She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Ode to the Sketchbook
Neither diary nor journal, though could be. The bindings as widely varied as snowflakes and often as intriguingly beautiful. Cardboard, leather, plastic, cloth. Industrial, scholarly, swank, artsy, craftsy, cute. The marketplace for sketchbooks has expanded enormously and the styles can barely keep up with demand.
But not so long ago, the sketchbook was singularly the serious art class companion, or the private studio portfolio kept close at hand where intimate challenges were explored: the length of a forearm, the profile of a forehead, the dip of the clavicle, the distance between chin and nipple, the turn of a leg, the form of a foot, an angry hand, an open hand, a thunderhead cloud, a stormy sea, a rained-on blossom….kept and revisited through a day, through a life. And 20 or 40 or (if you’re lucky) 80 pages of a time so specific that to pick up and look again is to slam the owner into a time, an immediate turn back to a piece of land, a city block, an infatuation or deepest love, the history of a beloved cat or dog, faces, dishes, chairs, gardens, thoughts…..all of it the very most personal. Because it is one’s own landscape.
To carry a sketchbook under arm or stuffed in a pocket was the equipment, the sole province, the badge of an artist. And to carry such treasure and not be an artist would have been as much engaged in fraud as publicly parading pink satin ribbon tied ballet slippers over the shoulder of a 2-left-footer never dancer. Sacrilege.
So much to learn about the sketchbook.
There weren’t tutorials, you discovered marvelously obscure art supply stores or school shops and checked out the stock. For one thing, an early find, the paper varied in weight and roughness or smooth surface. There were sketchbooks with pure white papers, or gray, or browns, kraft or even black; useful depending on your medium of ink, pencil, chalks.
Some sketchbooks had a ribbon tie, or three ribbons! Some had spiral bindings, in color! Some cloth bound like books. Some five inches square, some 10 by 15 or 18 by 20. Long, tall, wide, fat, thin.
Now, confronted with a small, bound, blank paged, ready-for-action treasure, with its simple cotton gross-grained ribbon to be used to tie shut your private work and thoughts, is thrilling.
It is a tribute to bright ideas, to learning, to invention, to anything is possible in the human experience. It is also, after all, the central reservoir of Leonardo Da Vinci’s fertile mind, and more recently the place that the father of Indiana Jones drew his maps and figured his findings.
I have a more liberal view these days than when I was a student so jealously guarding what identified me to the world. I would allow, these days, a sketchbook in every hand! In the hope that wonderful thoughts, the bon mot, the botanist’s heart would find fulfilment on the magical pages awaiting their ideas. I would allow the song writer, the poet, the rocket ship designer a welcome into what was once mine and my fellows alone.
And to all, I suggest, in my more generous and kind older age, go forth and get you a sketchbook. And a pen. Or a pencil. And keep it with you until the one day and moment you see or think something you absolutely cannot afford to forget. And remember with a light heart and total delight that there is a sketchbook in your pocket ready to record it.
To develop it. To hold the fine treasure of your thoughts.
**(End Note about “Angels Dancing on Treetops”: This is a perfect example of the benefit of sketchbooks. I was having a rough go, living with friends, and all of us on edge from it. I drove to Garland Park in Carmel Valley, warm sunny day and I wanted to be alone. I sat in the front seat of my big ancient suburban, relishing the privacy and looking at the view. The trees in front of me were moving in the wind. I looked closer. They were moving vertically, not horizontally swept by breeze but rather in a kind of bounce from the top! What on earth, I thought. Then I realized, obviously angels dancing on the treetops, pushing the branches up and down! I did the sketch, shown above, I didn’t ever want to forget it. Four years later after moving to Big Sur I painted it from the sketch, and from the stirred memorty. Thanks, Oopsjohn.)