Last Week: Creating art vs recording life

March 28, 2016 | 28 Comments

Last week  I was thinking about the differences between creating art and recording life. They are not opposing ideas and there are overlaps, but there is a difference in the intention.

Here are a few thoughts I had:

  1. If your goal is to create art you will be looking for an occasion to ‘do a sketch’ making sure that the scene is inspiring and that you have appropriate time to complete it. Of course in the process, you will be recording part of your life, but the motivation is to create a beautiful image.
  2. If your goal is recording your life then you will look for any opportunity to record events or thoughts in a variety of ways – quick sketch, more planned sketches, notes, collage, info-graphics, diagrams, etc. You might create a beautiful piece of art in the process but that wasn’t ‘the driver!’

My goal at the moment is more the second option – especially as I am hustling a bit! And you will see that last week I made a couple of quick pages to record events that were certainly not great pieces of ‘art’. When I have a little more time than the first option becomes my desire. And when I am travelling the two are merged together seamlessly.

The opening image shows two sketches of local streetscapes. The first done in a few minutes before rushing to the gym (I was in a limited parking zone so couldn’t take any more than a few minutes) and the second on Good Friday morning when I gave myself the time to do a sketch of the view from my cafe table. Whilst it wasn’t a long or carefully planned sketch, I was very conscious that I was ‘doing a sketch’ as opposed to the first one that was more of a ‘sketchnote’.  There isn’t much difference in the end result between the two but there was in my intention at the start.

Am I splitting hairs by making this distinction? I am not sure… but it has helped me prioritse how I am going to use my sketchbook in the next little while until things settle down.  By thinking that my goal is simply “recording life” I am more likely to take risks and attempt something (anything) in my sketchbook – so it’s a win-win situation.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic – do you think there is any difference between creating art and recording life? If so, which is more important to you?

Anyway, here are my pages….

My collection of morning lattes Mon-Thurs. I enjoyed sketching them overlapping in a smaller area.

Quick sketch of the view from my carpark and finding a cardi that I thought was lost!

This is an example of recording my life –  a big admin day. It is a random series of diagrams and a little collage with things discovered during the day. In my filing, I came across a topo map of Quinag an amazing Scottish hill and couldn’t throw it out, so it ended up in my sketchbook.

How many people have different teacups for different projects? Well, I do! So drinking out of this cup signifies the fact I am working on Edges. Wrote about the Palladio sketch here.

Good Friday morning coffee and street scene sketch. I hope to write a little more about this sketch later this week.

My hot cross bun which I discussed here and recording some thoughts about my work this week. Another coffee at my local cafe as I worked all day Saturday and every work day my routine is to start with a morning cafe visit.

On Saturday evening I was reading about Palladio and just had to do a quick loose sketch of Basilica Palladiana so I could record a great quote I read. A few other notes from the day as well. I always have ideas buzzing in my head (obscured until I get a chance to formulate them!)


And so ends another week….



  • Debbie Eyre says:

    Treating a sketchbook as a record of life is a liberating idea because it does remove the pressure to produce something to a high standard.

  • Sandra James-Talbot says:

    Since I started reading your blog and seriously learning to sketch in a sketchbook, that’s when the breakthrough occurred. For me, using a sketchbook instead of single sheets means I’m not trying to produce art for others to see, but for my own pleasure and the joy of using the materials. Such a different focus.

  • S. Fuess says:

    Wonderful post Liz and I totally agree with Debbie. I love the the concept of a “sketchnote” vs planned and pretty.

  • Cathy Dwyer says:

    Hi Liz. I’m still a little hung up on creating art and striving to make each page in my sketchbook perfectly composed and beautiful. Little by little I’m trying to let go of that and I keep telling myself it’s only paper, ink and paint!

  • Michelle Wooderson says:

    Loved this Liz. When I try to plan out a landscape which is what I sketch mostly, I tend to overthink, overwork, overpaint and I end up with a warped page of “too much”. When I just make a moose sketch and add some splashes of color I tend to love those more. So I need to remember that #practiceisart and that every page in my sketchbooks is building on to what will become a piece of art in itself…the sketchbook as a whole. Good stuff today.

  • Michelle Wooderson says:

    *loose sketch

  • I definitely think that creating art and and reporting life but that, as you say, they overlap and for some, overlap considerably. I think the two sketches you emphasize may exhibit the overlap best, underscoring that it’s intent, not result, that matters. One thing that is important here is that so many who come to sketching bring with them the notion of ‘creating art’ while urban sketchers, nature sketchers, artist journalers spend a great deal of time trying to convince them that ‘drawing what you see’ is the way to go and to not worry about ‘hang on the wall’ art. Maybe that’s the biggest dichotomy of all (grin). We’re right, of course 🙂 — Larry

  • Mary Beth Person says:

    The difference for me is this:
    “Creating Art” = Lots of thinking, dreaming, aspirations. Aborted attempts in empty sketchbooks.
    “Recording Life and Things I Love” = Sketchbooks gradually filling up. A record of progress, action and emotions. A place to ruminate on tangible efforts and actual events. Joy in reflection!!”

    Thank you, Liz, for sharing your process and your thoughts on the differences. This has brought me to a huge turning point in my journey.

  • Youanna says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I want the second version, and I end up doing the first one, Every Single Time….How can I get this idea stuck in my little head? Brilliant post, Liz! Setting THE intention every time we grab the sketchbook. Unconsciously, I set up a trap before me, every time I draw, as I expect to do something that will be accepted by others, and obviously I need more time to do that. Right there, I lost the spontaneous joy of “recording life” simply, unpretentious, and without expectations.

  • Cori says:

    Recording life, creating art, and life enjoyment are all connected. I usually will try and do a quick 5 minute portrait sketch in the evening, just as a way to relax and have a moment of enjoyment for myself. In the process, I have created some amazing little portraits that ended up being a great moment of remembering a special occasion, and then became a gift of “art” to the person drawn!

    Remarkable, when all I did was sit down to enjoy 5 minutes for myself!

  • Teresa Bouchard says:

    I love the term ‘sketchnote’. I am definitely in that camp right now 🙂 My goal right now is to establish a daily sketching habit and work towards sketching throughout the day. So doing sketchnotes every day is my goal now.

  • The spontaneity of the sketch captures your emotional feeling toward the subject and in a way it can be considered art in and of itself. I liken it to a Garage Band version of a song vs. a Studio version of a song.

  • Hi Liz,
    My thoughts about this are when l am out sketching, l am normally thinking about a future painting or a project l am thinking about. When l am recording my life, as it were, l work in my “Journal”.etting excited now, on the plane to Sydney on Wednesday! 🙂
    Lynda 🙂

  • ana reinert says:

    I recently purchased my first landscape format watercolor sketchbook (I’ve always used the portrait format in the past) and I was a bit intimidated about using the wide format but you’ve inspired me to try dividing the pages in half. Thanks for sharing your pages and how you document your life.

  • Emily D. says:

    I love the hot cross bun and the cardi! They’re so fun.

  • Julie-Anne Rogers says:

    Well I am going to add another point to the mix. I often sketch for stress release. I find that I can release my tension by focusing on a sketch. My breathing slows down and the world disappears.

  • Shirley Miller says:

    Liz, I have always loved to draw, but I am new /less than a year) to sketchbook drawing. And I love it!! You and other urban sketchers have got me going and I can’t stop! But I am torn on this very issue. I really want to keep a recording my life sketchbook, but I feel overwhelmed and am not sure what to include or even what time of day. And my recording my life sketching looks so messy and almost childish. But when I plan a drawing in an urban setting I feel focused and like that. I want to do both, like you. Also is a smaller or larger sketchbook better for a daily recording book?
    Thank you for sharing such an important art topic.

  • Dawn Holder says:

    Great post Liz! I totally agree and am glad you brought this up. I will try to concentrate on recording life more…for fun. Thanks!

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I’ve never done sketches with the intention of creating art; all my sketches are of daily life documentation. But I do another type of sketching that is neither art nor documentation — it’s particular exercises at home when I want to practice a technique or tool or medium that would be impractical or difficult on location. I love the analysis in this post, Liz, and it has given me an idea for a post I want to write now! 🙂


  • Owen says:

    Thanks for the article, Liz. I don’t see a division, an either or but rather a both/and. I believed this but had it validated externally when I took a bit of a radical step last year and opened up my sketchbooks making pages for sale, in a gallery, as art –the nerve. Part of it was holding my own drawings and memories loosely preferring the cherish the experience-past of having seen what I drew. Not everyone’s “cup of tea”, I understand and respect. Part letting others and myself see that I value my drawings and sketches as of value and as complete in and of themselves as much as any of my finished paintings. Of 60+ that I had in my show I sold 17 which frankly, I found amazing.

  • It’s the ‘all in one sketchbook or separate books’ idea again really.
    I choose which paper/sketchbook to use based on whether I am ‘making art’ (or doing more time-consuming detailed pieces, whether just for myself or for exhibition); doing some experimental stuff; keeping a travel journal; writing in a journal; planning; making lists. So Different books (or large pieces of paper) get used depending on the intention of the piece. It would be simpler to have it all in one book but then I’d be wasting watercolour paper with notes and lists or getting frustrated that lighter paper wasn’t good for watercolour.

  • Corinne van der Vorst says:

    I would like to do the latter but there is always a voice in my head that says I must make something “nice”. Therefore I try to do one serious attempt a day to make a nice sketch for which I take some more time. The rest of the day I feel free to make whatever sketches I like without worrying about the result that much.

  • Great question, Liz, and I think I am in the minority here, but to me, “creating art” is where the joy is. Maybe because I am also a photographer, I have never been romanced by the quick sketch to record life. I can record with a camera. My art journals, on the other hand are life records that I LOVE to go back and savor. Just a small detail from a scene can take me back to the whole memory. So I create art in my books, and ALWAYS have my phone or iPad with me because I almost never have time to finish something. I get it going and take a reference photo – which allows me all the time in the world to finish at home. Also, I am more and more devoted to “SLOW living” so the whole “quick” thing – sketch or whatever – does not appeal.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks everyone for the wonderful comments! I will try and reply soon!

  • Angie Gauthier says:

    This post really struck me. Lately, I have been really stuck when it comes to drawing and now I realize why. I have been focusing on wanting to create art. Which I really don’t have a lot of time for at the moment. But it also got me thinking a lot about why I want to keep a sketchbook. And really, when i look back at old sketchbooks, the pages that mean the most to me, are not always the ones that are pretty, but they are always about a moment that I took the time to capture. Thanks for this Liz. I think i needed to read this!

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