Allison Ranieri

Independent Artist

Sketchbooking: Observational

Photo-Jan-11,-10-17-43-AMI hope to be doing media reviews very soon on my YouTube channel. Stay tuned for updates on that!

Sketchbooks are very dear to me. I usually have multiple sketchbooks going at once, and each for different purposes. I always carry a small one with me wherever I go in my bag.

My absolute favorite brand of sketchbooks are the Handbook Artist Journals that range in size from small portrait and landscape-sized to a medium square book to a larger portrait and landscape-sized journal. The one I typically use is 3.5 x 5.5 in. The paper is thick, buff-colored and holds watercolor and ink wonderfully like a good piece of cold-press paper. Along with classic canvas covers that come in colors like a burnt red, olive, black and subdued blue, and a clear pocket in the back of the book, the corners of the pages of these babies are rounded! (Man they should be paying me to write this). I use them almost exclusively for my observational sketchbook that goes with me everywhere.


ink pen and ink washes in Handbook Handmade sketchbook

As you might be able to tell from my sketchbook drawings, I like to observe. In an ideal world, I would spend more of my time than not sitting in coffee shops, bookstores and observing people and places in passing, and then scribbling away furiously with my nose in a sketchbook. Fellow illustrator John Lee said it best – “I appreciate drawing a scene roughly one billion times more than taking a snap with my phone.” When my eyes are hard at work soaking in every detail of a scene in front of me and trying my best to capture it on paper I am much more attune to the intricacies of a location and the people there.


A morning spent observing a local market yielded a new perspective of the place and appreciation for the architecture there.


And in all honesty, I feel most comfortable and at peace with my drawing when observing from life in my sketchbook. This is not to say that drawing a scene such as the one above does not keep me challenged – a steady balance of trying to capture details while accurately depicting perspective as well as keeping everything in its place is always on my mind while creating such a drawing. Most of my observational sketchbook drawings are drawn freehand – with no underdrawing to guide me. This is partly because when I am drawing people, there is a time constraint – few people stand or sit in the same place long enough for me to make a basic under-drawing and then refine that sketch with details on top, partly because I like the spontaneity and exciting feeling of always needing to keep my pen in check as I put everything in its place.

This drawing started with one beer can and slowly grew as I worked from one to the next.

This drawing started with one beer can and slowly grew as I worked from one to the next.

One drawback of this “spontaneous” method of watching as my drawing unfolds and evolves from my pen is that I fail to adequately plan out compositions. When I work in that way, I unfortunately rely on a much less than perfect method of setting up my page: I quickly plan it all out in my mind – much in the way someone would assess their split-second reaction when a car merges into their lane without warning. Yeah, it’s pretty unorganized. Sometimes, as you can see, I get lucky and happen to compose something not half bad:

See? Negative space draws your eye to the figure. Always a fan of negative space.



Other times, well, things aren’t as pretty:

So off-balance it hurts

So painfully centered…

Flipping through old sketchbooks and reflecting on previous work compared to current work can be a great way to mark your improvement and see where your flaws still lie. In scanning in four sketchbooks to upload to my newly refurbished website, I did some reflecting. One thing that immediately struck me was how much fun I have when working with color and mixed media (and especially at the same time) – and I think it shows in these works as well. This is a good reminder that that may be something I want to experiment more with again.


acrylic paint, graphite, marker and white gel pen in Handbook Handmade sketchbook

Currently I have been going through a bit of a black and white only phase, trying to experiment with value and get comfortable laying out a readable composition with value structure. Working in black is very important in helping one understand how to make scenes readable. One of my absolute favorite artists to do master studies of is Edward Hopper as his values are spot on in his paintings. I strive for Hopper-esque readability when I sketch and compose any image, really.

ink pen, ink wash brush in Handbook Handmade sketchbook

ink pen, ink wash brush in Handbook Handmade sketchbook

I will be doing a post on different media reviews soon. In the meantime, take a look around at Jetpens and see if anything catches your eye (hint: this is my favorite place to order my sketching ink pens and brush pens!)


You can see more of my newest sketchbook work here. Check out some past sketchbooks here.

What are your favorite types of sketchbooks? How do you like to use them? Feel free to comment below with answers and/or links to some of your sketchbook works! I’d love to see!