14. A Brief History of My Sketchbooks – Early 90’s to present

Why have I decided to go through old sketchbooks? And no, its not procrastination. There are at least two good reasons:

  1. Ideas, notes and sketches are too often boxed and forgotten. There may be some gems to resurrect.
  2. There is a persistent smell of ammonia hanging around our attic room that is beginning to disturb me. At first I thought it to be the boiler. Now I am concerned that it may be something festering and through sifting through boxes I might find the source.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been working in sketchbooks, investigating themes of memory and place (more on this later)…

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This isn’t, and has never been, a natural process for me. My experience of using sketchbooks more-often-than-not brings on a sense of restriction, confinement and apprehension. It doesn’t come naturally to me and I have experienced sketchbook envy when confronted with an aesthetically pleasing sketchbook.

I am aware that my experience and reluctance says a lot about my working process and probably about me in general. Perhaps it has something to do with my fear of confined spaces (low ceilings mostly!), of being judged incorrectly – my desire to make each page ‘count’. By this I mean that there has to be a consistency of quality – I have been known to tear pages out of sketchbooks if I deemed them unworthy. For those who quite rightly view sketchbooks as a way to trial different materials and ideas, to experiment with unbounded freedom, this probably seems absurd. For me though, feeling the boundaries, I have a tendency to experiment on loose sheets of varying sizes, not confined to a prescribed format. Admittedly this way of working can often leave one in a state of turmoil, with pieces being lost, overlooked and ultimately unorganized.

Looking through old sketchbooks it appears that I had quite often been in the habit of gluing loose work into them. This seems like a feasible way of archiving. However there is something that doesn’t feel quite right here – a dishonoring of the book itself that feels false, haphazard and pointless. I am not using the surface of the pages within the book to accomplish ideas; it feels less like a sketchbook and more like a scrapbook. A preference would be to store loose work in clear plastic folders, which I have done on occasions. Another option would be to gather this work and bind it all together. As I tend to work with such a variety of sizes this could be tricky.

Foundation year was a vibrant and exciting time for me. When looking at sketchbooks from this time this becomes evident…

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After this intense, all too brief year and faced with uncertainty and a full time job there came, sadly, a period of some neglect of my creative energy. Energy was going into other less productive areas. The memory of the foundation year never left me and eventually I felt compelled to create. And so I began to work quite freely on loose paper and in sketchbooks. Although much of it looks rather naïve and clichéd now there is evidence of interest within the playfulness with colour texture and materials. Also (especially within the last image) I can see links with my current work, like echoes resonating from the past…

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During the illustration degree experimentation and plotting of composition and character studies are prevalent. Within these pages can also be seen an emerging tendency to layer and collage pieces together, most notably the use of tracing paper to create layers before moving into Photoshop…

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During the first summer break of the illustration degree I managed to secure a job with the print company that I had previously worked for. But it was a far cry from the pre-press supervisor position that I had had before leaving to go to university. With the transition between traditional (film) and digital almost complete there was an abundance of film and other material to sort through and bin. This was my job. And so I was spending days in a drafty warehouse with pigeons (and fleas) for company, lugging boxes around and digging through old dusty sheets of imposed film. I could not complain: it was a good wage, based on my previous with none of the stress. I took advantage of the situation by allowing myself a certain amount of time to do some drawing. I had found a few books that were destined for the skip and began to use pages from these as a base for my drawings. My inspiration, alongside imagination and observation, was taken from a stack of pornographic magazines dating back to the 1970’s. An interesting and to be honest, quite inevitable finding…

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Looking back I believe that this was probably one of the better jobs that I’ve had. Despite being continuously bitten by fleas.

Alongside larger sketchbooks used for projects and briefs I came across smaller books containing pages blasted with quick-fire pencil/biro drawings without hesitation…

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There is evidence of an unrestricted thought process and energy here. There is also a growing sense of narrative.

At Truck Fest in 2005 I remember filling a number of pages with quick drawings, desperate to catch a moment…

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In this case it was the restrictions of time and place that dictated the process. I believe that it was these restrictions that made me forget about the perceived restrictions of the sketchbook and enabled a freer line.

I was reaching the end of my first year on the illustration degree when I produced all of the above (hence the narrative slant in many). At that time I was drawing pretty much everyday. It had become habit to take a sketchbook wherever I went. Sitting in a public places observing people and documenting daily life had become the norm. An example made in Morocco…


I have slipped out of this habit, preferring to read and note-take in cafes. However on occasions I have been compelled to capture the odd piece of information…like the remnants of coffee around the inside of a cup…


A few more examples taken from travel sketchbooks…

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At the beginning of teacher training my sketchbooks show much investigation and exploration. Inspired by teachers, schemes of work and even pupils’ work I was playing with new processes and materials. Chiefly textiles…

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Whilst eventually adapting schemes of work and tweaking them to create my own – sketchbooks became rich with ideas and experimentation…

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But also, trough the unpicking of processes to inform success criteria, including a thorough documentation of that process – they became quite methodical at times…

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Throughout the last year, before beginning the MA I was planning to produce a series of large-scale paintings and drawings, using sketchbooks to plan these out…As yet the paintings have not materialized – A reflection of time restrictions whilst teaching.

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On occasions I also let the kids take control of my sketchbook…

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Ten minutes into this blog I believed that I was perhaps procrastinating. However I now feel that I am more aware of how the past affects the present/future; I have more respect for my journey; a clearer understanding of recurrent issues and ideas within my work and an honest reflection of the evolution of my habits and graphic tendencies. There is, it appears, also an array of potential starting points to be pursued.

It has surprised me too that considering my initial comments…I have a fair amount of sketchbooks and this was perhaps not so brief.

‘Work quickly and spontaneously, but not crudely and without thought…Regard the book as a kind of diary, which can include writing and found ephemera and materials’. Taken from my first brief whilst on the Oxford Brookes Foundation, 1993


4 thoughts on “14. A Brief History of My Sketchbooks – Early 90’s to present

  1. Thanks. Yes, I have a lot like this. I think these kind of drawings always translate well as etchings, so long as one maintains the spontaneous quality. Not an easy thing to do. I might try some when I trial dry point.


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