“Where do you get your ideas?”
Whenever I’m asked this question, I usually answer something evasive or non-committal. Not today. Today I will reveal my most valuable creative resource, the hidden place from which all ideas originate: the sketchbook.
Keeping is a sketchbook is simple and routine. It’s a collection of thoughts, images, and observations inked on smooth white paper. It’s a portable catalog of past ideas. By revisiting these ideas later, they can be expanded upon, revised, reinterpreted, or ignored entirely.
This is how my comics look in their most basic, elemental form - the sketchbook page:
The text is barely legible. The drawings are often incomprehensible to anyone but myself. The rhymes are way too obvious (though this probably won’t change before the final published comic).
When I jot ideas in my sketchbook, what’s important is speed. I want to put an idea on paper before I have time to second guess it. Layout, proportions, drawing above a third-grade level - there will be many more hours to address these problems.
Often my sketchbook comics have an immediacy that appeals to me more than my polished, finished work. Here’s a sketch that I adapted for a published comic. Despite the vast differences in appearance between this page and my digitally colored work, I think it stands okay on its own:
There are many artists I admire (Roz Chast, Quentin Blake, Jean-Jacques Sempé, etc.) whose work has the looseness and energy of an initial sketch. When I grow up, I want to be one of these artists. Until then, I’ll keep striving for it in my sketchbooks.
Life drawing is another important (though often more challenging) aspect of sketchbook keeping. It sounds easy - walk around looking at things. Draw what you find interesting. But I get hung up by cold weather that stiffens my fingers. I get nervous drawing in public. Inevitably, someone will peek over my shoulder at a half-rendered drawing of a building and ask, “Are you an architecture student?” And I love sketching in art museums, but this attracts much attention from ink-prohibiting museum staff.
Despite these challenges, getting outside and drawing can be relaxing, inspiring, and meditative. Here are some pages of life drawing from my sketchbook that inspired my comic “My Favorite Things.”
I’ve compiled them here, but these images were taken from two to three years of sketchbooks, on trips (Chicago and Santa Fe) and at home (Denver and Wichita). You don’t have to live in an exotic location or take a foreign vacation to fill a sketchbook. The place where I live is flat, empty, and boring at first glance, but it’s a great place to get some thinking done.
Visually interesting things are everywhere - even in the American Midwest. For instance, buildings:
No matter the demands of the project I’m currently working on, I’ve found it’s necessary not to neglect my sketchbook. It’s the place where I plant the seeds of future work.
So get out into the world, fix your eyes to the small details, and put your pen to the paper. I hope you’ll find the process of sketchbook-keeping as creatively essential as I have.
One final piece of advice: Beware of Geese.