Last week I was given the awesome opportunity to return to my alma mater Mass College of Art & Design to observe the sophomore illustration students’ semester work and provide valuable feedback.
The students are not present at these reviews. They lay out their semesters’ work on tables. On the wall behind the table, they hang what they feel are their most successful works. Then, they place the rest of the work in neat piles on the table. The piles are labeled for either the class or the concentration of work.
There were piles named after specific classes, and there were piles named named for what was within the pile– life drawing, concepts, color, process.
Of course, there was always a SKETCHBOOK pile. Even if it was a TINY sketchbook pile. Even if it was a pile that consisted of only ONE sketchbook.

There was ALWAYS a sketchbook pile, because it was REQUIRED.

Now, I am a sketchbook believer.

I bring at least one with me, everywhere I go. When I DON’T have one, it feels WRONG! My sketchbook is the brain trust AND the brain dump for all of my ideas. It freely invites both my good and bad ones. It doesn’t judge me when I make a crappy drawing. And… It’s open 24 hours!

Of course, I’m no longer in art school. I’m not the one who has professors and professional artists reviewing my work, writing down my flaws, commenting on them and detailing everything.

And hey, when you’re being reviewed for a semesters’ worth of work, the lines can get blurred when you are under pressure to pick out and exhibit what you consider your best work.

Your own judgement of your work will likely be colored in with shades of what you think the reviewers will be looking for.

It’s not easy.

So, when I was looking at the students’ work, the sketchbook quantity (and quality) varied wildly.

A couple of the students had sketchbooks that blew me away.

Those sketchbooks were FULL… of NICE sketches, some NOT-SO-NICE sketches, atoms of ideas, process sketches… and some incredible flights of journaling. Some of the work was pretty personal at times, and I’m sure that when they drew those pages, they weren’t thinking of end-of-semester reviewers looking through their sketchbooks. Yet, they successfully let that go, and put it out there anyway. There’s a lot of bravery in that.

Other students sketchbooks were… well, some of them were anemic.

Some had bits clipped off with instructions for reviewers not to look at those pages (Hey, I understand privacy. At least they’re still sketching!) Others had pages amputated out of the sketchbooks, and what was left was a tightly manicured selection.
This was a problem, because, in order to review progress and creative growth, problem solving and idea-mining and all that good stuff, I WANT to see the ugly, the unformed, the badly-executed ideas, the mess up’s, the parts that AREN’T perfect. I want to see it ALL. Because the sketchbook is where everything is born.
So, when I saw some underused sketchbooks, and evidence of missing pages, and a couple students only sharing ONE sketchbook, it was a bit heartbreaking.

Here’s the bottom line: It DOESN’T MATTER if your sketches are ugly—that’s not what the sketchbook is about. This isn’t a beauty pageant. What DOES matter is that you are DRAWING in the sketchbook. You are DOING it, and doing it, and doing it. REGARDLESS of what it ends up looking like.

You’re thinking through your ideas in your sketchbook. That is a big part of why it exists! Part of being an artist for REAL, is embracing (or heck, just dealing with and acknowledging) the UGLY parts of process and embracing mistakes. Because mistakes are progress. They may not FEEL like progress, but trust me, they are. And NO ARTIST EVER in the history of the WORLD ever started out their sketchbook career doing their best work! The artists we remember? The ones we most admire? They made TONS of ugly sketchbooks. They just kept at it, and kept at it and kept at it. And they told the inner critic to shut up when necessary.
No aspiring artist is ever going to get very far with a critical pencil in one hand and a hot, trigger-finger eraser in the other. You HAVE to let it go and see where your imagination and pencil takes you. You won’t get ANYWHERE if you’re judging your progress AS you are working. You absolutely HAVE to suspend that urge. See it, acknowledge it, and move away from it.
Lots of people judge themselves very harshly, ESPECIALLY their CREATIVE talents… And ESPECIALLY those who may feel they are “not creative”…

(NEWSFLASH: EVERYONE IS CREATIVE!! Okay?)

We tend to critique, judge and be bratty to our own creativity and ideas DURING the initial execution. AS IT’S HAPPENING. AS we are EXECUTING. That doesn’t sound very fair, does it? You simply cannot discover, uncover, explore your creative voice, practice with any substance, and improve yourself when you’re auto-wired to self-edit and judge your work for every line you put on the paper. Sheesh!
(Hey look: This is a PRACTICE. It takes PRACTICE to build a real awareness of working to build good creative habits. If we keep at it, and don’t get in our own way when we are having a bad drawing day, then a bad day is nothing in the big picture… and who knows… We might even LEARN something about ourselves from the process, if we dig a little.)

So… Here’s where I’m going with this.

You know that little argument you have in your head sometimes, before you pick up your sketchbook to draw? The one between your creative mind and your intellectual mind? When you get into the habit of sketching every day, it melts away.

…Or, at least it shuts up most of the time. When you sketch daily, you become BFF’s with your creative zone. When you pick up your sketchbook, and you start working without judgement, your subconscious mind opens up and spills out onto the page. Whether you end up with something “GOOD” or not doesn’t matter. What DOES matter is the PROCESS and the PRACTICE of it, and being open to those IDEAS that surface.
What is ALSO important? Telling the mini-brat within yourself to SHUT UP when it starts being, well BRATTY… Saying “Yeah, I HEAR you, Brat, but I am not LISTENING to you. Buh-bye.”).
Let it go and let it flow and allow the process to unfold naturally, and TRUST me, the “good” WILL come out of the “ugly” in your sketchbook! It may not be in exactly the way you EXPECT it to, but it WILL happen in a way you can truly appreciate and put to good use for yourself!

So, BE PROUD of the UGLY in your SKETCHBOOK!

It shows you are truly working, exploring, and experimenting with your creativity. In other words… you’re now BFF’s!!