisory” day last week. Made in an Uglybook, it’s about 2 ½-by-4 inches – no larger than a thumbnail – but I used color to satisfy my need for it that morning. It took 15 minutes. I didn’t use it as a study before making a larger sketch; it’s the end result.

Are Uglybooks all I need?

A few months ago when I began studying Ian Roberts’ videos on composition, I did some hemming and hawing about what the difference is between a sketch and a study. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter: I enjoy making small sketches. A small sketch is always easier than a large sketch. The longer I sketch, the more they meet my needs.

Paper note: While brightly colored Uglybooks are serving my toned paper needs beautifully, this white Uglybook is serving my watercolor pencil needs pretty darn well, too! I don’t use a spritzer on it, and I keep my waterbrush dry-ish (which is easy to do with a waterbrush). I still love using my A5 Hahnemühle, but someday, I might decide an Uglybook or two are all I need.


  1. Thank you Tina for this! I am in the process of simplifying (again, lol) and it’s great to see your ideas on sketching using few materials.

    1. I go through a simplifying process every year (at least), and somehow the kit gets bigger again, and the cycle continues! ;-) But I like the fun of it, too!

  2. I like reading your thoughts about simplifying and working smaller. I've been working in a slightly smaller book lately, but not as small as yours. It has its good points.

    1. If a smaller book removes barriers and makes sketching easier, it's always a good thing! But you don't seem to have anything that stops you from sketching, Joan! ;-)


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