Mixed-Media Art Techniques: The Benefits of Keeping a Sketchbook

My husband and younger daughter, who both draw beautifully, always look at me like I have three heads when I ask them if they are taking their sketchbook with them on an outing or someplace where they'll be sitting and waiting a while. That's because they are very purposeful artists in that they decide on a subject and just keep working on the drawing until every precise detail is finished.

sketchbook art by julie fei-fan balzer
Sketchbook art by Julie Fei-Fan Balzer.

Not me. As someone who is not already great at drawing, a sketchbook is where you practice, try out ideas, and make written or sketched notes to yourself. Here are three important reasons why collage and mixed-media artists should keep a sketchbook.

A sketchbook serves as an external memory drive. I don't know about you, but I rarely get a good ideas while I'm sitting in my studio. They come on my drive to work, in the shower, while walking the dog, and in my dreams. I always think, "That is such a good idea, I'll be sure to remember it." Ha! Keeping one or more sketchbooks handy allows you to write down or draw the idea as soon as possible (in other words, once you've safely parked the car).

A sketchbook saves you time. Following on from the previous point, now when you are in the studio you don't have to waste time thinking about what you're going to do next or try to remember that great idea you had. Just open your sketchbook and get started. You could even scan your sketchbook drawings into your computer and edit them for your mixed-media art.

A sketchbook gives you a private place to fail. Remember when you used to keep a diaryor personal journalas a teenager? (Or maybe you still do?) It was a secret place where you could let out all of your feelings and failings, all your vulnerabilities, and deal with them in private. It works the same way with a sketchbook. You can try out five different kinds of lettering until you find the one you like best. You try your hand at drawing a face without anyone seeing that it took you 10 attempts to get the nose looking like something other than a carrot. It may seem counterintuitive, but a sketchbook is a powerful tool for people who aren't confident about their drawing abilities.

Mixed-media artist Julie Fei-Fan Balzer keeps many sketchbooks, each with a different purpose. In the January/February 2013 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, she writes in her "Adventures in Arting" column that it doesn't matter what kind of sketchbook you keep or what you call it, "Just make sure you have one and that you use it."

Here are her suggestions for getting started:

  • Don't buy a new journal. That creates too much pressure. Just grab any notebook you have lying in your house and just start doing.
  • Fail gloriously. Go for broke. What's the worst (or best) that can happen?
  • Leave expectations behind. Embrace whatever comes your way even if it's not where you wanted to go or planned to go.
  • Choose a daily project. Pick an example from the Internet (pattern a day, face a day, etc.) or make up your own. This kind of prompt will help you get over blank-page syndrome. If you don't get to it every day, don't give up! As Julie says, "The only true failure is failing to try."

If you would like to do more drawing for whatever purpose, I highly recommend keeping a sketchbook. Another way to strengthen your drawing skills and find new ways to use drawing in your mixed-media art is by subscribing to Drawing magazine. Each issue is full of tips, tricks, tutorials, and examples of classic and cutting-edge art.

P.S. Do you keep a sketchbook? Why or why not? Leave your comment below!

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