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Sketchbooks have long been an integral part of the art curriculum as they are such an important part of creativity in the art room. They are also an essential part of the art curriculum in the UK also, as it specifically states that they must be used. I don't have a problem with this, since they are good practice, but the definition of what a sketchbook is, is not so easy. Most artists would draw in a hardbound, paper book, but artists also use other ways of recording their thoughts and ideas. For example, Van Gogh and Frida Khalo wrote as much as they drew and many artists keep journals of their writings instead of, or as well as their drawings. Other artists record their thoughts using audio devices and prefer to keep collections of the spoken word. You should show your students different types of sketchbooks and try to facilitate different ways of working in them, rather than insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Top Tips for sketchbooks

• Sketchbooks aren’t exercise books

• We don’t put teacher’s grades, marks, or comments in them

• Pupils shouldn’t have to ask to use their sketchbooks. Pupils should know that whenever they have an idea, a thought, or a feeling, or see something they wish to draw, they can put it in their sketchbook (at the right time of course).

• Pupils shouldn’t have the pressure of feeling sketchbooks are too precious, that they can’t ‘spoil’ a page or even that they have to ask to get/buy a new one. 

• Ideally, a sketchbook should be a place where your pupils make personal, expressive records about themselves. They should be a place where they are free to explore visual language in ways that interest them and make records about things that they wish to investigate. 

• If 99% of the content in a sketchbook is teacher-led then it isn’t a sketchbook at all! (80% is good.) 

The Traditional Sketchbook 

Schools with large budgets buy school monogrammed, beautifully bound sketchbooks at great expense. However, the most common sketchbook in schools is the mass-produced, soft-backed drawing book, bought in bundles from an art supplier. They are quick, cheap, and do the job, but they often cause fear and trepidation and raise feelings of blank page syndrome called white fright, where students are terrified of getting them dirty or spoiling them. So, here are some handy tips on getting the best results in sketchbooks:


  1. Encourage the children to do their own personal drawings in them, whenever it is feasible to do so, usually at the back of the book. This encourages them to see their book as a thing of pleasure. 

  2. Don't insist on order, neatness & accuracy. Children should understand that a sketchbook is a place to work things out in rough before the final piece. Sketchbooks can and should be messy books, that are full of experiments and mistakes. Where else can they do that if not here? They don't have to start at the front and underline every title etc. but they still should put the date and write a short description of what it is.! 

  3. Mistakes are vital. They should be taught that you don't need to rub everything out and start again. I tell them that they still get marks for the 'wrong' ones and this really helps to instill the correct working methods. I also tell them there's no need to tear out pages or go onto a new page if a mistake is made because mistakes are part of their learning. Leonardo just drew another version next to the mistake, so if it's good enough for him..... 

  4. Make your own. All you need is some card, some paper and some method of sticking them together. I usually buy thin white board these days from my art supplier and cut it to size before the lesson, but if you have loads of packaging boxes you can use them too. I use A3 cartridge paper (about 100gsm weight) and fold it in half. For younger children, you might fold the card beforehand, but I do this with year 5 upwards and they cope fine. Next, they have to stack the folded paper on top of each other, NOT inside each other. They brush some glue down the spine of the pile of paper and then push it firmly inside the folded card. Put a weight on it and leave it to dry overnight. You should consider adding some sugar papers, newspaper, brown paper, etc. to vary the surface that the students can draw onto. I usually use six pieces of A3, one sugar, and one other. Other methods are, use a large elastic band around the spine to hold the paper, or using a hole punch at the spine, then fasten with string or ties.

  5. Do not mark sketchbooks! You aren't checking correctness, or ticking pages to acknowledge you've seen them, or giving generic comments such as well done, excellent work, or  good. Assessment is a reflective dialogue recorded by the pupil.

  6. Create some prepared grounds. When you have made the book you may want to get creative and make some prepared grounds. You can do this in those posh expensive books too. Prepared grounds are just surfaces that you draw onto, but they have dramatic results. They can really improve students' work, especially with the middle to low ability students. Create some prepared grounds on your blank pages by:

Spraying very watered down ink from plastic spray bottles
Dusting lightly with charcoal or graphite powder then fixing
Rubbing some coloured chalk pastel lightly with a soft tissue then fixing it.

Spilling coffee on pages.
Gluing tissue papers or other papers to the page, then drawing on top. 





By making your own sketchbooks, using different types of paper and using prepared grounds you have already created a fabulous starting point for children's art. It forces them to have to use other materials in addition to a pencil because some of their pages won't show the marks, so they have to find other things to draw with. It makes great art without even trying! And by showing them that they can use it for their own personal work, to put other things in such as collage, pictures, stickers, etc and not just drawing, they will become things of beauty. 

The digital Sketchbook 

In our increasingly digital age, many artists use their smartphones or tablets to collect combinations of audio, sketches, websites, writing, or photographs. They could use a blog to save these to or a site such as Instagram. Apps such as Evernote, Penultimate, Notes, and a whole host of others allow students to record ideas instantly, whilst they are on the move. As someone who practiced art before the digital age I can say that this method has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side it allows you to record anything anywhere so that you don't forget it, but on the flip side, I find that it often cuts off my creativity before it has had time to gel. I used to spend ages turning over ideas in my head whilst out walking, analysing them, perfecting them and trying to remember them, but now I find that I record things quickly then they drop out of my mind. So I'm not sure that an oldie like me works in the right way to fully utilise the capabilities of a smartphone! However, what is certain is that the digital device is here to stay and will no doubt become a greater and greater part of our children's future. 


The scrapbook 

This takes me back to the good old days of the Seventies when I used to collect pictures and stick them in a large, sugar paper scrapbook. Essentially it is the same thing, but it is worth remembering that good ideas never die out. Many of your students will not draw naturally and might even be budding photographers, so the scrapbook method of working is worth introducing because it will encourage them to look for and save ideas. They could stick all manner of things in, building collages of bus tickets, rail tickets, concert flyers, promo stuff, etc. without drawing anything. 


The Journal 

Many students like to write their thoughts and are not especially visual thinkers. Rather than just using a notepad, which is not very arty, why not get these students to make their own writing journal, then stain the pages and decorate them to look personal? They should be shown that journal thoughts and ideas are not the same as keeping a diary and that ideas can be scribbles and crude diagrams as well. I prefer this style of sketchbook myself as I think in words mostly. But you could combine both plain and lined paper if you wish.

Use a sketchbook to: 

  • Make observational drawings both in the classrooms and in the environment. 

  • Think of ideas and record them.

  • Do art at home for personal reasons. 

  • Stick pictures, materials, textures, feathers, buttons, tickets, leaflets, anything! 

  • Do classwork in such as shading lessons or colour mixing. Write ideas and thoughts.

  • Make studies of artists' work, or stick pictures of art they like. 

  • Highly effective sketchbook pages can be created from simple photos and magazine cut-outs using mounting techniques, composition, and spattered ink backgrounds. 

  • Stick their own photographs in. 

sample sketchbook page

We'd all love to see beautiful drawings like this one on every page

sample sketchbook page

Teach pupils how to set things out on a page.

sample sketchbook page

Use a variety of materials and surfaces

sample sketchbook page

Draw on prepared grounds

sample sketchbook page

But you are likely to see low-grade drawings much more. This is normal!

sample sketchbook page

Try things out and experiment

sample sketchbook page

Create collages and ripped edges

sample sketchbook page

And don't forget to allow children to create their own personal drawings!


Paul Carney Paul is a nationally recognised art & design consultant having delivered specialist art CPD in schools, colleges, galleries, and Universities across the UK and for the UK’s leading training providers. He is a former Council member for the NSEAD, which means he is involved in national art education policy issues.Paul is a published author of two books: Drawing for Science, Invention and Discovery and his latest book Drawing to learn anything. He is also a practicing professional artist and designer. Paul runs his highly successful art website: that provides high quality teaching resources and advice to teachers around the world. He has over twenty years teaching experience at Primary, Secondary and post-16 levels of education, is an Advanced Skills Teacher, ex-Subject Leader for Art and was a member of the DfE Expert Advisory Group for Art and Design. In addition to this he was a member of the NSEAD Curriculum Writing Group that wrote the 'Framework for Progression, Planning for Learning, Assessment, Recording and Reporting 2014.’ 

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