Sketchbooks- a piece art in it’s own right?

I recently delivered a workshop entitled The Magic of Sketchbooks. I enjoyed researching the sketchbooks of famous artists – Henry Moores’s Sheep Sketchbook is a joy. Van Gogh’s letters, Picasso’s myriad of books. I still cherish the wonderful catalogue of ‘Je Suis le Cahier’ by Picasso. Then there are the drawings of Monet, Eardley, Smithson, De Stael and so many others. Pure magic. I loved sharing my examples and thoughts about these. We went on to examine ways of using these drawings in practical ways – working out a composition, referencing shapes, colours and textures. Just developing ideas. There seemed to be so many methods of putting the information gathered to good use when moving on to a painting.

Visual aids on my Workshop.
BUT there are many artists who eschew the use of a sketchbook and launch straight into a painting. Lucian Freud swore he never drew first. And actually gave up drawing at all for ten years. Then I remembered my teaching years when I had to cajole Year 10 and 11 students to do the statuary ‘2 sheets of Preparatory work before their ‘Finished Piece’. Many found this impossible and we would simply do the required preparatory work in retrospect, choosing images which loosely looked as though they came first. Such an unnecessary, soulless occupation.I wonder how many creative spirits were thwarted by these senseless rules? But that’s education for you – constant changing the goalposts and to hell with creativity and intuition!Don’t get me on that soapbox!

My Thursday group and I visited a beautiful spot by the River Stour last week with our sketchbooks. This week I planned to talk to them about how they could use their sketches. So in preparation I diligently began using my own few sketches. I had concentrated on a lovely spot where a small glade of trees made a dark mysterious canopy with a view through to a sunlit bank of the river. Looking at a couple of drawings and one blurred photo of this scene I began a small painting. It was awful and did nothing to capture the atmosphere of the view. Only when I let go of the drawn information and thought myself back into the space did I come close to the image I had planned in my head. I realised that although it was imperative to have had the experience of being there and even of attempting to record the view, ultimately it was the feeling of being there that mattered. Drawing it simply imprinted the visual impression on my brain to be recalled in combination with the emotions and sensual experience of the place.

So I am now revising my ideas about sketchbooks. I still love them for the visceral intrusion into an artists mind….how can you not be moved by looking at van Gogh’s little drawings in letters to his brother Theo? But as reference for subsequent paintings they are not necessarily useful and can even inhibit expression.

I shall continue to keep my sketchbooks and to use them for thoughts, images, recording moments in my life and various other purposes but as an adjunct to paintings they are not the most useful tool, I have concluded.Many of my older sketchbooks are diaries or visual journals already. Some sketchbooks are simply pieces of art in their own right and maybe this is their best function.

Just some of my visual journal notes from Australia and Dorset.