Artists and designers are typically as good as their best ideas which, unless they are recorded, are usually lost forever. The act of consistently keeping a sketchbook or journal is among the simplest of ways to capture your own thoughts, other people's ideas, and general inspirations—whether that happens in between daily tasks or you have a set time or place to work in it.
At an early point in college, I was lucky to be around people with a lot of interesting ideas. What I did not have, however, was any kind of system to record my own inner monologue and imaginings, or the details of conversations around me. There were things that I might have come back to for inspiration, but they remain lost forever because I simply didn’t record them. In fact, that lack of a system turned out to have an compounding effect: I had no method by which I might have iterated from the ideas of those ideas that I didn't keep.
That all changed on the afternoon my friend Scott showed me his work. It had been obvious from his work that he knew what he was doing: technically, every picture he made was well put together, crisp and good. We looked at more and more of his work, in various media, from etchings to small paintings to drawings. I still remember the singular thing that impressed me, the thing I had not yet done: he had managed to build a complete vision of his “world.” through the work.
So what was he doing that I wasn’t?
As we talked about how he had been going about it, he reached for a sketchbook nearby. In it was an intricate record of how he’d started with one small idea he was working on, and continued from there. Over time, he had tracked it all the way forward to make pictures with complex characters that were dynamic as they were varied in character, replete with life histories. He had pulled off a large and cohesive body of work at the ripe old age of 24.
Then he walked over to his closet, opened it, pulled out a black sketchbook and said “You really should keep one of these. You can't expect to recall every good idea you've ever had.” In the closet were multiple waist-high stacks of drawing pads, notebooks, spiral notebooks and journals of various types and sizes. Some were fancier than others, but all had some serious wear on them.
He then started laughing maniacally, for effect, much like one of his drawn characters.
That week I quietly went over to the art store and bought a sketcbook. But within my first few weeks of keeping a journal, I became frustrated with the lack of consistency from page to page. I'd been looking at other students' journals. There was no style to mine, and there were so many ways I could potentially use it. I had to figure out what I wanted it to be exactly—what was the point? After I knew that, I could decide what to do, how to do it, and how often to do it. These early decisions would determine the context in which I would use it, and what to record in it.
I made an important distinction that would affect how much time went into it and what I put in. It was important that in order to get the most out of this process, I had to be as straightforward with it as possible. So this book would not be kept as an art project, where I would make finished art in miniature form. Instead it would be the place that I would come to work through ideas. The value of what went in would only become clear from what I did with that material . My long-term goal has been to make this practice valuable on these terms, and improve my rituals with these objectives in mind.
The journal is a place to record ideas in real time—as I find them. I hold on to pictures, swatches, scribbled personal thoughts, drawings and other gathered objects as they are, messy and quick because the journal is a place for prompts and cues that could be points of departure for a new picture. Many of these things would never make it into any one of my finished paintings or drawings by itself. I have held on to them intuitively as fragments that contribute to my thinking processes.
Putting things into the journal helps connect things that are outside my usual scope of motifs. They don't have to be whole, or complete; pieces are perfectly good, often even preferable. I don't feel I have to make any connections with these things when I find them, or be crystal clear about why I am adding them in. They feel right, and I put them in there. Over time, when I look back, patterns emerge, and I can see how my tastes and ideas evolve.
When I started, I had to learn to trust that recording something was sufficient. It was the eventual variety, luck and selection of things in my collection that would make the journals useful.
Keeping a sketchbook is also a consistency thing. Everything around the sketchbook has to make it convenient to use the sketchbook. I’ve had to change habits and develop a few best practices around how I see/do things, in the way I put things down on the page. Many of these are aspects I picked up along the way, and then made quick and deliberate decisions about how important it was to do things a particular way. This consistency of working with some fundamental ideas have made things easier. There are three ideas that, from day one, seem to matter:
Recording with good composition preserves the opportunity
Composition is the invisible glue that holds everything together in a picture—it signals what is primary, what is insignificant, and what is also purposeful in a picture. Every page or spread in a journal is an opportunity to improve on your conscious management of composition. I place blocks of personal writing next to photographs, drawings, idea sketches and color swatches. Later, when I am intuitively ready, I am able to give attention to how my eye moves across the page, registers color, pattern and open spaces—it's how we infer meaning.
Experiments are essential
I started with a variety of pens, pencils and other media. These days most of it is done in a single 0.5mm mechanical pencil because it is essential enough. Being medium-agnostic is a great way to try out—and record—the feel of different things. The book becomes a ledger of materials as much as ideas, and a great marriage of both if I am lucky. The important thing is that these are low-risk iterations in time and materials. But the results are recorded permanently for when I'm ready to see them and use them, or strip the gear down to something more elementary.
Life is a collection of events
Recording life should reflect life. I have no set idea about what is allowed except what feels right to include. When I travel, for example, I hold on to receipts, tickets, flyers and other ephemera. I place them on the page because they’re interesting for reasons that may or may not be obvious at the time. Maybe they are nicely designed, or if I am lucky they mark an important moment. The simplest reason is enough to keep them, and feeling right about putting something in is plenty reason to keep it.
After over 25 years of recording things, I’m still fascinated with some of the things I have picked up along the way. A well-used sketchbook is a bridge between the unconscious and conscious. It also connects our past to our present as objects and circumstances reveal themselves with more meaning and significance over time. Recording things makes it possible to clarify what might otherwise be a blur in the past, or an absence of memory otherwise. With an artifact, you can catch these interesting fragments in your life back from the air and string them together, understand what really happened back then.
Looking through my many books, it’s magical to see how small things add up in one place. I’ve put in the dots that I will string together some day. Maybe it will become an interesting picture or just be a recollection of a fond time. Just a minor fragment of inspiration can clarify so much in the larger episodes in my life. This is my secret weapon against the common fate, of our life that is fleeting and forgetting.
PHOTO: Sketchbooks with a found letter from a mother to a son who was recently released from prison.