by John Bloner, Jr.
Author and pigeon-fancier Julia Cameron nearly ruined my life. Nearly 30 years ago, I delved into Cameron’s self-help book, The Artist’s Way, following her instructions to write several pages every morning until I had filled enough notebooks to make my home a fire hazard. All of my furious pen work didn’t result in prose that freed me from my monkey brain. I poured my anger and sorrow onto paper and just became angrier and sadder. It wasn’t until the new century arrived when a friend told me: You’re not supposed to hang onto these writings. You’re supposed to burn them in order to break free emotionally from your past.
As our city has strict fire laws, I opted to shred them instead and rid myself of Cameron’s book.
Another decade passed before I discovered my own way of making morning pages. Rather than pen my miseries, I drew instead. I created pictures of what was in front of me. I also illustrated what interests me: curmudgeons, pinup girls, assorted ne’er do wells, and jalopies.
My drawing self is a happier being than the fellow who writes, but he’d been in hiding for a long time. I found him in 2009 in a Border’s bookstore, while looking for something else; I stumbled upon An Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory there and was gobsmacked. Page and colorful page of this volume presents the private sketchbooks of contemporary artists, illustrators, and designers, and includes insights from the creators on their work. I was in awe, and I was inspired.
I can do this, too!, I told myself.
Until I discovered An Illustrated Life, I thought of sketchbooks as pads for doodles and notes. I had purchased a few; most remained blank. Many of the sketches featured in An Illustrated Life were as complete as works on canvas. They offered an intimacy not often found in galleries or museums.
A few days after purchasing Danny’s work, I headed to a nearby nature sanctuary with a new sketchbook and drew a picture of an historic schoolhouse on its grounds. In the weeks that followed, I made drawings of objects both real and imagined, but then the rest of my life got in the way. My output slowed. Half a decade went by before I reached the final page in my sketchbook. Yet, I felt triumphant. I had persevered.
My practice picked up when Danny Gregory and Dutch artist Koosje Koene founded an online arts course, Sketchbook Skool, and I became one of their students. According to Sketchbook Skool’s website, their goal “is to get you making art again. To show you how to get started. But also how to keep going – how to fit art into your everyday life so you keep improving and having fun.”
At Sketchbook Skool, I’ve attended classes in watercolor painting, illustration, urban sketching, mapmaking, and collage. The richest experience has been in meeting fellow students, first online, and later in person, and sharing our art with each other. I’ve made friends across the US and into Europe. My wife and I attended the first conference dedicated to sketchbook art-making in Pasadena, CA where 400 fellow students joined us. I drew caricatures of the instructors who taught at this conference and of its keynote speaker, Austin Kleon. (He is the guy in the bottom left image who is leaping into the air, fist raised.)
You don’t need to fly to California or pay money to take online classes in order to awaken your inner artist. There are opportunities all around for artists, no matter their talent level, to get together, learn, and share their work. I’ve sketched with groups in parks, a cemetery, on our lakefront, at the Racine Zoo, and once in a used tire shop that’s also home to several exotic birds. My art-making collective, the Krazines, met the Urban Sketchers of Chicago during Kenosha’s Tall Ship Festival in 2019 and enjoyed our time together, capturing these massive sailing vessels onto our pages. Since then, we’ve joined them for adventures in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois.
I use sketchbooks for a variety of purposes. I’ll use one for urban sketches, another for developing characters, a third for collage, and yet another to draw in while enjoying my morning coffee.
Recently, I’ve taken up collage work in sketchbooks that can handle the demands of this craft, including this piece, constructed of napkins, paint, and art from Vincent Van Gogh.
I’ve used sketchbooks for pen and ink drawings and others for wet media. I love Stillman & Birn books because they take a lot of abuse. I’ve saturated their pages with water without any warping. I’ve slathered them in gesso, Mod Podge, and varnish.
I also love Hahnemühle books because it’s so much fun to say their name: Hah-Nah-Moo-Lah! It could be an incantation or a cheer.
Kenosha artists Lisa and Becky Bigalke of Rudbeckia Press create hand-bound journals and sketchbooks from archival and eco-friendly materials. They’ve custom-assembled accordion sketchbooks with hot-press paper for me, and they sell their books and art at area fairs. Check them out.
I need air to breathe, food and water to survive, and art-making, whether in a sketchbook or on other surfaces, to nourish my soul.
You’re invited to join me on my artistic journey through my Instagram page, @juniorbarnesart, or with the Krazines. We have monthly projects that result in a full-color magazine, and we expect to host in-person events again in post-pandemic times, including art meetups and field trips.
Are you also a sketchbook artist or interested in learning more about art-making adventures in the Racine and Kenosha, WI area? Leave a comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image by Messala Ciulla at Pexels.