What I’ve been learning

It’s been a busy month since I last wrote: finishing up one course (writing), still in the middle of another (art), loving what I’m learning in both.


The course I just finished was offered by Memoir Writing Ink, an organization founded by Alison Wearing. Alison is a brilliant, funny Canadian woman whose writing style I find enjoyable and inspiring. Her book Moments of Glad Grace is about her trip to Ireland with her aging father. We learn that her father was fascinated by his Irish heritage and genealogy; Alison, not so much. But she adored her dad, so mustered all the enthusiasm she could, and accompanied him on his transatlantic adventure. I loved this book.


The course I’m still workng on is Sketchbook Design by Liz Steel.

Before you say, “What the heck is Sketchbook Design? ” let me assure you it’s far more than merely adding decorative squiggles to your doodles. (That’s almost a direct quote from an artist friend of mine who obviously doesn’t get it, but thought he did. Argh.)

A Sketchbook By Any Other Name…

For those of you who don’t already know, there are two kinds of sketchbook approaches:

1- The old traditional approach was that a sketchbook was an inexpensive, portable place to work quickly and loosely in pencil, to figure out what a final “real painting” might look like.

2- A few decades ago, another altogether different movement started when skilled artists around the world saw that their personal sketchbook could be a finished work of art in itself. A private, one-of-a-kind record of where they had been, what they had seen, felt, discovered. A place to try out new art materials, and keep a chronological record of those explorations.

In these modern sketchbooks, people could use the skills they had developed as artists to create bound, multi-page one-of-a-kind works of art that were theirs to keep forever. Not every page had to be “perfect,” but every page was precious because it was authentic. The unexpected raindrop that might have hit a page became a cherished flaw, rather than a cause for distress. It organically captured a single moment in time, visceral flashback material.

In this class, I’ve learned how to take everything I already knew about composition, white space, balance, symmetry—skills I used in individual paintings on individual sheets of paper— and incorporated those same principles into what felt more like graphic design, magazine design.

But what’s “good graphic design” anyway?

We all know a beautiful magazine spread when we see one. Just picture the difference between the inside pages of a check-out aisle tabloid magazine, and the look inside, say, Architectural Digest. There’s no comparison, and yet the differences have to be studied to be fully understood. I’ve learned how to juggle a headline, text , and multiple images to work together for a pleasing overall effect.

I’m thrilled to have finally had a peak behind the magic curtain of quality graphic design. Ironically, I moved across the country twenty-six years ago, in 1995, to attend graphic design school in New Mexico. In recent weeks I’ve learned more from Liz Steel than I learned in several months of that school (which, no surprise, has since folded.)

Any sketchbook artist knows that once in a while an on-site sketching session gets interrupted. Then the question is, how do you add finishing touches back in the studio?

Here are some before-and-after illustrations showing a bit of what I’m learning.

Beacon Street before: I liked the echo between the sketch in the lower left corner and the left edge of the painted area.
But where to put the text? Place it to draw attention to that detail sketch.
Lots of small elements, how to pull them together?
Strong border and headline. Preserve white space.
Rollins Park, two very minimal sketches on-site, because chatting with my friend was far more important than focussing on sketching.
Ta-daaah! 2 separate sketches, clarified by borders, single-color sky areas, minimal text, and a single line of text at the bottom to ground everything.

Can you see why it feels like magic?

If you too have fallen in love with having a Sketchbook-For-Its-Own-Sake, tell me about it!

What’s your favorite medium: pen, pencil, watercolor, colored pencils?

Do you like heavy paper, or thin paper that feels less “precious”?

Do you have an appreciation for good design, even if you don’t yet understand all the underpinnings?

Share your thoughts, and as always, remember to pause, look, and take notes!


If you like what you’ve read, consider helping me refill my thermos of coffee for my next sketching expedition! See the Tip Jar above, and thanks!

About Bobbie Herron

I live surrounded by watercolor brushes and paints, fountain pens, sketchbooks, and journals- often wanting more than anything to write and paint at the same time. If you like what you're reading, feel free to share it with others. If you see something that needs correction, please let me know. Thanks for visiting!
This entry was posted in Pen & Ink, Sketchbooks, Sketching tools, Tip Jar, Urban Sketching (On-Site Creativity), Watercolor and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What I’ve been learning

  1. A wonderful insight about the definitions of a sketchbook , there is a lot of approaches but I did like the one it is ‘’allowed’’ to be a beautiful work of art and reference of longterm builded skills , so we can have more than one 😁✊🏻, one for each purpose yeahhh or off course a mix , why not 🤔 . The Liz Steel course is also on my wishlist and good to hear you like it 👌 I am now in holiday which means time ( better to say making /allowing time to do urban sketching) and filling my travel sketchbook . Nice reading this blog as always 🍀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much Debora. I love having conversations with you, here or “face to face” online! Yes, constant learning, with a gentle attitude, is such a pleasure. No final exams, just discoveries! I think of you every time I see a picture of Greece, imagining your wonderful holidays there. Be well, my dear friend.


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