Let us consider, for a moment, the humble sketchbook. Whether it’s an artisanal masterpiece bound in leather or a couple of sheaves of printer paper stapled together, almost every artist has one. Sketchbooks can truly be beautiful—there are thousands of sketchbook tours showcasing exquisite compositions and exciting colors on TikTok to prove it. But today, I want to talk about the underrated sketchbooks, the ones rarely shown online, with ripped out pages and cross-eyed portraits and coffee stains in all the wrong places.
That’s right. I’m talking about the Ugly Sketchbook, the real MVP of the creative process. I started giving my ugly sketchbooks the respect they deserve and here are four reasons why I think you should, too.
1) The Freedom of Low Expectations
The ugly sketchbook isn’t trying to be da Vinci or Monet. It’s barely Jackson Pollock. But that’s where its strengths lie—it doesn’t have to be anything except what I want it to be on any given day. Feel the urge to paint pretty flowers? Go for it. Need a place to wipe off the brush? Done. Does the portrait look less like Beyoncé and more like Bea Arthur? So what! In the ugly sketchbook, there are no expectations for art to actually be “good,” which frees me from the pressure of trying to create something I can post every time I sit down to paint or draw. It creates a safe place to embrace the necessary ugliness of the creative process. No one else is going to see it but me, and if I really hate the way something looks, I’ll just slap some collage on that baby and call it a day. Speaking of…
By releasing the pressure for perfection, I can use my ugly sketchbook to experiment with different media and techniques. Messing up is expected, especially if I’m working with something new. If I intend to create a piece that will be displayed, I can use this space to test elements like composition, value, and color selection to craft the image I like best. Every bold, wacky choice pays off because I learn something new from each one, even if it’s learning what doesn’t work. Some of these experiments will go on to become fully-fledged pieces, others will show up on Aprilarium’s Instagram as sketches, and the rest—well, they’re just good practice.
3) Getting Familiar with your Tools
The ugly sketchbook is a good place to practice how best to use tools such as brushes, pens, and so on. Some media like watercolor and gouache are notorious for changing hue or value when dry; combining swatch-making exercises with brushstroke drills helps me become familiar with the quirks of my paints and brushes, which takes out a lot of the hesitancy when I’m working on a piece I plan to display. This practice also helps me figure out what materials play nicely together and how they should be layered to avoid future disasters.
Finally, having a sketchbook that embraces ugliness gets me back to the root of art: play and enjoyment. Play is the keystone of creative work—it wards off artists’ block (or frees you from it), encourages practice and provides a wellspring of inspiration to create meaningful art. I find play gives me a soft place to land whenever I fall. It’s inevitable that I’ll screw up a piece or feel disappointment when one fails to live up to my expectations, but I can always come back to my beautifully ugly sketchbook that reminds me why I make art in the first place. Play takes out the sting of failure and reveals it for what it really is: growth.
I hope this post has inspired you to embrace your ugly sketchbooks and the amazing things they can do for your art practice, or if you don’t have one, to pick one up. I use the Strathmore Mixed Media Art Journal because it’s portable and its medium-weight paper can hold up all sorts of media, but ultimately, choose the sketchbook you feel best suits your needs. After all, with the freedom and enjoyment an ugly sketchbook brings, you’ll be spending a lot of time making art with it.
S.E.Clark is a writer and artist living in a small town outside of Boston, Massachusetts. She runs Aprilarium, a home for honeyed and haunted works. She may be reached by email at email@example.com or by carrier pigeon.