Tips for Keeping a Sketchbook or Visual Journal

Landscape watercolor painting in sketchbook
Westend61/Getty Images

There are several different contemporary terms used to describe pads of paper on which to draw, paint, write, or collect mementos. Some examples include visual journals, art journals, artist's journals, art diary, painting creativity journal, and sketchbooks. They have many similarities, the main one being that artists use them daily to record ideas, images, events, places, and emotions.

These journals can include both words and images, sketches and photos, magazine and newspaper pictures, collages and mixed-media compositions, or whatever piques the interest of the artist. They often include studies for more finished pieces or can be the source for developing a series of works. 

Individual Approach

When it comes to a sketchbook practice, each artist needs to find what works best for them in terms of their approach to art and the creative process. There's no right or wrong way to fill your pages. The important thing is to experiment and create in the book continuously, every day, if possible.

Some artists may choose to keep a sketchbook just for drawing or painting and have what they call a visual journal for everything else—mixed media, collage, photographs, newspaper articles, and ticket stubs. In contrast, others may decide to keep everything into a single book. 

Sketchbook Sizes and Tool Essentials

One organization method is to keep three sketchbooks of different sizes—one to always carry around easily in a pocket or purse, one that's notebook-sized for general use, and a larger one for more complex art exercises.

As for drawing/painting tools, at least always have a pencil or pen. Beyond that, it is useful to carry a couple of pens, pencils, an eraser, and a small watercolor set. That way, you have a basic portable studio and are always ready to draw or paint.

Benefits of a Sketchbook or Visual Journal Practice

Keeping a daily sketchbook helps you to see and be present in the world. This artistic practice can also help you:

  • Grow and develop new ideas
  • Make connections and foster creativity
  • Improve your drawing ability and observational skills
  • Maintain and ignite inspiration
  • Experiment with new techniques and materials
  • Encourage happy accidents or those unforeseen and unplanned creative discoveries

Tips for Keeping a Sketchbook or Visual Journal

Don’t worry about making perfect pictures in your sketchbook—focus on practicing your skills, recording fleeting thoughts, and capturing moments of life. It's more about the process than the product. If you happen to create an exceptional composition, that's great, but that is not the goal. Keep your visual journal projects fun and fresh with the following ideas.

  • Mark up your pages ahead of time, so that you’re not facing completely blank white pages. Paint layers of color, draw lines, use a hole punch—anything to make them less precious, and enable you to be free with what you draw and create.
  • Notice everything around you. Nothing is too mundane to draw—your cup of coffee, the materials you’re using to draw with, squirrels at the park, a bike in a rack, or even a trash can.This is how you make your observational skills stronger. 
  • Don’t edit yourself. Spend no more than 10 minutes on a drawing and don't go back and erase. Instead, restate any lines that you'd like to change.
  • Try new materials. Don’t be stuck using the same old pencil. By all means, use it if that is all you have, but don’t be limited by it. Try different supplies, including forgotten markers and pens you may have lying around the house.
  • Try using an iPad, iPhone, or tablet. This is an interesting way of testing your sketching abilities in a fresh format. See David Hockney’s iPad Paintings. See how Jorge Colombo drew a New Yorker cover using the Brushes app in Cover Story: Finger Painting.
  • Use color. Don’t just stick to black and white. Alternatively, it can sometimes be helpful to give yourself specific parameters, like only using brown, red, and gold, to see what you can do within those limits.
  • Draw abstractly as well as representationally. Draw the same thing multiple times, becoming increasingly abstract with each drawing. Draw things up close so that they appear abstract, or draw small objects at a large-scale so that they go off the page and lose their context.
  • Take a line for a walk. Do one continuous line drawing of ten different objects. Keep your pencil on the paper as you draw and connect one item to the next.
  • Try a blind contour drawing. Look only at the subject and not down at your paper. It doesn't matter if the result looks like chicken scratch—this exercise will help you sharpen your observational skills. 
  • Keep your sketchbooks and date your drawings to record your progress and artistic development.

Further Reading