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  • Writer's pictureAtomicRakshasi

How to Get That Sketchbook Started

a photo of an open sketchbook with artwork of a deer skull
Yep, that's my art, proud of it!

If you’re a sketchbook stalker, like I am, you must have heard that story about the art teacher who made all his students pile up their sketchbooks on a table and then, to their horror, poured a cup of coffee all over the pile.

The art teacher was trying to make a point to his students about detachment, practice and the misguided urge to create the perfect drawing while learning.

That is a great lesson in itself, but I’m not going to ask you to do that. I believe sketchbooks should be cherished because they serve more than the purpose of skill improvement: they’re a fellow traveller, the silent mirror that accompanies you on your journey that you can open up a year later and reflect on how far you’ve come. It’s not going to judge you and it’s like talking to an old friend.

So…do you have a problem lifting a pencil? Does your imagination resemble a vast wasteland? Did the bright idea you had five seconds ago, after you finally picked up the courage to put it down on paper, look like a bonfire of grawlixes, when the original idea looked considerably more polished in your head?

Let’s be clear, it’s not a lack of motivation that got you here, it’s probably a series of cynical messages, bad advice and possibly some traumatic incident. Imagination, especially in artists (or writers), doesn’t have a timer on it. We even conceptualize when we’re sleeping, whether it’s world-building or thinking about what to make for breakfast the next morning.

So, do you feel like you have this giant cork stuck in your mind, blocking all possibilities of creative thought ever finding a resting place on an analogue surface any time soon?

“Be wild; that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes”


My last post was about wet blanketing, ie., dealing with people who don’t believe art serves any purpose, or who believe that unless the outcome is perfect, it’s not worth producing. You and I know that both of those are false notions, but, depending on our respective environments, whether you were always discouraged all your life or whether you were told you were special (and found out recently that you aren’t), you’re here, and you need to stop wasting precious time.


Let’s talk about where that is. It’s not the worst place to be, but close if you’re supposed to make a living out of it. Remember the times, long ago, when you fearlessly lifted a crayon and scribbled a masterpiece in a few minutes without fear of consequence, opinion or grades? Don’t you wish you could be there again?

In that, grawlixes are useful: they help loosen you up. If you’re short of a large enough surface, pick a newspaper and a crayon or piece of charcoal, sit yourself down and scribble away. Scrawl larger, scrawl smaller. Keep at it for five minutes or more if you like. Ooh? Is it a masterpiece? Should we give it a name?


Throw it away. The purpose of the exercise is to empty your mind and build the connection between your mind and your hand through touch, that deadweight that, under the worst circumstance, you’re so disconnected from. Do this exercise a couple of times a day until you feel empty or rather, clear-headed enough, to start an actual sketchbook.

How do you start?

I find sketchbook prompts highly dissatisfying. For one, I feel disinclined to do what people want me to. Secondly, some of the vague ‘draw an emotion’ prompts annoy me. I’m not ready to dig that deep! So, what do I do?

I know you want to fill your sketchbook with fantastical imagery like a pro artist. I know you want to get that blood pumping but trust me, you’re not ready yet. Why? Because you’re heading for disappointment. The purpose of this sketchbook is not achievement, it’s stillness. Focus on the mundane, not the fantastical. The magic will arrive on its own.

I begin with a list of mundane objects. A coffee cup, a pen holder, a fork, a spoon or a knife.

If you’re comfortable after a couple of drawings, move on to more complex objects. A chair or a table. Feel free to embellish it with flowers, polka dots, in or around it. Feel free to write down your mood after finishing the drawing. You’ve started a sketchbook. If you’re done with your first drawing, feel free to sit back and admire it. Congratulations, the cork is being wedged out, bit by bit.

The next stage is discipline. I know, discipline is boring. You don’t like reining in your imagination, you want to be free!

I was brought up on discipline, the dronish, robotic type and it helped me through a lot of dark days because it was fear-based. Once real adulthood came, the fear was gone and I was lost. True discipline, the kind that comes with freedom and from within, is a lot harder. That’s why constraints are going to help you.

I believe it was Leonardo da Vinci, the ace procrastinator, who said that “art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” How can one bloom within constraints? Here’s the deal, the constraints are the shackles and you gotta work within them. What’s going to help you do that?

The first constraint is to pick one, or a maximum of two mediums and stick with it.

The second constraint is to draw mundane objects. Don’t rush it.

The third constraint is: to do one drawing a day, minimum. If you feel disinclined, the grawlix exercise will help.

The fourth constraint is: to stick to one sketchbook and not abandon it till the last page.

These are very basic rules. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes puts it, get the river flowing again.

If you're already over the motivational hurdle, and your imagination has been set loose, feel free to embellish.

Let me know how it goes.

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