Sketchbooks as Art Objects

Recently we posted pages from two of Robert Dale Anderson’s sketchbooks. The images include faint pencil drawings, sketches for compositions, notes, and beautifully rendered ink drawings. In the Miscellany of our blog, the pages of Anderson’s sketchbooks are presented in order, the images are legible, and editing is minimized, retaining a suggestion of the experience of moving through his books one page after another. Three or four pages of rendered drawings in pen, follow light pencil drawings, follow quick notes about meals, follow mysterious phrases like “fish don’t surf” or an entire page of observations in Spanish. These sequences bear no obvious chronology from one page to the next.

Sketchbooks tend to be less accessible and often provide more intimate or private views of an artist’s processes and reflections. These books can be a laboratory of sorts, where images are explored, akin to a Rosetta stone, a codex, a diary, a workbook, or more. Rules for what belongs or not in the sketchbook tend, in general, to be less rigid. The structure or arrangement of information, compositions, notes, and images might, as a result, bear less inhibition and offer insights not easily gleaned from finished works. A ‘sketchbook’ can be defined by bound pages, or it can be less formal, even disheveled like a folio of pages. It can be a body of documents that represents learning, seeing, filtering, mnemonic cataloging, or emulating the way an artist works in structures that create complicated pathways. The sketchbook can leave an artist vulnerable, his or her  on the page’s surface. This vulnerability is like reading a diary and sometimes like a magician showing you how an illusion was fashioned.

The manuscripts of Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519), for example, are prime sources about his scientific breadth and artistic complexity. While DaVinci painted only a handful of surviving paintings, fifteen that are attributed to him, his sketches, diagrams, and writing comprise thousands of pages. Based on these documents, scholars have been able to develop notions about his artistic and scientific processes, his acuity, and even speculations about his personality.

While an art object is usually considered to be an end product, the back story of a ten dollar sketchbook, filled with drawings and notes, engages equally, maybe more so.

~Michael Glenn

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