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!

  1. Ulmogil

    The oppertunity to create, to make something your own, is fascinating to me. To be able to catch someones emotion with strokes that you put so much of yourself into is an amazing thing. That is what I love to draw. Feelings. You might not have a clear picture of the feeling, but you and the viewer will feel it, and some people might see it and interpret in another way, and that is the beauty of it. To be able to catch your own emotions on a piece of paper, or another persons feelings is a gift that blows me away. To be able to do that is something I am thankful for and something I will love till the day I die.

  2. jonesy1260

    I didn’t know this about Leonardo. Very interesting. I, in fact, write in code in my daily planner. I don’t know why I started, but I can’t imagine writing normally in it anymore. Lol. My sketchbooks are invaluable to me as well, as an artist. My thoughts, dreams, ideas, and experiments are all in them, making my the sketchbook my friend, in a sense.

    1. Marlene D. Williams

      I always enjoyed drawing and sketching and still do.I know and understand the divisions of the face; dimensions, planes, etc. I have trouble getting the correct likeness from live models. Photos don’t seem to present that problem, or at least not to a large extent. Any ideas?

      1. Marlene D. Williams

        Please forgive my shortstightedness. While lamenting about my lack of talent while sketching ,using a live model, I neglected to comment on my favorite subjects to sketch in order to enter to win the delightful pencils that were offered. All things hold a certain appeal to the artist, however I would say I most enjoy sketching faces! There are so many expressions, shadows, and shapes. One subject can offer 100’s of poses and expressions to delight and challenge.

  3. buffyb

    I began keeping sketchbooks in the ’70’s as part of my 7th grade art class. I let it fall by the wayside during my career and have recently started sketching again. My favorite subject to sketch is the landscape. Most especially beaches as storms roll in over the waters.

  4. Mafalda

    I love my journals and to make them using my favorite papers. I usually mix different papers to be able to experiment with a variety of mediums. I’m learning to draw and definetely good materials are very important to achieve the best results. Wonderful article as always!

  5. pastelpaint16

    This was an enjoyable article. Some if my favorite subjects to sketch are unusual things I see when I travel such as architectural ornamentation, sweater designs, and toys and gadgets. My sketchbooks become my journal and reference for inspiration.

  6. Karadavies

    I have always loved EVERYTHING ‘artsy fartsy’! I love drawing, painting, scrapbooking, and in the process of learning knitting. I love to learn new things all the time! I’m trying to expand my knowledge in the world of hobbies. I have many talents and would love to learn if I have even more. I am excited to be on this site for the firest time after purchasing my painting book. Thank you Hobby Lobby!

  7. leslieberg

    I have gotten out of the habit of carrying a sketch book and this article is a good reminder! I have gotten so used to using my camera to capture potential paintings that I loose some of the “real life” effect. Thanks for the kick start, I will take my book with me on my upcoming vacation and see what gems I can capture!

  8. LuvThisScrap

    I am new to painting and drawing, my favorite thing to sketch so far is wildlife and landscapes 🙂 Thank you so much for the chance to win some much needed supplies!!!!

  9. SeanHill

    I can’t just choose one style. I’d have to choose them all. I like being able to have a different sense of style as well. Enhancing my skills in one style isn’t what I’d call enjoyable, mixing it up a bit by combining styles together makes it stand out more.

  10. sandy karsten

    I learn so much from my grandkids who draw constantly with just a pencil. It is pure and with imagination and fantasy. i draw very tight and realistic – and would love to experiment being free in my drawing. I totally believe that practice makes perfect, Doing art everyday is good for the soul.

  11. Les

    Most days, I use my sketchbook as a way to relax since I use a computer all day. I make quick sketches of coworker or the buildings at work during the day. After work, I may stop and make landscape sketches on the way home or I will sketch my cats or the dog when I get home. The family really appreciates it when I take the time to do this. Changes my mood completely.

  12. Vicky

    I love to sketch my family as we are sitting on the deck in the spring and summer. This is especially great in the morning when I am having my coffee and the dogs are sun bathing with the light filtering through the trees. I use these sketches when I am determining my next oil paintings.

  13. Grinch

    I love to sketch animals, good with horses & birds. And also my visions, including skulls, dragons, skeletons; expressing my interpretation of events around me

  14. Hector Garcia

    I enjoy sketching fish, mainly saltwater species. Their shapes seem to just flow onto the page as they were flowing through the water. It’s a wonderful way to relax, and let go of the stress of the day.

  15. Mirian

    I love to sketch nature, especially tree trunks and its roots. Their shapes ,textures and values are fantastic. And each tree is unique.Rocks, leaves and flowers are also beautiful to sketch.

  16. Susan

    I have recently learned the benefits of a good value sketch when painting en plein air. One of the major challenges is how shadows change as the day progresses. It is vitally important to try to record the position and value of shadows while you are on site. That way, even when the sun’s position changes, you have recorded the shadows as they were at the start of your session. Also, a friend showed me a device consisting of a white ball, about 1″ diameter, mounted on a dowel, to observe how shadows appear when you start painting. I will sketch that little ball showing the shadows on it, for reference later as I paint.
    Sketching on-site before you begin to paint allows you to capture the feeling of the scene at that specific time, so that as the sun gets higher and shadows change, you can refer to your sketch for accurate information.
    A value sketch is also helpful in working out your composition. You can record the darks, mid-values and highlights for later reference. A friend suggested starting with gray paper – that way, you need only fill in the darks and the whites (the latter with a white pencil or crayon) to record the important values in your composition.

  17. sidecut10

    I love to sketch dogs in high detail, with every strand of fur in place, as stand-alone works of art, matted and framed. I have successfully done commissions of people’s dogs, and have brought the dog’s owner to tears. I also love to sketch and accurately shade trees, seascapes, and rocky streams, usually as a foundation for my watercolor paintings. I can combine various parts of sketches into a well balanced painting in that way, complete with a built in value study.