Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators & Creatives

Sketchbooks cover

Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators and Creatives

Review by Jennifer New

Repository, Incubator, Laboratory, Sketchbook

I had to chuckle when I read DRoB Editor Andy Polaine’s recent take on the creative process his review of Designers Don’t Read:

“Over my own years of writing, I have learned a great deal more about the creative process as a designer than I have through designing.”

The statement seems to hold a truism since as I writer I can invert it and it still works beautifully: I’ve learned more about the creative process through working with designers than through writing.

So what is the truism that resides here? We can more clearly discern the creative process when we step away from our own medium. It’s easier to deconstruct a process that is not automatic to us.

I’ve seen this as I try to teach my children things that have become rote for me. Teasing apart the art of tying a shoe turns out to be surprisingly difficult. As is teaching the front crawl for a former competitive swimmer or how to drive stick shift when you’ve been doing it on auto-pilot for decades. Once something has become effortless, stripping it apart becomes increasingly difficult.


It’s very exciting then when someone willingly cracks open the window on his or her creative process and offers a glimpse into the steps leading up to a so-called finished product, be it a novel, a song, or a painting. It provides inspiration and a bit of solace to see that artists of all calibers take leaps of faith and engage in play that is not immediately or obviously useful. Sometimes, they even land on their asses and get a bit bruised.

An artist’s sketchbook, when viewed in its entirety, provides this kind of developmental snapshot of the creative process. You can see its maker going through the creative steps (not necessarily in this order): Imagine, dream, play, research, generate, edit, share, polish, repeat.


However, when someone else edits their pages for public presentation, you lose some of the messier parts and the work can appear more complete than it really is. I know. I edited the visual journals of thirty creative thinkers into a book [Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art

  • Ed.]. Although I tried to maintain some of the journals’ blemishes, in the end, it proved too tempting to put in the really fine and lovely parts over the mash-ups. Luckily, the artists’ own reflections on their work proved to be as telling as the art with regard to the creative process.

The same holds true in this new book that covers much the same ground as my own, though with a new cast of artists wielding pens, brushes and scissors. The creatives profiled in Richard Breteton’s Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators & Creatives, (Amazon: US |CA |UK |DE ) share their work—much of it very lovely and leaning toward the more polished end of the spectrum—as well as insights into how they work.


The poet Adrienne Rich has said that the notes for the poem are the poem. Likewise, one might argue that the journal pages featured in Sketchbooks, even those intended as movements toward an eventual finished work, are works in and of themselves.

Sketchbooks and journals (I am not a stickler on the terminology) tear open a series of questions: What is finished? Is anything ever finished? What is the allure of the deconstructed object, i.e., the novel interrupted with notes from its author; the film shot out of order; the dress whose stitching and inner structure are purposely visible?


They also ignite questions about privacy, namely, do we value a work differently if it was not intentionally created for public viewing? Intentionality is, for me, a big marker in whether something constitutes a true sketchbook or journal. When I blog, for instance, I intentionally write for an audience. But when I work in my journal, I work for myself – even if I am willing to share some pages with others later.

Safety is key in a journal—safety to explore, to mess up, to try on entirely new styles and voices. One contributor to Sketchbooks, John Hendrix, writes (all of the book’s prose, save for the introduction, is first-person from the artists):

“The sketchbook should be a place where it is safe to make mistakes. If a sketchbook is not a repository of raw ideas, but a touring portfolio of my best work, it loses the very thing that makes it special.”


In addition to providing this safe place, journals also teach an artist to hone his or her work. Holly Wales, a London-based illustrator, says,

“Keeping a sketchbook is a good way of teaching yourself how to edit well—you begin to fine-rune your ability to know exactly what to keep and what to discard. You realize that what you leave out is as important as you put in.”

Likewise, designer Johnny Hardstaff calls his journals “incubators,” and is only interested in his current one:

“Once finished, once complete, my sketchbooks are worthless. In a way they are themselves filters. They filter away the whimsical, the faddish and the pointless. That way, the only useful sketchbook is the current one, which carries forth with it interesting trains of thought.”

I’m drawn to Hardstaff’s in-the-moment incubator, as it is the opposite of the twee journals that have become popular with the artist book crowd. Such overly produced journals crowd out our playfulness; they chide us into being more perfect and more lovely. They prevent us from recording our truest selves.


And our truest selves will live at the center of our journals if we listen. Peter James Field, an English artist and illustrator has been keeping sketchbooks since he was five, and when he takes out even the oldest ones, he sees that he hasn’t really changed that much, nor have the books:

“Then as now, I was trying to look around and make something lasting from the mundane things that surrounded me. … I was using drawing to digest and give meaning to the outside world.”

Brereton hints at the elasticity of the visual journal through his inclusion of drawings by the team at FUEL, a London-based design firm, who contributed drawings on newspapers that they do together over lunch and which they call a form of “desktop graffiti”. There are also different sketchbooks for dinner purposes. Pep Carrio, a designer in Madrid, does a daily drawing in one sketchbook but then keeps another near his telephone for drawing during conversations. “A sketchbook,” he said, “is like a kid of portable laboratory…a memory warehouse.”


There is now a sketchbook app for the iPhone, and the artist David Hockney has been doing sketches on his iPhone and iPad for a while. Others save images on their phone or on Flicker or Facebook and arrange these later. Arguably, these are the new iteration of the journal, and it will be interesting to see how they influence and contribute to artists’ work in the future.

But the paper journal will not be lost, no matter how many pixilated playthings we add to our repertoire. Its functionality, ease of use, and the pure tactile pleasure are irreplaceable.

About the Reviewer

Jennifer New is the author of Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art . Her own site is