Tag Archive for: sketchbook

It’s just so good to take yourself to new places and get new stimulus. Sometimes we have to be responsible for filling our own idea ‘pots’ but it can also be great to be led by others.

I’ve really enjoyed three days in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales taking a course with Lewis Noble at Jack Beck house. He was very open with how he uses his sketchbooks to gather ideas which sometimes become leads for new paintings.

Watch and see what I will take away and incorporate into my own practice going forward.



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?

inspiration for abstract artist Alice Sheridan

Valencia graffiti and the sketchbook pages I worked on in the following week

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?

abstract art sketchbook

mark making by Jean Davey Winter

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…”

composition drawings in the sketchbook of Jean Davey Winter

“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:
• point
• line
• space
• color
• texture

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…

Be selective

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.

Use technology

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 🙂


It seems as soon as I have a rhythm to my day, it changes!  When I first started painting again when my children were younger I found the day could so easily get swallowed up with the luxury (? I know! ) of doing domestic tasks in peace and quiet…

These days I try to be more disciplined about making time for what’s important to me.

School days start too early for me; the alarm goes off at 6:30am. After a good breakfast and the children have left for school I may have a browse on Instagram to see new posts from people I follow in the US. I know wise advice is not to get sucked into social media early in the day, but I find it inspiring and joyful to be connected with so many creative people all over the world. When I began painting again it felt quite isolating, working alone with no adult conversation, so discovering this amazing online connection really does make a huge difference to my life.

Ten years ago I was suffering from depression. I had stopped my career in graphic design when my son was born prematurely and I wanted to be at home with him and then my daughter. Despite good friends, I still felt like I had lost myself. Going back to life drawing classes was such a great way to get absorbed in a creative activity.

We live in London and most mornings begin with walking our dog; one morning we have a dog walker so I can have a longer working day and one morning is a pilates class I’ve been going to for 14 years. Being outside wakes me up; nature inspires but even walking down the same street I notice colours in brick work, or light coming through the slats of the underpass can be rather beautiful. Noticing all these ‘visual sparks’ is what I love about making art. I take far too many photos, and usually delete them, but they are somehow in my visual memory bank and I’m surprised at how they resurface in my work.

It’s usually around 11am when I go up to the studio; a room on the top floor of our house. Of course, a huge studio would be heaven, even a sink would be good, but having space at home means I can dip and out more easily, even with short patches of time. The space has evolved with basic furniture, I used to have a large sheet of plywood as a desk, but last Autumn that became flooring and I fitted a false wall with a series of nails so that I can position and move around larger panels. It works well and helps me visualise how paintings will look hanging together. I tend to work in series and one can often inform the other.

Before I begin I may spend time looking at work I did yesterday, or writing in my studio diary as I find this helps me identify what to work on. Putting ideas into words really helps me clarify what I’m trying to do next. Other times I may work in my collage sketchbook, but I’ve found this often goes in waves… idea generating and sketchbook work over the holidays or working to make the paintings during school term.

Usually I listen to the radio – I enjoy the sense of other people working ‘live’ alongside me – sometimes a music station and sometimes BBC talk Radio 4 with it’s mix of factual programmes or plays which take my mind into another place.

Depending on what time I began I may stop for lunch or just keep going. My painting day ends with a bump at 4pm when the children arrive home and it’s definitely time for a cup of tea. The usual round of homework, laundry and cooking follows although I’m often now also trying to do other art related tasks – scanning images, tweaking the website, copying images for a blog post.

This business side of marketing your own art is hugely time consuming, but I enjoy the learning side of it, although the tech can drive me crazy! Often my husband comes home to find me growling at some piece of software or other which isn’t doing quite what it should. I’d like to be able to switch out of work mode, but that seems hard to do at the moment.

When the children were younger there was a more clearly defined routine – and we had an evening… now I’m usually the first to bed. Either with a good novel, but these days just as often it’s a business book or artist biography. I’ve just finished reading Clear Seeing Place by Brian Rutenberg which is about his life as an artist, and is full of wise insights about facing your creative challenges.

Ultimately that’s what I love about making art. It forces you to confront things. No one can paint this painting but you. If you procrastinate the only loss is your own work, and probably no one else would care. But when you DO make it clear, and make creativity your priority, the joy of seeing completed paintings hanging and knowing you made them, is just wonderful. And when you see that transfer to other people – so much that they want to live with your work, it’s an honour – and a responsibility I think.

During holidays we often spend time in Dartmoor – a rugged area of national park in SW England. The landscape is wild, rocky and open and I find it exhilarating! What I think I’m trying to do in my work is mix this sense of space and changing weather with the busy impact of city life. In the run up to an event there will also be taking the work to the photographer, testing print samples, arranging framing, writing and printing labels. I also keep an eye out for submissions and forward plan for event deadlines. I think many people think I just mess round with paint, but it’s a whole life of thought and emotion which goes into making art but I see this as a ‘rest of my life’ job and I’m not in a hurry.

Alice Sheridan working in her London studio

This article was first published as guest post for CYL collective in March 2017




Summer is sketchbook time for me – a time to re-stock the pages which can be the starting point for so many ideas.

I enjoy essential time away to become absorbed in a drawing and the feeling of working on something with no judgement on the outcome. This year I’m trying to avoid drawing straightforward landscape views and push towards a slightly different way of working. In a way it’s bringing in the sense of exploration and discovery at an earlier stage.


Capturing the colours of Dartmoor

Constructing spaces…

In my recent paintings I have taken a freer approach and made a loosely constructed landscape by building layers of mark making. It’s a flow between playful exploration, which can feel out of my comfort zone at times, and then a more considered phase to ensure it works together.

To and fro; the whole approach involves more precise analytical thinking and instinct working together.

I don’t begin with a literal view of a place in mind so I’m changing the way I work in sketchbooks to try and reflect this. This means fewer drawings of places and more arrangements using collage and drawings which just explore the way marks and colours interact:


Every so often something happens which waves a small flag at me and I think this drawing may have been one. I had been out all day and was feeling frustrated that it all felt rather predictable, nothing new. It was windy, I was hungry but I wanted something else from this view. I was sitting high on a tor looking across the valley and the light kept changing as the clouds blew across. I just wanted to capture the sense of space and the small shapes of fields as the sunlit caught them. “Analyse – be precise! What is it you are drawing this for?”


And there it was… something sort of fresh and different. Using restrained colour like this in small segments is new for me; not describing the view all over, but just in highlighted areas.

Sometimes I find colour can be too dominant, especially in a quick drawing. This more minimal way of adding colour reminders could be helpful. Untouched ares of the page become part of a drawing but painting will bring a different challenge as untouched spaces can just feel forgotten – there needs to be enough interest throughout, but without becoming overly ‘busy’.  I’m not sure what this will lead to, but while I enjoy the rest of the best of British sunshine I’m also itching to get back to the paints to see!


Mixed media sketchbook – Alice Sheridan

This week I have been looking again at the sketchbook work of Barbara Rae * – if you don’t know her work you are in for a treat!

Barbara Rae sketchbook Bay at Roy Well 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Bay at Roy Well 2003

Which materials are right for the job?

Finding the right materials to work in sketchbooks can be a search. It’s all part of developing your process and also being aware of what information you want to record; what will help you decipher what you are seeing into a form that will be helpful later on. Pencils are immediate and easy, but I noticed that I tend to draw with line work – fine for developing mark making but sometimes not so good for colour or tone. For a while using watercolour has worked well for me; no fiddly lids, quick to mix and using alongside water soluble media has been my go-to sketchbook medium of choice.

However, I’m coming out of a spell of painting and watercolour suddenly feels too fluid and transparent. Possibly lacking a density and boldness which is what I rely on the other materials to bring.

An artist not afraid to experiment

Barbara Rae sketchbook Autumn Vines Oppeole 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Autumn Vines Oppeole 2010

Density and boldness are certainly two words you could use to describe Barbara Rae’s sketchbooks; filled with strong, bright drawings done on location. She shies away from the description of landscape painter, but the importance of place and sense of location is very apparent in her work which often includes human impact on landscape in the forms of furrows or fencing. She works across multiple disciplines: large scale paintings and big, energetic monoprints. Scotland and Spain are favourite locations and the colours which vibrate upwards from the land are clearly visible and she is skilled at finding unusual and surprising combinations.

Barbara Rae sketchbook Kerry 2008

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Kerry 2008

Barbara Rae sketchbook Ceide 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Ceide 2003

Barbara Rae sketchbook Fence at Dounpatrick 2002

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Fence at Dounpatrick 2002

To give you an idea of scale, her sketchbooks are usually A4 and she works in two at once to give the pages time to dry. Working outside, often in wild or hot conditions she uses watercolour alongside acrylic and combines drawn marks in charcoal, chalk, pastel. She has used wine to mix paint instead of water….(I’ve been caught out with this before, but I tend to have a flask of tea – I clearly need to up my beverage game!)

Barbara Rae Tomato plants Robion 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Tomato plants Robion 2010

A few years ago I visited a London gallery which was showing Barbara’s work and bought the book of her sketchbooks (currently the best link to buy). The gallery owner said she had just nipped out to get a sandwich but would be back soon if I wanted to wait and have it signed… no further invitation needed! She was supremely encouraging, as you may expect from someone who has taught for many years, and thoroughly down to earth. What impressed me most was her continued enjoyment of her materials, an experimental approach to her art practice – she was then incorporating nail varnish within her artwork to bring a degree of luminescence.

All of sudden, using gouache seems rather tame!

Barbara Rae sketchbook Aultbea 2010

Barbara Rae sketchbook: Aultbea 2010

* Barbara Rae was born in 1943 and awarded a travel scholarship in 1966 which boosted her love of location drawing. She was elected President of the Society of Scottish Artists in 1983. She was made a Member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1992 (ARSA 1980) and a Royal Academician in 1996.  In 1999 she was awarded a CBE. Rae lives and works in Edinburgh.

All artworks copyright Barbara Rae – you can view a complete PDF of 228 images from her website


This is the week that spring has sprung! Walking on Monday morning the sunshine was welcome on my face and it made realise just how long it had been since I had felt that warm glow – and how GOOD it felt!

Funny, how sometimes we don’t know what we are missing until we get reminded about it.

Kandinsky quote colour influence soul

I headed off on Monday (an extra leap year day!) to see an exhibition at the Mall Galleries. The exhibitions there are admittedly not the most cutting edge, but they are usually open submission shows from various art societies with different judges on the selection panel so they offer a broad range of current work, on a sensible scale that you may actually want in your home.

Yellow tape marks and gridThe current exhibition was for The Pastel Society. I may have been a bit abrupt and dismissed pastels as grannyish. Pastel vases flowers? No thanks! But recently I have found that I’ve been using them more in drawings and sketchbooks  in combination with other materials (more next week…) so I wanted so see what was going on in pastel land. I spotted maybe three artists whose work I particularly enjoyed, but three is enough to prompt some new ideas and wake me up to the possibilities. My mistake about pastels. Love making mistakes like this!



IMG_7031As I walked afterwards through London in the sunshine (always a treat!) I was just wandering towards an art supply shop and taking a few photos of things that caught my eye; these taped yellow markings on the windows of a construction site – warnings? Stars, in a row, but all different….





IMG_7047Later in the week I joined an Instagram challenge following a word prompt each day and on Thursday it was “yellow” . Noticing; that’s what it’s all about; once I knew I was on the look out for yellow I saw it everywhere… my image for that day was the soft yellow against the white stripe of brickwork. Sun over a built horizon? Random additions to a man made structure…

I even recognised that yellow had been with me all week, in the images I had captured previously. Making these visual links, and seeing how they surface, often a while later, is one of the great joys of making art.

Looking at art makes you see things in a new way. So here is my yellow story of the week: sunshine, abstract shapes, small flashes of colour in my urban environment, and highlights of yellow and blue in the current early stages of work on the easel. Watch out for the sunshine – it makes you feel great!!

On the easel Alice Sheridan

To keep up with regular images you can catch me on Instagram here.

If you like the look of this work in progress, make sure you are first to know when finished work goes on sale by joining for studio updates below:

I wonder if any artists know in advance how their painting will look at the final outcome? I certainly don’t and as I start this new year I’m even more unsure of the direction my work is going… but perhaps with a stronger vision of what I’d like to achieve. Does that even make sense?

There is an elusive idea of a constructed landscape: something that feels wild, that has a sense of place, of open-ness and freedom. But that is also constrained and within boundaries.

So as I settled in the studio for the first time in a while it was hard to get going. It can be tricky, almost impossible, to just pick up a brush and paint, unless you are painting a specific scene or still life. For me there is a longer processing journey – down through the layers away from original drawings.

blue collage book Alice Sheridan

If it is brave to lay your finished artwork open for criticism and judgement, it feels even braver to share when even you yourself cannot yet determine the direction. Imagine publishing an unedited book, or a play without rehearsal. And yet to follow ideas as they come into fruition is a fascinating glimpse into the process.

I’ve discovered that allowing myself to be one step removed can be a gentle way in, so I was using torn sections from old drawings, enlarged photocopies of drypoint prints and newspaper to create some strcutures in my collage sketchbook.

blue horizon collage sketchbook Alice Sheridan

blue collage landscape Alice Sheridan

Collage feels comfortable – maybe because you can play with the options before you make the final decision where to place your elements. Possibly my background as a graphic designer means that this method of layout feels more natural to me than building up a painting does. As I was adding and removing I was conscious not to overload, to keep the arrangement simple.

As I posted on Instagram I made a comment about the distinction between creating and curating. For me they are two very different parts of the process; one is semi-automatic; your training takes over, you draw through instinct. What emerges can be surprising and exciting.  And yet constantly you are also analysing, making decisions and editing. Any piece of artwork is as much about what you choose to leave out as much as what you decide to include – being selective. It’s the combination of creating and curating that takes us somewhere new.

Find me on Instagram here and I’d love to hear you views on this below!

Shaking things up is a great way to inject some new energy. Over the last year I have fallen into the habit of using smaller sketchbooks; usually ones that fit into the pocket of a waterproof jacket. So I deliberately bought a large sketchbook to expand the scale of marks and to challenge myself. This one is A3 with a soft cover and only 20 pages so it will fill quickly.

I find that my art practice is a constant struggle between wishing I had a more consistent process and being aware that too much consistency can easily lead to a habit and predefined way of working. My fear is that if my work becomes routine, the drawing loses freshness and I become an art-robot. No thank you!

The idea is to have a place to play and explore. To mix different media in a free-form way of drawing that is not about representing a place but that is led by the materials and listen to my instinct about what to do next.

BW sketchbook pink

I began with charcoal. My plan was to keep colour out and restrict myself to just black and white. Well, that didn’t last long as you can see! This page used willow charcoal and gesso which was whiter than the off-white of the page. I was thinking of branches and hedges in the mist. After the smudgy softness I needed some more precision and drawing the harder marks with charcoal and colour pencil let me create some focus and movement across the page.

BW sketchbook ochreWith this page I started using paint and my fingers so there was contrast between the texture and the trails of charcoal.

I’m finding that these are a good way to warm up at the start of each studio session. Almost like a mind-clearing meditation.

They have no purpose; no end result. It will be interesting to see what emerges.







Daler A3 softcover – click to buy online

UPDATE: Many of you have got in touch to ask about which sketchbooks I use. For these kind of exercises I use fairly cheap soft cover books. I like to fill them fairly quickly and move on! The paper in these stands up well with a nice surface for drawing and for taking paint. 

You can find them here. 

If you expect ‘being creative’ is the same as being productive you are expecting too much.

Part of the process is simply a conscious awareness. An awareness of surroundings and influences so that you choose which of these are relevant and which you will draw into your work. I have been out of the studio this week as it has been half term. We have spent part of the time in Devon and as result my mental colour palette has been changing.

Recently I have been working on series of paintings for our upcoming Spring Show which use brighter colours than usual – lots of warm oranges and pinks in amongst the landcape colours. This series isn’t complete yet (I know, I know; artists and deadlines…!) and I’m looking forward to getting back to them.

B365create_014ut February in Dartmoor is not known for tropical warmth so my days recently have been more like this…. Beautiful misty greys and greens, sometimes shot through with a bolt of yellow as the sun breaks through, sometimes punctuated by a rich rusty orange of a remaining winter berry nestled in the deep green of a hedge. These are more my kind of colours!

Is this because I’m an English girl of the English landscape? I’m not sure – I grew up in inner London and we can notice and pick up whatever colours we like from our surroundings. Yet, just as we have favourite colours to wear or to decorate out homes, we are often drawn towards a certain grouping.

So, back in London yesterday, as I set out for my daily dog walk I thought I would try and spot some of my favourites – to be aware and notice which colours from the February landscape could also be spotted in an urban environment. It was the kind of gPhotowalk Alice Sheridan #365createrey foreboding sky I quite like and as I walked and snapped away, I realised why. I love brights and I love sludgy but it’s the combination of both together that makes things zing.

The dilapidated walls of an acqua tiled underpass, the orange metal crane reaching into the sky above the buildings, the colours of lichen against the greyish bark and stone.

All these could make wonderful colour combinations for a painting and might at some stage. Who knows? No need to decide right now.

I have used this photographic process of recording visual ideas, like a sort of immediate sketchbook, for a while now. Sometimes I back them up and store them in folders on my computer, but often they just act as a signal for what it is interesting to me at the moment. Like a signpost pointing me in the right direction. Noticing what crops up or repeats time and time again is a good clue – if we take the time to notice.

Pin this idea for later

This was Day 20 of my #365create project. Not every day is full of creative output;some days are more reflective.

You can read more about it here, but if you like the idea and would like to see where it leads why not join my newsletter list below?



Almost a decade ago I was a frustrated artist. At home with two small children I just never had the time to pursue what I wanted, and I couldn’t see anyway I could make it possible. It was simply beyond the realm of my possibilities; no time for life drawing classes or location drawing for inspiration.

I had never even heard of Prunella Clough, but I found myself absorbed in her sketchbooks in her first retrospective at the Tate gallery in 2007. It is a rare and treasured insight into an artist’s world to see their sketchbooks and development of ideas. What was unusual about her way of working was that she didn’t do location drawings either. Instead she wrote; descriptions of colours and sounds, using words to build a picture and tell a story of the details of the scene before her. In combination with photographs and tourist postcards, these descriptions of colour and atmosphere were her starting points once she returned to her studio.

Looking back, I can find no record of her family life. In my mind this was her way of dealing with time restrictions, but her personal life was discreetly private. Perhaps she just hated sitting in the cold.

I remember a distinct sense of release in recognising that there was no one ‘right’ way to gather your ideas, or visual reference.

It didn’t matter if I didn’t have time to sit and do drawings in the field. Any way that I could think of could be a starting point. No one else needed to know or approve my process. That was something I could work out however suited me best.

Prunella Clough, ‘Cooling Tower II’ 1958

Cooling Tower II 1958