If my studio went up in flames, what would I grab first? Without question – my big black sketchbooks.
I began using this kind of sketchbook in the early 2000s and they contain what feels like the most significant stages of my creative career. A3 size, black, hard-backed, 70lb paper. A bit thin on the paper side? Well, I almost never use wet materials in these sketchbooks. They’re more like annotated photo albums, where I print out images of the work I’m creating as it develops and add my hand-written reflections as I go along. This could be just a few of words or a whole page. But these reflections, when viewed alongside the images, offer a valuable insight into what feels like, an infinite creative unknown.
Usually what’s going on in an artist’s mind as they create, remains hidden from the viewer. Even more so, are our reflections about our creative work. Sometimes these can take months or even years to rise to the surface. As in so many creative spheres, the passing of time plays an important part in all the pondering and uncertainty that goes on behind the scenes. An image which felt successful in the moment, might not seem so in a few months. Or that intriguing hint of something significant going on might only become clearer much later. Time needs to pass.
In my own work, what’s really important though, is that this collaboration between image making and reflecting underpins all that I do in the studio. It’s central to my creative practice. Keeping an accurate record of it all is equally important, particularly the dates when the images were created and the reflections I had at the time. The images and reflections when taken together, act as a map of the route I’ve chosen and also, as a torch into where I might be heading.
Let me show you what I mean.
Fig. 1. Dec. 2021
In Dec 2021, I had arrived at an image that hinted at something more complex, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. As you can see, I wrote extensively about this at the time. Fig. 1. Over the next two years, the image making continued to develop in various directions, but in Dec 2023, something changed. Without realising it, my path had led me back to that same point from Dec 2021.
Fig.2. Dec. 2023
What had changed was that, through the creating of the images since Dec 2021, I could clearly see how and why that hinted at complexity from Dec 2021 had gradually revealed itself to me. Once again, I wrote extensively about this significant realisation. Fig. 2.
It’s not quite the same as going full circle and it isn’t conscious backtracking. It’s more like a spiral, leading me back to that meaningful point in Dec 2021, but two years on, in 2023, my thinking has had time to evolve. And it’s only because of the annotated photo-album/sketchbook that I’ve been able to see and understand this. My images and reflections literally reveal my footsteps and shed light on where I might be headed.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, my creative direction of travel now seems to be primarily intuitive; I’m not working towards a specific goal. I’m following a hunch and clearing a path as I go. At times, this can be both exhilarating and also daunting. I often lose my way, particularly now that I have no normative means of evaluating my work, for example, like peer review or exhibition sales. Yet in those darker moments, when some kind of reassurance might be helpful, I’m able to look back over my annotated photo-album/sketchbooks and see important connections spanning time. It might be in the rhythmic textures I’ve used, or the variations in tone, but that sense of continuity is there for me to see.
With the passing of time, I sometimes add new reflections about a previous image, where my current self compares notes, as it were, with my former self. This can be seen in the example below, Fig. 3. where the original image and reflections were from May 2023, but subsequent reflections have been added later in the year. These connections have great significance for me. They offer so much; I’d be lost without them.
Fig. 3. May 2023
Our sketchbooks are highly personal and can take many forms. Through them we create our own unique map – our guide into how our creative thinking unfolds. For me, they are the most valuable item in my studio; absolutely priceless.