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In Praise of the Humble Sketch Book
By FRANK SARGENTI
ART TIMES April 2004
I'VE BEEN A painter for three decades, and during that time I've kept many kinds of sketch books, sewn or wire-bound, with hard cover and soft, and no cover at all. Many were not much more that loose scraps of paper where a sudden idea or savory moment deposited itself for future use. In my rush to put paint on canvas the sketch book occupied a minor chord in my artistic life, knowing that it would never find an honored place in a frame nor would I ever want it to.
But, in recent years, my feelings about this common and under-appreciated art form has begun to change. I've begun to think more about keeping a sketch book in a new way, and how those idle moments with pen in hand can influence a work that finds its way onto a canvas. The act of drawing itself, what it means, and what it has always meant to me has now come in for a reappraisal.
Like everyone else I didnt start out to be an artist. The seed was planted way back when during those never-ending sultry afternoons in a classroom stuck at my desk. My first sketch books, in fact, were not sketch books at all, but doodles in the margins of my text books. I never considered this defacing school property, but rather as enhancing those dull pages for the next person who came after me. My own ubiquitous three-ring binders, however, were the places where I could soar and I embellished them with as many daydreams as I could conjure in the span of a fifty-minute class. There were dive bombing Spitfires, ships of every conceivable shape, and grotesque portraits, the usual stuff that runs through a thirteen-year old brain. My classmates always seemed to encourage my flights of fancy.
As time passed and I graduated to the formal study of art, my sketch book was my classroom where I became serious about learning to draw, a place to experiment with my ideas, and where I copied the work of those I admired. Since I was now becoming studious about art, I was sometimes a bit embarrassed to let other people gaze at those pages because I saw the flaws in every drawing and knew I didnt get it right or at least not how I wanted it to look. The sketch books of those days were disheveled affairs; sticker infested, dog-eared, and stained. They were depositories of phone numbers and appointments, memos for assignments and lists of art supplies to be purchased for the next class. They were the journals of my life in words and pictures, without discipline or order.
Because they did not exist on their own but were precursors to something else, the had diminished value for me. Over the years many of them have blown away like leaves in the fall. I would never consciously throw one away and yet most have disappeared, perhaps lost in a lifetime of moving or buried somewhere never to be seen again. Still, I keep making them in all their different configurations.
I have always been a lover of books, especially fine made books, not only for the written word, but as objects in themselves where care has been taken in selecting the materials and craftsmanship is applied to the design and production. A well-made book is a world of knowledge set on a carefully constructed stage. And so I began to see my own sketch books as having the potential of being more than just a precursor to something else, more a stand-alone volume of my own artistic evolution, a unified study of my world that echoes a story of its own in pictures.
The unused pages of a new sketch book inspire me. They are ready and waiting for the thoughts I will pour into them. My purpose has become like those who play music. In the pages of my sketch book I practice the scales, keep my hand and eye limber while getting to know my subject on very personal terms. This blank book challenges me to make the best I can create and to fill every page with thought and consistency while maintaining the freedom to daydream and soar.
I've come across sketch books that are bound in fine leather, gold-stamped on the cover, made of quality paper with gold on the edges, but I could never draw in such a book; they are much too precious. A sketch book must be of common matter that allows one to stumble and start over without concern while it is happening. It is always the person, not the thing, that creates the value.
When I return to the easel ready to paint after working in my sketch book, I now notice a difference. The drawing has loosened me and my hand seems to know where to go. I own the subject and all hesitation is gone. My paintings are built on a foundation of a well-drafted subject and that pushes me forward in the painting process. These sketch books might just as well disappear like the ones that went before them, but what they leave behind is another kind of insight. As I leaf through the pages one after another, the drawings continue to resonate long after the ideas grow cold. What I strive to achieve is an art with harmony and I have found through the rediscovery of the humble sketch book that it starts with finding the right key.
(Frank Sargenti is a painter based in Brooklyn, NY.)
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