My sketchbook serves to explore ideas and functions as a dynamic space for experimentation and processing my thoughts. It allows me to work without constraints, relieving expectations. Its intent is to be risky, adventurous, unruled, and unrestrained. It offers a private space to express, verbally or visually, feelings that cannot be spoken aloud. I will guide you through my sketchbooks and show you what I choose, but some parts will remain private.

My sketchbooks have different purposes. In the studio, my sketchbook is used for preparatory drawings for sculptures, paintings, and other visual projects. It is where I experiment and develop ideas and compositions, often drawing and redrawing to find the best expression and remove the unnecessary. The sketchbook becomes a battlefield to translate my vision and avoid unnecessary detail. I use different media and scales to explore subjects, often drawing various windows on the page like tiles, which forces me to move quickly from one frame to another without overworking my sketches. In my sketchbooks I deliberately avoid creating finished drawings. I can work on the big picture or study a detail on the side.

Hilbert 2 TreeStudy copy

France Hilbert, Tree, pen and ink on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2022.

Hilbert 3 TreeStudy copy

France Hilbert, Tree, watercolor, graphite on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2022.

Hilbert 4 Untitled copy

France Hilbert, Untitled, oil on canvas, 34 x 44 in., 2022.

There is no specific order for using different media. I might use graphite, watercolor, pen and ink individually, and sometimes I combine them all. I find that a bamboo reed pen with India ink translates my initial impulses best. I try not to analyze what ends up on the page. My sketches help me visualize if a subject is worth exploring. The style is bold. If it’s not working as a sketch, it’s not worth developing. Not all ideas are worth pursuing. The sooner you realize this, the less effort you waste. The more you invest in an idea that isn’t working, the harder it becomes to let it go.

There is often a compromise when I go for a walk: should I walk or should I draw? I have a small sketchbook that I carry with me when I am going somewhere with no intent to draw but to have something to sketch in just in case . . . I often use one page per drawing. I have multimedia sketchbooks for plein-air sketches when I decide to do some studies at a particular site.

I have a log journal, a hardbound sketchbook I used for long writing entries while commuting on the subway. The nine-by-twelve-inch size allows me to draw as well. I often draw free lines in it and let something appear unexpectedly. I find I draw better when I have a large sketchbook; it allows me to brainstorm, make various versions of what I am drawing, and I can take notes as well.

I have a lined 7-by-9-inch research notebook dedicated to my reflections and readings in which inevitably some sketches enter, and I have an 11-by-8.5-inch marble composition book for everyday notetaking, which is also filled with sketches, class preparation, grocery lists, and additions and subtractions.

Hilbert 5 JournalEntry copy

France Hilbert, Reflection (left), Class Preparation (upper right), Day Dreaming (lower right), Log Journal, watercolor, pen and ink, graphite on paper, 9.5 x 15 in., 2021.

In my watercolor journal, I record scenes from everyday life that I have memorized during the day. It forces me to become more aware of what I am noticing. I capture the essence of urban settings. I observe people within these dynamic spaces, studying the entirety of the scene and the idea of unity.

Hilbert 6 ParkSlope copy

France Hilbert, Park Slope, watercolor, graphite and oil-based pencil on paper, 6 x 8 in., 2011.

Hilbert 7 DeliveryOnFifthAvenueBayRidge copy

France Hilbert, Delivery on Fifth Avenue, Bay Ridge, watercolor, graphite, oil-based pencil on paper, 6 x 8 in., 2011.

Hilbert 8 LaVieContinuePost PandemicParis copy

France Hilbert, La Vie Continue, post-pandemic, Paris, on paper, 6 x 8 in., 2021.

Back when I lived in the city, my sketchbooks were filled with sketches of commuters, street scenes, and workers. During my long commute, I would write about the day, jotting down ideas and words that resonated. Often, I used this time to decompress, and without consciously realizing it, my eyes would naturally land on a face or a movement. On the subway, I would compare the different ways people sat, held their heads, and positioned their hands and feet, observing how their moods translated into their postures. Most of my artwork is based on movement, so on the page I practice, search for, and create variations on a movement or try to refine a composition by extracting the major pieces that make a whole and simplifying them.

In 2015, I experienced a major shift after moving from urban living in New York City to a nature-centric life in Maine. It felt like an immersion in a foreign language. Nature didn’t put me at ease; quite the opposite, its seclusive aspect became oppressive. Growing up and living five decades in urban settings, moving to Maine made me aware that I knew nature only in urban settings—a tree here and there, a walk in a park, and some vacations in the countryside. Although I used to camp for a month in my teen years, it was just for a month.

Hilbert 9 PineTreeStudy copy

France Hilbert, Pine Tree, watercolor, pen and ink on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2020.

In Maine my sketchbooks evolved to explore my new surroundings, capturing elements of nature and interiors. They reflected my attempts to connect with my environment, creating a dialogue between me and the landscape. Moving to Maine forced me to confront and learn nature, a subject I had rarely considered deeply before.

When I have faced personal difficulties in life, such as with housing and income, sketching has often been one of my most reliable anchors, sustaining me through challenging times. My sketchbooks played a major role in recording my studies of nature and my own journey.

Hilbert 10 HullsCove copy

France Hilbert, Hulls Cove, watercolor and, pen and ink on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2023.

Hilbert 11 Shore copy

France Hilbert, Shore, watercolor, pen and ink and graphite on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2021.

Hilbert 12 Shore copy

France Hilbert, Shore, watercolor and graphite on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2021.

Hilbert 13 MoonlightOnShore copy

France Hilbert, Moonlight on The Shore, watercolor and graphite on paper, 6 x 8 in., 2021.

For example, in February 2024, Jennifer, the owner of a Bar Harbor barbershop, offered me space to set up my studio while she vacationed in Florida. I used my residency to go through a large bin containing five years’ worth of sketchbooks. My sketchbooks, spanning from 2019 to now, chronicle five years in which I did not have a studio, and endured sixteen moves. I wanted to see how my experiences were reflected in these journals.

I found that Maine, in particular, forced me to delve deeper into my artistic material, intensifying my connection with the creative process. In the solitude of nature, far from the urban environment in which I had been so at home, I stood alone, stripped of every artificial cover. In these journals, it is amidst the trees that a profound lesson unfolds: the bark can expand and strengthen, allowing the inner core to keep growing. This resilience I observed in nature mirrors the very essence of growing more resilient through life’s challenges.

Hilbert 15 AbbyAldrichRockefellerGarden copy

France Hilbert, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller GardenSeal Harbor, watercolor and graphite on paper, 9 x 12 in., 2021.

Browsing through hundreds of thumbnails and full-page drawings and watercolors, I noticed recurrent themes such as animals, hands, home, houses, interiors, Judaica, landscapes, nature, people, roads, shores, teaching demos, urban settings, and water. There are also other “entries” named by their locations: Beech Hill Road, Hulls Cove, Lamoine, Little Long Pond, Norway Drive, Park Street. This highlighted that during the past five years I have been travel-journaling, blending observations of external surroundings with personal reflections and experiences.

“Road” became a theme that helped me navigate feelings of uncertainty and lack of belonging. On my walks, “road” anchors me in the now. Under any circumstances, there is always a path in front of me. My sketchbook records my unique trajectory, shaped by uncertainty and questions. “Road” gives shape to my journey of figuring out the answers. The sketchbook becomes a tool for documenting my personal journey and exploring answers to my questions, highlighting its role in processing and understanding my emotions.

Hilbert 16 PojeneroRoad copy

France Hilbert, Pojereno Road, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite on cream paper, 9 x 12 in., 2023.

The first time I walked along Beech Hill Road, where I spent three winters, I felt a deep connection to the land and a sense of belonging, as if I had arrived home. The open rural farmland edged by forests and vast horizons of largely uninhabited nature gave me a sense of hope I had never felt on the island. The deep reds of blueberry fields in late autumn and warm and neutral earth tones of grassy fields mesmerized my eyes. No places have left such an impression on me as Beech Hill Road. I even gave a nickname to Acadia Mountain, which stands up on the left, as “Gustav Mahler,” feeling a personal meaningful connection to the atmosphere of this mountain.

Hilbert 17 BeechHill copy

France Hilbert, Beech Hill, watercolor and graphite on paper, 11 x 14 in., 2020.

Hilbert 20 BeechHill copy

France Hilbert, Beech Hill, watercolor and graphite on paper, 11 x 14 in., 2020.

My sketchbooks not only document my artistic journey but also serve as repositories of important observations and ideas that I can revisit and develop at any time. They encapsulate the essence of my experiences, reflections, and creative explorations, offering a wealth of inspiration and insight. Knowing that my sketchbooks will always be there to guide, inspire, and fuel my artistic endeavors brings me solace as I navigate life’s adventures.

In 2011, when I had a studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NYC, late one night, an artist in my hallway closed his studio door after emptying it. When I asked where he was headed, he simply said “home,” emphasizing that he still had his journal with him. Despite facing financial challenges that led him to give up his studio, he found solace in his journal. This moment deeply resonated with me, highlighting the importance of adaptability and resilience. No matter where I find myself, my journal remains a constant companion. It’s more than just a creative space; it’s a sanctuary—where I can breathe, dream, and find a sense of unity within myself.


Image at top: France Hilbert, Beech Hill, bamboo reed pen and ink, graphite on paper, 3.5 x 6 in., 2022.