Trip Prep: Sketchbook Strategies

June 9, 2016 | 14 Comments

One of the things I have mentioned before is how much the sketchbook size affects how much you sketch.

The smaller the book the more likely you will pull it out and do a small quick random sketch. The larger the sketchbook the less likely you are to do this, and the more likely you are to only open it up when you are dedicating some time to doing a ‘proper’ sketch.

Although the large sketchbook would be great for doing journal-style pages with a combination of different sized images and text, it doesn’t seem to happen that way! This has become really obvious to me as I compare my old travel sketchbooks (portrait A5 as above) with the Moleskine A4 landscape (below).

When I am travelling I am much more focused on sketching than I am in my everyday life – I am truly sketching all the time. But I have found that I am less likely to take risks when I am using the larger book.

On a number of occasions in Singapore last year, the fact that I had to start a new double page spread if I wanted to sketch my dinner put me off attempting it – or I ended up doing big empty spreads like this one. There is nothing wrong with this, and a few spreads with lots of white space is very nice.

But I truly believe the huge expanse of the double page spread was a mental barrier to starting something small or quick, and that is what I want to overcome.

Another factor is the fact that I like to start everyday with a new spread (including my morning reading and a bold date heading), and each sketchbook has it’s own design for the way I want this to look.

In a larger book if I wanted to do a quick sketch at the end of the day and I had to start a new spread, I felt a little compelled by my own system to either fill a full spread or call it quits for the day. So maybe it is time to revisit this rule?

Here are a few examples from previous trips when I was using an A5 portrait format book.

For this trip I want to try to get back to doing more spontaneous travel-journal style pages made up of little details, maps and silly notes, so last weekend I did some thinking and explored a few options.

What I decided is that a less structured approach to the way I start each day just might encourage more open compositions. Instead of it always starting on a new spread, a new day is marked by my usual morning reading and a date heading in a lined block that can be positioned anywhere on the page. It doesn’t always have to take up the whole of the left side of a double page spread.

I also want to really take risks with small quick sketches – throwing them on a page without worrying about it and then trusting to the text, maps, collage to pull the page together. It was interesting when I did the above experiment over the course of a day that I was a little worried about how it would turn out. So it was good to remind myself that this is ok and to trust that I will be able to finish off the page at some stage and pull it together.

And just for the record, I still intend to do full page or double page spread size sketches without text. It’s just that I want to return to these type of pages which I have really missed over the last few trips since I moved to the bigger book.

Some of you are probably thinking that I am a bit nutty to go to so much planning beforehand. Well, to get the results I want, I know from experience that I have to plan and design beforehand – my designed journal style pages don’t just magically happen!

I spend as much time with the design of the book as I do with the sketches and I like to be mentally prepared with a strategy, and well I think the secret to success with travel sketching is mainly mental – thinking about it and then just doing it!

So what you you think? Will this work?
Does anyone else have rules about how they use their sketchbook?
Do you ever create journal style pages with multiple images added through out the day?


  • Kate Powell says:

    Only a couple of things in terms of my own sketchbooks. I do have a couple of dedicated sketchbooks (for a group I belong to, a project, and a crazy new book I keep my the bed for middle-of-the-night sketching in ink only.) after that I finally dropped all the rules. My life is infinitely easier, and because I have a strong style and organization (architect) it ends up looking fine as a layout 99% of the time — and I am more relaxed. My favorite sketchbooks are Moleskin A4 landscape because I like having the big pages to do whatever I want on them — lots of small sketches in a gridded format or wonky format or a big spread. I want to love S&B but they don’t lay flat enough and I don’t like fighting them, and I don’t want the rings. I also love square books, and so I have a couple of those I reach for, and I enjoy the accordion formatted sketchbooks for an occasion… Now I am all for keeping it simple. Aaaahhhhh…..

  • Barbara Schneider says:

    What size (in inches or CM) is your landscape format sketchbook? It looks larger than those I am familiar with. I like the landscape for me because there isn’t so much white space to intimidate.

  • Youanna N. says:

    Ha…good point, Liz! I do believe we need some mental strategy for arranging stuff on the page, and that takes a little from the joy of spontaneously sketching items throughout the day and make it in a story. Then I tend to start planning too much and worrying even more. I caught myself doing it last night when doing the calligraphy on my page. I don’t have rules yet, and exploring is my approach. But…it’s a little like cooking, you can make a soup just throwing some veggies in water and boil them, but it takes a little finesse and little planning to make it in a tasty creation. i believe balance is key! I do love your journal style pages, because the writing makes the sketch a lot more personal and friendly. And thanks for sharing the idea of starting the day with the date and some writing. This step alone sets a journal page mindset for what the day might bring. Cheers!

    • This – “But…it’s a little like cooking, you can make a soup just throwing some veggies in water and boil them, but it takes a little finesse and little planning to make it in a tasty creation.” On the button Youana N.

  • Sandra James-Talbot says:

    As a graphic design student, I’m with you on this one, Liz. Planning some kind of layout style in advance is key. I love the variety of some art journal pages mixed up with more minimally designed ones. Consistency is important, like you say, by having the title and date, for instance, in the same format on each page.

    I need to add more variety to my pages, and I hardly ever use an A4 sketchbook because all that white space is too daunting and the pressure of doing a “good” sketch is too great. A 9″ x 6″ feels comfortable for me, but I need to do my sketches smaller if I’m going to fit more onto a spread! This size works well for a 3 column grid too.

  • I’ve been keeping a writing journal for many years and I want to begin keeping a sketch journal when my current writing journal is completed at the end of June.

    I am a natural planner/organizer – a little bit OCD for sure, but I don’t want planning and organizing a sketch journal to hamper the pleasure of writing and sketching but enhance the practice.

    For me, a 5 x 8 portrait sketchbook offers me the best of both worlds as I will feel as if I am writing in a regular journal plus I’ll have pages that can accommodate pen and ink and most importantly, watercolour.

    Like you Liz, I have an aversion to doing several sketches throughout the day. Hence the term “obsessive sketch addict” which is how I describe myself. With a sketch journal, I can do the sketches related to my journal entries in my new sketch journal. The others, which may be in response to Facebook group challenges, those born out of the random stuff of everyday life will continue to find a home in my regular “day” sketchbooks and then I have special sketchbooks for Sketch Meets. I know that sometimes there will be overlap, but hey, C’est la vie. Right?.

    I want my sketch journal to be filled with not only words of reflection, joy, complaining, plans, dreams, … but with sketches that reflect, explain, solve, conceptualize – whatever – those thoughts and emotions.

    Liz, thank you for inspiring me to formulate my thoughts on this topic and the opportunity to share them here.

  • Agata says:

    I was always afraid of A4 sketchbooks, but lately I had an aha moment and decided to do journal-style pages with combination of 2-3-4 sketches and lettering. I can’t wait to buy big Moleskine and to try this kind of visual diary:) But you are right, Liz, for travel journal the best choice is a smaller one like A5

  • Kristy Brenner says:

    I haven’t been doing sketching or journaling that includes sketching for very long, but, as I’m sure a lot of beginners do, I have seen others’ sketchbooks/journals and assumed that the pages just flowed out of them spontaneously into their delightful form. I need a fair amount of time and preparation for almost every kind of drawing/sketching/painting, so it heartens me to read that you feel the need to give some forethought to your process.

    • Liz Steel says:

      well Kristy, after many years of doing it, it can often flow naturally, but when you want a specific outcome planning is needed.

  • Emily DeArdo says:

    I think this is a good idea. I find that if I bring out my “big” sketchbook I’m a lot more likely to actually sketch, because I have that space. I can do justice to things, so to speak. When I use my smaller ones, I feel like I have to be bit more careful! I took my large book out for some Urban Sketching today and I really liked the freedom I felt with it.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I really appreciate that you put so much thought into your page spreads ahead of time, which is exactly what allows them to look so fresh and spontaneous, as if you just threw it all together! I don’t “design” pages this way, but I do have my “proper” sketches that don’t mix well with my more “casual” sketches in the same book. My solution is to use 2 (but only 2) separate books: my 6×9 inch “proper” sketchbook (sorry — not sure how that translates to A sizes — slightly larger than A5, I think) and a pocket size “casual” sketchbook. I first started doing this to accommodate travel, but then it worked so well that I do it all the time now. It’s like the post in which you talked about the “art” sketches vs. the other kind (more like a daily record). It’s good that you reevaluate your own “rules” sometimes! Rules should serve you, not vice versa.


  • Pam Thorburn says:

    Loved seeing your sketch of Stornaway Black Pudding-I LOVE this stuff! As a new sketcher I found your comments about the A4 format leading to fewer sketches. I was thinking about trying the larger format, but I did wonder about convenience factor. I think I’ll stick to A5 and even a wee A6 for the time being.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Yes Pam – I love both McLeod and McLeod and Charlie Barley versions but think McLeod and McLeod is a little nicer. Will have to test again!

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