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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brett

4 ways sketchbooks can boost your art

Every now and then the well of inspiration for creating art runs a little dry. Or so it seems.

Although it doesn’t feel it, this is a natural state. In fact, it’s also a desirable one. It would be nigh on impossible, not to mention exhausting, to carry on at full artistic pelt indefinitely.

Without those pauses, lulls or down times, there would be far fewer insights and much less reflection. But how do you climb back on the creative saddle and begin to build up into a gallop again?

Get the creative juices flowing

Well, here is where sketchbooks come in. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not always found the idea of using sketchbooks a comfortable one.

In the past, having bought a nicely bound tome with crisp white paper sheets, I’d be immediately transported back to my school art lessons. And in that mindset, I’d feel a pressure to fill the book with perfectly realised paintings or drawings.

This, as you can imagine, is a creatively stultifying experience and, from my point of view, a self-defeating one too.

Real artistic energy wasn’t going into the book because I didn’t want to lose that excitement when the work was translated onto the canvas.

And I quickly discovered that I didn’t simply want to copy something wholesale in a bigger format in any case. Another juice-sapping experience.

But, with a different approach, I’ve found that sketchbooks can be a limitless font of new ideas – that not only excite, but surprise too.

And while these tips may seem more directed towards abstract art, I’m convinced they can also help representational artists and all those in between.

1 Make a mess

Sketchbooks and I started to become better friends when I took the deliberate decision not to make perfect pictures. In fact, I’d go further, when I took the deliberate decision to make a mess.

Splash it all over: this mixture of frenetic paint, pencil and pastel marks began with no direction, but through chaos...

It is extremely freeing to be released from the restraints of creating something visually nice. Apart from the obvious catharsis of just getting it out of your system, chaos and disorder in art can be a key component in producing fresh, spontaneous work.

Chances are, when the critical mind is removed from the equation, the unmediated results become vastly more interesting and throw up unexpected and better ideas.

2 Get stuck in

And just because they’re called sketchbooks, it doesn’t mean that you're only allowed to sketch in them. Bringing in new elements, such as cut-up papers from other sources, which are then collaged, or stuck down, into work on the page can be useful springboards for ideas.

I like the concept of collage in this context because it allows for play and assessment at the same time.

For any artist who has ever slapped a load of paint on a canvas, hated it almost immediately and mentally reached for the control-z button, this is for you.

Don’t like that colour there, or that shape? Move it somewhere else till you’re happy with it and then stick it down. Still don't like it? Doesn't matter, stick something else over the top of it. And so on...

3 Change colours

Have your eye on a particular palette for a new series of paintings, but not sure if the colours will work together?

Hue and eye: one way to try out a palette. Different degrees of black or white have been added to chosen colours

The sketchbook is the perfect environment to try them out. But not only that, there’s no obligation to rehearse the colours in the way you might use them.

You could try mixing every possible combination from a limited range to see just how far the palette can be pushed. A good way is to pick two colours you don’t often use or at least with which you are unfamiliar and, together with titanium white and mars black, get mixing.

4 Edit the bigger picture

My favourite tip is one which I’m told comes from an idea by the artist Lewis Noble. If these sketchbook hacks are about taking the conscious mind out of the process and bringing in experimentation, this one goes a step further.

Making my mark: these images were created from experiments on separate sheets before being cut and glued in

It’s all about creating the same mess/marks/experiments, but doing them on separate sheets of paper. When finished these can be cut up into any desired format to reveal new and surprising compositions. This works because the marks feel as though they are not contained within a neat set shape. They have an existence that reaches beyond those boundaries since that was how they were originally created. There is a boldness in this approach which is hard to quantify.

Break the rules

To paraphrase Brad Pitt's character Tyler Durden in Fight Club, the first rule of sketchbooks is there are no rules. So, that being the case, it's pretty difficult to break the rules. But you get the point, the freer and more spontaneous your engagement with your sketchbook, the greater the boost it will deliver to your art. Just have fun and be creative!

Meanwhile, while I have your attention, don't forget to sign up to my mailing list for new blog posts and newsletters

720 views4 comments


Sep 04, 2022

Looking forward to seeing how the subject is pursuEd.

David Brett
David Brett
Sep 04, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Liz. Yes, that’s the next challenge - working out how to translate sketchbook discoveries into bigger paintings!


Sep 04, 2022

Want to explore this further. Thank you

David Brett
David Brett
Sep 04, 2022
Replying to

You’re very welcome Liz

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