By Tina Koyama
When I first discovered urban sketching and began documenting my life with sketches, I almost immediately discovered a dilemma. Admiring the works of many sketchers who use this method, I especially loved the concept of putting sketches and writing on the same page. As a lifelong journal writer, I saw the value and appeal of noting observations or other commentary related (or maybe not even related) to whatever I was sketching. The “story” seemed more complete that way. But for a variety of reasons – not finding the right paper for both writing and drawing; wanting to share sketches but not thoughts; messy handwriting – I ended up keeping my sketchbook and written journal separate.
Early in the new year, I took a short online workshop with cartoonist and teacher Jonathan Smith on how he keeps a sketchbook. Sharing some pages, which he generally doesn’t do on social media, he showed how his sketchbook is a hard-working tool filled with sketches, doodles, visual and written ideas, observations and business notes. He even uses the same book for monthly and weekly goal and task planning. Calling himself a “sketchbook fiend,” he has filled more than a hundred volumes by now.
What impressed me most about his attitude and methods was the “unpreciousness” (his term) of his sketchbook. Jonathan encourages his art students to “make bad drawings” in their sketchbooks as a means to experimenting and trying new things. Although his own work is mostly cartoons of imaginary characters, in his sketchbooks he draws more from observation (life or photos), which he believes “gets you out of your head.” I appreciated this insight because one aspect of urban sketching that I value most is that it keeps me focused on the world around me – not inside my head.
Learning about Jonathan’s sketchbook rekindled my desire to integrate sketching and writing. It occurred to me that while I like to think of myself as experimental, when I pull out my daily-carry, A5-size sketchbook on location, I am more interested in the “story” of my urban sketches (however mundane that story might be). It’s not the same kind of working sketchbook that Jonathan advocates.
Mulling over this dilemma, the proverbial light bulb switched on: In addition to the A5 sketchbook, I also carry at least one, usually more, pocket-size notebooks for hasty sketches made on my walks or for surreptitious portraits on public transportation. These spontaneous sketches have always felt less “precious,” even though they tell no less of a story than most of my larger sketches do.
In addition, I always carry at least one other pocket-size notebook for memos, quotations, blog post ideas, other ideas, shopping lists, references, observations and other on-the-fly writing. My apparent need to segregate my writing from my sketches had resulted in multiple portable notebooks used concurrently.
This year, I am trying something new. I still want to keep my “storytelling” sketchbook of urban sketches free of writing. But as a step toward a more integrated, working sketch journal of the type that Jonathan shared, I took all the various small notebooks out of my bag and began a fresh one. I now consolidate all contents into that one Field Notes. That means that I have also stopped fussing about what kind of Field Notes paper is better for light washes or fountain pens or whatever. The easiest way to be “unprecious” about my sketchbook is to not care if the ink bleeds through or the page warps.
I filled my first Field Notes with this process in less than a month, and I just started my second. A recipe for tahini sauce is jotted right next to corny, glued-in jokes that fell out of a Christmas cracker. A Photoshop Elements tip I learned on Facebook is noted on the same page as a sketch of a squirrel eating from our bird feeder. Over breakfast one morning, I described the previous night’s COVID nightmare, then decorated the opposite page with washi tape. It’s a messy brain dump of words, sketches, ephemera and scribbles. It’s definitely not pretty (I’m not sharing much of it), but it is perhaps a more accurate reflection of my life than any other single book I keep. I don’t know whether this new process will stick permanently, but so far, I am thoroughly enjoying having a single place to store my daily whatever.