A Brief History of Sketchbooks

A Brief History of Sketchbooks

If you trace the history of sketchbooks, you'll find that although paper wasn’t always bound up into leather Moleskines, sketchbook contents haven’t changed much in the past few centuries. Sugarlift's Sketchbook Vol. I artists are the contemporary extension of sheaves past. If you’re Dina Brodsky, your sketchbook might contain intricate portraits and architectural drawings washed in jewel-tones and wrapped in tight Russian script. Diana Corvelle’s oil and pastel plein air landscapes alternate between pages filled with cursive writings and tiny drawings of brooches, pins, keys and coasters.

History’s pages (yes, pun intended) show a similar mish-mash of visual and lexical note taking. Da Vinci’s sketchbooks included sketches for a flying machine. He even catalogued his daily clothing choices, evidencing a penchant for pink tights.

Whether you see these pages as behind-the-scenes peeks or frame-worthy art objects in themselves, you’ll be hard pressed to tear your eyes away from the ink scribbles, graphite sketches, color swatches and reveries that fill sketchbook pages—those contemporary and past.

Old Masters’ Sketchbooks

“Rembrandt was a doodler. He was always drawing,” says Nancy Bialler, former senior vice president of Old Masters Paintings, Drawings and Prints at Sotheby’s. She notes that the most common reason for artists to take graphite, chalk or ink to paper was to simply to record their surroundings.


Sketch by Hieronymous Cock.

This was particularly the case when traveling. Sixteenth century Flemish artist and publisher Hieronymus Cock made a whole series of Roman ruins drawings, documented during a trip to Italy, which he later sold as prints. Three centuries later, sixty or so sketchbooks were found in Eugène Delacroix’s studio after his death, says Ashley Dunn, assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He certainly seemed to pick them up particularly when traveling.” 

For example, Delacroix’s sketchbooks from his travels to Morocco acted as illustrated journals: “You get the sense that he was completely overwhelmed by the amount of visual stimulus from the unfamiliar kinds of decoration, costume and architectural forms, and that he’s just trying to frantically note it all down,” says Dunn.

Drawing to Prepare vs. Present

In Delacroix’s case, a great number of his drawings can be seen as studies for paintings, but the sketches themselves were rarely finished. Dunn notes that confidence in his own hand meant that he could continue inventing on canvas rather than squarely transferring from a drawing.

Sugarlift_History-of-sketchbooks_MichelangeloMichelangelo’s “The Fall of Phaeton." Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

Michelangelo made a small number of what he called “presentation drawings,” says Bialler, which were meant to sell and had a completely different function than the drawings meant to record, prepare or practice techniques.

In the wealthy circles of 18th and 19th century Europe, before photography became portable and amidst the riches and revolutions simmering across the continent, the upper echelons wanted their world’s documented. Napoleon commissioned artists to capture the battles that built his empire. The fashionable elite sat for portraits. (Bialler notes that the relations between artists and rich patrons is another topic entirely. We know that commissioned, drawn portraits are hardly relegated to the past.)

Materials and Crowded Margins

Steam-powered machines eventually made paper more affordable, but until then, artists had to be practical. “You’ll see a sketch on the front, a drawing of something else on the back. You see several sketches on one side of the sheet of paper. One will be oriented one way, one will be oriented another. So they used up the material,” says Bialler.

Sugarlift_History-of-Sketchbooks_Willem-van-de-velde-the-elderWillem van de Velde, the Elder. The Dutch Fleet Coast October Coming to Anchor Off Old Schagen on the Jutland Coast October 1658.

Even “sketchbook” is a term we should use loosely. In the 17th century, Willem van de Velde the Edler was commissioned to document the sea battles between the Dutch and the English. He joined pieces of paper together to make scrolls that totaled around 12 feet long and 3ft high. With ships careening, waves splashing and men fighting, this was apparently an easier form to wrangle. And forget quills and precarious ink pots, says Bialler. Velde would sketch in chalk and finish a drawing in ink later.

Passports to Private Places

Sketchbooks were (and are) allowed where cameras and easel set ups would not be—behind theater’s velvet ropes, in courtrooms, in boudoirs. Delacroix filled an entire book with drawings he made while watching a performance of Othello in Paris. In Tangiers he gained entrance to harems, cloistered female spaces in the Muslim male-dominated world.

“Even Toulouse-Lautrec made drawings of prostitutes in brothels: Those spaces that are extremely private in a sense but as an artist with a sketchbook you could gain entry,” says Dunn. Even in public places, a simple sketch pad lets an artist float through the world, recording intimate details. One might call to mind Guno Park’s drawings of unknowing, daydreaming subway riders.

Sketching Legacies, Then and Now

Rembrandt the doodler is often Rembrandt the misattributed, as can be the unfortunate case with sketches. Unlike with signed paintings, says Bialler, “The attribution of drawings is putting things in piles: these look similar, that looks similar. But sometimes the way artists work in chalk looks very different than how they work in ink.” Even worse, early collectors may have labeled sheaves with incorrect names.

Sugarlift_History-of-Sketchbooks_DinaBrodskyDina Brodsky, Instagram verified artist with 350k followers and counting. 

Contrast today, where works-in-progress are shared with thousands of international fans with the push of a button and verified by a blue check mark. For better or worse, Instagram has changed the way we interact with the arts. (For worse, in one example, because people Instagramming famous paintings get in the way of people actually trying to see famous paintings. For better, because I get to watch time-lapses of Vi Luong’s meticulous hand at work.)

The opportunity to hold a contemporary artist’s private sketchbook is rare, but you can often flip through it digitally. “Sketching,” whether in highly curated travel journals or layered under offhand notes, has become a hashtag that innumerable digital fans follow, engaging with contemporary artists in a way history never allowed.

Peter Paul Rubens, Nude Study of a Young Man with Raised Arms, 1608. COURTESY SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK.

What does that mean for future centuries’ collectors? Would the Peter Paul Rubens’
drawing recently sold at Sotheby’s for $8.2M have generated the same mystique had it been posted in his lifetime accompanied by #wip? Where will 14 million-and-counting Instagrammed drawings end up?

Time will tell. For now, excuse me while I scroll.

Cover art: Sketchbook by Evan Kitson