Why do we take photos when we travel if not to remember the sights? This is what sketchbooks have afforded for a long time, just like Albrecht Dürer when he first traveled from Nuremberg to Venice in 1494–95 and captured in a watercolor the city of Trento and its Alpine setting.

1979 135 6

Samuel Palmer, page from a sketchbook, graphite drawing, sheet: 7 3/16 x 4 7/16 in. (18.4 x 11.2 cm), c. 1848, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (work in the public domain).

For artists, the need to remember sights is not simply to relive the memories of a pleasant trip: a sketchbook becomes a repository of images and visual observations for future inspiration. This is what we observe in a page in one of Samuel Palmer’s sketchbooks. The graphite drawing of a landscape occupies less than a third of the page and is accompanied by handwritten text, also in pencil. As the British artist records a visit to the countryside near the Abbey of Hartland in North Devon, he explains how taken he was by the interplay of light and color: “I am . . . impressed by the vividness of light & vividness of color.” He notes that the sight is “material for picture” and that the “[g]olden light catching on [the] hill side” possesses a Rembrandt-like quality. I can relate to this last observation: I often think that the sign of great art is that it makes one see things anew, or more deeply, in other words, it teaches you to truly see. I find it remarkable that the “rich golden color” that Palmer observes reminds him of the Dutch master; not only does Palmer approach this particular landscape as an artist, but his visual experience is filtered through the eyes of an illustrious predecessor whom he admires, which prompts him to reflect upon how this sight might become a source of inspiration for his own art.

1972 133 1

Agostino Carracci, Figure Studies for Various Female and Male Figures, pen and brown ink, some sketches over red chalk, some faint scribbles in charcoal, dimensions of the sheet: 11 3/16 x 15 13/16 in. (28.4 x 40.1 cm), 1600–1602, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (work in the public domain).

Besides functioning as repository of ideas for future reference, the sketchbook is also a site in which ideas can mature. Bolognese artist Agostino Carracci covered most of a sheet of paper’s available space with a profusion of figures. A reclining woman is repeated several times and one of the iterations, placed close to the center, stands out because of its more intense shading: the artist spent more time on it as the image came into focus in his mind’s eye. The figures are studies for ceiling frescoes in the ducal Palazzo del Giardino in Parma. (Agostino died in 1602, before he could finish the project, as poignantly recounted in an inscription eulogizing the artist, and as a result, the painted decoration was completed later in the 17th century.) In the Metropolitan Museum of Art online catalog entry for this sheet of sketches, we learn that the reclining figure, which was inspired by Michelangelo’s sculpture for the Medici chapel of the personification of Night, “is an early idea” for a depiction of the sea nymph Thetis in one of the cycle’s scenes. The male profile in the upper left corner has also been connected to the palazzo’s frescoes.

Plesch 4 Sketchbook Musings Cresti copy

Domenico Cresti (Il Passignano), Study for “The Birth of the Virgin,” pen and wash on paper, 8 1/4 in. x 11 in. (20.96 cm x 27.94 cm), c. 1602, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, Museum Purchase from Mathias Komor, 1960.013.

We similarly witness the artist’s visual thoughts developing in a drawing in the collections of the Colby College Museum of Art, which used to be attributed to Agostino Carracci’s cousin Ludovico and now is ascribed to Domenico Cresti (known as Il Passignano after his place of birth, a town near Florence). Regardless of the identification of the artist, what I find compelling is that the same scene appears twice, with hardly any differences, other than the wash added to render shadows in the left version. Here as well, we peek into the mind of the artist, witness him working out a composition, searching for solutions, and determining how best to represent this particular scene, the birth of the Virgin Mary.

In a strikingly similar sketch by Cresti, the full scene appears on the right, occupying the entire height of the page, while on the left we see a smaller version. In the center, the artist focused on the composition’s left side, adding a wash for the shadows. The requirements for the depiction of this episode involve an interior with Anna lying in bed after having given birth to the Virgin Mary, while women bathe the newborn. In the two sheets of sketches, Cresti consistently places Anna in the background, accompanied by a few figures and framed by a large arch. On the left of the foreground, a seated woman cradles the newborn (this figure is repeated by herself on the right margin of the Colby sketch), while on the right a woman kneels by a large fireplace and holds a piece of cloth to dry (in the other drawing, a tub is placed between the two women). Many of these motifs are traditional and so, in order to represent the scene in an original manner, Cresti relied on the disposition of the figures in space, for instance placing Anna in the distance but using architectural elements (the arch and steps) to give her prominence.

Miles Chappell, an Italian Renaissance and Baroque art scholar, believes these are preparatory sketches for an altarpiece in Impruneta, a town not far from Florence, which Cresti signed and dated 1602 (this explains the dating of both drawings). Although the altarpiece shares many elements with the drawings, its composition and figural arrangement is rather different. But after all, a sketchbook page offers a snapshot of an artist’s thought process, which is very different from a fully realized work.

Plesch 5 Sketchbook Musings Moore copy

Henry Moore, page from sketchbook: eight reclining figures, felt-tip pen, crayon and pen and ink on paper, 11½ x 9⅜ in. (29.2 x 23.8 cm), 1966. Sotheby’s New York, Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale Online, 18 May 2020.

A sketchbook is indeed a place where an artist explores and tests ideas before committing to one, as can be seen in this example by Henry Moore. The reclining figure, here repeated eight times, was “one of the most important in Moore’s work and one to which he returned throughout his life” (Henry Moore Foundation). The pose, which first appeared in the sculptor’s work in the 1920s, was inspired by a pre-Columbian Chac Mool sculpture that he saw in the Louvre. The eight recumbent figures are neatly organized in two columns, half of them turned to the right, half to the left. Some resemble the source of inspiration more closely: in the top left one, for instance, the legs are separated by some hatching, and we see the suggestion of a foot and of a hand. In others, breasts are more clearly indicated, thus identifying the figure as a woman. In several other figures, on the other hand, the body has been abstracted and elements of anatomy pared down. Although Moore rendered the shape in a thin fluid line, he added some colored washes to suggest shadows and confer volume to the sketches, confirming that even though he was working in a two-dimensional medium, he was still thinking as a sculptor. The way the figure is repeated on the sheet also speaks to the artist’s life-long interest in exploring abstraction while retaining a connection to the human figure (hence his work being often referred to as “semi-abstract”).

Plesch 6 sketchbook musings Leonardo copy

Leonardo da Vinci, Superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck, pen and ink with wash, over traces of black chalk on paper, 11.49 x 7.79 in. (292 x 198 mm), c. 1510, Windsor castle, the Royal Collection (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Leonardo da Vinci as well deployed his thoughts on paper (probably using loose sheets, later bound together), true arenas for his inquisitive mind. He considered all aspects of the natural world, including human and animal anatomy, the laws of hydraulics and dynamics, as well as geometry and mathematics, and recorded ideas for architecture, sculpture, painting, and for all sorts of machines. The list is so extensive that it’s impossible to do justice to Leonardo’s staggering range of interests. His contemporary Giorgio Vasari calls his intelligence “divine and wondrous,” but also reports his lifelong tendency of abandoning unfinished projects and how, as a young boy, “he set about learning many things and, once begun, he would then abandon them.” Vasari reports that an annoyed pope exclaimed: “Alas, this man is never going to do anything, for he starts to think about finishing the work before it is even begun!” Besides conveying the pontiff’s frustration, this statement is revealing, for “thinking” is the operative word. Although Vasari explains that the reason for Leonardo’s inability to complete projects, and what today is often qualified as procrastination (just try Googling “Leonardo da Vinci and procrastination”!), was that he was “feeling that his hand could not reach artistic perfection in the works he conceived.” It might be more likely that once Leonardo solved a problem, he would lose interest.

Leonardo was what in the Renaissance was referred to as a uomo universale and his sketchbooks bear witness to his range of interests, but, and most importantly, they are a site for observation, study, and reflection. In his anatomical drawings, for instance, we see Leonardo methodically exploring the body’s structure, layer of skin after layer of muscle, down to the skeleton and we feel just like Vasari did, when he wrote “anyone who reads these writings will be amazed by how clearly this divine spirit discussed art, muscles, nerves, and veins, taking the greatest pains with every detail.” That these are personal tools for investigation is made clear by his distinctive practice of writing in reverse—a simple trick allowing a left-handed person like Leonardo to write faster and without smudging wet ink.

Plesch Musings 7ab

Villard de Honnecourt, left: the rose window from Lausanne cathedral, right: a green man and decorative motifs, 1225–35, MS Fr 19093, fols. 16r and 5v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Leonardo started recording his thoughts in such a manner as early as the mid-1480s (he was then in his thirties). Two centuries and a half earlier, a man from the Picardy region in Northern France, Villard de Honnecourt, similarly expressed his wide interests. Although it has traditionally been assumed that Villard was an architect, there is no proof for it. Today thirty-three folios survive bearing about 250 drawings, a sixth of them referring to buildings. The sheets were originally unbound, but Carl F. Barnes Jr. has noted that some of the texts mention an actual order and refer to the manuscript as a book. We learn of Villard’s travels in France and abroad: see, for instance, the rose window from Lausanne cathedral in present-day Switzerland that is reproduced here. In addition to architectural motifs, we find figures and scenes (both religious and secular), machines and devices (for construction and even one for perpetual motion). Inscriptions often accompany the drawings and contribute to disclosing their purpose. For instance, on a page with animals, human faces, a left hand, and a tower, Villard wrote: “Here begins the method of representation as taught by the art of geometry, to facilitate work. Elsewhere you will find the method of masonry.”

Plesch Musings 8ab

Villard de Honnecourt, left: machines and an automaton in the shape of a bird, right: geometric figures, 1225–35, MS Fr 19093, fols. 22v and 18v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Speaking at Colby College last March, author, illustrator, animator, and playwright Mo Willems declared that “ideas are not things. They’re seeds that you grow. And so I have an idea garden, and it’s called a notebook. I write little ideas in my garden, or sketches, or thoughts, or drawings, and I don’t know what they’re going to do.” (You can read a report of this event here.) The metaphor of a garden, interestingly, has been applied to the mind itself. The quote, “Your mind is a garden; your thoughts are the seeds. The harvest will bring either flowers or weeds,” often attributed to William Wordsworth, makes the rounds on the internet, and graces many memes and merchandise. The sketchbook as a garden and the mind as a garden: what if we combined the two metaphors and saw in sketchbooks the embodiment of the artist’s mind?



Barnes, Carl F. Jr., The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr 19093): A New Critical Edition and Color Facsimile. Farnham, Eng., and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009.

Vasari, Giorgio, “The Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine Painter and Sculptor.” In Giorgio Vasari: The Lifes of the Artists, trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 284–98. You can read Vasari’s Life of Leonardo here.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London owns five of Leonardo’s codices; one of the them, the Codex Forster I, is reproduced in its entirety here.



Mark Brady, a distinguished art dealer and Colby alum, is responsible for the reattribution of the Colby sketch, which was prompted by the sale in 2015 of the sketch by the Munich auction house Karl & Faber. My thanks to my colleagues at the Colby College Museum of Art for providing me with a reproduction of the drawing and for sharing its file with me.


Image at top: Albrecht Dürer, View of Trento, watercolor and gouache, 9.37 x 14.01 in. (238 x 356 mm), spring 1495, Kupferstichkabinett, Kunsthalle, Bremen (photo: Wikimedia Commons).