Why Starting from Sketch is Key to Better Art

Georges Braque once said, “There is a great appetite to work, and then my sketchbook serves me as a cookbook when I am hungry.” Accomplished artist Liz Haywood-Sullivan explains how her artist sketchbook habit has fed her own creative appetite — and how it can feed yours, too. Here is why sketchbooks are key to better art. Enjoy!

The Artist Sketchbook Journey

I’ve just finished filling up another sketchbook, and it’s not unlike the feeling after finishing a good book. I’m sad to close its cover and put it on the shelf. It’ll rest with all the other sketchbooks I’ve filled over the years, providing documentation of my artistic journey and there to guide me when I need it. My sketchbooks are some of my most prized possessions. In an emergency, I’d grab them over any painting I’ve made. My sketchbooks speak to me, and I to them.
Photo of Liz Haywood-Sullivan with a pile of sketchbooks, courtesy of Michael Sullivan | Why Having an Artist Sketchbook is Key to Better Art | Artists Network
Keeping a sketchbook has been vital to my art practice, providing creative nourishment in many ways. (Photo courtesy of J Michael Sullivan)

The Advantage of Being Sketchy

The reasons to embrace an artist sketchbook practice are manifold. First, it’s a place to plan. Before I do anything else, I work out each of my paintings in a sketchbook — in simple shapes to start, then as a notan or value sketch. My sketchbooks don’t lie to me. If the painting doesn’t work there, I know it’s not going to get any easier on my easel. I also know my artist sketchbook is the one place I can always go to create. If I’m arguing with a painting (don’t we all), I can fall back on my sketchbook, because my drawings are always there for me. And any day spent drawing, no matter how small the sketch, is a good day.
Two sketchbooks, one for studio and one for workshop drawing, from Liz Haywood-Sullivan | Why Having an Artist Sketchbook is Key to Better Art | Artists Network
I keep at least two sketchbooks going at the same time. The larger one is for studio and workshop drawing. I carry the smaller one in my purse, taking it with me wherever I go. (Photo courtesy of J Michael Sullivan)

Drawing: The Thinking Medium

The artist’s soul is revealed in his or her drawings. Unlike paintings, they’re generally not created for the purpose of being seen by others. Instead, sketches are safe places to experiment and work out internal thoughts and ideas. Indeed, it seems a great privilege to look at artists’ drawings or unfinished paintings where an underlying sketch can be seen. There’s an honesty of expression and individual genius from the artist, unedited and pure. I recently visited two excellent museum shows dedicated to the art of drawing. No different than the rest of us, venerated artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Seurat, Degas and Matisse used drawing as a thinking medium, preliminary to painting.
Why Having an Artist Sketchbook is Key to Better Art by Liz Haywood-Sullivan | Artists Network
I use my sketchbooks to work out possible paintings by making value sketches, breaking down images into simple shapes and exploring various crops. (Photo courtesy of J Michael Sullivan)
They picked up their sketchbooks to explore ideas, make changes and wipe out elements that didn’t work. Henry Moore used drawing to experiment with sculpture ideas, as did Rodin — paper being a far more economical medium than clay or metal. An artist making a sketch creates freer marks, less precious or constrained. And yet, even in these drawings, his or her individual style is recognizable.

A Nudge of Encouragement

I’ve always used sketchbooks to write down my thoughts in words, my artistic struggles and musings, and my goals. I mark the start of every new year by noting observations of the past year and setting goals for the new one. I like to carry these words with me and revisit my old sketchbooks to see how I’m doing. They act as my own self-help books when I lose focus or perspective. Plus, when I go back a few years and see that I’ve accomplished some of my goals, it gives me an encouraging pat on the back. When I stray, the sketchbooks’ wisdom nudges me back on my chosen path.
Why Having an Artist Sketchbook is Key to Better Art by Liz Haywood-Sullivan | Artists Network
I use my sketchbook to work out a value range with water-soluble pigment, and to create a field study sketch with notes. (Photo courtesy of J Michael Sullivan)
Once, I revisited an old sketchbook created the year after I graduated from college. I was struggling mightily with growing up, lonely in my first apartment after a breakup, and contemplating a major move to a new, big city. Oh, my 20s! I wouldn’t relive them. But nestled among some doodles, I found a message that my surprisingly wise, younger self had written. At age 22, I had recorded what I wanted to do in my life. I wrote that I wanted “to help others, share and teach, and be known and respected in my chosen field.” Many years later, I was struck by how closely my life was following the trajectory set out by those words, and this affirming message continues to guide and sustain me today. I also find my sketchbooks offer an opportunity to revisit moments of inspiration. In researching images for this article, I came upon ideas for a painting that I was exploring several sketchbooks back. I don’t know why I didn’t pursue the painting at the time — perhaps I wasn’t yet ready — but all the original excitement came flooding back as fresh as when I first sketched the idea. I’m eager to see if its time has come.
Working on brown sketchbook paper creates a midtown value; photo by Michael Sullivan | Why Having an Artist Sketchbook is Key to Better Art by Liz Haywood-Sullivan | Artists Network
Created on the grounds of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, this drawing shows how I use the brown paper of the sketchbook as a midtone with highlights added in white gouache. My working on brown butcher paper goes back to my freshman year of art school, where I discovered my love for painting light. After several months of doing figural work using only charcoal, one day we were given white chalk as well. Instead of preserving the brown paper as the lightest value, it became the midtone, and I had this whole new range of exciting light values to explore. (Photo courtesy of J Michael Sullivan)

Two Books, Two Routines

I keep two working sketchbooks at all times. The smallest (3.5 by 5.5 inches) fits in my purse and is as invaluable to me as my wallet or cellphone, always at the ready. I prefer the landscape format hardcover artist sketchbook by Moleskine. The other sketchbook is larger (usually 9 by 12 inches) and used for workshops, travel and larger sketching. For this size, I prefer the Cachet Earthbound by Daler Rowney. I plaster them with bumper stickers and other travel mementos. This way each book ends up with its own personality. For drawing, I generally use a black Prismacolor pencil or a black Sharpie marker because my sketchbooks take a pretty good beating. I don’t want the drawings to smear or degrade as they would if drawn with charcoal or pencil. I also carry white gouache and a small brush to add highlights.
Why Having an Artist Sketchbook is Key to Better Art by Liz Haywood-Sullivan | Artists Network
For full-color sketching, I might use black marker with white gouache and watercolor. In general, I don’t use pastel, graphite or charcoal in my books, because they can smear. (Photo courtesy of J Michael Sullivan)
So, here I am again, and it’s time to start a new artist sketchbook. I wonder where my journey will take it. Or, perhaps I should rephrase: I wonder where its journey will take me.

About the Artist

Liz Haywood-Sullivan is an award-winning artist represented by Vose Galleries of Boston. She is the author of Painting Brilliant Skies and Water in Pastel. And, she has instructed several Artists Network Membership video workshops, including Composition Secrets: How to Plan a PaintingLandscape Painting in Pastel: Spring Greens and Landscape Painting in Pastel: Summer Waves, just to name a few. You can learn more about Liz Haywood-Sullivan by visiting her website.

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