Some useful advice for visual artists on keeping a daily sketchbook

Photo by DHANYA A V on Unsplash

It took me a long time to understand this, but the day-to-day job of the artist is not ‘making art’, it is filling sketchbooks.

As Austin Kleon says, “filling my sketchbook” is a perfectly legitimate answer to the question “what are you working on right now?”

The sketchbook is a sort of creative engine: with every page, I fill the pistons make another revolution; like any engine, it works best when used often; it is hungry for fuel, meaning I have to be better at seeing and recording the world around me; the art, whatever that is, will be the…

Why making art is a cosmological miracle.

When I was researching my sci-fi show Parallax back in 2017, I spent a lot of time learning about xenology.

Xenologists think about biology, chemistry, physics and so on as they might relate to alien species, and my own thinking was that if I could learn to speak like a xenologist, I could talk about life on earth as if it were alien to me.

All the odd language used by ‘Carla Sagan’, the extra-terrestrial narrator — such as referring to humans as “bipedal heterotrophs” — came from studying the language of xenology…

I filled five whole sketchbooks in 2020 — and my drawing ability has improved significantly. I even drew my first comic!

This is down, in many ways, to changing how I use my sketchbook.

Before I begin, I should say I am not a trained artist, just an enthusiastic amateur. This process, new to me, won’t be new to the professionals among you but hopefully it will be inspiring or helpful all the same!

The Sketchbook Problem

First of all, the frustration.

A sketchbook is supposed to be a place where an artist (of any kind) can play, experiment and practice. It is…

Image: Adam Westbrook

A good idea feels nebulous at first.

In my experience, a good idea almost never appears fully formed.

It’s more like a vast gas cloud in space: a feeling here, a colour there, a quote, a couple of chords that float past your nostrils and evaporate. Whatever it is, you like it, but you can’t attach it to anything yet.

In the passing of time, those gases slowly condense to form liquids and eventually something solid.

Like the good universe itself, patience is necessary.

A good idea feels like a visitation.

In her book Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert has this great way of describing ideas as floating sprites in search of human partners:


I have thought about this advice, from designer Frank Chimero, a lot over the last year: once through, cleanly.

It’s very simple: when you are beginning a new project, create it in a format that means you can complete the idea in a single sitting.

If you are developing a screenplay, begin with a one-page treatment that lets you tell the whole story from start to finish in one single sweep.

If it’s a comic, begin with very rough thumbnail pictures that, again, get you from start to finish cleanly in a single sitting.

Once through, cleanly. It’s such an…

How Jason Lutes masters visual storytelling.

On my desk sits a framed page of storyboards from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.

Spin the frame around and on the other side is a print from Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor.

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits is as good as everyone says it is.

With minimal self-help fluff, he presents a tangible and usable process for building good habits and getting rid of bad ones.

The big revelation for me was Clear’s distinction between goals and systems.

Our outcome-orientated society cares about goals. We are told to identify big glorious ambitions and break them down to manageable chunks in order to achieve. We complain when we don’t have any direction in our life and look enviously at people who are working towards some big dream.

“If only I had an idea…

A simple straight line that will elevate your visual storytelling

One day, when I was storyboarding a complicated film for The New York Times, I realised something about how visual stories function.

I took out a pencil and some paper and drew a straight horizontal line, like this:

Then above the line, I wrote these words:

A non-exclusive list for filmmakers, graphic novelists and other sequential artists.

Image: Adam Westbrook
  1. The first ever screenplay was a list. Film, video, TV and comics are all sequential art: images arranged in a specific order across time or space. Superior to all the other decisions a storyteller makes is the sequencing of the images.
  2. Show one thing at a time. Image sequences are similar to sentences in that you can only say one word at a time. Beginners struggle because they don’t realise they are presenting too much information at once.
  3. Clarity first. The priority with every image is precision. Can your…

Adam Westbrook

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.

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