I believe that every person with any degree of interest in creating art or lettering should have a sketchbook journal! I have kept one since 2004, and I still derive so much enjoyment out of creating new pages. It’s an activity that allows me to relax, think, and experiment with new mediums!
What is a Sketchbook Journal?
A sketchbook journal is essentially a blank book that you use to record memories, explore themes, and/or try out new art techniques. There’s really no hard definition for a sketchbook journal … it’s a personal thing, so it can be whatever you want it to be!
I like my sketchbook journals to serve as a sort of scrapbook as well. A sketchbook journal is a great place to put little scraps of paper that mean something to you, but might just be clutter on their own. For example, the sketchbook page above showcases business cards, a yoga studio fob, and illustrations that remind me of the four happy years that I spent living in Lawrence, Kansas.
How to Make a Sketchbook Journal
Before I tell you how to make a sketchbook journal, I want to make one thing clear. You do not have to consider yourself an artist to enjoy creating a sketchbook journal! Sketchbook journaling is for anyone who likes lettering, drawing, or just organizing his or her paper scraps. Remember: it’s a personal project, so you aren’t working to impress anyone! This is a project you should pursue for your own enjoyment, and without trepidation or reservations!
1. Find the Right Sketchbook for You
When I go to purchase sketchbooks, I first look at the weight of the paper. I wouldn’t recommend buying anything under 70 lbs.; otherwise, the paper will struggle if you use watercolors. The sketchbook should explicitly state the paper weight on the front, just as it does in the photo below.
Secondly, I look at the size. I think that sketchbooks in the 9″ x 12″ (227 x 305 mm) size range are perfect: not too big, and not too small! Finally, I, personally, prefer wirebound sketchbooks. They splay open beautifully, and are not constantly trying to close themselves. I purchased the sketchbook pictured above at Michael’s (a US/Canada craft store). 2019 update: I now work in a Shinola sketchbook and absolutely love it!
2. Decide a Page Theme and Start Creating
You can go theme-less, of course, but I always pick a theme for the page that I intend to work on. (For a list of inspiration-sparking themes, you can click here.) My page theme today is a July 2016 trip that we took to Brazil. I started off by using a light box to reproduce one of my favorite photos onto the page. Here’s the photo — it’s of me walking through the streets of Tiradentes, a town in Minas Gerais, Brazil.
I love using a light box to trace over images that I’ve printed off! If you want to reproduce an image, you can freehand draw, of course — but when there are so many buildings involved, I love to go the easy route. Like I said, there are no rules in sketchbook journaling. Do whatever you want to do!
One of the perks of making illustrations of your images is that you can modify them however you want to! I re-imagined the illustration below without the cars and most of the people. I also added some Janet Style calligraphy (left) and Kaitlin Style calligraphy (right) to label the place and the dates that we stayed there.
After the black and white version of the illustration was complete, I used watercolor paint to fill in the illustration. As I painted, I was reminded of another perk of sketchbook journaling: technique experimentation. In full-on experimentation mode, I added hues of blue and yellow to the cobblestone streets, and violet to the roofs. I also opted not to add color to the people in the photo, which resulted in an interesting effect.
If you choose to start your sketchbook journal off with a watercolor + ink illustration like this one, make sure you use a waterproof ink! My go-to is Ziller Soot Black.
3. Continue to Fill Up the Page
When I create a sketchbook page, my goal is to fill it with color, designs, and lettering! If that’s a good goal for you as well, try layering elements and experimenting with new mediums. The Cristo illustration below — symbolic of Rio de Janeiro — was created using a black Gelly Roll pen and a gray colored pencil.
4. Add Lettering/Designs/Paper Scraps/Etc. Until You’re Happy with the Page
The page is finished when you feel satisfied with it! Remember to look at it through kind, non-critical eyes. A sketchbook journal provides a safe space to experiment with techniques, topics, and mediums — no one is going to judge you!
To finish up the Brazil page of my sketchbook journal, I added some George Style lettering (“BRAZIL”), a blue circle inspired by the Brazilian flag, and a map depicting a small village we stayed at called Itatiaia. I visually tied everything together with yellow watercolor paint and more calligraphy, and the page was complete!
For me, the point of creating this page was to relive the trip to Brazil. As I was creating it, a flood of happy memories were running through my mind — and that’s the point: to focus on the theme. I thought about the gorgeous Airbnb we stayed in in Tiradentes, the arduous hike up to the Cristo Redentor, and the delicious food at Villa Itatiaia. When you’re creating artwork and thinking about things, you tend to experience them in a new way, with small details coming back to you!
Why You Should Make a Sketchbook Journal
Different people will experience different rewards from working in a sketchbook journal. That said, here are three reasons that I enjoy working in mine:
1. Increased Creative Confidence
Your sketchbook journal gives you the opportunity to try out new mediums and techniques in a practice setting. You can do whatever you want and find out what works for you! As you flex your creative muscle, you will gain experience and confidence.
For example, the left page above (created in 2006) marks the first time that I used coffee as a paint/ink. I loved the effect, and I still use strong teas and coffees in my work today! That page taught me how beautifully neutrals can pair with bold colors, which is another lesson I’ve returned to time and time again over the past eleven years.
If you tend to hold on to paper (scraps, business cards, notes, gift tags, etc.), then your sketchbook journal provides a welcome home for them! In 2005, I made the page on the left, below, from all the college pamphlets that I received. (Ironically, I didn’t end up going to any of the collaged colleges.) When I look at that page, I remember how overwhelmed I was trying to decide where to go after high school! I also remember the excitement of possibility.
Putting paper scraps in a sketchbook journal gives you the chance to preserve them in a thoughtful, artistic way. Just make sure you use an archival glue so the scraps don’t disintegrate over time!
3. Memory Preservation
Your brain is always making room for new information by squeezing out old information, so memories tend to fade. If you have a sketchbook journal, it can serve as a sort of “pensieve” (that’s a Harry Potter reference — here‘s the definition). Through colors, images, and paper scraps, you can put together an accurate representation of your thoughts and feelings.
It’s interesting to go back and look at your pages later in life. The “GOALS” page above, for example, was created thirteen years ago, and it’s amazing to look at it now. The “Concentrate on Learning Spanish” goal makes me smile because I ended up married to a Peruvian. I had no idea how right I was when I wrote “This skill will come in handy later”!
Get Started Today
If you have a few spare moments, I encourage you to start your own sketchbook here in the next couple of days! That way, the motivation and inspiration will still be fresh. You don’t have to make a full page in one sitting — there’s no time limit.
If you have family members or friends who may be interested in starting a sketchbook journal, consider creating together. In high school, my friends and I used to get out our art supplies, sit at the kitchen table, and create as we chatted and snacked. Sometimes, we’d even trade sketchbooks for a few minutes to create content in each others’ sketchbooks! Now, those traded pages are a fun reminder of friendships.
If you’d like some visual inspiration, you can Google or search Pinterest for “sketchbook pages”. If you prefer books, try Artists’ Journals and Sketchbooks by Lynne Perrella — it has a nice collection of different artists’ pages. It also offers technique suggestions, like how to transfer photos to paper using tape! Again — as far as page themes go, you can find a list of prompts in this free printable.
No matter what your artistic level, I hope that you give sketchbook journaling a try! If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to contribute in the comments. Thanks very much for reading, and have a wonderful weekend!