OCA preloader logo
What Should My Sketchbook Contain? - The Open College of the Arts
To find out more details about the transfer to The Open University see A New Chapter for OCA.
Explore #WeAreOCA
Skip Navigation
What Should My Sketchbook Contain? thumb

What Should My Sketchbook Contain?

Several of my OCA students have asked me what should be in their sketchbook and so this blog post is a summary of my personal views on student sketchbooks. Please feel free to leave feedback and turn this into a live debate!
Why create a sketchbook? Traditionally the term ‘sketchbook’ referred to a portable drawing pad used to capture visual information, compositions and colours; The contemporary art school definition is often broader than that. It is a collection of ideas which ultimately form a ‘library of possibilities’. This library exists primarily for the artist to be able to refer back to concepts and information when creating new work. The book is not a precious work of art in itself and so can be treated in a very free, playful, individual, expressive and spontaneous manner.
Your sketchbook is a record of inspiration and experiments.  It is like a view into your creative mind which shows what you are looking at and how you are responding to it.  This includes colour, texture, proportion, techniques, others artists and designers, drawings, painted sketches, material samples, internet downloads, book and magazine cuttings……anything which is inspiring you and moving you forward.  You should be adding to, and referring to, this book throughout a project.
It is different a learning log because it is not focussed on what you have done; It is about what you could do based on what you have seen and recorded.  It is aspirational rather than reflective. For OCA students there will be cross overs with your log and that’s fine – however, the sketchbook is a more lively, physical rendition of this and does not necessarily include writing.
Remember also it does not need to be a book bought in a shop or produced in a particular format. I prefer to gather loose sheets of information and then compile them but everyone finds their own method. I also like to work back into earlier pages as I discover new information. Think about the quality of the paper and consider adding your own. Drawings can be compromised by stark, white cartridge paper. Consider the background colour and texture of your drawings and paintings as a fundamental element of the artwork. Equally if a drawing does not fit onto a page don’t let the borders limit you – just extend the page. If you don’t like a drawing just keep working over it until you have moulded it into something interesting – removing and covering marks is as important as adding them.
I believe the key to a good sketchbook is cross referencing – looking for common themes – lot’s of different elements on a page which relate and form new possibilities. Show how you have looked at an artist or designer and then reinterpreted their style or technique in your own way. Throughout history creative people have developed their own work by looking at, and responding to, the work of others.
Oh, and if the book you end up with is not flat – if it is bulging and exploding with work – don’t worry, the chances are you have worked hard and created a dynamic collection of ideas…..Don’t submit empty pages!
I have intentionally not included images of other peoples books because making a sketchbook should be a very individual process which I am reluctant to influence with examples. The image here shows some of my sketchbook pages being used for inspiration on my studio wall.

Posted by author: Neil Musson
Share this post:

7 thoughts on “What Should My Sketchbook Contain?

  • All good stuff. I tend to buy moleskine notebooks and absently fill them with doodles, notes, and sketches of ideas. My practice isn’t one based on making drawings wither from life or from my imagination, so a lot of the notes a theoretical or strategic. I also cut stuff out of magazines, brochures and so on and stick them in. Trouble is, I often have a few books on the go (I’m a bit of a stationery junkie) and don’t always fill the books. Now I periodically go through these and cut pages out and put them in a larger book that becomes a scrapbook of my most interesting stuff. Then I add to that.
    I’ve always loved the book that Sean connery has in the third Indiana Jones movie…
    What’s important, I think, is for the workbook to have the potential to become a site where accidents can occur. Placing a beermat with a biro drawing on next to a Picasso postcard might make more sense of each one then when they’re separate.

    • Eviscerating half filled books is a great idea Bryan. Olivia asked me recently about learning from students, and I would say what I have learned is how to be more organised in the way I log research. Some students are really amazingly organised and have such simple but effective ways of keeping track. I used to search for days for the scrap of till receipt on which I had scribbled the name of a book I needed to read, but thanks to the requirements of distance learning and teaching, my till receipts and bits of post it are now in a neatish pile or at least within a metre radius of my desk. There’s a stall on the royal mile in Edinburgh that sells books like Indiana Jones’. You’re welcome up.

  • I found these ideas really interesting Neil and I have say, that now I’m at Level 2 in the course, the sketchbook is becoming so much more important to me for thinking through ideas. The problem I have, and I wonder if others have the same problem, is that the demands of the course are so heavy (especially in the MIxed Media course I’m doing right now) that my sketchbook only contains work on the areas of study. I would love to have sketchbooks that contain the types of things you list but there just isn’t time. Am I doing something wrong? Any ideas from you or anyone else grappling with this???

    • In answer to the last question – no your are not doing anything wrong! Infact you have just identified the problem for any creative person (lack of time). I would like to have several lives running concurrently so that I could develop all of my own sketchbooks and creative experiments. We can only do as much as we can do. Not being too precious about the book and allowing all sorts of information to mingle on a page makes it quicker to produce. Keep at it 🙂

  • Thank you very much for taking the time to do this Neil. In answer to the comment left by pbfarrar I too struggle to find the time for course work and sketchbook work. It’s pointless just filling my sketchbook with course work as all that goes in my blog so I always feel I have to choose other topics for my sketchbook. Maybe I’m ‘doing it wrong’. Maybe my sketchbook should be research pictures and articles around course work. Who knows? I’ll wait for the feedback from assignment one for the mixed media for textiles course and go from there. I do however enjoy the freedom of doing what I want to do in my sketchbook.

  • It took me the whole of my first level-one course to learn to apply some of the ideas mentioned by Neil. There seemed to be a constant questioning amongst students about what constitutes a ‘sketchbook’ and what goes in a sketchbook. This post gives us a broad view and helps students find their own method.
    There are a few new methods I will apply, after reading this, like cross-referencing and deciding on the right background for your work. Previously I had pre-coloured backgrounds in some of my journals so that I wasnt intimidated by the white space. But I found when out and about I would be searching through my book for a blank page. This often got my ideas and work out of context and time. And looking at them now, although I can appreciate my development and find inspiration, they look haphazard, especially if viewed by a tutor or assessor.
    I have started making my own sketchbooks in various sizes to suit the work I am doing. Some with loose pages, some with quality drawing papers as well as a variety of other paper for writing or drawing or stitching and stapling. Enjoy your sketchbooks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to blog listings