Drawn In: A Peek Inside Favorite Artists' Private Sketchbooks

Questions and answers with Julia Rothman, whose latest project goes straight to the source of hidden creative processes

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I'm a longtime fan of artist Julia Rothman, who pens the wonderful Book By Its Cover blog and who in 2009 co-masterminded the excellent Exquisite Book, in which 100 of today's most exciting visual artists engaged in a collaborative game inspired by the surrealist movement of the 1920s. This month, Julia is back with another superb book project: Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists—a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm, and flesh ideas out, doing for art what Field Notes did for science, Street Sketchbook did for street art, and Pure Process did for advertising.

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The lavish volume offers a rare glimpse inside the minds and hearts of favorite artists like visual poet Sophie Blackall, happiness-designer Tad Carpenter, nature illustrator Jill Bliss, and many more, showcasing stunning full-color images alongside profiles of the artists, who discuss their sketchbooks and how they use them.

Today, I sit down with Julia to chat about the theories of creative genius, common patterns of creation, and insights from the project.

MP: There's been a lot of discussion lately about the origin of genius and the driving force behind the creative process, whether it's the product of this age-old notion of "the muse" or closer to something like Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours theory, which frames "genius" as the product of merciless practice and discipline. Do artists' sketchbooks bespeak a particular truth to tip the scale in either direction, or do they embody some combination of the two models of genius?

JR: I think it's definitely a mix of both. While you can learn a technique like drawing and try to perfect it by practicing and practicing, you still need that bit of natural talent to bring it to the level of these artists. In these sketchbooks, there's evidence of artists spending a lot of time getting their drawings to look a certain way. Sam Bosma's sketches of the same character over and over are a great example. His pages show a refinement in each rendering of the same subject. But there is definitely a spontaneity in much of the work in these sketchbooks. One of my favorite examples is Christian DeFilippo's balloon page. It seems like he just threw a handful of balloons on the paper and taped them down flat. The result is an amazing colorful and sculptural page, an experiment which couldn't have been created from practice.

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MP: Did any specific patterns emerge from the bird's-eye view of the 44 sketchbooks, anything that was common to many artists and perhaps a useful insight on how the rest of us can best tame our inspiration and creative process?

JR: Each of these artists have such different styles and ways of working, but one of the things that they all seemed to do was observational drawing from life. While much of Anders Nilsen's sketchbook was filled with comics and imagery from his own head, you'd turn a page and see a realistic sketch of a person who was sitting in front of him. It seems like being able to capture the world around you is an important skill to each of these artists whether or not their non-sketchbook work reflects that. Being able to recreate the world around them must help artists to be able to create their own worlds.

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MP: What dead artists' sketchbooks do you most wish you could peek inside?

JR: Keiko Minami, Vera Neuman, Ben Shahn, John Singer Sargent, Shel Silverstein, Ezra Jack Keats, Olle Eksell, Alexander Calder, Charles Schulz... I could go on and on.

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Drawn In is out this month and an absolute, rare kind of treat.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Images: Quarry Books

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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