The art of keeping a sketchbook

An insight into a student-led collaboration between Music and Fine Art

Over the last half year I’ve had the pleasure of visiting exhibitions of two artists local to the North East of Scotland. I was taken by surprise to find – among the seascapes of Frances Walker and Kate Downie – a similar little gem, namely the painters’ sketchbooks.

I became completely absorbed by random pages of sketches and reflections. What interested me was the process behind the paintings: the reflections and decisions the painters had made.

Last spring I started a collaboration with two OCA students, Gesa Helms (Fine Art) and Gary Malkin (Composing Music). What struck me most in our conversations was the expectation by Gesa that I, as a composition student, would keep a sketchbook.

So why did I actually not keep a sketchbook and why did I restrict myself to a learning log? A sketchbook and learning log are different things. I use my learning log for notes of concerts, books and reflections on my learning process. I never sit down and just compose a few bars or experiment with the expressive qualities of different curves or chord progressions just for the sake of doing so.

Being invited by Gesa to react to her sketchbook in a composition has given me the opportunity to study a Fine Art student’s sketchbook. Inspired by the sketches and reflections I decided upon an experiment. With an A5-sized, spiral-bound blank sketchbook in hand I went for walks and visited a range of local exhibitions to record my experiences in drawings, haikus and other reflections – alongside ideas for melodies, curves, chord progressions and structures for larger works.

Two weeks on I have made two observations.

First, the sketchbook has become a learning book, a place where I can freely experiment for ten or fifteen minutes with finding an appropriate melody for a mood I would like to express. With no pressure to design a plan first or to actually finish a composition, it invites me to compose more frequently.

Second, my sketchbook has become an inspiration book, a book full of drawings, haikus and reflections that I have already come back to when I felt like composing one or more snippets in a quiet moment.

The focus of composers tends to be on the end-product, the score and the performance of that score. Is the time ripe to slightly alter the focus of our work and put our sketchbooks on display to provide the listener insight in the creative processes behind our compositions? Sometimes it is good to look beyond the boundaries of our own means of expression and question our own practices. From painters we can learn the art of keeping a sketchbook.

Petra Vergunst

9 Comments

  1. Frances Clegg 28 August 2010 at 7:39 am

    I found this article about sketchbooks most interesting – especially as it is transferring from the traditional art scene to composing. As a former scientist I always kept a notebook in which I wrote down details of ideas for research or data collection. Needless to say, the ideas always outstripped the time available to implement them!
    I love artist’s sketchbooks and always hope that some will be on display in exhibitions. Nowadays, textile artists in particular really go to town with their books, cutting, burning,ripping pages out, etc to give very creative results. Last year I also went to an OCA day workshop on sketchbooks which was very helpful to me also.

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  2. Fiona Coulter 28 August 2010 at 8:34 am

    It’s an intriguing suggestion – I am certainly going to give it a try. I do keep a learning log but I find it a bit of a chore, it doesn’t really encourage me to explore musical ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise do. This might be more creative – thanks for the idea.

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  3. Jane Horton 31 August 2010 at 10:05 am

    Petra, this is a really thoughtful insight into the creative process. I find it thought provoking as an artist, I am sure the struggles with creativity cross all creative boundaries.

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  4. Margaret Gill 1 September 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I was intrigued to read Petra’s article as I’m an OCA student and began keeping a sketchbook a little while before starting my course of study. On starting studying with OCA I also began to keep learning logs (one for each of the two courses that I’m studying). Whilst my sketchbook is kept for sketching, making notes (not as full as Gesa’s) and keeping records of art works of interest, my learning log has two purposes: one an analysis and record of the work that I’m completing, and, two, a record of my theoretical studies with copies of some of the works of art to which I refer. I also keep a separate section in my learning log of my bibliography with notes about the books, my evaluation of them and notes about what I find most helpful or useful in the texts.

    I’m now keen to follow Gesa’s example and keep much fuller notes in my sketchbook in order to assist me when I develop my work at a later date.

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  5. Rob 1 September 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article, Petra.

    Having read Alain de Botton’s “Art of Travel” just recently I was inspired by the Ruskin approach of sketching for the sake of capturing something to appreciate it’s content or beauty i.e. to connect with a scene or object not necessarily to create a masterpiece. This inspired me to keep a small sketchbook to hand to capture visual things that inspire me and to create a few moments of stillness.

    I am certain, and agree with Jane, that this creative activity, although seemingly unrelated to music composition (a composer myself) can assist with creative flow (and unblocking.)

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  6. Elaine 7 January 2011 at 10:07 am

    I think keeping a sketchbook containing thoughts, doodles, pictures, poems etc. that move you in some way alongside musical ideas sounds as if it could unlock more musical ideas and really help the creative process. I’m studying composing with the OCA and have found the learning log quite difficult to write because of the way it’s structured and the way it focuses largely on my reactions to other people’s music. A sketchbook like this however might help me to develop my musical ideas by reflecting on my sketches and would also reveal more to other people about what has moved me to write the music I have written. Really thought-provoking, thank you for sharing this.

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