Nov 19, 2017

Project Sketchbook

defining adulthood sketchbook

I just finished teaching a class at The Art Center about how to keep a project sketchbook. It was a great education for me as a teacher, artist and human. The most important thing I learned is that when we don't know how to do something—like develop curriculum for an ongoing class—the only thing to do is to jump in and try, the world will forgive us if we miss the mark a few times. This is obvious to many of you but for me it's been a remedial lesson. It feels new and completely surprising each time I take a risk and survive.

The class turned out much different than I expected. Somehow I assumed I'd have students who had trouble keeping a sketchbook because they don't like to draw in the traditional sense. I thought using a sketchbook for specific purpose besides drawing would be motivating. Instead I had students who love to draw, have no problem filling sketchbooks but struggle to complete projects. The drawing exercises I had planned were old hat to them and I needed to switch gears and teach project management and goal setting for artists.
I enjoyed the switch-up but halfway through it felt a little like, How to Drive a Horse-Oriented Cart. Not backwards per say but a sketchbook at its best is a means to another end, and having it remain the focal point of the class was a little cumbersome.

color palette study
One of the best things about a sketchbook is that it is a safe place to do whatever one wants, to take risks, to not have to follow through on things that don't work out. To finish a project we have to leave that safety behind, to take the sacred pieces of our experiments and elaborate on them, polish them, develop them into a piece or a body of work that speaks to more than just ourselves. A sketchbook can be a fun refuge for working out details; planning a work schedule, researching tools, supplies and color palettes, logging our attempts, lamenting failures and making revisions. It is also a place to gather courage when we fear the next step. Even the best project sketchbook is not a magic bullet for bringing our projects to fruition but gathering courage is.
One week I asked my students what would be helpful for the next class and one said she would like to see my own project sketchbooks to see how I do it. This put me in a tiny panic because I dismantle my sketchbooks on account of living in small spaces that would feel like a rats nest if I saved all my drawings and experiments.

sketchbook I reserve for new ideas

I looked through the remnants to see if I could conjure up a semblance and had to grapple with the fact that I am teaching something I don't exactly do. There is no harm in that but somehow it made me feel a little fraudulent. Perhaps because the project sketchbooks I cherished in school had been replaced by a haphazard orbit of folders and piles and spirals and stashes that supported my general studio practice instead of specific projects. It would be sort of like taking all one's household tools, kitchen implements and toiletries then mixing them all together and randomly stashing handfuls in any available drawer.

remnants from a sketchbook studying text

Luckily I had a free weekend after this enlightening glimpse and I spent a couple days sorting out the mess and developing a system I believe will work for my process. I like to work on loose paper I bought a bunch of eco-friendly 3 ring chipboard binders to put everything in. I like the new system and I am really enjoying being in my studio since it no longer feels like a pending avalanche. 

It is really important for artists to consider what system might work best for them personally. Looking at sketches of the masters can be intimidating and give us cold feet about putting the pencil to work. Looking at contemporary sketchbooks can free us to find out own voice but can also make us pine for sketchbooks that are a work of art in themselves. That quest can hinder our development.

90% of my sketches are about this interesting

We have to be savvy in out relationship to photography because we are inundated with
it. I checked out a stack of books at the library to see how other artists keep sketchbooks,
it was inspiring but also problematic since we aren't seeing the whole sketchbook; book
publishers are generally only going to choose the aesthetically pleasing pages. There are
some artists who have developed their style so masterfully that every page of their
sketchbook is beautiful. Most of us have to have many boring and awkward pages in
between and that is something to celebrate; that is how we learn and acquire skills.
There is always the possibility to make an artist book if we want to make an intact and
sublime artifact of our work, that can free us up to let out sketchbook be very practical
workbooks that fuel the risks we need to take in our practice.

Here are my hand-outs from class.