Sarah Dyer is a picture book maker and illustrator whose sketchbooks provide the foundation of her ideas, compositions and experiments with a blend of dry and occasionally wet media. The pages of her sketchbooks are a place for learning, packed with narrative sequences, online life drawings and observational drawing on location. Here, she shares her favourite materials and talks about the way her sketchbook practice is infused with her daily life as a mother and an artist.
Sarah Dyer takes us through her sketchbook practice
I tend to have several sketchbooks on the go at the same time. I like to work in different sizes and across different paper types for different projects. I try to keep my sketchbooks separate for certain subjects – location, life drawing, character design and looser book ideas and notes. I like to look back through them when they have similar content as it’s easier for me to navigate ideas or see progression with picture book work, or in the case of life drawing hopefully see an improvement!
I prefer using different sketchbooks for different tasks/drawings because of the papers inside. I like the cheap thin Moleskine Cashier books for my notes, rough picture book ideas, and thumbnails. Whereas I love the Royal Talens Art Creation Sketchbooks for general location drawing or life drawing. They are excellent value and take media really well so I’m not precious with them which often leads to better work. They have a hard back cover which makes drawing on location easier and a smooth off white paper which is my favourite to use. They are my ‘go to’ sketchbook for most things. The Stillman & Birn Epsilon Sketchbooks have very white paper which is handy for picture book work as the white paper is easier to scan. I have also been using a large Moleskine A3 Sketchbook for life drawing in person. I find by still working in a sketchbook rather than loose single sheets I feel safe, knowing that it’s not some precious final piece and my sketchbook is still very much for play and experiments even if it is suddenly twice the size I normally work in.
I like to use dry media more than wet so I tend to use a mix of soft pastels, pencils, and brush markers most frequently in my sketchbooks. For online life drawing classes I like the fact I don’t have to wait for anything to dry and can finish a quick 5 minute drawing and turn the page ready for the next.
A limited set of materials is especially useful when I’m on the train drawing commuters. During the period just after the second lockdown when I was back commuting once a week to teach at Kingston University, I became very interested in drawing the other people on the train. Everyone was in masks and the train was very quiet so it was an easy place to capture life from a really specific time. Drawing on the train means I haven’t got a lot of space – so keeping materials limited is practical and means I can try and capture the scene without getting caught!
When I have more time or if I’m working in my studio I like to add in other materials like inks or watercolours or even little bits of collage. I like adding in layers and texture where possible in my sketchbooks.
I’m naturally drawn to narrative and sequence so I love the sketchbook as a way to explore this without it being a final project. I can make images and explore composition across the page, page turn and use the gutter whilst remaining playful and free.
I refer back to my sketchbooks to see what works with materials. My sketchbooks are experimental places, I can make mistakes and learn from them. I don’t rip out pages – I like to see the progress, it reminds me that I’m always learning. My more experimental sketchbooks with life drawing, I often look at to see what combination of materials I enjoyed using, and try and use that going forward in my book work. Then the sketchbooks I keep for picture book work I’m constantly referring back to because it helps with the next stage of the picture book development. From ideas, roughs, thumbnails, storyboard to final pieces.
I scan my thumbnails from my sketchbooks and use them for final pieces with book work. Because the work I do in my sketchbook is freer than on loose paper I find that I’ll get it right on a smaller scale and then blow that up to work from. It keeps the composition how I like it and the lines loose. Play is important and often translates into final images, some of my larger A2 boat illustrations were born out of the confidence to just play and experiment in my sketchbooks.
My sketchbooks form the majority of my practice – they are the things I use the most and what I go to first when starting any project. They are like a comfort to me, a safe place to explore ideas. They are also relaxing – drawing on location or life drawing classes are like meditation for me, a release of serotonin, I find having time to draw in them is good for my mental health too.
It’s a good idea to test lots of sketchbooks to see what you like, materials behave differently in different ones, so it’s good to try a few to see what you prefer. I have many sketchbooks from University and beyond and it brings me joy to look at them now even if I didn’t like so much of what I was drawing in there at the time.
I recommend enjoying sketchbooks and don’t be precious with them. I sometimes let my kids draw in mine, in fact my youngest who is three often scribbles all over a page, but I don’t mind really – they are nice reminders of my work life constantly revolving around my kids.
My most used materials:
Peg & Awl pencil roll
Materials I add in from time to time:
About Sarah Dyer
Sarah Dyer is a picture book maker and illustrator. She enjoys working outside on location for reference and colour which feeds back into her book work. The freedom of experimenting and mark marking on location has recently become an important part of her creative practice, as seen in her fishing vessel drawings.
In between writing and illustrating Sarah attends festivals and schools to carry out events and workshops and she has taught up to MA level. She is currently working one day a week on the Foundation course at Kingston University.