As my own approach to painting abstract art has changed over the last year, this has left me wondering where sketchbooks fit in with the whole picture…
If sketchbooks help to plan alternatives, test compositions and colours, how does this fit in with a process where all that discovery, that excavation, happens on the canvas itself during the process of painting?
I wrote about this in my recent newsletter (would you like to get the next one? you can sign up here ) and how my short trip to Valencia ended with lots of new experiences, but empty sketchbook pages. Jean Davey Winter messaged me “this is just so relevant to me at the moment. I’ve just got back from Cuba where I had planned to do lots of sketchbook work and came back with next to nothing…apart from photos, memories and a feeling that I now need to process this sensory overload both visually and mentally!”
Jean originally trained in printed textiles and has been course leader of a BA Hons Fine Art programme so you would think she is well placed to avoid sketchbook angst, but it seems it gets to us all! But for abstract artists where work is not representational, what do you actually put in those pages and how do you use them to inform your work?
Jean says “these are all from an A6 sketchbook – a size I really enjoy working in. None of them ended up as larger paintings – but I do find I can free up and be more inventive when I’m working in a sketchbook – just frustrating that it doesn’t happen in quite the same way when I get onto a larger canvas…”
“these are ways of thinking about compositions – this is sometimes helpful, especially as a starting point, but the problem is when I come to translating what I like about a line drawing into a painting the whole thing obviously changes completely.”
Line is immediate. It’s a direct and subtle translation of how you interpret what you see and over time your own personal language of mark making emerges. But as preparations for paintings it sucks. It can be almost misleading… it just delineates form without any information about the relative tonal density of the areas. We both agreed that adding tone or colour afterwards then just feels like colouring in!
If we break down the elements of design (and consequently any image on a flat plane) perhaps this helps:
Once you refocus on these, it doesn’t really matter what your subject matter is – there is plenty there to get you going. Colour alone can be a lifetime of exploration and understanding.
Add in other design principles like balance, proportion, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, rhythm, variety, harmony, and unity and you have a full tool box of potential.
Ideas come from mysterious places; they can well up without warning.
One thing I have noticed is how often an idea begins in the pages of a sketchbook and then stays hidden. I may be working on something and then suddenly see recognisable fragments emerge from a note I first made many years previously.
Or the opposite happens: the pages shown here I made one day, seemingly at random and then later I looked back through my photo roll and noticed the shapes and colours within this image of Dartmoor. Later in the week I was waiting for the children at the climbing centre and took this photo: the yellow against the dull green, the glowing light against the grey, the fine lines of the netting next to the smooth dark grey.
All these elements link together and could be the basis for an abstract painting. Can we define what the source is? Who knows! Does it even matter?
Making connections between the outside world and our inner reaction to it is what abstract art is about for me. That need for exciting variety and times of calm reflection which is essential both for art and within life.
Having an ongoing sketchbook practice can be so helpful as a way to allow ideas the time they need to emerge; if you are looking for ways to reinvigorate your own work how about these tips…
think about separating out and exploring the different design elements. Maybe you just want a mark-making book to explore different mediums, maybe you do want to practice your life drawing or create a book around still life and abstract shapes? Mix and match or have one book for each practice.
Find a medium which works for you
I’m currently loving collage, but anything which has a low barrier to getting started is good – coloured pencils, different pens, pan gouache can all be great
It’s Ok to have some downtime
It’s not a race. Ideas can develop slowly or in a rush but often when you’re NOT thinking directly is when the best, or most distilled ideas come to you. There are many who advocate daily practice and while this can be great ti get you out of a rut, it can also end up making you feel forced and disengaged. Go with the flow instead.
Using your phone to take photos still counts. You are raising your visual awareness and making selections as you photograph. Even if you then delete them all! Jean: This is why with the colour ones I tried working from a photo on the computer screen, trying to simplify and look at shapes/colours and marks.
Sketchbooks can also be places for words. I’m amazed at how much writing helps me to formulate my ideas and I do more writing now than at any tie in my life, but that’s a subject for another day!
If you are a creator I’d love to hear how you use your own sketchbooks. If you are an art collector do you enjoy seeing in to artists’ books? Please leave a comment below or add a photo over on this Facebook post.
On Instagram you can follow my studio practice and sketchbook pages here, or see more of Jean’s ongoing process here where she is currently sharing photos of her Cuba journey and loving the vibrancy of the new colour palette.
Thank you Jean for our conversation and for sharing your work with us 🙂
I have been following you on Instagram for a bit and hopped over here to read this post. I thought I could share what I do in my sketchbooks. Maybe it will add to the conversation.
I started as a representational painter and learned how to take observational color notes out in the field. When I transitioned to hard edge geometric designs, I transferred that color observation practice to my new work. Those ideas are in my sketchbooks as “color swatches” or written notes. I also cut and paste different ideas, mostly snippets of poetry or writing that I find to be insightful. Those ideas turn up in my work as titles or as the impetus for beginning a new piece. The general concept expressed gets translated to colors or shapes. And the most basic things that I record, such as the date, the weather, what I may have done that day in the studio or even how my health is, all become a long term record that I can draw on later. Oh, and I also do line drawings with basic tonal marks-I use a black pen, or colored pens or sometimes even artist grade crayons-and these drawings are a way to record what I may have seen. They are practice to so I can continue to convince myself that I have some drawing ability:)
You may have also alluded to this idea of recreating spontaneous marks found in your sketchbooks into current work and how things quickly change to something else entirely. I have found this to be very true too. Something about dipping into the same river twice.
Thank you for asking for input in your post. I hope my response is OK and I am curious to read any other feedback that you receive.
Thanks for your great comment Elizabeth – I wanted to hop over and check out your work before I replied. The transition between what you describe into your finished work is amazing. Sometimes I wonder if sketchbooks are there just to get things ‘out of the way’ so we can concentrate on the real essence of what we want to do! I can see how important the colour is to you – I often draw with just line and make written colour notes, but find my words are inadequate. Sometimes that’s helpful because it’s another step of interpretation, but sometimes I wish I had more consistent colour language. That’s why I use magazines in combination with mixing colours – because it’s another way to be prompted by what you see…