Rina Piccolo Blog

Rina Piccolo's Blog is about cartooning, comics, illustration, and creativity.

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Musings On Keeping A Sketchbook Journal


A sketchbook journal is a type of time machine. In place of dials, there are pages. This time machine has boundaries, though: you can only go backward, and not forward in time.  The future—your future—is yet to be composed. On any given day, you might open a sketchbook from, say, six years ago, and see something of what your life was at the moment in which you were living it. (Or should I say, in the moment in which you were documenting it.) Setting fresh eyes on an old entry is something like seeing a shadow of your self, as it was six years ago. It's you without the details. You ask yourself what sorts of benefits can be gained by working in a little booklet that can transport you from one day in your life to another.


You may be embarrassed by what you write, and draw, in your sketchbook. You might say that you’d rather die than have someone read it. Most likely, you're someone who looks at old work that you've created, and see it in the same way that you would see an old photo of yourself with bad 80s hair, or bad 70s hair… or bad hair from whatever decade you choose, because no matter the decade, bad hair seems to occur in every era throughout history. What’s up with that?

One day you buy a sketchbook. It costs about the same price as a good medium sized pizza. It’s a nice-looking little book. Its got pristine virgin pages that smell like freshly folded linen. Your new sketchbook may have one of those colourful little ribbons that hang down the inner spine of the book to mark your place in it. It might come with a cover that is durable, or soft and pliant. Precious, right? Yeah, it's precious. So precious that you are afraid of blemishing its pages! So, you sit at your table, or on your couch, and stare at the bare, blank first page, and you decide that it is a job and a half just to stare at the page, let alone make that first mark on it. More staring. If you were a robot, there would be an attempt to try to reboot you.  And to carry the robot-thing further, the idea of making a mark on the page makes you feel like a robot unable to fix a target for its much-anticipated first step. What do I write? What should I draw? You say to yourself. Jesus, why can’t I make a mark? I’ve made so many marks in my life, and now it seems I’ve forgotten how. What the f***? Then you take your brush-pen, or pen-pen, or whatever, and you begin to make a mark. It turns into a line, but it's really nothing yet, of course. Everything you do starts as nothing. At best, what you've made so far is an unsure, wandering line. And you take that unsure line and plough ahead. Moments pass. You're not feeling it. You're just not feeling it. You've made a lot of lines, but somehow they misbehave. The thing that you made is not exactly what you had in mind to create. It's a mess.  At this stage you begin to think that maybe you would’ve preferred to spend your money on a good medium sized pizza.

If you think about it, manufactures of blank books are in the business of selling an intangible product. What they’re selling runs up a spectrum of possibilities (you might say they’re actually selling mere possibilities). You are an artist, or a writer, or someone who wants to fill up blank pages. You’re someone who is chasing something, exploring something, or searching for -- what? Self-expression? Self-esteem, maybe. A goal? An improved self? Maybe it's an Identity you're after, or an elusive project that will lend you an identity. Who knows, there may be an idea in your head that the sketchbook is a time capsule of your own self. Then you wonder about all these things, and ask: is the desire to keep a journal self-indulgent—or even egotistical? You ask yourself, do I have the arrogance to think that my musings are so important that they need documenting? No, you say; it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all; it’s just for pleasure, you say—something I do to entertain myself. And, you might add, what’s wrong with that?

One afternoon, you decide you are going to become a sketchbook person. You are going to be that person that writes and draws every day.  So, you go to the art supply store and buy a commitment. This commitment rides with you on the subway home, it sits in your bag like a light switch waiting to be rummaged for in the dark, and turned on. You even feel an itch between the creases of your palms. At home you take out the little book, and off you go with it, scribbling, drawing, whatever. Where have you been all my life, you say to it. Where? Where? Where? But then something else happens. In one week the sketchbook sits closed up, forlorn, and without you; and you are doing something else with your time, and you suddenly remember what a teacher once told you about how you should never buy someone a puppy for Christmas. The little terrier is so cute, he’s soft and warm, and you love the feeling of him falling asleep in your lap. But then, ah, there’s the feeding, the housebreaking, the taking out, the vet visits, etc. At this point the analogy tapers off, and you stare at your seldom-used sketchbook, and wonder if there's a good place for it on your shelf. You find a spot, closest to the ceiling, and you park it there. Thank goodness it’s not a puppy, you think.

It's dusk. You look at all the un-filled sketchbooks on your shelf and wonder if maybe you just haven't found the right sketchbook. That must be the reason why you can't make a drawing you're proud of. Surprisingly, you discover that the only way to get over the stacks of empty pages on your shelf is to go to the store and buy more stacks of empty pages. So, the following day, you go and buy a new sketchbook. You know it's a bit crazy, because you have so many un-filled ones, but that's what you do. You look at the price. It costs about the same amount of money as a Teflon coated wok in Chinatown. Not bad. You leave the store with a light step, and a lighter wallet. It’s not like I’m buying puppies, you tell yourself, as you hop on the saddle and peddle home with the new sketchbook tucked smartly inside the basket of your bike, which you are now riding like a super heroine through the streets of a mega metropolis. And besides, you think, this will be a different sketchbook. Something worthwhile will happen inside it. This is the sketchbook that I will complete cover-to-cover. Back in your apartment, or house, or room, you unwrap the sketchbook; mm…smell that linen scent. And you begin scribbling, drawing, writing, whatever-- and zero thoughts come into your mind. Except maybe one thought: I love this! I love what I'm making right here, right now. And I know that although I'm loving this thing I'm making today, when tomorrow arrives I'll look at it and think it's a piece of shit. But that's ok, because right now, I am a Goddess of lines and shapes and letters, and all things sketchy and new. And so, yes, let tomorrow's feelings come when they may, because right now, I don't give a damn.


On a spring day, you take your sketchbook to a parkette in the middle of a busy intersection. You have it in mind to sketch people; take notes, maybe. The exhaust from cars is a reminder of where you are, but soon you are lost in your scribbling. A woman with bad 80s hair is carrying way too many babies, and you jot something down about her. And now she’s walked half way to Bay Street, but you are still sketching her, even though she is gone, out of sight. That’s something you are capable of doing: you know how to pin down a person’s individuality seconds before they disappear into the wash of masses. It's a skill of urban sketching. You look at your drawing. This is pretty good, you say to yourself—not the best, but I’m just getting warmed up. At two o’clock, at the time when the postman is unlocking his postal box, you are laying down crosshatches on a drawing of a sparrow. More minutes pass. There are now three representations of sparrows in your book, and several of people. Five minutes later, your friend shows up. Hey, you say. Hey, she says. She takes out her sketchbook and begins to scribble. You look over at her. She’s way better than I am, you think. I’m a total hack-job compared to her. After several minutes of drawing, she asks to see your sketchbook. This is a multiple choice. Do you a) nonchalantly show her your sketchbook, b) show her your work while wildly exclaiming how terrible it is, or c) flash her what you consider an okay drawing in the same way that you would flash your boobs: really fast. It also occurs to you that you can just say no. Like, No, you cannot look at my sketchbook. What would she say to that? Hm. She’s waiting and so you hand over your sketchbook. I’m just warming up, you tell her. And then, as she turns and gives you her sketchbook, she implores you not to look at it. Don’t even, she says, Don’t Freaking Even. So of course you look. You turn the page of this other person’s sketchbook, and you suddenly feel like you’re in a foreign country, where dots and lines invoke the symbols of a different culture. Another side of the world is what you see, and over here, even the pages of sketchbooks smell different. Like wheat, or wheat crackers, maybe. But you don't mind that your friend's sketchbook is unusual, and that the texture of its pages are like the surface of a fuzzy unfamiliar fruit, because, you consider, maybe she feels the same way about yours. And that's when it comes to you: maybe you are—at least in the eyes of others—an exotic sketchbook artist. Yes. Maybe. Cars honk, people move past, and the traffic lights make that chirping noise that help the blind find their way across the intersection.