I’m a huge fan of ferns and sketchbooks in equal measure, but I am often hesitant to draw or paint ferns as they can be quite delicate and complex, not to mention diverse. I recently started a new pen and ink drawing involving ferns, but was finding my lack of confidence was a barrier to progress. So, to better understand my subject and boost my confidence, I decided to start (yet another) sketchbook, this time just for ferns. It’s a somewhat daunting task as there are more than 10,000 known species of fern worldwide. I’m not going to draw them all in one lifetime, let alone fit them all in a single sketchbook, but that’s not really the point. The point is to sketch to understand. The process of filling a sketchbook or journal with a focused subject requires a great deal of reading and research, staring at specimens and then (hopefully) rendering a reasonable facsimile on paper. They don’t have to be botanically precise or detailed, as it’s more an exercise in developing my visual library. To ease in to fern drawing I decided to start with some of the more primitive forms, excluding horsetails, as seen below.
Above is the first full page of a Paperblanks Flexis notebook (Midnight Rebel Bold flavour). The paper is exquisitely smooth and takes fineliners and coloured pencil very well. There is some tolerable ghosting, but no bleed through (the paper is 100 gsm), at least with fineliners. These plants are part of the same class of plants that include maidenhairs, silver lady’s and black tree ferns. One page in and already the limit of my knowledge has been exposed.
Due to a minor injury I haven’t been in my studio/office much this week, but as long as I have a trolley of art goodies, some blank pages, a steady supply of coffee, and a comfy armchair, I’m still able to create. It’s hard not to.
These are uncomplicated pages, nothing that can’t be accomplished with fineliners or fountain pens and coloured pencils. The paper is only 80 gsm and the notebook was reasonably priced, but there are advantages to this. I find I have less hesitation because the notebook itself didn’t cost a king’s ransom. I don’t have a particular plan for this notebook except that to give it to my daughter because she loves these sorts of things and it’s a great way to communicate with her on the things that are important to me.
I don’t keep traditional diaries for a few reasons – my handwriting is unlovely, I don’t enjoy chronicling key moments of my life and I lack the discipline to maintain them since I already have enough projects. But I do love to art and I do think it’s important to do this as a shared experience with my daughter as a sort of conversation with her. This style of journal is a kind of compromise. I think the thing I love the most about this style of journal is there are no rules, and the urge to be a perfectionist is greatly reduced. As much as I try not to strive for perfectionism in my practice sketchbooks, I’m regularly frustrated that pages don’t come out looking like I’d envisaged. In this one I’m not troubled by the idea of perfect design and aesthetic. Of course I want the pages to be at least a little bit pleasing, but it’s the content and the act of creation that counts the most, those are the things I want to be important.
How many journals do you really need? The short answer is, it depends . . .
For some, one, omnifarious volume is all they need, where anything and everything goes. If you’re disciplined and you can commit to one journal, something like a bullet-journal might be all you need. I confess I am not a bullet journaler, so I am not qualified to testify to its pros and cons, moreover, I am not motivated enough to commit to the upkeep. And, I’m messy. Which is why I always have more than a few journals going at any given time. Most of my journals are sketchbooks, some are themed, but all are related to specific projects or themes.
My current journals
Pen and ink trees
Since trees are my favourite subject to sketch, I keep an A4 sketchbook for rendering trees in pen and ink. This sketchbook has good quality, smooth paper so I can do finely detailed renderings which can be scanned and made in to prints when the need arises. The trees can be either a faithful rendering of an actual tree, usually from a reference, or something entirely made up. What I’m interested in is finding the best way to render the textures and shapes I see. I use this sketchbook when I don’t want to just scribble or knock out some quick scenes, since much of the time I spend hours on one tree.
Pareidolia is the tendency of recognising images or patterns in a random display of shapes and lines, such as seeing faces on the side of a natural land formation, or in the clouds. I see blob creatures. Some of them are common enough – a dog in the dish soap as I wash up, or my utensils forming a crane-like bird – others are more alien, but still very recognisable as creatures. I see them so often I decided to make a watercolour journal for the sole purpose of recording them. Sometimes I will lay some loose watercolour paint down, wait for it to dry and sketch over it with pen and ink to see what I can make. This journal is good for exercising creative muscles when I’m not really sure what to do, but I know I want to paint. It’s useful too for observing the nature and reactions of watercolour when it hits a wet or dry page.
Two project journals
I’m working on a fairly large project at the moment which requires a great deal of thinking and sketching. For the thinking I keep a journal of visual notes, where I can capture ideas and develop the concepts of the project. This journal is structured and somewhat more organised and has a lot of information crammed in. The second book is a cheap sketchbook for sketching thumbnails of scenes that will later become properly rendered work. It has to be cheap because I know I will fill many sketchbooks in the coming months with copious thumbnails. Doing it this way allows me to keep the momentum going without being too precious about what goes in it as it doesn’t have to be tidy, or in order. Both journals are equally important references for the project, but with two distinct intentions and functions. Having two journals enables me to capture a lot of information quickly and helps me keep the two separate elements of the project organised.
As well as the other three, I like to keep a journal with smooth watercolour paper. I use a refillable leather cover and tear down sheets of 190 gsm hotpressed watercolour paper to sew in. I use this journal with watercolour and pen and ink for when I just feel like playing. I don’t always get time to do do this, but it’s there and I’m not worried about how long it will take to fill or what it will look like when it’s done. I also love that I can remove the complete signatures and bind them in to a more permanent book.
The pros and cons of so many journals
Some reasons to keep seperate journals
Themes: Themed sketchbooks, such as a nature journal or artist’s reference journal provide a good reference for artists and a way to expand the mind’s visual library. It makes sense to have dedicated journals for these occasions.
Projects: keeping all your projects in one volume, no matter how big, could become complicated. Giving each project their own home gives it substance and consequence, and since you’ve dedicated an entire journal to it, you will hopefully be more motivated to complete it.
Occasions: perhaps you want to document a particular event, such as the birth of a child, or a vacation. Having separate journals for each big occasion allows you to organise those important moments in to distinct volumes. You’ll be able to find them easily and enjoy them.
Mediums: You might like to keep individual journals for different kinds of mediums, such as one for multimedia projects and one for watercolours, or one just for coloured pencil to practice and hone your skills. Since watercolour paper is not cheap, it feels like overkill to lay down a sketchy thumbnail in pencil or ink, so it makes sense to keep a cheaper, more accessible journal for these.
Size: A large sketchbook is good for home, but if you want to take it with you when you go to the beach or travel with it overseas, it can be cumbersome, especially if you’re carrying a full pencil case, brushes and watercolours. A smaller, more portable sketchbook makes sense for this and can be added to the bookshelf when it is complete.
As much as I am committed to the many journals system, there are disadvantages, and it’s not for everyone. Sketchbooks are not all created equal and it can take awhile to settle on a model you love. It’s easy to get sucked in to buying the new trending sketchbook or journal, and there’s a risk of finding yourself with half a dozen unfinished journals (and projects). This can get quite expensive, especially in Australia, where journals with good quality paper at an affordable price can be hard to come by. Buying multiple copies is not always an option. This can feel like a barrier at times, especially if you find one you love, but it is costly and not local. Expensive journals and sketchbooks can be daunting if what you want to do is fill pages with doodles, sketchy practice pieces, or scribble out notes for projects. If the goal is to improve your basic drawing skills I would recommend one inexpensive sketchbook. A cheaper journal allows you create permissible messes and reduces the fear of the blank page while still honing your skills. If mixed media or watercolour paper is what you need it might be more economical to buy sheets of paper (often sold in packs of 10, at least in Australia) and cut them down yourself to bind in whatever way you wish. For pen and ink or pencil there are plenty of good options at lower prices. In fact, yesterday I was surprised to discover Derwent Academy’s Artist Visual Art Diary with 135 gsm paper that is smooth enough and thick enough to deal with ink and water-based markers. This means I can justify having a couple of on the go for different projects.
Another disadvantage of multiple journals might be that finishing one can take much longer. If you’re driven by completion, or the achievement of filling one cover to cover, this could be a source of frustration since your attention and time is divided between more than one journal. I like to live in my journals and I don’t mind sharing my time between multiple sketchbooks so time is not a factor I consider. For me it is as much about mood as it is about the practicality of keeping separate volumes. But they can take a long time to fill, especially because some of them I favour more than others.
Too many journals can be distracting and off-putting. You probably have too many journals if you lose track of what goes where, you have too many unfinished journals from years ago or you just lose interest/momentum in some of them and never pick them up again. If that is the case I’d suggest finishing one of them before picking up another.
An alternative to multiple journals is using loose pieces of paper instead of a codex style journal. You can use whatever paper you like, cut to whatever size you like and either keep them in a ring binder, in a box, stick them on a wall, or share them with others.
At the end of the day is is more important that you keep journaling, whether you’re sketching, keeping a bullet journal or writing your manifesto. Do whatever enables you to keep that momentum going. After all, creativity begets creativity.