How I Handle Sketchbook Anxiety: 10 Tips

Sometimes, when I open my sketchbook, I feel a sense of dread. Do I deserve to be wasting this paper on my stupid doodles? Why is everything so ugly? Who is going to want to look at these?

Welcome to the world of Sketchbook Anxiety. It’s that thing where you slap your beautiful notebook — and your brain — shut and watch TV instead of doing the thing you love. Sometimes playing Candy Crush seems like a better alternative than failing at drawing.

Sketchbook Anxiety happens to everyone. Even people who are, like, super-good. I’ve met some. They talk about it, too.

I’ve come up with a list of things to do when Sketchbook Anxiety strikes! Let’s go:

1. If the niceness of your sketchbook is keeping you from using it, get a cheaper one. A cheap sketchbook you will actually use is better than an expensive sketchbook sitting idle. It’s a bunch of paper bound together. You can get another one at the store for under $20.  Sometimes it helps to have another sketchbook waiting in the wings so you can recognize how disposable they are.

2. Get over First Page Terror by writing a phrase there. Worried your first page will have a Bad Drawing? Don’t put a drawing there. I had a friend who wrote “I Invoke The Muse” on his first page. I tend to use that too. I also think “Here Goes Nothing” or perhaps “Strap In And Feel The G’s” might work nicely.

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3. Start a page with a closed-eyes left-handed scribble. Blank pages are daunting. Sometimes when I don’t know what to draw, I scribble for a bit in a lighter color, then “find” something in there. Whatever you draw on top of the scribble is going to be better than the scribble.

4. Ironically, limitations can be freeing. Picking a theme or medium at the beginning eliminates The Paradox of Choice. If you know this is your Ballpoint Pen journal, or your Watercolor journal, or your Collage journal, you won’t freeze up trying to figure out what to use. Or, if you’re using your journal to practice facial expressions, or draw landscapes, you already have a starting point for your next page.

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5. Drawing the same thing over and over again is okay. There might be certain things you like best. It’s okay to have a Thing. Georgia O’Keeffe liked flowers and bones. Frida Kahlo liked self-portraits. Andy Warhol had soup cans; Jasper Johns had bullseyes. Sometimes drawing the same motifs feels right.

6. Stuck? How about a little fanart? We won’t tell anyone what you’ve been watching. Doodle your favorite celebrity or a scene from a TV show. Do your own version of your favorite painting. The picture above left (page 102) references Season 2 of Penny Dreadful. Sometimes you’re expressing a grand, original vision — and sometimes you’re just doodling. You can fret about your magnum opus later.

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7. The drawings can totally crash into each other. Sometimes it works out. Like “Marcella,” above, wearing a mighty fine teacup hat.

8. A sketchbook is a fine place for stray lists and thoughts. The page above left (100) has a note “I went to the bathroom. Be right back!” When I look at that, I remember the nice guy in the coffee shop who agreed to keep an eye on my sketchbook while I was gone. (I live in a small town. It’s okay). The page below left (98) has a list of things I’ve been watching/reading so I’m not caught out when people ask.

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9. You don’t have to show everybody every page. Or any page. This page (below, 106) was a disaster. I was playing with a fountain pen — and ink dripped all over the place. Even before the ink spill, the page featured an anteater dragon and a guy with upside-down cats-eye glasses. This was never going to be a good page. If you want to pick and choose what you’re putting on your Instagram feed, that’s fine. Show yourself in your best light. Or don’t show anything at all. Nobody’s entitled to your sketchbook. 

10a. When you’re done, feel free to save your sketchbooks, light them on fire, or chop them up for future collages. Knowing that I’m going to wind up recycling my work into future collages makes me worry about the sketchbook itself less. I can snip out and reassemble the things that I like best. I can transfer the pages that work into one portfolio. If I want, I can just use my illustrations in a bonfire to heat up s’mores. That lazy attitude toward the sketchbook itself makes me freak out less about what to put down.

10b. However, for your own peace of mind, I do recommend photographing or scanning up the pages you like every once in a while. If you lose or destroy a sketchbook, you’ll always have the thoughts/ideas/shapes/inspiration on hand. It’s also nice to see how far you’ve come.

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A sketchbook is a great place to keep your life experiences, shapes, dreams, grocery lists, and more.

But it won’t work unless you open one up.