Comfortable old friends

Mike Richardson

Mike Richardson explains the essential purpose of keeping a sketchbook.

The national curriculum defines art as covering art, craft and design. The products of these activities surround us all the time and their influence on the quality of our lives is immensely powerful.As a part of their art, pupils are now required at all stages to record responses to direct experience, memory and imagination, and to gather and use source materials. To do this they need a sketchbook.

While sketchbooks as such are not mandatory in key stage 1, the national curriculum requires pupils to record responses, including observations of the natural and made environment, and to gather resources and materials, using them to stimulate and develop ideas. Resource collections are necessary to lay foundations for future work. Key stage 2 will be the significant habit-forming time.

In the past, some people used to keep a commonplace book, in which they would put all sorts of things that interested them: drawings, pieces of fabric, flowers and other natural things, cuttings from magazines, pictures of places visited, copies of writing which they had enjoyed and even their own writings on things they had seen.

The essence of a commonplace book was that it was something personal and enjoyable. For many people it became "a comfortable old friend", something to be enjoyed in later life. That is what a sketchbook should be like.

A good sketchbook provides training in observation and a running commentary on the owner's visual and tactile experiences, recording all sorts of ideas, feelings, and thoughts about people, places and things. So it becomes a special sort of diary, providing an information library on many topics - not only "art" but other studies, too.

In schools, a sketchbook can be especially useful for technology, where it can be used to record three-dimensional visual experiences and provide essential two-dimensional representations of ideas to be worked up later. Where design elements of technology are taught to older pupils by staff with a relevant art and design background, the sketchbook often takes on a new dimension and significance.

Because a sketchbook is unique and personal to the maker it must show a personal interest. But what interests one person may not interest another, so there is a challenge to the teacher looking at children's sketchbooks.

There will be many different approaches, including not only drawings of natural and made objects, but also interesting graphics, significant cuttings, posters, publicity material, ideas to be worked on later and things found, such as leaves or an interesting piece of material. Children should be able to give reasons for their choices, so their written comments are important as well. Sketchbooks, more than finished work, reflect experiences of life.

There should be no restriction on when a sketchbook is used, nor any limitations on what is included. So the book should be used frequently: ideally daily, certainly very often. Not once a week for homework.

Starting a sketchbook is the hardest part. Setting down some themes to be followed can be helpful; a favourite theme can be used several times over, as long as something new can be found in it. Themes at this stage will link with work in progress. Younger children might start with collective sketchbooks more in the form of theme- or topic-based resource books for class reference. Specific things linked to their work can be sought out and included, and used when a stimulus is needed to refer to. Sorting, selecting, matching and compiling is part of the process.

A personal focus for sketchbooks should develop as children mature. Throughout, the object is to get from merely "seeing" to "considering", "investigating" and "understanding" the subject. Work should be from direct observation or good quality resource material wherever possible.

Sketchbooks can take a variety of forms, ranging from classroom "sketchbooks" using a classroom noticeboard or wall, to high-quality, personally-made "special" books for older pupils. The important thing is to have something which keeps all the work together and allows for changes at a later date.

For outdoor work, which is most likely to be drawn, children need access to a variety of materials: one tired HB pencil is not enough. When working indoors, there are innumerable other resources with which to experiment.

Some children will initially find it hard to commit themselves to keeping a sketchbook, but sympathetic teaching can impart the necessary skill and confidence. As with anything, quality is never an accident. It is the result of intelligent effort.

Mike Richardson is an honorary member of the Association of Advisers and Inspectors in Art and Design, and a former inspector for art, design and technology for Hereford and Worcester

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