I’VE always been a great believer in Joan Didion’s advice on keeping a notebook.
In her essay named exactly that, included in her “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection of essays, she says it is “in order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember?... So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been…to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” but rather “how it felt to me.”
Notebooks—and diaries and journals—are, therefore, a way to experience the world and to express that experience. We take an event, say, “lunch with Adelle on Thursday,” and write it down in our planner. In our notebook or diary we expand on that, noticing some things and not others, and sometimes remembering things wrong, but that was how the lunch was for us.
A sketchbook has the same purpose. But what relevance does it still have today, in the age of mobile phone cameras, which are more convenient to use and accurate as to image quality?
But that is exactly the difference between photography and drawing. Photos are too detailed, too perfect, when sometimes what you want to capture is an emotion or an impression. Making marks on paper, however tentative or hesitant, is still more special than a photograph because a drawing is your own interpretation of what you saw.
Keeping a daily sketchbook is like keeping a notebook, but primarily in drawings rather than words. You might say, “But I can’t draw…” Did that stop us, when we were children, scribbling merrily all over our Grade 1 pads and squabbling over the gold and cornflower crayons? We can all draw, and sketching is a way to tap into the potential to develop that skill while creating and preserving memories—“create” because we choose what to remember, and “preserve” because those drawings are safe in a book.
It’s not only memories we can keep pressed between the pages of a sketchbook, but flights of fancy as well. An officemate saw me scrawling in my sketchbook when we were away at a training.
“My nine-year-old daughter draws a lot,” she said, “those anime characters and robots, but on loose sheets of paper that get misplaced or thrown away.”
I said, “Get her a sketchbook so you have a record of her progress. It’ll be great for you both to see later on how her skill and imagination have developed.”
For some, sketching is a way to communicate what’s inside them that they cannot, or will not, express verbally. In her graphic novel One Hundred Demons, cartoonist Lynda Barry advises putting down on paper all the demons you’ve wrestled with in your past—in her case, a lice-ridden boyfriend and a stereotype-addled grandmother (who was Filipina). Writer and visual artist Jay David has his own 100 Demons project, a Moleskine notebook populated by a vampire Voltes V and a Frankenstein Mazinger Z, among other creatures.
Artist Al Rio (IG: @artistmonk) says she keeps a sketchbook because “Ideas tend to pop up, sometimes at inconvenient times. So I…sketch it for later reviewing. Also, sketching notable moments—reunion dinners, road trips, beach with friends—sometimes captures the spirit of that point in time better than photographs.”
Art can also be used not only to remember, but as a remembrance or souvenir. Another artist, Rica Palomo-Espiritu (IG: @ricaespiritu) says, “I do keep several [sketchbooks], in a vain attempt to organize my drawings—one would be for doodles, zen doodles, urban sketches, people sketches…” In high school, people admired her skill and would ask for her artworks, which she gave away freely, tearing pages from her sketchbooks. “I’d buy one every two weeks and give it away. That alone gave me the incentive to draw.”
Like a notebook, a sketchbook is an intensely personal artifact that can be shared if you wish, as Rica did and Didion, too with the material in her notebooks (she went on to use her jottings in her work). Similarly, neither notebook nor sketchbook need be expensive, unless the allure of quality art materials tempts you—then go for it. Other people, perhaps even you, have spent money on less useful things.
There is something meditative and calming about pulling out a pen and notebook, and, while waiting in traffic or at the dentist’s office, drawing what you see in front of you, or what you wish you did. Reduced anxiety and stress is a good payoff for a few minutes of your time, right? And like other skills, the more you practice, the better you get at it. Now that’s an incentive to start.
For guidance on technique and style, these Instagram accounts are truly inspiring: @urbansketchers, @paulwang_sg, @leighpod, @lizsteelart, @parkablogs, @artwalk, @pwscully, @simoneridyard, @larrydmarshall. These are but a few of the many talented sketchers whose works are online. Their accounts are a great resource for sketching tips and inspiration, and as you dig deeper, you’ll find more sketchers and discover those whose styles resonate with you.
In any case, the thing is to start. Right now. You just might find it very rewarding.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember