Jumpstarting a Sketchbook Practice (Sketchbook Ideas #1)

Jumpstarting a Sketchbook Practice (Sketchbook Ideas #1)
Haptic Self-Portrait (ink) by Polly Castor

I am resuscitating my sketchbook practice. You know my art journaling practice is alive and well, where I try out mixing media, compositional ideas, color and textural combinations. A sketchbook is much more about drawing skills, which to some people are primary, but to me are secondary. Still exploring line and shape, value and form are important.

I’ve got a four new sketchbooks for this purpose, one with white paper, one with black (and new white pens), one with grey, and another smaller one with oatmeal colored paper. Unlike my bound artist journals, which are designed to be a finished product to leaf through, these are spiral bound, because sometimes what I do in there will become collage paper for either formal finished work or to be used in my artist journal. Some will remain in the sketchbook too, for looking back on my progress.

The internet is full of ideas of what to do in a sketchbook. The most favored advice is drawing your cup of coffee in the morning or your breakfast. I’m not a fan starting there, for that assumes skills that may not be already in place. And as an abstract artist, I’m happy to sketch what I observe, but don’t feel that is the be all and end all. The pressure of having a sketchbook be about that is one of the things that has deterred me from keeping one regularly until now.

So in starting this new “Sketchbook Ideas” series on this blog, I’m liberating the concept to just be about pen, pencil, or crayon to paper. To think more innovatively, exploratorily, and from memory, with some low pressure observation mixed in.

The Haptic Self-Portrait exercise above is a perfect example. I had never heard of it before and loved the result!  Take a pen, close your eyes, and while feeling your face, draw what you feel without opening your eyes or lifting up your pen. Poof! Isn’t that wonderful? I’d love to see yours.

For the other ideas below, I give the directions in the captions. I hope you’ll sketch a bit alongside me, and we’ll see where it goes.

Draw a grid and fill them in with different textures.


Take a line for a walk; fill a page without lifting your pen.


Draw a precious object that fits in your hand. I chose my Petoskey stone mouse that my dad found, polished, added eyes to, and had on his desk until he passed on. Now it is on mine.


Close up of my drawing of the Petoskey stone mouse.


Take two different colors of writing implements, put one in each hand, start a piece of classical music, close your eyes, and “conduct it.” This one was done to Bach’s Prelude in C Minor. (These become great first steps for artist journal pages, giving them more depth and interest).


As above, “conduct” something more modern and synthesized with your eyes closed. This was done to Escala’s Requiem for a Tower.


Make a grid of squares to fill. Find three circular objects of different sizes. Here I used a round coaster, the round lid to a spice jar, and the small round cap to my chapstick. Trace them in different configurations in the squares. Then spontaneously color in some areas of the little compositions. Now look at your little compositions and identify what concepts they represent to you. This kind of exercise helps in doing work where you start with a concept and attempt to depict it.


Again, two different colors of two different writing implements. Close your eyes. As you breathe in (long breath!) draw with one hand, and as you breathe out draw with the other. Shift your pens and do it again. You can look to place your pen at the beginning of each breath, but not otherwise. This exercise is very mediative, and helps you really focus on your breath. These pages can be used later as collage paper.


Try some marks out like you are stitching embroidery. Later I realized I could also have done cross-stitch.


Make another grid of frames, and then draw your day like a storyboard. This is me going to Costco, coming home and unpacking groceries, having dinner, playing banangrams with our daughter who was home, then working on my computer after that. Two colors helps here.


Draw something unintimidating that you can pour out right on your paper, like I did here with pistachios. Notice all the variations there are in one simple thing. Include the shadows they make on your paper as well.


Again, shallots are easy, and can sit right on your paper while you focus on them. We learn by doing and incremental progress, both in noticing and in hand/eye coordination, is what we’re after.


How about drawing some imagined hair?


Now it’s your turn to try some! If you do I’d love to see them!

I work to amplify good wherever I find it. I love color, texture, beauty, great ideas, nature, metaphor, deliciousness, genuine spirituality, and exploring new territory. I encourage authenticity, nurture creativity, champion sustainability, promote peace, and hope to foster a new renaissance where we all are free to be our most fulfilled, multifaceted, and terrific selves. Read more here.


  1. Diana Rogers 2 years ago

    Terrific and inspiring post Polly!

  2. Lisa 2 years ago

    These are fantastic suggestions Polly.! I have meant to sketch more frequently but have always put it on the back burner because it doesn’t excite me. But your ideas here have grabbed my interest because they are out of the ordinary and look like so much fun! Thank you!!

  3. John+gregory 2 years ago

    Great class with great class!

  4. Liz 2 years ago

    Great ideas. I tend to work out paintings in my sketchbook using charcoal, markers (values) pastel (exploring color).
    I often sketch at night while watching the boob tube. I think your ideas are freeing from the “thing”. I can see exploring non-objective ideas would be useful for backgrounds. Lots of good ideas. Thank you!!❤️

  5. Sue Krevitt 2 years ago

    The UniVerse is playing with me this week (us!!)…I just began a
    Pen and Ink class (first time), so this blog fits right in! Fun!!

    You continually inspire me with your…joie de vivre, Polly!
    (“Joy is the grace we say to God,” I read somewhere.)


  6. Lillie 2 years ago

    Super inspiring post. Thank you!


  1. […] was surprised by a huge response to last week’s jumpstarting a sketchbook practice post. Apparently I’m not the only one that wants to do this in a more meditative, creative, and […]

  2. […] of it. I’ve done a lot of these over the years, even doing one of just the feel of my face (see here) that I really […]

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to friend