Using a sketchbook enriches students' visual vocabularies and sparks creative processes. How can instructors help students understand and use the sketchbook as the valuable learning tool that it is?
In order to be valuable, the sketchbook has to hold some personal meaning for students. Below are some ways to accomplish this.
Create a Handmade Book
In one successful approach for beginning-level classes, students choose a topic and address the topic in a handmade book format. To develop the book concept, students are encouraged to make the book into a very personal statement. The topic might be autobiographical or tackle concepts like solitude, celebration, affection, or conflict. If some students can't find a topic to address, they might consider investigating lyrics of a song in their handmade books. The idea is to get them involved with an interesting topic so they can develop images for the pages and the cover.
Then have your students research the topic they have chosen. They will design simple pages, the cover, and the binding. Students may be asked to add a page extension, include a pop-up image, alter the pages by cutting, and include a see-through image. A number of books and online videos explain how to build a handmade book. Artists' Journals and Sketchbooks: Exploring and Creating Personal Pages by Lynne Perrella is an excellent guide.
Use Preexisting Tools
You can also blend the idea of journaling with visual exploration in an altered book form. This approach lets students explore personal journeys as well as visual problems. Each student chooses a used book that is interesting to them. The pages with text are used as is, or several pages are prepared with gesso to provide a surface on which to draw. Each student chooses a theme for their book. Students again begin the process by researching altered books. Some excellent examples are Everyday Matters: A Memoir by Danny Gregory and the journals of Dan Eldon (which are published as The Journey Is the Destination). Each student plans three or more two-page spreads for the book in sketches on the gessoed pages. Students should include text that is personal (poetry and song lyrics work well as a beginning, but students must write a response to the lyrics). You can also use this book to address literacy requirements by asking students to write in response to a prompt.
The book can include a restructured edge on at least two pages, page extensions, a collage, piercings, drawings, pop-ups, photographs from magazines, doors, and secret compartments. Students can vary these pages according to their needs and interests. These plans are introduced in the beginning of the year and are just the starting point.
The book becomes a work in progress because students add to it at least once a week for the rest of the year. They add pages or prepare them with gesso as needed. They use the sketchbook to do required research and plan class projects. When they add information needed for class assignments to the sketchbook, they begin to use it as the text for the course.
A Project that Grows with the Student
Both of these approaches allow students to use the book as a resource and tool in the classroom. These approaches make it possible for students to face the white page with some familiar strategies.
The assignments start with some simple requirements and build in complexity until the sketchbook is the learning and creative experience it should be. When students take more advanced classes, they get used to using the sketchbook as an ongoing part of their learning. Ideally, students carry a book from one year to the next, beginning a new one as needed.