Sunday Mailbag

July 13th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I really like your work I see overlap, contrasting of simple geometry to give your drawing volume and bite.¬¨‚Ć I guess the question is this what are you thinking when keeping a sketchpad or, the simple question might be the what is the value of keeping a sketchpad? The impetus for this question is I have friends I see drawing in cafes and it’s like they are going through the motions. It’s like “Dude, what are you trying to achieve?”

A: Your timing with this question is fortuitous as it coincides with a good friend of mine asking a similar question of me (and many other pro artists) about the value of keeping a sketchbook for a book of his sketches he is working on. His book is going to be full of his mind-blowing sketches along with quotes and thoughts from other artists on the practice of… practice. I won’t let the cat out of the bag for him, but his book will be one of the few of that kind I would see a value in having.

Here are the thoughts I sent to him on the subject:

Learning to draw and developing your ability to draw is like learning a language. Constant use is what makes it feel natural and become second nature to you. Continuous drawing in sketchbooks of anything and everything develops your visual “vocabulary”. Just as learning a new word and using it develops your language skills, learning how to draw a chair or a table or an airplane, etc. expands not only your understanding of those specific objects but also your ability to capture form and describe it convincingly in your drawings. Keeping a sketchbook is also important in that is gives the professional artist a place to take risks and make mistakes… to push their boundaries without the limitations a client places on a given job.

Keeping a sketchbook and working in it regularly will never hurt you as an artist. I’m a firm believer in the development of “sight” as well as the physical skill of drawing. You draw with your brain… your hands and eyes are only the tools it uses. However getting your brain and hands and eyes all working together with those synapses firing nice and strong is something that takes practice and development. You also train your brain in the understanding of form, light and movement by practice in observation and in depicting your observations… i.e drawing. Keeping a sketchbook is a good way to do that.

All that said I am not one of those artists that cannot stand to NOT be drawing. My buddy Stephen Silver is like that… he cannot see a blank piece of paper without having the overwhelming desire to draw something on it consume him. I admire him for it as he does it from a pure love of drawing and from a burning desire to improve his already ridiculously prodigious skills. There is no other hidden agenda with him. He draws for the sake of drawing (and he is NOT the guy publishing that sketchbook, BTW). Perhaps I have settled into a point in my life and career where the art I do is as much a job as it is a labor of love. Therefore I like to get away from it and see a baseball game, pump some iron or read a book on the beach, or what-have-you. Believe me, it is not because I feel I have mastered my art and have nowhere else to go. Far from it. I see glaring weaknesses in my work at all times, and I do work hard at improving by critiquing my work and pushing myself to do better. I also do work in sketchbooks and do occasionally draw just for the sheer joy of it, but not to fulfill an all-consuming need.

You bring up an interesting observation about working in cafes or other public places, and what the point of it is. That depends on the artist, who may do it for very different reasons. I know a lot of artists like Steve who truly keep sketchbooks as a tool for their improvement and development, and work from life to that end. I also know a few artists who publicly sketch mainly to get attention and somehow seek validation. You often can’t tell the difference unless you know the person, and then it’s easy to tell. Drawing from life is the best way to improve your figure drawing skills, and in order to do that you need live people to draw, so artists with different agendas will do the same thing but for different reasons. Cafes and coffee houses are typical places for artists to gather and draw. I know one artist who draws on NYC subways. There is no substitution for working from life, so figuring out a way to do it is worthwhile.

I just cannot see the appeal of public drawing. Personally I hate drawing or sketching in public because it inevitably draws people over to you to see what you are doing, and I feel like an ass showing them my sketchbook… it feels like I am trying to show off or am fishing for praise. Besides, who cares what Joe Coffee things of my drawing skills?? If I could do it with the guarantee no one would be able to see or bother me, I would probably do it a lot. It doesn’t work that way, though. That might seem funny considering I have been doing live caricatures for over 20 years, but that is different. That is a performance mindset and the purpose of it all is interaction with both the model and the onlookers. Sketchbooks are private things and while I am happy to hand mine over to another artist if they happen to be in my studio or we are at a drawing workshop or something, it isn’t something I walk around with taped to my back with a big “LOOKY HERE” sign on it. Does any of that make sense??

I much prefer working at an artist’s co-op from a live model, or just working from whatever in my studio. But that is just me. Many other artists rave about working in their local coffee shop or similar public place, and many are very good at the “stealth” drawing so they avoid the curious and occasionally uncooperative “subject”. To each their own.

Thanks to Michael Garisek for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. TomNguyen says:

    I tried doing the “artist thing” for a short while–bringing around my sketchbook and trying to just doodle from observation or from whatever inspires me. Just can’t do it, man. I’m kind of the same way–when I’m done doing the artwork I have to do as jobs, the last thing I want to do is draw in my spare time (generally speaking).

  2. meredithd says:

    I don’t draw in public much because I can’t stand for people to bother me. I can usually draw without people noticing, but you know, you have to really stare at someone to draw them and I hate making that accidental eye contact with strangers because then they think you’re just some weirdo. I just need to get over it though because I don’t have any other opportunities to draw from life. If I try to do it at home, my preschooler always wants to “help” me. Which doesn’t really help! Having dedicated time to just go to the coffee house would help, too. I hate to say it but I do a lot of drawing in church because it’s the perfect environment! I don’t think God really minds…

  3. Mike Giblin says:

    Tom, I recognise so much of my mindset as an artist in your comments it’s uncanny. For many of the reasons you’ve already touched upon, I’ve never been particularly comfortable with drawing & sketching in public. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for keeping a sketchbook and agree it’s one of the best tools for growth, but I’d just as soon sit and doodle at my drawing board as opposed to in a Starbucks or suchlike.
    I think you’re either inclined to public sketching or you’re not. I admire artists like Silver and my buddy Paul Moyse, who crave the ‘fix’ of drawing and are so in love with their craft they feel compelled to sketch constantly. I’m beginning to realise that it’s okay NOT to be wired that way, we’re all different and to try to magically ‘acquire’ this drive is a pointless exercise.

    So thank you for a great post Tom, your words never fail to inspire.

  4. Michael Garisek says:

    Thanks for the answer, for the same reasons as others have expressed I find it diffucult to draw in public. That being said I draw at gigs all the time the difference is people want to be drawn. I have found a couple of ways to expand my drawing time and I will e-mail them to you . I ‘ll let you decide whether you want to publish them. This is not my blog and I don’t want to take up to much space or time
    Thanks again

  5. tdempsey says:

    I don’t know – maybe it’s a New York thing. I have never had any of these intrusions when I sketch publicly. New Yorkers don’t care that your sketching in Starbucks. I carry around a discreetly sized sketchbook everywhere.

    I can relate to meridithd, if either of my kids is with me, it becomes a big deal. Especially since they don’t sugarcoat feedback.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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