The Evolution of a Page—It’s Not Always about Design

August 31, 2016


Above: The last page spread of sketches for Day One of the Eighth Great Minnesota State Fair Sketch Out. I'm working in a 7.75 x 9.75 inch soft-covered Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media journal. I used a Sakura Pigma solid felt-tipped brush pen in fine for most of the page, but it was running out of ink, and for the "brown" sheep top right I got out the medium tip at the very end to restate some darks.

Saturday at the Fair I found myself walking through the sheep barn after nine hours on my feet sketching. OK, some of that time was spent talking to farmers about their animals—I did sit for an hour and sketch people. After the sketch out's final afternoon meeting I like to stop and sketch a few more sketches of the animals on my way out. 

Typically that last sketch of the day is the best, even if it's a throwaway. That's how I feel about the sketch of the brown sheep at the top right of this spread. 

To many this page will look like a big mess. But to me I actually see two things—even dehydrated I tend to think in columns (view the entire text and image on the right and you'll see that while the left edge sways a bit it's a column), and I am always eager to reserve negative space (in this case the space above the Cheviot's back—I didn't have the full name on the day because the sign was covered with a blue ribbon and I couldn't reach it to move it momentarily; additionally it was dinner time and there was no one around to ask about it).

Here's what happened. I started sketching the head of the watercolor sheep. I didn't get the nose before a pen mate came and stood right in front of him. 

With nothing else on the page, and knowing this was going to be my last spread of the day (after I leave the sheep barn I typically walk straight to my car), I decided to go for a page of lots of little studies. I started sketching the back end of the rude interloper, who had interesting angles to his form. One of the things I love about the farm animals I see at the Fair is their solidity of form. They are raised to be healthy and it shows, especially in sheep that have been clipped. It's like you are seeing the skeleton with a little bit of flesh on the bones, and you can really see how things come together.

But he moved almost immediately. I didn't even get a head on his body.

At least my original sheep was still somewhat in the same position—there's an issue with the skull at the back ear because of the shift. I worked to finish and paint the main figure.

I put my paints away. It was a humid day and I needed the page to dry before I closed it. I started walking out of the barn and then I saw him. A massive brown sheep, watching me, kindly, almost expectantly, just watching me. Maybe since I was the only human about he hoped that I might be bringing more dinner, or maybe I'm just that interesting to sheep. Whatever it was he stared right at me, even as I approached. He wouldn't look away. And I knew having drawn so many sheep before, that he would not be looking away anytime soon. He was posing. 

I reached in my pocket and pulled out the almost dry pen and started to sketch. It's so typical of sheep to look away and give you a profile, or to move frequently, even if it's just the head. He was rock solid still. I loved the wall of wool at his forehead which cast shadow over his deeply set eyes.

And of course the negative shape of those ears.

So how did I decide to place the sketch where I did, over another? First I couldn't turn the page because the watercolor paint was still wet. Second I wanted to keep that negative space over the back of the Cheviot open. Third I couldn't have used that space if I had wanted to because my drawing hand would have dragged through the paint below that area and smeared the paint.

I knew I was only going to make a very small sketch, just the head I thought. I could feel the effects of dehydration and knew I had to stop, drink some water and drive home!

There was space above the headless sketch. If I worked there it would eliminate the need to turn the page or mess up the washes on this one. 

Once I started I couldn't stop, his coat was lovely and adding a bit of his back meant the head read with more interest…And so I ended up with the sketch you see, almost totally covering the other sketch. Would I have been so cavalier if the earlier sketch had been great? Sometimes no, sometimes yes. It's individual. Earlier on this day I actually gave up beautiful negative space and put a study over a sketch that was quite lovely (well over portions of it). (It will be in my one of my Fair posts later, I haven't scanned it yet.)

What I've found is that you make decisions based on all the elements of the "problem" facing you. Sometimes in your sketchbook design decisions aren't about sketching and layout but about the materials (a page still being wet). Sometimes it's about what you want to reserve and what you're willing to give away. I have lots of sheep studies giving detail of their hindquarters and all those angles. When you know you have plenty of something perhaps it's easier to let go?

When you loosen up and allow something to happen, or let go of something, then something wonderful grows in its space. That's how I feel about this brown sheep. (And no, I never considered getting the paints out to define the forms for me instead. This was a "see what happens with this pen that's drying out moment.")

It was only after I had returned home and was showing my day's sketches to Dick that I realized I'd created a column on that right side of the page, even though I bled the sketch off the page, and the text line is shaky. It's this type of serendipity in keeping a visual journal or sketchbook that always makes me smile. I will always be a grid person, even when I let go.

If you would like to learn more about page layout and my approach to design I invite you to join me for my upcoming online class, "By Design: Creating the Intentional Page."

I believe that from understanding and practice you give yourself options.

You can read about "By Design" here.

One of the best reasons to sign up today is that while it's a self-guided class that you work through at your own pace, for the first three months of class I will be in class every Friday answering you questions and discussion issues and concepts I feel will help you all. 

Of course you can join at any time, but I think you might like to take advance of this added instruction.

After November I'll still be checking into class and answering questions, but in a less regular fashion common to self-guided classes. (The price of $39.99 for over 7 hours of video instruction reflects a fabulous deal for a self-guided class.) And I will also be present in class giving occasional live webinars. 

Anyway you look at it, it's a great opportunity to give yourself some options for creating visual pages that reflect who you are as an artist, and to keep pushing with your art goals.

I hope you'll join me.

You can register for "By Design" here.


  1. Reply

    Love. Plotting my trip to our state fair now. It’s not til October. Strathmore is my fav sketchbook. I need to buy stock in them. lol.

  2. Reply

    Sarah, I don’t work with Paypal. I’m sorry I can’t set that up for you. Email me privately if you want another option.

  3. Reply

    Fascinating as always, Roz. Can’t wait for the class to start! I need to rein the disorder in my sketchbooks a bit 🙂

  4. Reply

    What a fascinating process analysis, Roz! And also so interesting that the sheep posed for you! I did find the sheep and pigs to be cooperative that way (the chickens not so much).


    • Sarah O
    • September 1, 2016

    Thanks! Will do. 🙂

  5. Reply

    I find it really helps to be conscious of how you are breathing and keep your movements tight and to your body and not sharp when sketching birds. I’m sure you were doing all that. It also helps to do a little bird mind meld which I’ve become good at, so that the birds calm down. There is nothing as fun for me as drawing birds, and those moments when they look me right in the eye and are curious, not afraid. The 4-h birds are the best as they have been used to being handled by people.

  6. Reply

    I think that the animals are so used to being handled that when they see you looking at someone else they wonder, why aren’t you looking at me. They seem very comfortable around me.

  7. Reply

    Have fun at your fair in October!!!! I used a Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media 7.75 x 9.75 inch softbound on the two sketch out days at the Fair. And on my first and last trip (they weren’t sketch out days) I used watercolor boards. It was a fun time. Have fun getting ready and in the going.

  8. Reply

    Mutual curiosity between artist and model is always a good thing! 🙂

    – Tina

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