Shelley Bassett



6 sketchbooks of varying sizes and colours piled up

How To Use a Sketchbook

March 9, 2018

How to use a sketchbook for a number of different purposes, and why pen on paper is so important

What is a sketchbook? To some, it’s just blank paper bound together. But to me, it’s a necessary creative tool. It’s both a way to problem solve and a way to self express. It’s a really organic process, where there are no restrictions but my imagination and the size of the page. Over the years, I’ve filled dozens of sketchbooks, and there are a few key points to consider.I generally have two or three sketchbooks on the go, and at least one other notebook. I don’t dedicate a notebook or sketchbook to a specific project unless I know it’s going to be big. If it needs to be separate from the other doodles and drawings, I’ll grab some loose paper, otherwise, it just goes in the current sketchbook! Working like this might seem really unorganised and counter-intuitive, but in reality it works well for me. There are several things to make note of when using this method.

Choosing a Sketchbook

There are two main things to consider when choosing a sketchbook. Size and paper. My “regular” sketchbook is an A4 book with 110gsm cartridge paper. Its my go-to, and I normally fill all 60 pages within a year. The next most common size in my collection is an A5 book, again with 110gsm paper. The 110gsm paper stock has a really nice texture, and is great for pencil (lead or coloured), ink and markers, and all varieties of pastels. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll notice several pencil sketches. Yep, these are all from my sketchbooks!

The word wanker hand lettered in pencil

A piece of lettering from a sketchbook

The A4/A5 sizes are a really nice fit for me. My university (and now work) bag is designed to hold a laptop, and therefore comfortably fits an A4 notebook. This means that an A4 sketchbook slips in nicely, and an A5 one takes up half the width. I also have a rather chunky A6 book that goes in my handbag when I suspect I’ll be idle or waiting. It’s been my saving grace on long train trips.

Three sketchbooks stack on each other, from size A4 to A6

Some of my sketchbooks, from sizes A4 to A6

Don’t feel limited to the A sizes of paper though. Choose a size that fits your bag, or the scale of project. Sometimes bigger is better, and other times the portability is more important. The same rules apply with paper. Pick a weight, press or fibre that will work with your choice of mark making tool. Pencil goes well on cartridge paper, but if you’d rather use an ink-based pen, try going for something that’s bleed-proof.

The first page

Do you remember that lesson in primary school at the beginning of the year, when you were given time to decorate the first page in your exercise book to match the subject? I carried that idea with me for a long time. To me, the first page was special. Now, I know this isn’t true, and its the rest of the content that really counts, but something about this has stuck. I wouldn’t use a new notebook without an express purpose, and I hated beginning a sketchbook. As a result, I have quite a few empty books lying around. But how to break this deeply ingrained cycle?

I combat this residual thought process in several ways. Sometimes, it’s enough just to remind myself that it doesn’t matter, or that we just really need to get this thought down. Just start can be enough motivation to create a permanent mark of the clean, fresh page. When that doesn’t work, or I’m not sure where to start, anything is a good start. I find a joke, or a silly thought, or a funny doodle. Whatever it takes to get pen to paper.

6 sketchbooks of varying sizes and colours piled up

A collection of my sketchbooks

Alternatively, on days when leaving any mark fills me with anxiety, I just leave the first page blank. That’s it. If I’m tripping that it needs to be special or intricate or representative of the book as a whole (which at this point is empty and there’s nothing represent), I just leave it alone. Turn the page and start scribbling on the next page in. It gives me the option to come back if I desire, or to leave it as is more often the case.

Project Management

As you might have guessed, having everything in one big book has it’s pros and cons. On one hand, everything is together. You’re never left with that “oh shit I forgot the really important folder” feeling, because it’s all in the sketchbook. But when it comes to finding specific drawings or notes, it can be a bit trickier. Personally, the ease of having everything in one place dramatically outweighs all the cons. And just to confuse things more, sometimes one project can be spread out over several sketchbooks.

Wireframes for a new blogging website

Wireframes for a new blogging website

The biggest benefit with this method is that everything is chronological. I rarely lose sketches or notes because they’re in the order I created them. I rarely date pages, it’s often not important.

When it comes to presenting the idea’s I’ve been working on, I almost never just hand over a sketchbook. Clients don’t need to see throwaway doodles, or a scribble that helped you create something magical. But they do like to be able to see progress and development. I go through my books, and scan the relevant pages. Then, I can easily colour/contrast correct to get the best out of my doodles. Finally, presenting them in a layout that makes sense to any onlookers.

Leather bound sketchbook

A sketchbook with beautiful paper that was a birthday gift

This system works, because it allows me the freedom to draw whatever and wherever on my page. Then, I can take what makes sense to me, and compile it in a way that will make sense to others. I do this regardless of what I’m sketching, be it a character, wireframe, or lettering layout. I allow myself to make mistakes, and correct them as I go, while still presenting my work in the best light.