figurative painting in watercolor of a girl in a chair reaching up to pet a cat

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Watercolor Sketchbook Practice

Watercolor artists I’ve admired over the years write often about the importance of a sketchbook practice. Even so, I could never seem to reach for mine, let alone fill one.

The slap-dash quality of the art in the last half of my college sketchbooks relays that I was rushing to “fill pages”, not because I was excited to paint, but because I had to meet an an assignment deadline. It never became a practice for me, in the true sense of that word. Until recently.

Laying in the drawing in this watercolor sketchbook with washable pencil, using the grid method to place the figure, and adding the first watercolor glazes to the sketch. The steps in this watercolor sketch were done in the evenings, on the couch, from a lap desk. Have you tried painting and sketching like that?

Why Make Sketches and Paintings in a Sketchbook?

During a long ago watercolor workshop, painter Tim Clark directed us to “leave your mistakes in your sketchbooks” before tackling a new painting. In other words, sketchbooks are your test kitchen before the dinner party.

Sketchbooks are only for YOU.

Watercolor sketchbooks are your secret weapon… a safe place to test and re-test ideas, play with new art supplies, or experiment with value studies, compositions and subjects.

Letting the watercolor wander, and layering additional pigments to mark shadow areas in the sketchbook page

Use Watercolor Sketchbooks to Brainstorm

Encourage your own deep thinking about where you want to take your art inside the pages of your sketchbooks. Doodle, write words, dream dreams…

Use your watercolor sketchbook to invent. Make thoughts real. Scribble. Remind yourself that there is no pressure to perform in a sketchbook, because it’s sole purpose is for your private experimentation.

This is my watercolor sketchbook by Hahnemühle. You can get one on Amazon over here.

Painting Watercolors in Sketchbooks

I’ve demonstrated different media, and talked a lot about watercolor sketchbooks in these posts (below):

Starting to build layers of darker values, and adding texture by lifting pigment off the page with a clean, wet brush (in her hair)

Throw Caution to the Wind, and Make Art

Sketchbooks provide a place where you can mess up, make mistakes and trip on the curbs of art-making – behind closed doors. That’s how we learn….

Sketchbooks are closed, and kept on shelves.

The good news in that little tidbit is that there’s no need to worry about professional-level, lightfast pigments. In a closed book, they won’t be hung on walls, exposed to sunlight, or sold as originals to collectors.

You can use crayons, felt tip markers, tempera paint, student grade pigments, or house paint. It’s completely up to you. Watercolor sketchbooks are #PERMISSION

Watercolor painting practice in my Hahnemühle Watercolor Sketchbook

Watercolor Sketchbooks are for You to Keep

The painting studies I work on in these sketchbooks in the evenings are just for me. Each sketch, watercolor study and painting is a test of an idea, or experiments with watercolor painting methods.

My goal is to learn on these pages, so messing up is guaranteed. And when I mess up, I push the paper and paints to the point of pilling, making mud and scoring through the page in my efforts to fix things.

There is no pressure to make anything perfect for anyone else, so the focus is on pushing myself to get better than the last time I tried to paint. That’s incredible permission, don’t you think? That single mindshift has lead to filled sketchbooks all over my house. 🙂

I hope you’ll consider looking at your sketchbooks as an invitation to play.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post!


Day Planning 8.5×11.5 watercolor on paper

Art Quote

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

Maya Angelou

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13 thoughts on “Watercolor Painting in a Sketchbook”

  1. I have read so many artists who say how important it is to start a daily sketchbook habit, but I never did—until this summer. We spent a month in Northern California, and I produced 12 pages of the places we went, and I have many photos to use as resources now that I’m home in order complete a watercolor record of our trip. I can’t believe how freeing it was to use a sketchbook, just like everyone said it would be! I love the pages I did; I was so much less critical of my work, and I had so much fun.

    1. Hi Susan, I’m practically dancing a jig to read this! Isn’t sketching a treat!? I feel like it’s one of those things that doesn’t reveal it’s fruit till you actually jump in, and spend time inside the space of sketchbooks for awhile. Describing to someone who doesn’t sketch how great it is – feels woefully inadequate, no matter the level of enthusiasm. I look forward to seeing your travel watercolors! Thanks for the nice note.

  2. Thank you so much again and again, Belinda! I just met for a sack lunch and art exhibit visit with two dear friends this week. They had kindly been taking my mixed media/water media class at our area Senior Center, before the pandemic shut things down. One of them expressed that she NEEDED to try painting again, and I said I would send her a copy of your blog. I am going to share this with her, and follow up very soon! This particular message includes a beautiful example of a rich sketchbook image and enough guidance “how to” to encourage the person who needs t step out with it. I am passing on, and encourage them to subscribe. Bravo and thank you for sharing your practice and kind encouragements with the world!!

    1. Hi MaryLiz! Thank you for all you do to share, encourage and cajole others to get back to their art. We are kindred spirits in this endeavor, and I appreciate every effort you make. Thanks for your visit, and your encouragement!

  3. I love that window picture. Especially the glowing color! Thank you for your blog. I have been a middle school art teacher for 30 years, originally discovering your blog while working on a print making course for professional development. I retired rather suddenly this year due to caring for my mother during the covid outbreak. I have given myself “permission” to play and am working in a sketchbook that was started in 2013. I did a lot of partly finished demos over the years, but actually finishing paintings, and perhaps finding my own style instead of introducing different genres every couple of weeks is a gift and an adventure. Thank you for your posts from your journey!

    1. Hi Jane, Good for you to take care of your mom, and squeeze art-making for yourself into that effort. Lots and lots of permission, and many art supplies to experiment with, I hope! I bet you have a treasure box of effective teaching methods after 30 years, so any compliments you generously toss my way are very much appreciated. These blog missives are usually born from finger wags and reminders to myself. I appreciate that the message also resonates with you, and that we are on this adventure together.

  4. You are inspiring me to get into this practice. Thank you for your beautiful blog. I miss the days when more of us blogged about our art instead of fighting politics on Facebook.

    1. Liz-Anna, Thanks for your note, and your compliments. I’m hopeful that your inspiration bears fruit, and you begin doodling ideas and swatch tests and sketches in a sketchbook soon. Art is, indeed, better for the human spirit than watching news or surfing social media to argue over politics with strangers.

  5. There’s a similar piece of advice about writing: keep a journal, and when you are writing in it, don’t bother correcting typos, just keep getting down whatever thoughts are in your head at the moment. (of course, with my OCD, I have trouble appreciating this advice except in the abstract … ;))

    1. Hi Brendan, I agree that typos should be mowed right over, and ignored for the sake of stride, but…. I’m with you. I do tend to go back and repair, scribble and make fixes. If only I could march forward with purposeful flourish. But I know myself – I am a born Fixer. Thanks for the suggestion. I will ponder, and try to curb. XO

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