Sketchbooks uncovered

If you could peek into the private sketchbook of any celebrated creative, whose would you pick? Anna Richardson catches some surprising glimpses in a new book which celebrates this hidden art

Leafing through the sketchbooks of the great and good can offer surprising insights into the creative process, especially since they usually remain unseen. But the forthcoming book Sketchbooks/ The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators & Creatives, written by Richard Brereton, is a tantalising ‘I’ll show you mine’ collection of private inspiration, exploring the role a little black Strathmore, Cachet or Moleskin can play in the hands of designers, illustrators and artists.

For illustrator Carole Agaësse, keeping sketchbooks is a natural way to keep track of ideas and inspiration.

‘Looking back on them, they offer a private, personal and intimate glimpse into my creative process,’ she says, with her books displaying a range of illustrative styles.

Fellow illustrator Pablo Amargo also likes to use sketchbooks as an ideas depository. ‘Ideas often come suddenly, so I put them into my sketchbooks. This enables me to refer back to them, sometimes months or even years later,’ he says. Amargo likes to explore ideas through drawing, and has a process of using many little drawings. ‘I call them “microgramas”,’ he says. ‘I use them as the starting point of my work.’ He adds that his sketchbooks are a natural extension of his published work. ‘[They] are not a removed, strange or chaotic place; they’re actually quite ordered,’ he says.

The crowded books of typographer and graphic designer Paulus M Dreibholz – filled with typographic experiments and calligraphic scribbles – show a similarly matter-of-fact approach. To Dreibholz, a sketchbook is merely a tool. ‘It is precious, but it’s not something pretending to be something else,’ he says. ‘When an idea comes to me, I note it down. I rarely have to revisit a sketchbook for ideas – by drawing or writing them down, I will have positioned them more prominently in my head.’

Marion Deuchars, whose books are filled with drawings of everyday scenes, and shopping lists as well as working sketches for assignments, believes that producing a sketchbook is a bit of trickery. ‘I trick myself into thinking it’s just a little sketchbook. That no one will see it,’ she says. ‘This, surreptitiously, allows me to create pictures without inhibition. However, the reality is that underneath that veil, I hope to produce something truly worthwhile.’

On a practical level, London-based illustrator and art director Holly Wales thinks ‘keeping a sketchbook is a good way of teaching yourself how to edit well’. Her notebooks contain configurations of shapes, colours and spaces, with material collected from old books in libraries and charity shops, which she translates through a series of pages to come up with new ways of ‘engineering’ images. ‘You begin to fine-tune your ability to know exactly what to keep and what to discard,’ says Wales. ‘You realise that what you leave out is as important as what you put in.’

To many creatives, sketchbooks are extremely personal and more than a mere receptacle for ideas. Brian Grimwood, founder of the Central Illustration Agency, has doodled in notebooks since he was a young boy, and says that his books double as a diary. ‘I don’t usually show them to anyone outside of the family,’ he adds.

Graphic designer and illustrator Johnny Hardstaff, meanwhile, says he could never show anyone his current book. ‘Those people close to me now know never to look inside,’ he says. ‘Really, none of the sketchbooks were ever for showing to anyone. They have simply recorded and charted my life in the only manner that could be meaningful to me.’

Gustavo Sousa, art director at Mother, has an even closer relationship with his sketchbook, seeing it as an extension of his brain. ‘I have really poor memory so I feel the need to write down or draw all my ideas, because I’m afraid of forgetting them,’ he explains. ‘When I leave my sketchbook at home, I feel as if I’ve left my head at home.’

At the other end of the spectrum, Henrik Delehag is a self-professed ‘sketchbook exhibitionist’. Thick drawings, accompanied by written descriptions take up every inch of his books. He says, ‘I’m not at all precious about who gets to have a look. My most private writing, however, has become much smaller with the years. If I see someone squinting at that, I give them a smack.’

Some sketchbooks can be surprising, such as Peter Saville’s plain and ordered pages. One double-page spread from 2001 contains a succession of Saville signatures, while others show simple word lists sprinkled with the odd sketch.

‘They include no shopping lists, no layouts, no graphic design solutions,’ explains Saville. ‘The work one does for others is less personal and rarely emotional or biographical. My notebooks have one subject: what is my work and what is the point of it?’

Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators & Creatives, by Richard Brereton, is published by Laurence King in March, priced £19.95

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