Brain Pickings

The R&D Lab of Creativity: Inside the Sketchbooks of Beloved Illustrators and Designers

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A memory warehouse… a means of detachment… the perfect place to document daydreams.

As an unapologetic voyeur with a soft spot for the notebooks and sketchbooks of famous artists, designers, and other creators, I was instantly enamored with Sketchbooks: The Hidden Art of Designers, Illustrators, and Creatives (public library) from British publisher Laurence King, who brought us the fantastic series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

From sources of inspiration to process, the collection offers a rare glimpse of how 42 of the world’s most exciting illustrators, artists and designers think and create. Alongside each visual entry is a short essay by its owner, detailing his or her relationship with keeping a sketchbook.

Spanish book cover designer Pep Carrió sees his notebook as a kind of creative R&D lab:

For me, a sketchbook is like a kind of a portable laboratory, a space to mark with references, to capture the immediate, to experiment; a memory warehouse to which I can return whenever I am searching for an idea or when I simply want to remember an instant, a time in the past.

Pep Carrió: Sketchbook 'Visual Diary Untitled,' gouache

Legendary British designer Peter Saville, best-known for his iconic Joy Division album covers, sees his notebooks as an oasis for conversing with the self amidst an overwhelming landscape of other people’s creative problems:

I started keeping sketchbooks in my mid-teens so they were mainly pop culture oriented. It was the early 1970s and the first concert I went to was David Bowie supporting Blind Faith, and he was as much about image as bout music. My interests became focused through pop, and the relationship between music and imagery.

In the 1980s, as a graphic designer, I was dealing with the visual problems of others alongside my own interests. My drawings showed the visual problem I had to solve, whereas my notes were predominantly discussions with myself.

[…]

Within the sphere of communication design and graphic design, we do not have a professional vehicle for our own thoughts and proposals. The job involves finding solutions to other people’s problems rather than solutions to our own. one of my greatest problems for the last 20 years has been what to do with my own ideas, my notebooks.

Peter Saville: Pencil on paper sketch, 1982

Peter Saville: Pencil on paper sketches, 1999 (top) and 1996 (bottom)

The wonderful Oliver Jeffers, whose children’s books never cease to delight, approaches his sketchbooks like Anaïs Nin did her diaries:

I have kept sketchbooks continuously since I was 18. I think there are around 23 so far. My sketchbooks are mostly paint, ink, paper and concepts that need working out.

Oliver Jeffers: 'Mister,' a study painting from 2006; 'Accomplished,' googly-eye collage; 'Things of Interest,' one of many lists made in 2007; 'Easy,' collage on found advertisement

Spanish illustrator Pablo Amargo offers his system of managing creativity:

I like to work on two sketchbooks at the same time. One is for work, with lots of little drawings, ideas for postcards and books. The second one is for pleasure, with collages, my thoughts, people I admire, quotes from books, news and film reviews, that sort of thing. … My sketchbooks are not a removed, strange or chaotic place; they’re actually quite ordered and are a natural extension of my published work.

Pablo Amaro: Birds

Pablo Amaro: The Whale

Pablo Amaro: Fishes

Pablo Amaro: There Are a Hundred Reasons to Buy a House

Soho-based Parisian illustrator Serge Bloch shares his poetic relationship with newspapers:

I like drawing for newspapers. I like newsprint. I like the grey of the text, the black of the titles, the elegance of the compositions. A page of newspaper is like a wall or a gallery where hundreds of thousands of people can visit, without being prevented by shyness from entering the gallery. You can be on a train, in bed or on a sunny bench. But that exhibit is ephemeral because, the following day, there is nothing left, just a piece of paper to dry your boots with or peel vegetables on.

Serge Bloch: Except the bird and the sticker (found in a Paris flea market), these are sketches to find an idea for the New York Times’ science section on the subject of why we like pets

Elephant; Head found in an old book of anatomy by Serge Bloch

Serge Bloch: Birds for McKinsey magazine

Celebrated artist and graphic design educator Ed Fella uses his sketchbooks as both escapism and reservoir for combinatorial creativity:

For me these books are a means of detachment. They are a discharge, a continuation of form studies based on my 30 years of work as a professional illustrator and graphic designer. They are mostly non-objective or ‘deconstructed’ form drawings, decorative and embellished with techniques I learned in my commercial art illustration practice. They reference a history (late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century) that was before my time, but one that I find rich in possibilities for reworking.

Ed Fella: Four-color ballpoint pen with white and yellow prismacolor pencil on paper from a 2004 sketchbook

Ed Fella: Collages from a 1983 sketchbook

Ed Fella: Three collage pages from a 2002 sketchbook (Moleskine Accordion Fold). All fragments of posters from streets in Melbourne, Australia.

For London-based Japanese illustrator Fumie Kamijo, the sketchbook is a physical filing cabinet for the lived experience that feeds creativity:

Everything I have experienced goes into my sketchbooks, the things I have seen, eaten, heard, felt, and, perhaps most importantly, they are the perfect place to document my strange daydreams.

Fumie Kamijo: 'Rabbit’s Family Tree,' pen and ink, 2007

Complement Sketchbooks with Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists, then revisit Joan Didion’s timeless piece on keeping a notebook.

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