How to make a sketch diary: my top tips

Tree by Myfanwy Tristram

Tree by Myfanwy Tristram


I’d keep a sketch diary every day if I could, but logistics forbid. After a while, they’d just be sketch diaries about drawing sketch diaries.

However, I do enjoy a splurge when I can: my last post shows my Bath holiday diary; last year I kept a similar diary in St Ives, and my Hourly Comic Day entry was a kind of sketch diary too.

Best Sketch Diarist in the World? Nah. But I have put quite a bit of thought into the dos and don’ts of sketch diarising, if that is indeed a word. And, because it seems silly to keep them to myself, here are my top ten tips.

1. Don’t expect to do your best work

A sketch diary is like any sketchbook. Unless you’re an amazing illustrator, at the top of your game, you are probably not going to produce page after page of beautiful, perfect drawings.

Fortunately, you don’t have to show the bits that went wrong. You can stick something over the top, paint right over them, or, thanks to the digital age, delete the parts you don’t like when you get home.

Or you can keep them in place. I’m getting better at showing everything, even the drawings that make me wince. To my surprise, other people often like them perfectly well – even, sometimes, point them out as the bits they like the best.

I guess that the mere act of doing the drawing, and putting it out there, puts you streets ahead of everyone who never made it that far. Even if your drawing is crap.

But also: if you adhere to point 4, below, you’ll find it makes up for an awful lot of imperfect sketching.

2. Take materials you’ll actually use

There are two rules for travelling with art materials, really: 1) take the stuff you’re already familiar with, and 2) take stuff you can use on the go.

Rule 2 trumps rule 1 if you are used to working in oils, on an easel, with a three-foot brush.

For drawing on trains, felt tips, pens, and pencil crayons are best. You also have to not mind if the train jogs you, or if a woman walks past and knocks you with her bag, causing your pen to draw right across your picture (happened to me on page 1 of the Bath diary. Still bearing a grudge).

If you’re staying in a holiday cottage, you’ll have all the comforts of home: a big table, running water, a receptacle to put water in, etc. In a hotel, you might not be so lucky.

But I tend to find that you can use a box of watercolours in most situations. If you take pens, pencils and paints, you can cover a lot of bases. You have the ability to do line drawings, to colour in large flat areas, and to add more ‘artistic’ flourishes once you’re back in your accommodation.

3. Collect everything

I like to stick things into my diaries. The bog-standard orange train tickets and glossy leaflets might look mundane now, but I’m willing to bet they’ll look historic and interesting within the next two decades – you know, when we’re all using holograms for tickets, and have leaflets beamed directly to our Google Glass.

There’s a different type of collecting, too, and one which can make your diary very readable: gather details of the people around you. Snippets of their conversation, drawings of what they are wearing, descriptions of their behaviour… human nature means that we find such details compelling.

4. Include the personal

Similarly, people find your own personal thoughts interesting, strange as that may seem to you, when you’ve had to live with them all your life.

It’s tempting to leave out details like doubts, insecurities, stupid in-jokes, things you did wrong or embarrassing encounters, because they don’t seem ‘professional’ – but they are what make the diary uniquely yours, and all the more readable.

5. Nothing is too dull (probably)

I hope this is true, because actually my Bath diary does make my ‘who cares?’ radar twitch a little. Middle class family take a week in a UK city? Big deal.

But I hope that one day, someone from Fiji, or Korea, or Alaska, or, I don’t know, Timbuktu, might read it, and to them, it’d seem as exotic as their own account of a holiday would to me. Context, see. And the great possibilities of the internet for bringing us all closer together.

Then, there are the people *just like me* who might be considering taking their family down to Bath, but aren’t sure what it’d be like. They’ll hopefully find it useful, especially small details about things like where the playgrounds are, and that the swimming pool is good for kids.

And there are Bath natives. I know I’d like to see a diary like this about my own home town, Brighton.

6.  But you don’t have to include everything

..or draw everything. First, you’ll go mad if you try to record every tiny detail. Like why your partner drew a picture of Alan Bennett and an earthworm and stuck it on a noticeboard at Bath Fashion Museum (true story. No, you really don’t want to know).

Second, your audience may not stick around if your diary starts to take on the proportions of War and Peace.

7. Find time

Keeping a sketch diary while you’re on holiday can be a bit too much like hard work – it really can take hours (depending on your style, I guess).

But if you’re having fun you’ll find the time: on train journeys, in cafés, and in the evenings. With a husband and child in tow, I can’t sit and draw on location for hours, so I take photos on my phone to work from later.

It does help if, like me, you have a kid that gets you up at 6 every morning, and then just wants to play Minecraft (and if , like me, you are a lax enough parent to allow this).

8. Don’t worry about blots

You can clean up later when you scan them in. See also: food stains, child’s mucky fingerprints.

9. Choose a good sketchbook

It’s stating the obvious, but you want one that fits in your bag, and it needs to be robust enough to be carried everywhere with you without the cover falling off.

For Bath, I took a book I’d been saving up. I found it at the TK Maxx spin-off shop, Homesense. It’s beautiful: it has a shiny royal blue cover, almost like a tinfoil effect, and such thick pages that no amount of paint would show through. On the back cover it says it’s made by Valentina – turns out it’s a bit of a mystery brand.

Anyway, now I’ve experienced it, I’m reconsidering my What is the Best Sketchbook? post – and I want to dash back to Homesense to see if they have any more. (I have another couple, but they are lined. I like the ‘painting on top of lines’ aesthetic as much as anyone but I have a feeling they might be a nightmare for my kind of scanning – I like to bring everything back to a white background).

10. Be ready to scan, scan, scan, when you get home

And if you have any sense, you can help yourself here by not using a faint grey pen like I did. It probably added two hours to the scanning process, as I rescanned portions and added them back in.

I think it took me about five hours to get the 17 pages scanned in, cleaned up, resized and formatted for web. Not my favourite task.

11. Share!

I’m editing this post to add a final step – sharing your sketch diary. Once it’s online, of course you want people to see it.

Put the link on Twitter and Facebook; grab your favourite page and stick it on Pinterest, along with some hashtags. The right tags will mean that people who are searching for things like your holiday destination, or sketchbook work in general, will find it easily.

Think laterally. If you’ve included visits to museums or favourite shops in your diary, it is worth tweeting the link to them. Maybe the tourist board would be interested too. You may well get a retweet and lots more viewers.

Some favourite sketch diarists

I’d love to have some recommendations for others to follow; here are mine:

  • Lapin (master of the drawing on lined pages aesthetic)
  • Joanna Neary (queen of the personal detail)
  • Joe Decie (life as a dad; may not be 100% true)
  • Sarah McIntyre (great on holiday sketchbooks)
  • Geo Parkin (demonstrating point 7 rather well with this post)


Published by Myfanwy Tristram

I am an illustrator, situated in Brighton on the south coast of England, and with a special interest in comics and graphic memoir. I also work for a non-profit which encourages people to be active in democracy and to exercise rights such as the right to information through FOIA.

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