The Art of Seeing: the Practice of Keeping a Sketchbook

The New York Times this week featured an engaging article by Michael Kimmelman about the once ubiquitous activity of sketchbook drawing.  Mr. Kimmelman notes that travelers “who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better.  Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.”  Taking the time to slow down and consider one’s experience is an essential part of keeping a sketchbook, and indeed it seems rare to find people actively drawing this way as a regular practice any more.

Drawing has always, at least until recently, been a fundamental basis for most other creative pursuits, whether in architecture, painting, sculpture, or costume and fashion design.  Even dancers have been known to work out difficult choreography with a drawing.  Botanists, anthropologists, archaeologists, zoologists and a whole spectrum of people engaged in “scientific” pursuits made drawings as part of their practice of scientific observation.  Think of Lewis and Clark, recording flora and fauna in bound sketchbooks that they carried with them on their long, adventurous trek into a new world.

Michelangelo, who made this drawing a few years before his death, was asked by a younger man for advice about how to proceed in becoming an artist.  The story goes that the old master’s response was simply, “draw, draw, draw.”  Compared with our 18th and 19th century forebears, touring the continent with their baedekers, pencils and watercolors in hand, we are all probably suffering from technologically-induced attention deficit disorder.  Perhaps my own need to keep a sketchbook handy is an attempt to cure myself of this illness, or to at least create a buffer of sorts that might hold the disease at bay for a while.

One of my sketchbook entries from the recent Caillebotte exhibit at the Brooklyn Art Museum:

After Caillebotte_2

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