Textile artist Gillian Cooper extols the virtues of keeping a sketchbook.
The word ‘sketchbook’ evokes strong reactions among many quilters, such as ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘Why waste time on paper when I could be playing with fabric?’. Yet over the years I’ve discovered that maintaining a regular sketchbook practice has enhanced my quilts and improved my confidence in making them.
Above: Three different ‘drawings’ of a maple leaf by Gillian Cooper. The images shown top and centre are both watercolours. The bottom ‘drawing’ used an alternative method of a Thermofax screen and acrylic paint to create the image of the leaf, which was then coloured with Inktense pencils.
What is a sketchbook?
Let’s start with what a sketchbook is: really, it’s whatever you want it to be. It’s a personal, private space for containing ideas and thoughts. It doesn’t have to be beautiful – it’s a practical working document for you.
Filling the book
Your drawing ability doesn’t matter. Drawing is a technical skill, rather than a mystical talent you are born with, so it can be improved. We seem to expect to be able to pick up a pencil and instantly produce a sketch that Leonardo da Vinci would be proud to have created, otherwise we are a failure. Yet few of us would expect to sit at a piano and instantly start playing a Mozart piano concerto. For musical instruments, we understand that you must practise and try again and again. For drawing it’s just the same.
I also keep reminding my students that you are not drawing to create a masterpiece, you are drawing to create quilts. Bad drawings are useful if they convey the information you were looking for. No one else may understand them, but if they trigger a memory for you of what you were trying to achieve, what your exciting idea was, then they are a success.
You don’t have to use a pencil; different techniques may be more appropriate. For example, collage is like appliqué in paper and you could use it to give an idea of placement and size. To improve your free-machine quilting patterns, you could make line drawings without taking your pen off the page. Of course, it’s not the same as on fabric, but you may have worked out how to escape from some tricky corners.
A sketchbook is also a useful place to keep fabric swatches, notes about machine settings, or photos of work in progress with ideas scrawled across them. A sketchbook is harder to lose than all those little bits of loose paper with these things written on them. Gradually you will start to see connections between items in your books that will help, even if it is just with discovering what colours you are attracted to and what kind of proportions of these colours work well.
Over time you will find methods that work for you. I teach my students to weave with paper to come up with ideas. Personally, it has never done much for me, but I have had a number of students who have loved the technique and gone on to make quilts inspired by these initial weavings, either recreating the whole piece or using it as a way to break up an image into smaller, more interesting compositions. Try different techniques.
Placing the ideas
Students often come into my studio in the morning and find me drawing whilst I wait for them to arrive. Sometimes they comment, ‘That’s lovely, Gillian, but I don’t see how it’s going to be a quilt’. This is missing the point. Not every drawing will turn into a quilt. Sometimes, exploring the idea on paper lets me see that I don’t want to develop it further. Other times, I’m practising my observational skills. This doesn’t feed directly into my quilts, but when I come to make them, I’m more skilled and confident in making a composition and design. A good analogy is cross-training. An Olympic 100-metre runner doesn’t just practise by running 100-metre lengths all day. I assume (as I am no Olympic runner!) that they also go to the gym, use weights, go for longer runs to improve their endurance, etc. One session at the gym won’t give an instant improvement in the 100-metre times, but over time sessions in the gym will help. You won’t be able to tell the moment when the improvement kicks in, but you can see it with hindsight. And it’s the same with drawing/sketching and your quilts.
For those of you who are still sceptical, I understand: I was the same. Until I started using my sketchbook regularly, I didn’t ‘get’ it either. But now I preach with all the zeal of a convert. Sometimes simple things can help you start. If you have tried before but not really got going, try a different shape of sketchbook. My personal favourites now are A3 landscape for in the studio and an A5 landscape book for out and about. I find the landscape shape (horizontal) much easier to use than a portrait-shaped book (vertical). The fresh, clean, pristine white paper can be off-putting to begin with as it is so perfect, and you can be afraid of spoiling it. I
find that painting my pages with random (light) colours can help so that when you come to sketch, the page is already ‘spoilt’. Some people just rub a damp teabag across the page first.
Don’t worry about having special pens etc. to draw with. Anything that can make a mark can be used. If you don’t expect a good drawing because you’re using a kid’s chunky wax crayon, or a stick you’ve dipped in ink, or even just a biro, you will relax and not stress, hopefully enjoy the process more and perhaps be surprised at the results. Laughter is always good!
Finally, don’t give up if it doesn’t work first time. I regularly draw the same thing several times, changing the composition or the drawing implement or even just repeating the same thing so I can see where I went wrong. Practice definitely improves your drawing and sketches, even if it doesn’t necessarily make them perfect!
© Gillian Cooper 2019
Most of the images accompanying this article are used with permission from Gillian’s students who were undertaking City & Guilds (C&G) courses in Patchwork and Quilting (Certificate and Diploma level) and Creative Sketchbooks.
This article is an adapted and updated version of a feature that first appeared in The Quilter in December 2019 (Winter 2019, Issue 161). The Quilter is the quarterly magazine that goes out exclusively to members of The Quilters’ Guild.