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How to Develop a SketchBook Habit

If I had to choose one thing that has helped me progress as an artist it would be this: keep a daily sketchbook habit.

Life can get busy, and I often don’t have time for extended drawing or painting sessions, but I can always fit in five to ten minutes for my sketchbook habit. And I do — every single day without fail. It keeps me fluid, it enhances my observational skills, gives me a place to try new things, and it gives me a record to look back on. My hope is that you will begin a daily sketchbook habit, too.

If You’d Like to Start a Daily Sketchbook Drawing Habit, here’s what You Need to Know:

Materials:

  • A sketchbook. My preference is something sturdy with a good quality mixed media paper that can take many different kinds of materials. I love the Strathmore 500 Mixed Media Journal Not too small, not too big — 9″ x 12″ is just right.
  • Pencils, pens, colored pencils, watercolors, watercolor pencils, gouache. Whatever you have and whatever you love. Even a ballpoint pen will do just fine, if that is all you have.

That’s it! We want to keep things simple. Put your sketchbook along with a small box containing your supplies into a tote bag and keep it some place where you will see it every morning.

Make It a Daily Ritual

The most important thing I can tell you is to resolve to show up to your sketchbook every single day. Rain or shine. Good mood or bad. Busy or bored.

For me, I prefer to sit down to sketch first thing every morning, with my coffee, and then feel great that I’ve committed to my daily practice and can get on with my day.

Ten to fifteen minutes is what I allow, but even five will suffice. I would bet that once you get into your routine, you will want to find a little more time. And you will!

What should You Put in Your Sketchbook?

Right after “I don’t have enough time,” the most common excuse I hear is, “I have no idea what to draw.” I have solutions.

The great thing about a daily sketchbook habit is that it is only for you, unless you choose to share it. So anything goes. Even the most ordinary things that surround you in your daily life. In fact, it’s the ordinary things that make the best subjects.

Remember, keep it simple. That is the key to success. Here are some great ideas to get you started. Try one or all of them and you will be on your way. The more we do something, the more ideas will come. It’s a fact!

Blind Contour Sketches

This is the best exercise I know to train our eyes and hands to work together and to improve our observational skills. I do these every single day and I choose any old subject that is nearby, often my coffee mug or my breakfast. I also often draw my cat, so if you have a pet, they make great subjects, too.

Here’s how:

  • To begin, position your sketchbook to your right if you’re right-handed or to your left if you’re left-handed.
  • Pick up any drawing tool and then settle your eyes on your subject.
  • Choose a starting point; for me it’s always the center of the top.
  • Now, let your eyes follow along the contour, or outline, of your subject, moving clockwise. Go slowly and really notice the outermost shape of your subject.
  • Now begin to draw that outline, without looking at your paper, starting at the top and slowly moving around the entire shape. Don’t lift your pencil or pen off the paper (you can backtrack later to fill in details).

The aim is to begin and end at the same place. There should be no detail whatsoever, simply the outline. The trick is to look at your subject, but never at your paper, moving your drawing tool and your eyes at the same speed, a very slow pace.

More often than not, I don’t arrive at the same place I started, and sometimes I get some really wonky shapes, but I have improved, greatly, from this daily practice. It has taught me how to slow down and really see, and allows me to sketch more swiftly when I am looking at my paper.

Intuitive Watercolor Sketches

With this exercise, you’ll intuitively create a few elements of the composition and then fill int he rest based on what you created.

I like these best when I use watercolor, but you can also try scribbling with soft graphite and then smudging it with your fingers.

Here’s how to do it with watercolors:

  • Wet a brush with water and lightly coat the center of your paper. Avoid taking the water all the way to the edges, which would make the paper buckle and curl.
  • Using the same wet brush, intuitively choose a color from palette and drop it into the water glaze. Enjoy watching it spread on the paper.
  • Choose another color and do the same, taking a few moments to watch them mix and mingle, dance on the paper. You can add another color if you want, but I find that three or fewer colors gives better results.
  • Sprinkle some clean water or a dash of table salt onto the paint surface, and allow the paint to dry.
  • Once dry, look at the patterns and shapes the colors have made. What do you see? It can be anything! Is it a fish? A cloud? A skull? A bowl of fruit? A coffee mug?
  • Now take a pencil or pen and outline and enhance what you see.

And what if you see nothing? Draw your breakfast on the beautiful painted surface.

Taking the time to use our imagination to discover images in the dried paint exercises our creative muscles. Not all of my attempts at this are successful, and that is a just fine. It’s the process that matters, and that you are showing up to do the work. The examples above are my daily intuitive practice in my planner.

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