The Sketchbook Habit
There is something quite enticing about a new sketchbook. From the moment it's opened, a whole new world of discovery awaits. The simple beauty of the blank pages suggest such promise and opportunity for visual exploration and creative play. As I prepare to work I think to myself: many pages -- many possibilities -- many lessons -- many thoughts.
My sketchbook work began during my college years and has continued without interruption ever since. It has always been a through line for me -- a way of staying focused on my art practice, learning new things about materials, and clarifying routes of personal ideation. Whether my sketchbooks are store bought or custom-made, the importance of exploring visual dynamics over a succession of pages has always lead me in the right direction.
I have spent many years researching the rich history of artist's sketchbooks. As I dug into this vast treasure trove of books, it was hard to know exactly where this particular history began. Do Egyptian papyrus paintings count as sketchbooks? What about painted Chinese scrolls? Didn't these formats serve a similar function of allowing the artist to practice over a continuum of time and space with a succession of images? How can we ever know?
Years ago I developed a seminar course for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called The Artist and the Sketchbook. In this class we looked at books dating from the Renaissance through the Contemporary period. Students would study pages from these journals, experiment with similar drawing and painting methods in their sketchbooks, and make connections with the artists' conceptual framework. It occurred to me at that time that the sheer volume of ideas stored in artists sketchbooks is truly beyond comprehension. For in every idea executed in every sketchbook lies a kernel of potential -- each one a seed, a spark, a new path to follow. In truth, an endless flood of possibilities.
As an visual artist and art educator, I am incredibly fortunate to witness the birth of ideas on a regular basis. My own sketchbook practice, along with the visual research of students in my courses and workshops, provide great insight into the ways sketchbooks act as engines for continuous creative growth. I find it difficult to accept that we are living in a time that is said to be suffering from a "crisis of imagination." Sketchbooks, with their simple bound construction and blank pages, offer the unlimited and unrestricted possibility of conceptual visualization of all sorts. Many of these books may ultimately contain glorious works of art but that really isn't the point. What matters most is that they represent the birthplace of ideas -- and a private and open space for personal expression.
I recently went on a road trip after spending a great deal of time in my urban home during the Covid-19 pandemic. I was excited at the thought of seeing a new view and soaking in the broad expanses of the rural midwest landscape. I took a new sketchbook with me that contained earth-friendly, sustainably sourced paper made from elephant dung. This book was a gift from my son Zach who also gave me a special bottle of black paint that was manufactured for the public in reaction to architect Anish Kapoor buying the exclusive rights to the blackest black paint pigment ever made. Having never worked with either of these materials before, I was not sure if or how I would use them.
I set aside one day of my trip to visit Cahokia Mounds National Park in southern Illinois. This historic site of a pre-Columbian Native American city was quietly beautiful, mystical, and inspiring. The day was somewhat overcast and warm, the grounds were vividly green and wet from rain, and the cerulean blue sky was scattered with heavy gray clouds. There were several trails to walk and a visitors center/museum to explore. It was all quite profound.
A few days later, I filled my sketchbook with paintings of this special place. I worked with my matte black paint, a large brush, and a cup of water on the front porch of a friend's home in rural Arkansas. The sun was warm, the day was long, and the world seemed to be standing still. I was surprised at how quickly my pages filled up as I traced my memories of what I had experienced at this ancient site. I found it helpful to think sequentially about my experience, focusing in on the shapes of the large earth mounds and their symbolic importance. The book was completed in about an hour.
Memories stored and released -- that's how it works for me. The sketchbook has always been a visual depository, a testament to lived experience. It allows for a serial, not necessarily linear, representation of time and space. And the memories associated with working in sketchbooks often provide fertile pathways to new bodies of work. And that is what is happening for me now. I am making new works on large sheets of paper with matte black paint and other materials. They begin with paint swiped into mounds -- simple organic forms on their way to becoming new and different worlds to learn from and embrace. The sketchbook habit, with its many pages, many possibilities, many lessons, and many thoughts seems to be once again nudging me in the right direction.