Sketchbooks Then and Now (Part 1) AND a Giveaway!

Editor’s note: The following post comes from Drawing magazine’s Material World column (Summer 2016) and features an article by Sherry Camhy on a timeless friend of the artist: the sketchbook.

Free art supplies |

Comment below to win this drawing set from Staedtler!

In addition to this free article, STAEDTLER is offering you the chance to win a set of FREE art supplies, just for commenting on this blog post! Tell us your favorite subject to sketch in the comments below, and you’ll be automatically entered to win. Here’s what’s included in the prize:

  • Set of 20 Mars Lumograph drawing pencils of assorted degrees for a wide range of gray tones with a metallic luster
  • Set of 6 Mars Lumograph black drawing pencils of assorted degrees with a higher proportion of carbon for the smoothness of graphite with the deep tones of charcoal
  • 2 art erasers: gum and kneadable

Come back soon for Part 2 of this article on sketchbooks from Drawing magazine and another chance to win more art swag!

Happy drawing,

Sketchbooks Then and Now |

French pocket sketchbook

Material World: Getting the Most out of Drawing Media

by Sherry Camhy, abridged from an earlier article

Today sketchbooks are everywhere—tucked in backpacks and carried under the arms of artists the world over. It’s easy to take for granted the existence of sketchbooks of all shapes, sizes and surfaces and hard to imagine a time when there were none at all. But throughout much of art history the possession of a sketchbook—or any kind of book, for that matter—was a rare privilege.

The evolution of the sketchbook can be considered as important a development for early artists as the invention of tubes for oil paint was for later ones. Both innovations liberated artists from the studio and freed them to work en plein air. Today artists, collectors and scholars have come to regard sketchbooks as works of art in their own right. Here we look at this sketching revolution and consider a few of the many ways sketchbooks can play a role in your art.

Sketchbooks Then and Now |

Reyer and the Washer Woman (ca. 1877, graphite, 20.5 x 27.5) by Edgar Degas. Collection J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Sketchbooks Throughout History

Drawing existed long before paper did, and early drawings were made on surfaces such as slate or wood tablets that could be cleaned and reused. The earliest sketchbooks were handmade and consisted of a few sheets of prepared boxwood, papyrus, vellum or parchment. In some cases, assorted drawings created by a master would be collected and bound together as a “model book” to be preserved as a reference for the next generation of artists. Eventually drawing books made of rag paper began to be produced, but for many years they were expensive and used sparingly.

During the Renaissance artists began to use personal sketchbooks for various purposes. Leonardo filled volumes with scientific speculations, anatomical drawings, quick sketches and notes for paintings. His private journals were intended as just that—private. Leonardo often wrote in code or reverse lettering to keep his observations secret. Unfortunately, after his death many of his journals were disassembled and sold as separate sheets. The books that were kept intact are invaluable, allowing us to discern the chronology of Leonardo’s ideas.

Over the ensuing centuries sketchbooks gradually became ubiquitous, and they have been crucial to the careers of innumerable artists. To take just one example, Picasso’s sketchbooks seem to have suited his occasional practice of semi-automatically repeating draw- ings, evolving them in such small increments that they can almost be viewed in rapid succession like a child’s flipbook. Picasso may have used this strategy when faced with a creative block, looking to find new ideas by rehearsing and perfecting old ones. His sketchbooks also indicate that his ideas did not necessarily fall neatly into the distinct stylistic periods suggested by some critics but instead flowed in a more cyclical way between old and new.

Technology now makes viewing master artists’ sketchbooks easier than it has ever been. Just like magic, we can flip through the pages of a master sketchbook on a computer, enlarging small areas to see them in great detail. For example, the Cambridge University Library allows free online access to the tiny watercolor sketchbook in which Conrad Martens worked while accompanying Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle. And this summer several of Degas’ sketchbooks can be digitally browsed at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, as part of the exhibition “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty.”

Come back to ArtistsNetwork soon for Part 2: Sketchbooks Today (and another chance to win new drawing supplies!) And, remember to comment below with your sketchbook confession for your chance to win this set of art supplies from Staedtler! Winner will be chosen February 13, 2017 (must be a US resident).

Free art supplies |

Comment below for your chance to win this set from Staedtler!

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206 thoughts on “Sketchbooks Then and Now (Part 1) AND a Giveaway!


    Love sketching while traveling, from car, bus or train, in waiting rooms, stopped for short time periods. My sketch book is a great reminder of where I have been and what I have seen.

    1. 135paint

      I love to sketch and paint human figures. Spending a lot of time in waiting rooms gives me that opportunity. Good sketching pencils make a big difference.

    2. Nevertooold

      I used to doodle a lot so a sketchbook makes me more productive. I can look back and reference older drawings and see where I need to improve. I like to draw either everyday household objects (spoons, cups, staplers. etc.) or birds for which I often use travel photos as references.

  2. monochrome

    A sketchbook has been part of my everyday life for the past 20 years. I cannot imagine being without one. Thank you for the opportunity to win these wonderful pencils.

  3. mebyrne57

    I am on the road all week as a salesman for a national company in the Pacific Northwest, so I plein air draw landscapes and seascapes, fast 5 minute drawings. I also carry a small watercolour set to sometimes add a little colour. I love the small easy to carry sketchbooks they make now, different colour papers and many great sizes to use. I do use a larger journal type book to draw and take notes in and have since art school but now only when I am working on planned pieces or have a lot of time.

  4. LannieK

    I live in a forest and it is full of things waiting to be sketched ~ from wildlife to fauna, there is beauty everywhere. Thanks for a chance to win this set! More pencils 🙂

  5. onmyown

    I’ve used n love Staedtler products for years. I carry a small sketch book in my purse at all times.
    I use it for thumb nail sketches. For both plein aire n especially for thumb nail sketches of photos.

  6. ncgabler

    My intrigue in sketching and drawing is observing a person in an activity which takes up their entire focus and concentration and possibly emotion and capturing that in my sketch and drawing. I may not have always had the ‘correct’ pencil or tool to make this capture, yet the scene may move me where it’s the person in their activity and serenity and joy in the scene which to me is the most important and inspiring. Am grateful for this ability from my brain to my hands to the paper. Thank you : )

  7. oldschool72

    I have been sketching subway riders
    on the New York trains for 20 years.
    Awake,asleep the subjects are unlimited .
    Good pencils are a must .

  8. LBGoldman

    I’ve been sketching since childhood, primarily with pencils, and in college was introduced to using drafting pens also. My sketchbooks travel with me to capture drawings of trees, plants, landscapes, the sky, waiting rooms, and the stage and audience at live performances.

  9. babdu

    Sketchbooks always seem a bit to precious. Still I just bravely did a Zentangle® in a bound sketchbook and feel that now I can just go forward and draw in it all the time.

  10. ArtSci

    I like to challenge myself with extreme closeups of everyday objects. If I draw well enough I might remember what I was drawing a year later. Sometimes I draw polyhedral dice from RPGs for practice then transform them into something else.

  11. The Fox

    I am an art professor, and teach drawing. I love to sketch and make my students keep a sketchbook, which I check every week. I love Staedtler products, especially the graphite 925
    Mechanical pencil! Sketching soothes the soul!

  12. Laurinmc

    I love sketching the interior of restaurants in which I am eating, whether it is the ceiling fans at Galatoire’s in New Orleans or the fireplace at my favorite small restaurant in the Val D’orca of Tuscany. These sketches bring back memories of wonderful experiences and delicious meals and are sometimes the inspiration for a painting.

  13. Catpainter472

    I love my small (purse size) gray sketchbook and, black, gray and white pencils for on the go sketches in a heavy ziploc bag. That and my Android’s camera are perfect tools for an artist on the go.Would upgrade to a larger purse to accommodate this great set!

  14. kittle

    I always sketch before I paint. It really helps organize the painting for me.
    I sketch landscapes for paintings , but I really love sketching animals more than anything,
    from pets to animals I have seen at the zoo & wildlife from photos.
    I am amazed at some of the sketches I have seen from other artists !

  15. Naomi

    Sketchbooks for me are a place to practice, keep my fingers and mind busy by drawing what’s in front of me (especially in waiting rooms), try different materials, and even write myself notes. I’ve also noticed that showing others my less-than-perfect art in a sketchbook gives them permission to “play” with art as well.

  16. prv

    Drawing is the foundation of art, so having better tools like sketchbooks (physical and digital) are essential to observe the world around us and develop our drawing skills. Then we can progress to developing our composition skills and experimenting with thumbnails to try out new ideas, We grow to use different media: graphite/charcoal to pastels and watercolor. We can even develop sculptural ideas before we commit to the time and expense of realizing our vision in its full splendor. We can hope others will appreciate our process as well as the final work as much as we did creating it. This is the power of a sketch- it unfetters our imagination just as a prayer does.

  17. Ssimonta

    I have been learning more recently about the importance of the sketchbook as a learning tool for artists. At 54 years of age I discovered drawing. I love how one can lose oneself in art. It’s become a form of meditation for me. Thank you for this informative article, and the opportunity to receive a jumping off point for a budding artist!

  18. silent_samurai

    Usually my sketchbook is used to do thumbnails and flesh out ideas in small scale. Sometimes it’s to write down ideas that come to me, at other times I like drawing what I see. It’s really just a matter of what’s striking me to pick up my graphite at the moment.

  19. intothehu

    I hadn’t sketched since I was younger, but recently started again. I love to sketch out in the mountains of North Carolina, so many beautiful things to choose from, including nature, wildlife and long range vistas. I’ve also been using my sketching to do value studies prior to starting a painting. My new FAVORITE pen for line and wash paintings is a Staedtler waterproof pigment liner. I love this pen. Thank you!

  20. jba

    When I drift away from sketching on a daily basis, I find my drawing skills begin to elude me. It’s something I enjoy, and need to practice at the same time…

  21. ShellyHY

    Thank you for this! My favourite subject to sketch are animals. I run an animal rescue- so there are always cats and dogs to draw. I also love to sketch outdoors- birds, squirrels and chipmunks are fun and never stay still for long so it’s a good challenge!

  22. dkillebrew

    I love to sketch urban scenes with people in them. I carry a couple of sketchbooks and several pencils and pens at all times. Thanks for the history article Steadler!

  23. embedded_guy

    Great article. I like seeing sketchbooks, offers a glimpse in the artists mind without the confinement of having a piece out in the public for others to critique. I like drawing cityscapes as little snapshots of memories while traveling and people as well.


    It’s finally become clear in my artwork–if I use my sketchbooks, what I do actually does eventually become reflected in my art! I’m finally a believer in the value of journals and sketchbooks!