I’ve been thinking about sketchbooks. They are beautiful things, well they can be. I love the paraphernalia of them, the elasticated straps that hold them in place, the endpapers, the red ribbons that save a page. I like them small, pocket-size, hand-size and with hard backs and curved corners. They need to be books, proper books, not spiral pads. Books, always. I trawl for the best ones. Moleskines are a favourite, the black ones with thick watercolour paper. And I’m currently trying Pith and Arteza, though the latter is unreliable with supplies. I need lots. I like the restrictions they pose on the size and composition of drawing. All that possibility for white space.
I remember the first time I came upon the National Gallery’s collection of Turner’s sketchbooks. They were in a cabinet, under glass, obviously, but opened up. It was the intimacy of them – the curled edges, the fraying ribbons, the ragged covers, the spots of paint, the pencil marks begun but unfinished, the flooding of colour onto the next page, the rush of thought, the thrill of ideas, of composition, tried and failed – they were glorious. Are glorious. Then I came upon Hockney’s, not in the flesh, sadly but courtesy of the internet. What a joy. There’s even a video of him turning the pages. If he begins a drawing and can’t finish it, or is distracted, he leaves the marks alone and turns the page. And there they are left, and just as important as the successes. Marks on a white page (off-white is preferred – that glaring blue-white of cheap paper is akin to mass-produced cotton – let it be tinged with yellow, with cream like the true Egyptian variety) with all that room to breathe, just perfect. And it’s his confidence, the way he uses the shape of the book, the layout, the opening and the closing to frame his responses, some quick, some more laboured. You would never separate them from the other pages, the binding. They belong to the containment.
When I first saw them I was almost sick with awe. What’s the point? I thought. Now, I see more clearly. Learn from them. Learn.