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5 Steps to Starting a Sketchbook Habit—Whether or Not You “Can” Draw


5 Steps to Starting a Sketchbook Habit—Whether or Not You “Can” Draw
Illustration by Steven B. Reddy.

One of the most intimate and revealing aspects of an artist's practice is their sketchbook—a visual diary of daily thoughts, imaginings, and renderings. Frida Khalo, for example, filled her sketchbook with watercolor illustrations, many of which were reworked and incorporated into her work, along with passionate love letters to Diego Rivera, thoughts on pre-Columbian Mexican culture and communism, and references to her failing health due to a life-threatening accident she had at the age of 18.  

Frida Khalo's sketchbook. Image via Peaceful Dumpling.

But you don’t need to be Frida Khalo—or even consider yourself an artist, for that matter—to start a fulfilling and productive sketchbook habit. Luckily, illustrator Steven Reddy has written a comprehensive guide, Every Sketching and Drawing: Five Steps to a Unique and Personal Sketchbook Habit, and of course, it’s beautifully illustrated with the author’s own sketches. Published by The Monacelli Press, the book is worth a read if you’re serious about adding a wide range of techniques and habits to your drawing arsenal—but we’ve gone ahead and pulled out some of the more salient tips to get you started. Here are five:


#1 There’s Always Time to Draw

The easiest way to neglect your sketchbook is to tell yourself you’re too busy to draw. But Reddy offers some tough love advice: if you have time to scroll Instagram and Facebook on your phone, watch t.v., or sit idly on a train during your daily commute, you have time for your sketchbook. And plus, keeping paper and a pen with you is an opportunity to turn times that ordinarily would be frustrating, into productive drawing time. “There are many times every day when we are forced to wait,” writes Reddy. “Waiting is an annoyance, a necessary evil to be endured. But think about it: we simultaneously complain about not having time, and then complain when time is forced upon us! On hold with the cable company or stuck in line at the post office? Do a drawing and have something to show for your precious time… With a sketchbook at hand, you can look forward to waiting.” Okay, so we’re not exactly chomping at the bit to head over to the DMV. But when we do, we know what we’ll be doing there!


#2 Perfection Is Not a Good Thing

If you’ve ever been tasked with hiring someone, you know that the stock answer to the interview question “What is your biggest weakness?” is “perfectionism.” But while perfectionism can seem like the ultimate humble brag, the truth is, it is rarely a good trait. It holds us back—especially when it comes down to creativity. Learning to let go of your drive to get everything “right” is one of the first steps in developing a sketchbook habit. Reddy recounts his own transformation: “It used to take me a long time to find just the right spot to draw. Everything had to be right: the lighting had to be just so, the scene had to have the right amount of detail. I’d scout around, rechecking a location like a dog circling its bed before settling down. I’ve learned to relax and dive in.” The beauty of sketching is that it can be done quickly—with just enough time to capture a broad scene with just a few details to catch the eye—or it can be done slowly if time permits. Either way, the goal is to use the allotted time to finish something, not to create a masterpiece. “There’s nothing to learn by staring at the marks you’ve already made. When time is up, the sketch is done. Let your mantra be: ‘Not perfect; finished.’”


#3 It’s Not About the Pen

In an entire chapter about materials, Reddy begins with a quote from artist Aleksander Titovets: “Oh, please do not ask me about what paints I use and which brushes I like! The art materials don’t matter because art is all about relationships and harmony, which can be achieved with any paints. What matters is how you use the materials.” We’ve all been in the drawing aisle of an art store, using whatever white surface we can find to test an endless variety of pens and pencils, looking for the perfect line thickness, felt tip, grip, etc. that will magically turn us into the drawers of our dreams. Let it go. Don’t obsess over having the perfect materials. Just start drawing and eventually you might find the need to expand your tool kit, but that comes later. That being said, there are a few things Reddy recommends starting with. Paper, pencils, erasers, and drawing pens are the basics, but if you’re going to practice the specific techniques outlined in Everyday Sketching and Drawing, you’ll also want to pick up some india ink, ink wash containers, water colors, brushes, and white ink pens. 


#4 Gather Some Junk

Now that you’re all prepped, it’s time to focus on what comes next: drawing! A great way to practice your skills is to set up still lifes. “Quickly gather some junk and dive in,” recommends Reddy. “Drawing has a lot in common with meditating and a still life can be like the candle you use to focus your attention. It takes commitment, sustained focus, and a desire to quiet your mind and deal with the present. Don’t confuse the objects in the drawing for the subject of the drawing. Whether you draw the content of your fridge, the interior of a coffee shop, or junk found at a garage sale, the subject of your drawing is your experience of that location and moment in time.”


#5 Draw What You See—Not What You Know

While drawing from still life can be a great way to hone your skills while having complete control over lighting and composition, we’re most likely to draw while we’re out and about in the world (like the DMV!). But when you’re drawing the world around you, it can be difficult to parse the subjects worth spending time on from the rest of the scene. How do you look at a park or a coffee shop and see where to draw your border, where to focus your attention? Reddy says, “When drawing a cluttered scene—or any scene—forget labels and simply see things as themselves, without the distracting and bent telescope of categories and utility. Look at the thing, whatever it is, without “knowing” or recalling anything about it, and record your observations as if seeing it for the first time, as a collection of lines of relative lengths and various levels of hue and saturation. If you draw what you see and not what you know (or think you know), you’ll produce a drawing that looks more like the object before you.” 


Whether you're an artist looking for a way to jot down ideas before you forget them, or your simply looking to start a visual diary to record your experiences, consider picking up a sketchbook—and check out Reddy's Everyday Sketching & Drawing for some very specific how-to-guides on techniques. Happy sketching!


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