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How to Fill a Sketchbook in One Month

Robert A. Sloan is a San Francisco-based science fiction writer, art writer, art teacher, artist, artisan, and Renaissance man.

Blue Lake Scene, 8 1/2" x 11" in Ultramarine Deep Dark Shade Pan Pastel by Robert A. Sloan

Blue Lake Scene, 8 1/2" x 11" in Ultramarine Deep Dark Shade Pan Pastel by Robert A. Sloan

Why Try to Fill a Sketchbook in One Month?

Because at the end of the month you will be a much better artist. Your drawings and sketches will be more lifelike, your shading smoother, your lines more confident and your shapes more accurate. Everything you do in that sketchbook is a learning experience. If you fill a sketchbook every month, you will be on the fast track to becoming a serious artist capable of being professional.

You may still want to remain amateur if you're not interested in pursuing an art career for other reasons, such as my reason of preferring to be a full-time writer. Art is my way of relaxing and reducing stress, which helps my fibromyalgia as much or more than my medication does. The thing is, the better I draw and sketch, the happier drawing and sketching make me.

The more social support I get for it too when it looks good. Compliments by other people on my drawings cheer me up and break up the blues when the pain gets too bad or I have to be patient about novel submissions that may take a year or more to hear back from them. I'm also well past the point of skill where I could make a living on art since I did that for several years in New Orleans when I wasn't as good at it as I am now.

Someday I'll need to go back down there now that I can sketch buildings and landscapes better. There's a lot that I saw when I lived there and wished I could draw—now that I'm better at sketching, I could go through and render every one of those things beautifully from life in much less time.

That's the other benefit of filling a sketchbook a month. You'll learn to draw fast. Drawing fast means you can do more sketches in the same hour, so the time you spend practicing is more productive and you'll learn faster.

I first ran into that suggestion in the sixteen-page front section of my Leonardo da Vinci Sketchbook. It's a truly beautiful hardbound sketchbook with a lovely reproduction of Leonardo's drawings on the front cover and a sixteen-page biography with many more reproductions of his sketches before you get to the 100 clean white pages for your own amateur efforts. I still mean to try copying some of those Leonardo sketches.

Copying from a master gives a lot of practice at getting certain forms and proportions accurate. Like people, their noses, their hands, the really hard parts. It also helps teach mastery of line. Many of Leonardo's drawings are in ink. So copying his would help me learn to do slightly curving, more expressive ink strokes and to dare sketch without penciling under the drawing.

That can be really handy if you're doing it at work on a break and have a cheap ballpoint and the back of a business letter or piece of snail mail spam at hand. Sketch everywhere on anything you have at hand. Doodle. Fill the backs of envelopes and the fronts of sticky notes once you've used the information on them.

Then keep your actual sketchbook handy.

Don't cheat and just buy a 25- or 30-page drawing pad. Start with an actual sketchbook, the kind that has 80 or 100 pages, in a decent size like 9" x 12" or 8 1/2" x 11".

That's the challenge—fill one of these in one month. Extra points if you chose the big 11" x 14" one to fill. So what are some ways to fill it that fast and still have time for those other activities like work, staying married, family time with kids, going out, or watching favorite movies?

Snow Leopard, 3" x 4" in Pitt Artist Pens on sketchbook paper by Robert A. Sloan

Snow Leopard, 3" x 4" in Pitt Artist Pens on sketchbook paper by Robert A. Sloan

Pen Sketching

Pitt Artist Pens are a wonderful sketching tool. They come in brush tips; the brush tips are small but allow a varied line that's very expressive. Most of all, pen sketching means not going back to erase anything or rework it. That means the sketch goes forward and for any misplaced line, just put the good line in and ignore the wrong line or fill in over it with something dark.

That alone can speed up the drawing process because a lot of beginners spend as much time erasing as drawing. It's very easy to get caught up in trying to get sketches perfect when that isn't the main point of sketching. So any kind of pen sketching is a good thing for filling your sketchbook fast. If you botch it completely, just start over and do it again next to it.

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Read More From Feltmagnet

This big cat was from a photo challenge on WetCanvas in a Weekend Drawing Event; the host posted some zoo photos and many other beautiful references. I used Pitt Artist Pens to sketch all sixteen challenge photos over the weekend because I was so impressed with which subjects she chose for her photos.

So that's another way to fill the sketchbook too. Participate in the Weekend Drawing Events. Try drawing anything in it that takes your fancy and post the results even if they're not perfect. That snow leopard drawing isn't something I could sell as a serious painting, but it didn't take long either. It also has enough information that I could build on it and sketch and paint a serious oil painting or watercolor that would be salable—even without having the reference handy anymore.

If you think of sketching as something like your phone camera, your sketchbook will fill up fast. Don't try to fill the whole page with a drawing. Do a bunch of little fast drawings on every page and watch them fill up with more interesting contents. Then try doing something big like that blue monochrome sketch I started the article with—but use something bold, loose, and blunt like the wedge sponge tool with Pan Pastels Extra Deep Shades. Or use large markers for sketching big.

Whatever you do, don't look back. Don't slow down and noodle over details.

Beginners try to get all the details right. It's too easy to get a detail right and do it the wrong size for what's next to it though. So you get portraits with one eye bigger than the other, noses too small or large, mouths wandering away to the side, or too big or small, and it doesn't have the likeness even though each feature might look good.

So the best way to sketch is from simple to complex. Do the details last. You may not even need that many details to convey what you're doing—just a few key details can say a whole lot in a sketch.

Cauliflower Study, oil pastel on sketchbook by Robert A. Sloan

Cauliflower Study, oil pastel on sketchbook by Robert A. Sloan

Oil Pastel, Charcoal, and Conte Crayons

Oil Pastels, color Conte, charcoal, Conte crayons, and soft pastels (the ones that feel like chalk but aren't) are all sketch mediums that work great for doing very large bold studies in color or with dramatic values. My study of a cauliflower head in a fruit market was from another Weekend Drawing Event photo.

I simplified the subject—the photo was an entire vegetable market, so I picked just the cauliflower head and put in a bit of the green drapery behind it and the cloth it was on. If you draw very loose and just choose colors that come close to the right hue (what color it is) and value, blending by drawing over the other colors or smudging it with a blender or assorted fingers, you can get a lot of information down very quick.

It's hard to fuss about details using something as blunt as a pastel stick or oil pastel stick. You have to sharpen it to a point and then work slowly if you want details. But this isn't about realism. Sketching is about getting the basic shape and its volume down accurately. Color notes like this would help me paint it in oils, do a serious oil pastels or pastels painting someday. I might compose a still life and want a cauliflower head in it; then, I could go back to this sketch instead of buying one.

This is another reason to keep filling sketchbooks. You'll get good at sketching anything that's in front of you, and then when you do plan a serious painting, the sketch will go fast. You'll have old sketches for reference