Lisa Takahashi is a Somerset-based artist, who makes linocut prints, oil paintings and watercolours. In this instalment of our Inside the Sketchbook series, Lisa discusses the tension and balance in her relationship with sketchbooks throughout her art practice, and offers some great advice on developing your own sketchbook practice.
Lisa Takahashi Takes Us Through Her Sketchbook Practice
An Evolving Relationship With My Sketchbook
I admit that I have always found a sketchbook a bit of a commitment, and that it’s only very recently that I am finally understanding the best way to use a sketchbook; a way that suits how I work. My earliest memory of using a sketchbook dates back to school, and in that time my use of the sketchbook was a bit back-to-front. I’d paint a picture and then be advised that I would need evidence of my preparation and research for the painting in a sketchbook. My art teacher ended up calling it post-paration because no one in my class was interested in drawing as a means of developing a painting, and so we’d all end up doing very quick doodles and stick half-relevant newspaper clippings in a sketchbook in a last ditch attempt at a better coursework grade.
This expectation to ‘show your workings out’ for a painting really put me off drawing for a very long time, but I feel incredibly fortunate that I have since found the sheer pleasure of putting pencil, pen and watercolour to paper.
My Favourite Sketchbook
My favourite size sketchbook is an A3 hardback sketchbook that can easily accommodate very free and expressive life drawings, brainstorms and notes, sketches for developing ideas for linocuts, and sometimes paintings. I’ve recently taken a break from A3 sketchbooks because they are so big and felt that perhaps a smaller A5(ish) sketchbook might be more practical for drawing on the go, which I know is an incredibly beneficial practice, but I will freely admit it’s not one I’ve managed to engage with on a daily basis. I’m happiest working with one sketchbook at any one time as I like the continuity and the clear journey you can read when you flick through the pages years after – I do sometimes have several on the go but it always feels a bit like I’m cheating on one or the other! I regularly teach painting and linocut workshops and so a spiral bound pad of Bockingford is usually hanging around in the studio as well. I tend to keep my paintings and drawings for workshops separate to the sketchbooks that form part of my personal practice.
It’s important for me to have watercolour paper and cartridge paper available at all times – you cannot get the most out of your paints, graphite pencils and drawing pens on the wrong surface. For watercolour paper I use cold pressed 140 lb weight paper, usually Bockingford or a Jackson’s Watercolour Block. Either of these papers are fantastic for quick sketches and idea development (for more finished works on paper I tend to use Jackson’s Two Rivers or Arches). For cartridge paper I use Seawhite 140 gsm – it’s a lovely resilient surface that withstands light washes of watercolour and lots of erasing, and I can get a good range of tone using graphite on it. It’s all I need from my drawing paper.
Sketchbook Related Materials
Alongside my sketchbooks, I often sketch in watercolour on loose sheets of paper (for online portrait painting sessions or plein air landscape painting) and I also occasionally write three pages of stream of consciousness first thing in the morning in a notebook, as a way of checking in with myself. It very often ends up being about new ideas for drawings, paintings or prints that I would like to explore.
My Preferred Art Materials For Sketching
I mainly use a 3B graphite pencil usually for sketching – sometimes I’ll have something softer to hand for really dark shading. I love the versatility of a simple graphite pencil, you can get a huge range of tones, and it easily erases. When I’m sketching in watercolour I tend to use a mix of pans and tubes – I have a 24 Half Pan Schmincke Watercolour Set and I also have a vintage metal money box tin full of my favourite tubes of Jackson’s Artist Watercolour. I use my huge John Pike Palette so I can make all manner of mixes. When I’m not working with graphite or watercolour I do occasionally work with Faber Castell Brush Pens, Jackson’s Fine Liners, Talens Ecoline and Tombow Fudenosuke Calligraphy Soft Brush Pens. More recently I’ve begun to incorporate collage into my sketchbooking, using cheap double sided origami paper and a craft glue stick.
I use 3B graphite pencils because they are easy to control yet smudgeable, and graphite marks are easy to refine and alter as you work. This is why I feel very comfortable drawing with a graphite pencil, and why I usually use them for idea development for work in other media, such as linocut or painting. On the other hand, once you make a mark with a black pen there’s usually no turning back, and so working with a pen, in a way, can be more liberating, as you have to accept every mark you make and just keep going. Black pens are my favoured material for plein air and urban sketching. Watercolours are great for observing colour, and I like to use them when sketching for fun, just to practice my observational skills. They’re easy to lift from watercolour paper with a sponge or piece of kitchen paper.
My Intermittent Sketchbook Routine
There’s nothing regular about my creative practice, and consequently there can be weeks where I don’t pick up a sketchbook, and then long stretches where I can’t leave the house without one because I need it for recording observations, either within myself or further afield. My sketchbooks are multifunctional. I feel I’ve finally reached an aspiration quite recently – to feel at ease with using a sketchbook just to play and enjoy the tactile quality of making marks. But on top of that and a more long standing use of a sketchbook is to work out how to separate the layers of a multiblock linocut, or to refine the composition of a more involved watercolour or oil painting.
My preparatory drawings for linocut often give other people a headache! My preferred method is to work exclusively with line in pencil, and then I tend to turn the sketch into a ‘colour by numbers’, assigning each colour I intend to work with a number, and then marking every shape with the right number. It’s the clearest way for me to create a map that I can refer to when I reach the image transfer and cutting stages of a linocut print. Sometimes I use shading rather than numbers and it is a lot more time consuming, but it does give me more of an idea of the final print. I don’t tend to use coloured pencils or watercolour for linocut preparation because I find the differences in colours to my printmaking colours can confuse me and can sometimes also kill the motivation to carry on; the sketch ends up looking too much like the final product and so I lose the curiosity I need to keep going.
A Sketchbook Isn’t Important To My Creative Practice
A lot of the sketches you’ll see in my sketchbooks are finished works in themselves and don’t lead to anything else.
A sketchbook is not important to my practice. It’s a useful way to keep drawings protected and a chronological record of my creative development. But what’s more important to my creative practice is the art of sketching itself, and that distinction is crucial.
Sometimes the size and shape of a page in a sketchbook doesn’t match what I need to draw and so I’ll work on loose sheets instead. It’s really important for me to recognise this as sometimes a sketchbook page can hinder the enjoyment of drawing – and that’s fatal. It’s only recently I’ve learnt that every drawing session is different and that identifying the right tools and working with them and stopping when constraints are hindering your enjoyment is key. It’s certainly only been in the last 5 years that I’ve given myself permission to tear pages from the back of a sketchbook to tape to other pages so I can make drawings bigger when needed… it’s ridiculous really. But I’ve noticed that I can be indebted to my materials when really I need to show them who’s boss in order to get anywhere. The horrible irony though is that sometimes the freedom to do anything is equally hindering – so you have to learn to recognise when limitations and frameworks are either helping or hindering your creativity.
My advice is to use a sketchbook in a way that enriches your enjoyment of life, and your work. It may take time to work out exactly what that means, and the answer is a very personal one. Don’t feel you need to limber up and make your best work in your sketchbook. A sketchbook is a tool, and you don’t need to show it to anyone. I’m taking this opportunity to show you mine because I want you to see there’s pages of scribbles, there’s nonsensical writing, there’s journaling, phone numbers, shopping lists. And then there’s idea development, life drawing, drawings of my partner sat in front of the TV, pictures made on holiday. For me a sketchbook is a record of my existence, as and when I need to record my existence, which isn’t always. How you choose to use yours will become apparent and if you don’t feel inclined to use a sketchbook, that’s OK too.
Jackson’s Watercolour Tubes
Indian Yellow, French Vermillion, Carmine, Indigo, Cerulean Blue, Hookers Green, Sap Green, Raw Umber, Ivory Black, Paynes Grey and Yellow Ochre.
John Pike Palette
About Lisa Takahashi
Lisa Takahashi is an artist, writer and teacher based in Taunton, Somerset. Her multi-block linocuts are bold geometric evocations of the movement and energy of everyday scenes. She is a passionate plein air artist in the Post Impressionist tradition, and works in watercolour and oils. Lisa featured as a semi-finalist on Sky Arts Landscape Artist of The Year 2018, and a judge on Channel 5’s Watercolour Challenge in 2022. She exhibits her work regularly across the UK and has been selected four times for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Alongside her practice, Lisa teaches painting and printmaking workshops, works as a Studio and Materials Specialist for Jackson’s Art Supplies, and contributes articles and illustrations to the popular printmaking publication Pressing Matters.