Keeping An Inspiration Sketchbook

We’re thrilled to let you know that Annie O’Brien Gonzales has a new book out: The Joy of Acrylic Painting: Expressive Painting Techniques for Beginners. This book is packed with information and inspiration, including the essentials of expressive painting, the materials you need to get started, tips and techniques for adding mixed media, and tons of fun painting projects. In this guest blog post, Annie talks about the hows and whys of keeping a sketchbook, and offers a glimpse into her own process! ~ Jeannine

My painting notes are where I turn when I need inspiration for paintings. My notes are more than drawings in a sketchbook, and very different from a journal. They become a personal reference library, a place to track the ideas and images that move me. These notes are where I go when I need inspiration.

I recommend carrying your painting notes with you to your studio, workshops, galleries, museums, while traveling—just about everywhere. Don’t get hung up on making your painting notes beautiful and wasting creative energy—what you want is a working resource.

Discover the pleasure of creating expressive art with the ideas, techniques, and projects in The Joy of Acrylic Painting: Expressive Painting Techniques for Beginners, by Annie O’Brien Gonzales.

To get started, find a spiral sketchbook (one that fits in your tote) and gather a few of your favorite pens. I like working with Sakura Pigma Micron pens, or Uchida LePen fine line markers. It’s important to use a spiral-bound book so you can work comfortably in it, and easily use as a reference. Mine is 9 ½” x 11″. You don’t need a fancy journal.

I prefer keeping my painting notes in a large spiral sketchbook. (All photos by Annie O’Brien Gonzales)

Gather some magazine clippings, and some photos or paint chips that catch your eye. Tape the pictures, patterns, and color references into your sketchbook, add a quick sketch of a composition you’d like to try, and jot down a few ideas. Carry your painting notes as you go through your day, making it a habit to record all the great ideas you run across.

Since color is so important to my work, I collect color inspirations from magazines and catalog pages in a recycled planner.

Date your entries, and as soon as you fill one sketchbook, start another. Your painting notes will soon become your most valuable resource for inspiration that you can go to when the well of ideas has run dry. It won’t take long until you have a wealth of ideas for future paintings!

I love to doodle interesting patterns that I find all around, wherever I go.

Here are more ideas for filling your sketchbook:

• Jot down specific techniques or materials you want to try.

• Keep notes on important details you want to remember from workshops, lectures, and trips to museums and galleries.

My inspiration photos include one of my favorite Matisse paintings (left) and a beautiful vignette from a home decorating magazine (right).

• Write down references you want to follow up with later.

• Create a page for each of your favorite artists. Outline what attracts you to their work.

I use my sketchbook for taking notes while reading about my favorite painters, like Matisse. Analyzing the work of painters I love helps me clarify my own style.

• Use your sketchbook for notes on great titles for paintings.

• Put down ideas for series of works, such as paintings or collages.

A few more Matisse images—I found these postcards in a museum gift shop.

• Sometimes a fragment of a song, a poem, or even a conversation or advertising slogan can become inspiration for an artwork. Write them all down.

• Your sketchbook is a great place to collect shapes, patterns, and personal symbols that you want to use in your artwork.

This quick sketch incorporates elements from my inspiration images.

• See a color combination that moves you? Make a note of it. Home decorating magazines are a great source for inspiring color palettes.

• Powerful quotes can be a starting point for a painting or other artwork. If you come across one, write it down in your sketchbook.

• The most random things can spark an idea, so use your sketchbook for collecting photos, scraps of paper, flyers, etc.

The final painting: “Balcony,” 20″ x 20″, acrylic on canvas.

Annie O’Brien Gonzales is a professional painter, teacher and author from Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Bold Expressive Painting: Painting Techniques for Still Lifes, Florals and Landscapes and The Joy of Acrylic Painting: Exressive Painting Techniques for Beginners, both from North Light Books. Annie also hosts three videos on expressive painting available for ArtistsNetworkTV: Expressive Landscapes, Expressive Abstracts, and Expressive Still Lifes. To see more of Annie’s work, go to


Art Journaling and Lettering, Blog, Mixed-Media Techniques