My Sketchbook Categorization System
sorting all manners of paper-contained depravity

Sketchbooks are quite interesting things, to say the least. They are probably one of the most important tools in an artist's arsenal, besides a drawing/painting instrument.

But despite that, I don't really see much regarding how to use sketchbooks. What I mostly see around are showcases of the contents inside and recommendations for good quality sketchbooks, but not the methodology of filling one up. So I figured I should share how I sort my sketchbooks and how that process helps me improve as an artist.

Of course, sketchbooks can mean different things to everyone. People will have certain philosophies as to how they keep their sketchbooks, what they deem to be "sketches", and so on. Some people's sketchbooks are filled with what is essentially finished pieces/studies, and other people's sketchbooks looks like a bomb went off in them. I've mostly taken the route in between, where I've categorized my books to hold certain types of drawings, which gives me some freedom to do what I want without constantly cross-contaminating unrelated stuff with one another.

But first, we'll start with the system that I think many people intuitively adopt, or possibly have taken from the artists around them.

The Most Common System

I think the most common system I've seen regarding sketchbooks is a very linear approach, where you simply fill a sketchbook in chronological order, drawing whatever you want in it. Studies, completed work, and preliminary sketches all reside in the same place; you simply move onto a new one and solely draw in that one until you finish it and so on. Almost like writing entries in a single journal chronologically until you finish.

The number one problem that I usually see with this system is that people get hung up on making the sketchbook look pretty. A good drawing in the sketchbook suddenly sets the standard for the drawings proceeding it, and artists end up creating a self-induced art block, where they become too scared to draw in their sketchbook in fear of ruining it.

Another aspect that often causes issues is funnily enough the quality of the sketchbook. Sometimes the sketchbook that people buy looks so aesthetically pleasing that it instills the same fear of not wanting to ruin the sketchbook, so they never draw anything in it. This often leads, from what I see, sketchbook hoarding, where people keep buying sketchbooks but never actually use them, either because they're too scared to start, or they feel like they've "ruined" their sketchbook when they do start, so they buy another sketchbook in an attempt to fix it.

The Three Sketchbook System

I myself have used the "fill a sketchbook in chronological order" system for quite a while, purely because that's all I knew how to do it. Everyone else did it, so I figured that was the "proper" way to do it. It's the system I used when I was a wee beginner in 2015 and a couple years afterwards.

However, around late 2019, I had the problem of wasting a lot of paper on very rote, mechanical practice. Figure drawings, automatic drawings, etc. were lumped with all of my idea thumbnails, neater drawings, and so on, and as a result a large majority of my sketchbooks end up being 90% practice that isn't worth looking at again and 10% of other useful stuff like sketches for future pieces and such.

As a result, I decided to split my drawings into three separate sketchbooks. It helped to isolate different types of drawings into different places such that it becomes easier for me to sort out stuff that I would use later on (ie. preliminary sketches, thumbnails) to those which I will likely never need to see again (e.g. dump trucks full of figure drawings). This system also somewhat serves as an explanation as to how I approach practicing art.

The Neat Sketchbook

This is usually the type of sketchbook that people immediately think of when they think of "sketchbook". Very neat, refined drawings, all laid out in an aesthetically pleasing manner. It's the typical sketchbook that you would see as part of the submission process when artists apply to various post-secondary art institutions.

The neat sketchbook tends to be the one that has the best quality out of the other sketchbooks, whether it be the type of paper, the general aesthetic, or the contents inside. This sketchbook is primarily for refined work, and it's usually the one that I'm willing to display if I were forced to show one of my sketchbooks to someone.

This is also the sketchbook which, unsurprisingly, I draw in the least, compared to my other sketchbooks that is. The percentage of work that is worthy to be shown to the public is a sliver compared to the work being created as practice.

some doodles

a doodle (left) + Day 1 of Inktober 2021 (right)

The Idea/Messy Sketchbook

The idea sketchbook is where I typically dump all of my sketches for possible pieces that I want to make in the future. Not only sketches of possible pieces, but notes also. A place to brainstorm, and to sort out various issues before committing to a piece in either the neat sketchbook, or a traditional/digital painting.

If at any point I have a composition or idea pop into my head, I immediately take one of these out and draw a small thumbnail of it inside, or jot down some notes. Doesn't really matter if the idea is any good or not, I will commit it to the sketchbook to sort out later.

I’ve also listed this as the “messy” sketchbook because while a large majority of the contents are ideas, they could also be sketches of random stuff that aren't really meant to be shown to anyone.

This type of sketchbook tends to be my default, and because of that it also has taken various forms over the years. This includes a pocket notebook, a huge 9" x 12" pad of paper, a Traveler's Notebook, and other random form factors. This is also the type of sketchbook that goes outside the house, and it's essentially the "portable studio".

some thumbnails and notes for possible pieces

random sketches (left page as seen from this art journal entry)

The Art Binder

This is where all of the magic happens, and by magic, I mean all of the boring stuff that actually builds s k i l l. It's the place filled with stuff that no one really sees except the artist.

I call it the art binder. Technically it isn't a sketchbook, but the "two sketchbook and art binder system" doesn't roll off the tongue very well now does it?

It's basically a binder, loaded with a lot, and I mean a lot of copy paper. Why copy paper? Well, I found for myself that it's pretty easy to be detached with a drawing if the medium it's on is very disposable and cheap.

paper density compared to some other sketchbooks

If you try and practice in say, a 30-page cotton paper sketchbook meant for watercolours, you'd be hesitant to only do gesture drawings in there, right? Or to do any sort of warm-ups, or any sort of practicing that you know will have a high chance of failure. Those sketchbooks are expensive, and so drawing all willy-nilly in them while not using the medium that they’re built for is simply a waste. And the likelihood that you'll be more intimidated to draw in it is very high.

Given that copy paper costs like $10 for 500 sheets, it means that you'll have a lot of room to really fail. If you screw up a sketch, there's plenty more paper to go around. In fact, I found it to be more time-efficient to redraw if I mess something up instead of mucking about and repeatedly fixing a single drawing. The art binder reinforces perfecting the process, instead of perfecting the result. We're not here to show off these drawings to people, we're here to practice.

some anatomy + head construction practice

automatic drawing dump

Copy paper is so easily disposed of and so cost-effective that you practically have no reason to not draw in it. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about the binder, nor is there anything special with copy paper, so there's no real pressure to "ruin" anything. The point of it being so primitive is to prevent the type of emotional attachment that prevents you from practicing, which seems to be a problem that a lot of artists have.

If I want to do some gesture drawings as a warm-up, I'll just pull out a bunch of pieces of paper and draw in them, and then afterwards throw it into the binder. If I want to learn and practice some anatomy, or do some style practice, or even practice drawing some straight lines freehand or whatever, I can easily take out some paper and draw on it without any fear that I'm wasting paper, because it's just so cheap and abundant. Not to mention, it's not getting in the way of the drawings which do matter, such as refined traditional pieces and preliminary thumbnails. All of the boring, rote mechanical practice gets separated into its own place.

Honestly, if I were to lose the entire art binder in a fire or something, I wouldn't care. There's nothing to be attached to in there, except possibly a physical record of all of my practice. It wasn't the drawings themselves that were of any value, but the experience I gained from doing them.

The main disadvantage of this binder is it lacks to accommodate for other mediums. It would be nice if there was a copy paper equivalent (in terms of quantity and price) that can take watercolours, so that you can practice the medium without worrying about wasting supplies. Sadly there isn't any, and practicing watercolour still incurs quite an expense. Mediums that need better paper like watercolour, gouache, or heavy inking isn't really suited for the art binder. It’s mainly a place to practice drawing, which while very important, doesn’t give you the opportunity to practice freely with other mediums.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve been using this system for almost 2 years now (as of writing this) and it has served me well so far. Of course, there may be some changes that I could make along the way, but I haven’t really seen any improvements asides from my decision-making process as to when to use which sketchbook.

I will say though that it’ll be hard to capitalize on the momentum that you could get if you just filled sketchbooks chronologically. To illustrate, I started an idea sketchbook and an art binder in late 2019, and it took me up until the end of 2021 just to finish the art binder. There were over 350 sheets (not pages) in the binder by the time I finished it. Before implementing this system, I would finish a sketchbook in like a few months if I consistently practiced, but now even with consistent practice it takes a very long time to complete any one of them. It’s simply one of the downsides of splitting all your drawings into various categories, but at least everything is organized.

Again, with any self-implemented system comes the disclaimer that it works for me, but it may not work for everyone else. I personally didn't need this system when I first started out, because sorting what was a finished piece, messy sketch, or random practice back then wasn't feasible since there wasn't a discernable difference with any of them; they were all terrible. Now having amassed a large collection of drawings, this system has become more of a necessity to me than an arbitrary sorting system.

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