How to Start a Sketchbook, or Drawing for the Anxious

Karen in the studio

Drawing is a little act of discovery. It helps you to see what you are looking at more clearly and it makes real what you can only imagine.

It unblocks creativity and it calms a restless mind.

Thats quite a tall order for a bit of scribble.

I have drawn quite compulsively all my life, anywhere on any scrap of paper - in cheque books (when they were still a thing) and in the margins of every newspaper.

About 15 years ago I was feeling stuck artistically and decided that a more disciplined approach was needed. I bought a sketch book, not too big as I planned to carry it with me every day and not too small as tiny pages are the equivalent of pursed lips - a little ungenerous.

I decided the rules of this new experiment were that I would draw daily even if there was nothing specific to look at. I would keep it private and I wouldn't judge or even look at my own work until I got to the end of the book.

It turns out that drawing and looking are just muscles - the more you exercise them the more natural it feels. Like anything that takes time to master, you need to be kind and patient with yourself. The sketch book is a private place for you to do wonky drawings, to record the world anyway you feel. It is not meant to be high art, it can be a doodle or a list of words.

Karen Mead sketch art

You are developing lines that are a code for the world as you see it and which perhaps only you can decipher. Those scribbles are the visual equivalent of musical scales; practising aims to make your fingers dexterous enough to describe what your eyes can see without going through the filter of your brain.

Ever since that first experiment I have continued with the drawing habit and I developed my rituals and idiosyncrasies. When I am really motoring creatively I can fill a book in about eight weeks but other times I might carry the same one for eight months. I date them on the spine when they are full and I keep them all. When I look at them I can remember very clearly how I felt at the time of doing the drawing so they work almost like diaries for me.

Nowadays I am quite fussy about the exact dimensions of my book and when I find the landscape shape I like I buy a few so I know I won't be forced to draw in a book that is 'wrong'. I can't abide spiral bound books as that spine feels like a fence to me and I can't get my left-handed claw over it.

The paper must be smooth and the cover plain and I prefer to begin at the back and I favour the left side of each double page.

Then there is the ritual of starting a new book. Once the old sketchbook is nearly full I can't wait to start a fresh one, but still, all those empty fresh pages unnerve me and I have to get over a sort of performance anxiety. I have two solutions - one is to start the first drawing a few pages into the book and the other is to take a drawing or print that I like out of the old book and paste it into the front cover. I think of it like a drawing-probiotic- seeding the new book with a healthy, scribbly-yoghurt culture of elegant lines and accurate observations - that at least is the wish!

Once I established that habit of jumping into the book instead of starting sensibly on the first page I realised I had to go backwards towards the front cover as well as forwards towards the end and Lo! the oppression of chronology was broken as well - freedom. Now I draw on any page and often,any way up and frankly I can't find anything in a hurry. Still, I like the way the landscape of the book can be varied depending on where you open it and I enjoy the juxtaposition of images drawn non-consecutively.

Karen Mead sketch on the ferry

I used to write in my books as well but I have tried to stop that as supermarket lists are a waste of nice paper and always mundane. Nowadays I include photocopies of my lino prints or pictures of more complete work as it helps to contextualise what else was going on at the time. As I constantly wonder what I have done with the years this is a reminder that I am not always staring out of the window.

For others who may want to develop the habit I say don't  over think it, just grab a pencil or a biro or a pen you are comfortable with and sketch something. Draw what you can see from where you are sitting now. Draw the back of the head of the person in front. Draw the empty corner of the room.

Look at what you are seeing, only glance at your drawing. Squash your inner voice and keep going until you think you have finished then slam the book shut without a considered look at your work.

Thats it!

Do it again tomorrow. Leave it a week until you check today's drawing- you will have done seven drawing since then and today's effort will be a mere waft of memory- the volatile angst has evaporated away and you can judge your work for what it is - just an idea of something to work on and improve. Not a reproach that you are not Leonardo.


Karens sketchbooks





Carmel Meade

Really helpful piece Karen I love it. Inspired to keep drawing x


Great writing, this is a lovely piece Karen – I want to send if to my granddaughter but am not sure how to.
X Tina


Brilliant advice! Does it make you easier to live with?

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