From methodically organised idea libraries to bulldog-clipped stacks of paper and digital notebooks, LBB’s Laura Swinton delves in…
To understand creativity, really understand it, the best thing to do is to focus not on the polished final product but to roll back a few steps to the creative sketchbook. There you’ll find the false starts, the brain farts, the evolving plans, the fleeting observations, the practice runs and the faint, barely-formed germs of brilliant ideas. Animators have fascinating relationships with their sketchbooks – some love to flex their drawing skills, others use them to explore briefs, others work through character and others use them to jot down every passing idea. Some embrace the expansive opportunity of the blank page – for others it fills them with fear. We decided to have a rifle through some gorgeous sketchbooks and speak to some animators about how they sketch.
2D Animator and Animation Director, Nerd Productions
As it turns out, I rarely leave the house without my sketchbook and favourite pen. Some people keep sketchbooks one at a time, some have multiple on the go, they might have one for words and one for drawings, one per project or their sketchbook might not even be a book at all. In these modern times a sketchbook could very well be an iPad, or it could be something less portable like a folder on their computer entitled 'WIPs' or 'Ideas' where we mock up visuals digitally that never see the light of day. A sketchbook can be whatever you want it to be for.
Personally, as an animator who spends their days often creating work digitally staring into screens and perfecting client work, I find opening a sketchbook and drawing on paper nostalgic and liberating. My sketchbook takes the form of a dog-eared travel companion. I tend to keep them one at a time for drawings and words combined. My sketchbook is my safe space - closed to the world and open only for me, a place where I'm not afraid to draw for the sake of it. It houses my notes, ideas, observational drawings, shopping lists and desperate attempts of trying to organise my thoughts.
But my relationship with my sketchbook hasn't always been easy. There have been times where the fresh, blank pages strike fear in me. I see the same fear in the students that I teach life drawing classes to, in colleges in particular. The students treat their sketchbooks as a place where there is no margin for mistakes. I think most artists experience this hurdle, I call this hurdle 'the fear of the ugly'. Sometimes the fear of drawing can be so strong that it stops you from even trying. This fear can end up being a hindrance to creating work.
I loved my sketchbook so much more when I told myself that it is a place where I can make mistakes, where I didn't need validation or approval. Where I can be an unashamed anti-perfectionist. Where I can draw people and make them as ugly as I want. I banished the eraser from my pencil case and if the drawing went 'wrong' I would just scribble over and over until the new line had more page presence, stick some more paper over it or just start again.
Now when I teach drawing classes, I try and frame the exercises around this premise; to explore the process of drawing and visual thinking over the outcome and emphasise that the point of the exercise isn't to achieve an outcome of a 'nice' drawing.
The drawing tasks I set are centred around social interaction and unconventional or challenging methods of drawing. To many of the students, these are new drawing practices and offer up a lot of room for exploration; the exercises are designed to get the right brain and the left brain conversing. When I push them to explore process over outcome, the resulting drawings are so much more interesting! Unfortunately, often the students will think their drawings are 'bad' because they have no resemblance to the model. It's a revelation when I tell them a drawing doesn't have to be an exact imitation or realistic to be 'good'. I like to celebrate those drawings that they seem to dislike so much.
But why do I keep a sketchbook? Why does anyone keep a sketchbook? The obvious answer is to get better at drawing. As Zig Ziglar said, "you don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great" and drawing everyday(ish) will guarantee improvement.
But aside from the obvious answer, a sketchbook can be a place for reflection. It's amazing just how much more present you can feel in the world when you draw. My sketchbook is a garden where I can plant ideas and let them grow, where happy accidents and unpredictable creativity paves the way to development and discovery. It serves as an album of memories, I can look at a page and remember the phone conversation I was having when I doodled this page, or how excited I was when I sketched that when waiting for a flight on my first holiday alone, things that otherwise might have been lost to memory.
Keep a sketchbook. You never know what you might come up with.
Passion Animation Studios and Strange Beast Director
My sketchbooks are the things that I turn to when I get stuck. Old ones are useful to flick through and get a sense of where my head was at in the past and can often be the key to unlocking an idea in the present. My latest sketchbook is a mix of the various projects I’m currently working on (both commercial and personal), in and around random thoughts and drawings. I never draw from real life. I ALWAYS WRITE IN CAPITALS. I don’t use them enough. I carry one everywhere.
Director, Nexus Studios
Sketchbooks are invaluable to me - primarily as a way to slow down my caffeine-fuelled, internet-addled brain. Mine aren’t particularly pretty, but I try to be organised so I can refer back to things.
When directing a commercial project I use them in two ways: firstly as an idea dump to write down everything to do with a brief in list format. And I mean EVERYTHING. Random sample: “Who’s playing flute? Dog?” and “Re-incarnated as a rock”. Getting bad ideas out of your head makes room for the good ones.
Secondly, I use my sketchbooks for storyboards. I tend to board my own projects myself, and sitting on the couch with my sketchbook is a little isolation chamber. I seclude myself until I come back from the wilderness with a full board. Each box is deliberately postage stamp sized so I focus on the important things like storytelling, flow and composition rather than design details. It also helps suppress my innate urge to crosshatch.
Head of Motion at Jelly London
I don’t really have a sketchbook. Normally I write ideas and developments in my notes wherever I am. Sometimes they make sense sometimes they don’t. If it’s a live project I normally remember and go back, but If I have a spare moment to create something, it’s the first place I go for the ramblings of a previous night.
Animation director at Nerd Productions
I have a love hate relationship with sketch books! It’s funny how much pressure a blank page can generate.
I always want my first marks to be perfect, but then in making those first lines I remember how important it is to be free to work into things and develop an image or thought. Start with imperfections, put your thoughts to paper and invent something beautiful. I’ll find myself adding written notes too that sometimes become part of the sketch itself or lead on from an image that inspires other ideas, an ongoing process that I can never get enough of.
Often, you’ll sketch something with preconceived intentions and then surprise yourself when it’s complete without all those details you had in mind. I even take pictures on my phone of interesting shapes or patterns on surfaces that spark an image in my head. In the dirt on the walls of the tube for example, strangely enough! Then I use this image to bring to life on paper what I imagined in real life which also inspires new ideas.
At film school I kept a sketchbook by my bedside so I could capture any interesting dreams I had – the ones that I couldn’t forget. It so happens that a dream inspired my graduation film and the designs for a current project of mine came from a sketch inspired by a visit with friends. More often than you’d think, the best ideas can occur at anytime and take you by surprise so having a sketchbook to hand is invaluable. There will always be something timeless about capturing thoughts on paper.
Animation director at HUSH
It must be nice to have a romantic relationship with a sketchbook; to keep a diary of private, wistful observations. For me though, sketchbooks relieve an immediate sense of panic. They are a close-to-hand deposit box for all the half-baked thoughts and the slightest inklings of jokes that pop into my head while I'm in the shower.
I don't think I've ever lost the thrill of your mum sticking your painting on the fridge, so most of the time and energy is put into work that I hope will be seen one day. The idea of hiding it all away in a book seems a shame to me.
The most important skill I've grown to be aware of - something I constantly struggle with - is the art of cold, ruthless editing. Tough on Monday mornings when nothing looks good, and just as difficult with a beer on a Friday evening when everything looks fantastic.
The initial drawings I do now is in the broadest definition of a sketchbook; loose sheets of paper held together by bulldog clips. I suppose it's the only instance where living ‘without a spine’ is an advantage. There's no danger of ‘Moleskine Book Syndrome’ with me. No one should have to put a gorgeous, expensive, beautifully designed, leather notebook in the bin, along with their motivation, just because they mucked up their version of the ACDC logo on the first page.