The Third Something

095 / Fill More Sketchbooks!

A new year is a perfect time to start a new daily sketchbook habit. Here’s some more advice on how to make it work.

Hello and Happy New Year from The Third Something, a newsletter about visual storytelling by me, Adam Westbrook. I’m a London-based journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker and — somehow, maybe — comic artist? (see letters passim).

The Third Something is a living object insomuch as it seems to change and evolve along with my own curiosities: at first this newsletter was about the craft of telling stories in video, morphing into a personal journal and a logbook of my drawing practice; sometimes its heart beats fast with a flurry of letters every Sunday, and sometimes it saunters into hibernation.

It may have changed since you first joined and it may well change again this year. You are of course always welcome to come and go as you please.

And if this mercurial letter is something you value, here’s a place you can throw a coin into my hat.

Exactly one year ago I told you I had just one goal for 2020: fill sketchbooks (#53). Instead of setting a big one-off ambition, I wanted to try setting a habitual goal instead: a small daily action that, perhaps, might compound.

Twelve months later, here’s the result!

A photo of 5 completed sketchbooks by Adam Westbrook

I shared a few tips on keeping a sketchbook back in July (#82) but after a year I feel in a better position to give some deeper advice.

Visual artists working in all mediums ought to keep a sketchbook, I think. Drawing is the fastest and cheapest way to pictorially express and record ideas; it encourages observation and gets you out of the rut of thinking verbally.

Some advice, then

Your sketchbook is yours. It’s not Austin Kleon’s, or Tillie Walden’s or Loish’s or mine. It might be, depending on the obligations you have in your life, the only place where you are completely free, so don’t waste that trying to imitate other people.

For the same reason, don’t hold back from writing or drawing things which you feel embarrassed to share. Draw them, explore them and then don’t share them. Your sketchbook is your own private kingdom if you choose it to be.

Some of the pages I’m most proud of in my sketchbook this year I can’t share with you because my Nana and my boss read this newsletter — and that’s OK!

Figure sketches by Adam Westbrook

Have a very low base. I’d love to wake up every morning ready to knock out a beautiful illustration or an inspired comic. Instead, I tend to wake up tired, grumpy, hungover or a combination of all three. For this reason it’s really good to have a dead easy fallback exercise, one that requires zero brain power.

A page of spirals in Adam Westbrook’s sketchbook

For me, it’s drawing spirals (#62). The only decision required is where to start a spiral, but then the rules are set: keep going until you hit something, then start again. Spirals have a bunch of side-benefits which I wrote about back in March - but chiefly they keep my hand moving, keep the pages filling.

On days when I am feeling slightly more alert, I’ll draw 3D shapes from different angles, which has the added benefit of practicing perspective and volumetric objects (#76).

Volumetric sketches by Adam Westbrook

Your sketchbook lives. The professionals who share their sketchbooks on Instagram perpetuate two myths: firstly that every page in a sketchbook must be good and secondly that they must have a consistent style. These artists have found their style and are practicing and developing it, but if you don’t have one, then there is no reason to lock yourself into a format.

Your sketchbook can be as alive and messy as you are and can change, grow and evolve with your tastes and interests. I’ve experimented with different sizes and styles of sketchbook; I started drawing in brush pens and then switched to coloured pencils on a whim. I’ll absolutely change again.

This is not a YouTube channel: there are no rewards for consistency, but the potential rewards for experimenting are great.

Figure sketches by Adam Westbrook

Figure sketches by Adam Westbrook

Ask nothing of your sketchbook. Here’s graphic novelist Tillie Walden in the introduction to a recently published compilation of her sketchbooks:

“I first started keeping a sketchbook in high school and I found it to be a joyless experience. I was trying far too hard to make every page beautiful, and my ability at the time meant that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get there.”

Your sketchbook is not there to get you hearts, to help you figure out your next big project or to launch your career. Burdening it with the need to be ‘beautiful’ or profound or popular will weigh it down. You’ll always feel disappointed with what you just drew and then you’ll stop.

Here’s the one small thing you can expect of your sketchbook: it is there to keep your engine ticking over.

Practice drawings of hands by Adam Westbrook

Practice drawings of hands by Adam Westbrook

Creativity is like my old 1989 Nissan Micra — it doesn’t benefit from being left unused outside in the snow for months on end (at least until it got stolen and driven into a lamppost at high speed, but that’s another story).

It became apparent very early on in 2020 that my art was not going to happen (#65). It could easily have been ignored, unused and left rusting as life most definitely got in the way.

The small act of filling a page or two of my sketchbook every day stopped the rust from setting in and when the Cape Graphic Short Story competition was opened in September, I wasn’t starting from cold (#92, #93).

And it’s in this way that your sketchbook, like your art, exists in that duality so brilliantly expressed by Elizabeth Gilbert: at once being the most important thing so that you turn up every day to do it; and at the same time, not mattering at all so that you can be free.

A self portrait by Adam Westbrook

I had a breakdown this year. I spent a lot of 2020 alone, at one point passing 100 straight days without seeing another person, the saddest and most lost I have ever felt in my life, while the sky seemingly buckled above us all.

My sketchbook was there every morning, ready to take whatever I had to write or draw without judgement, to remind me I could improve, to reflect myself back to me.

As I flip back through the pages, I see in Polychromos scribbles someone at their lowest ebb who still who still found reason to practice drawing, and I realise my sketchbook saved me.

Until another Sunday soon,

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