Judy LaBrasca — Why I keep a sketchbook

For quite a few years, I’ve been teaching a class called “Sketchbooks: Cultivating a Daily Practice”. The students who take this class are invariably interesting people. Each one has a particular reason for signing up, often including a desire to start drawing, or to get back to it, to make a daily practice, to find community. The class is a great place to share strategies. Some people are lucky to draw the way children do: naturally, uncritically, and all the time. The rest of us need strategies to get started and to keep going.

Judy LaBrasca, figure drawing, chalk pastel, sketchbook

The thing that helps me most is to have my sketchbook handy: to keep it out where I’ll see it, and to have one in my bag or my pocket. Also, it helps to keep the tools simple: a pen or pencil and a small box with four watercolors. I use cyan, lemon yellow, a pinkish red, and ultramarine. From those, I can mix most colors, and I use a brush with water in the handle.

I’ve used sketchbooks as a journal, a place to take notes, a place to plan things, for lists, a place to work out design problems, and to help me figure out what I think, but the most important function for me is to experience something by drawing it.

Judy LaBrasca, sunset over the Fore River, watercolor, sketchbook, 1987

When I was asked to write something for this issue, I looked at all of the sketchbooks in my studio. The earliest ones are from the 1980’s. That was when I lived in Portland on the end of the Western Promenade that overlooks the Fore River. I was amazed by the sunsets I saw there, so I did a series of paintings in my sketchbook, trying to capture the colors and cloud shapes as they changed. The view changed so fast that I had to find ways to simplify what I noticed, just so I could get something down. That was when I started to think about how different types of noticing require different tools and different kinds of drawings are suited to different kinds of noticing. For instance, if I have a pencil, I look for the kinds of things a pencil can do, and I look at the subject as if it were already a pencil drawing. If I’m using color, rather than looking at things as I know they are, I try to see areas of flat color, as if they were already in a painting.

Judy LaBrasca, at the beach, crayon, sketchbook
Judy LaBrasca, Anna at the ocean, ink pen, sketchbook, 1998

Those sunset drawings are mixed in with figure drawings and studies of all kinds of things: our dog, the garden, bottle caps, people and birds on the beach, cloud shapes, geometric patterns and designs for things I wanted to make. Every thing is mixed up. The books are not strictly chronological. Sometimes I stopped in the middle of something and the next page is from years later. Still, looking at them reminds me of what it was like when I was drawing and concerned with those things. Actually, I’ve changed, but not that much, I think I’ll go back to some of the projects that stalled.

Judy LaBrasca, Edie Tucker filling in for the model, oil pastel. Sketchbook

Most of the figure drawings in those years were done with a group at USM. Edie Tucker organized it and kept it going over many years. One time, when the model didn’t show up, she stepped in to pose for us in her street clothes. The drawings from that day are some of my favorites.

My husband, Jeff Kellar, and I moved to Falmouth just before my daughter, Anna, was born. We moved to a house where we each could have a studio. Our system was that the one who had the less pressing deadline got to play with Anna.

Anna Kellar, a drawing of the house across the street and a drawing of pen and paper, when she was 2, small sketchbook, 1992

Making art with her affected my own drawings. Sometimes, when she was little, she drew along side me. One time, I asked her why she’d made our driveway look blue. She answered that it was blue. I looked again, and it did look bluish. I’d made it gray because I knew it was asphalt. When she was very young, one and two, she liked drawing in my sketchbook. I found some of my drawings followed by several of her colorful scribbles. When she began to talk, she’d tell me what to caption the drawings. Those are a lot of fun to read now.

She’s all grown up and doesn’t draw all the time anymore, but she still keeps a travel sketchbook, because she likes the kind of slow noticing that doing a drawing allows. She’s had some interesting interactions with people who want to know, for instance, why she’s spending the time to draw something they pass everyday and have never thought of stopping to look at… until they see her drawing of it.

Judy LaBrasca, sunset over the Presumpscot river, watercolor, sketchbook, 2018

I have older sketchbooks somewhere, probably in a box labeled “older sketchbooks”. I remember doing a drawing from my art school dorm room window of the view looking over the Philadelphia roof tops toward the giant electrified Schmidt’s Beer sign. I loved the shapes of the wooden water tanks silhouetted again the night sky. And I also remember, years later, tearing it out of the book because it didn’t capture the scene the way I still remembered it. I’m sorry for the streak of perfectionism that caused me to do it, because now both the scene and the drawing of it are vague memories.

Judy LaBrasca, flower studies, oil pastel, sketchbook
Judy LaBrasca, snapdragon, watercolor, sketchbook

My most recent sketchbooks include the assignments I give to my students. One of my favorites to do is a sound map. The prompt is to listen for one minute with eyes closed to everything that you can hear. Then to make a diagram of the sounds with yourself in the center. Another assignment is to pick a favorite object to draw all week. Each week has a different focus, a material to experiment with, a subject, or a point of view. I use the same exercises and assignments every semester because, although the questions are always the same, the answers are always different.