Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Mishmash: Alpha Sketchbook Retrospective


Cartooning exercises

I just finished filling a sketchbook that I began on July 8, 2016. It’s a Stillman & Birn Alpha that I initially cracked open for urban sketching, but after only a few sketches, I decided I didn’t like the paper for that purpose. It was during a period when I was still happily binding my own sketchbooks, so I’m not sure what the dalliance was about, but it didn’t last long. I set it aside and didn’t pick it up again for nearly a year.

An urban sketch at Stonehouse Cafe appears on the first page dated July 8, 2016.

As I thumb through it now, I see what a mishmash it contains: After the initial urban sketches are a few thumbnail studies from the colored pencil course I was taking at Gage and then a few more urban sketches in 2017. Then there’s a big leap to 2021 when I was working on cartooning and drawing from imagination; a few blind contours; and some doodles that might have had an idea behind them, but that part is now long gone (apparently the idea wasn’t worth noting with written words). The final third of the book is filled with human and animal portraits from the past few months. It’s clear to me now that I used this Alpha only when paper choice wasn’t important for the task. (Except for the doodles, I think all the other pages have appeared on the blog at the time that I made them, so most of the images shown here will not be new to you.)

Seattle mayoral candidates debating on TV.

I filled the last page on Dec. 29, 2022 – six-and-a-half years after beginning it! That must be a record for me!

Who knows what idea was behind this, if any?

I had to laugh ruefully at myself: For most of my sketching life, I’ve fantasized about having a sketchbook that chronologically follows my life, page after page, regardless of subject matter, media or size. This fantasy is partly fed by images and flip-throughs I’ve seen of Nina Khashchina’s wonderful sketchbooks. She sketches on a variety of papers and uses a huge range of media, but the bits and pieces and loose pages eventually get bound into a central sketchbook bulging with all the glue-ins. Each sketchbook is so much heavier when she has filled it compared to when it was brand new that part of her process is to weigh the book before and after completion! This post explains how and why she does it. I love her intention, process and result.

Thumbnail value study from photo for a colored pencil class.

I’ve tried sporadically to come up with a way to make this type of book work for me (a partial attempt was made last March), but the process never lasts long. As much as Nina’s bulging books of paste-ins appeal to me, I thrive on sketching in multiple neatly bound books, each for a different purpose.

Another urban sketch from April 2017. One reason I rejected the book for urban sketching is that the paper is too thin to withstand my spritzing technique (buckling evidence at the top).

Although the Alpha book is the exact opposite of my chronologically perfect unicorn, I had to laugh because it’s probably a more accurate reflection of my sketching life. It’s OK; unicorns are meant to be searched for, not to be found.

The final third of the book is filled with recent portrait practice.

A blind contour of our bathroom sink.


  1. I'm glad you have some sketchbooks that aren't too organized and have a bit of everything inside. I usually have more than one sketchbook going. One is for watercolor sketches of things that may be good compositions or paintings. Right now that is a S&B Beta. Another is a sketchbook that isn't really great for wet media. This is used when I'm not too thrilled with the subject or if I know it will be mostly ink. Then I have assorted other sketchbooks that I pull out that fit in my purse. I just finished one that I started back in 2014 which has a lot of people sketches done on the train and my last two sketches done by the lighthouse on New Year's Day. I'll have to figure out how to share the whole book.

    1. Sounds like your "system" (or lack thereof) is similar to mine! ;-)

  2. Record breaking 6.5 years🤣I have now a sketchbook and sheets of paper piling up in a box. The only chronological record I have is on Instagram (and Google photos I guess)!


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