Landscape watercolor painting in sketchbook
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There are several different contemporary terms used to describe pads of paper on which to draw, paint, write, or collect ideas or mementos. These terms are: visual journals, art journals, artist's journals, art diary, painting creativity journal, and sketchbooks. They have many similarities, the main one being that artists use them daily to record ideas, images, events, places, and emotions.

These journals and sketchbooks can include both words and images, drawings and photos, magazine and newspaper images, collages and mixed-media compositions, whatever piques the interest of the artist. They often include studies for more finished works or can be the source for developing a series of works. 

Individual artists use these terms in their own way, and each artist needs to find what works best for them in terms of their own approach to art and the creative process. The important thing is to have something, call it a sketchbook or visual journal, that one keeps and draws in or experiments in on a continuous basis, every day if possible.

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Some artists may choose to keep a sketchbook just for drawing or painting and have what they call a visual journal for everything else - mixed media, collage, photographs, newspaper articles, ticket stubs, while others may choose to put everything into a single sketchbook. The choice is yours. The important thing is doing it. Having too many choices often impedes the doing, so it is best to keep it simple and start with just a few sketchbooks. 

Keep three different sized sketchbooks - one to always carry around easily in a pocket or purse, one notebook-sized, and one larger when desired. As for drawing/painting tools, at least always have a pencil or pen. Beyond that, it is useful to carry a couple pens, pencils, an eraser, and a small watercolor set. That way you have a basic portable studio and are always ready to draw or paint.

Why It Is Valuable to Keep a Sketchbook or Visual Journal

  • Keeping a daily sketchbook helps you to see and be present in the world.
  • Keeping a sketchbook helps your ideas grow and helps you develop new ones.
  • Keeping a sketchbook helps you make connections and fosters creativity.
  • Keeping a sketchbook improves your drawing ability and observational skills.
  • A sketchbook is an excellent source for ideas during those times when your creativity runs dry.
  • A sketchbook is portable. You always have a studio with you. You always have a place to work. 
  • A sketchbook is a good place to try out new techniques and materials.
  • A sketchbook is a fertile ground for happy accidents - those unforeseen and unplanned creative discoveries or beautiful passages -  to occur. 

Tips for Keeping a Sketchbook or Visual Journal

  • Don’t worry about making pretty pictures in your sketchbook - your sketchbook is about practicing your skills, recording fleeting ideas, and capturing moments of life. It is more about the process than the product. If you happen to get a nice composition and pleasing drawing, that's great, but that is not the goal.
  • Randomly mark up your pages ahead of time, so that you’re not facing completely blank white pages. Paint layers of color on them, draw lines on them, punch holes in them with a hole puncher, anything to make them less precious and enable you to be free with what you draw and create.
  • Notice everything around you. Nothing is too mundane to draw - your cup of coffee, the materials you’re using to draw with, squirrels at the park, a bike in a rack, a trash can. 
  • Don’t edit yourself.  Spend no more than 10 minutes on a drawing and don't go back and erase. Instead, restate any lines that you'd like to change. This will give your drawing more vitality.
  • Do draw at least 10 minutes a day from direct observation. Drawing from direct observation is the best way to improve your observational skills. Drawing for the artist is like doing pushups for the athlete. It is the way that you make your drawing muscles (your observational skills) stronger.  
  • Draw things that are moving. Try to capture the gesture and convey the motion. This will help you learn to be able to capture the essence of things quickly.
  • Try new materials. Don’t be stuck using the same old pencil. By all means, use it if that is all you have, but don’t be limited by it. Try new things. Always ask for new art supplies if someone wants to give you a gift. (Even better, ask for a monthly subscription to ArtSnacks!). 
  • If you have an iPad or iPhone or tablet of some kind, try using that for drawing, sketching, or painting. See David Hockney’s iPad Paintings. See how Jorge Colombo drew a New Yorker cover using the Brushes app in Cover Story: Finger Painting.
  • You don’t just have to use your sketchbook for drawing - you can also write, collage, use mixed-media, record quotes and ideas, anything that inspires or speaks to you. 
  • Use color, don’t just stick to black and white. Vary your approach to your sketchbook. This will help to open up new avenues of discovery.
  • Alternatively, it can sometimes be helpful to give yourself certain parameters, like only using black and white, or only using black and white and one other color to see what you can do within those limits.
  • Draw abstractly as well as representationally. Draw the same thing multiple times, becoming increasingly abstract with each drawing. 
  • Draw things up close so that they appear abstract; draw small things large-scale so that they go off the page and lose their context.
  • Fill up one page with many small drawings.
  • Draw a cityscape or landscape on a two-page spread.
  • Take a line for a walk.  Do one continuous line drawing of ten different objects. Draw one object, take ten steps, draw another object and so on. Keep your pencil on the paper as you draw and connect one object to the next.
  • Try out new techniques and materials. You can use your sketchbook or visual journal to try out new colors or mediums, to test transparency, texture, or viscosity, among other things. 
  • Try a blind contour drawing. It doesn't matter if it looks like chicken scratch. It will help you sharpen your observational skills.  
  • Your sketchbook is more a place for ideas than it is a place for finished art. Although you might get some good pieces from it, that’s not the point of keeping a sketchbook.
  • Keep all your sketchbooks and date your drawings. This will be a good record of your progress as well as a visual diary.  Don't throw anything away.

Further Reading